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By Liisa Kyle

It’s easy to see how popular documentaries have become: In the past year, box office blockbuster (and Cannes Palme d'Or winner) Fahrenheit 9/11 has lead a hefty slate of acclaimed political documentaries (e.g. "Bush’s Brain," "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism," "Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War," "The Hunting of the President," "Going Up River: The Long War of John Kerry"). Fully 31% of adult Americans saw a political documentary in 2004, according to the non-profit research organization Pew Internet.

Sundance Channel designates from noon to midnight every Monday as “Doc Day”, premiering a new feature documentary each week. “It’s something that’s been very successful for us,” says Progamming VP Christian Vesper. “On an attention-getting level, it’s done extremely well.”
 


HGEN's Liisa Kyle and Morgan Spurlock at the recent WGA Awards Photo: Eric Borduas (c) 2005 Hgen

The Writers’ Guild so wanted to get into the ‘hot doc’ game that on February 15 they bestowed the first ever WGAw Documentary Film Award to Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) at the historical Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. More astonishing -- unlike the other Writers’ Guild Awards, they dropped the requirement that documentary nominees be guild signatories.

It's clear that docs are hot. The question is: why?

According to WGAw winner and Oscar nominee Morgan Spurlock, it’s because “documentary films have become the last bastion of free speech in our country today. I think they’re the one last way to truly express ideas and outlooks in an arena where nobody’s going to tell you what you can and can’t say [which is important] especially in an age where there’s five media companies controlling everything.”

“There’s a general sense that people aren’t getting all the information [from the news media now],” says the Sundance Channel’s Christian Vesper. “Whether or not that’s always true, people are hungry for more detailed information.”

Another factor: new technology. “Especially with the new small format cameras and the new editing options, there’s a new quality that is becoming so much more acceptable and I think that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing this burst of documentary making,” says Oscar-nominee Kirby Dick (Twist of Faith). “Because a lot of people who have very interesting ideas and access to interesting subjects are actually able to make those films.”

The blossoming of cable channels may provide another reason. By its nature, the medium lends itself to the small screen. And whereas once upon a time, documentaries were only screened in film festivals, obscure art house theatres, and on PBS, now audiences have easy access to documentaries in the comfort of their own homes, thanks to cable outlets such as Sundance Channel, HBO and IFC – not to mention the bevy of documentary programming on specialty channels such as History, Biography, Animal Planet, Discovery and the Travel Channel.

Further, this means that documentaries can be targeted at much narrower audiences than mainstream film or television. “Studios and networks necessarily have to cater to a very broad audience,” says Christian Vesper. “Documentary filmmakers don’t.”

In addition, the nature of documentaries offers viewers something intrinsically different. WGAW Award nominee Paola di Florio (Home of the Brave) offers two features unique to documentaries: “The element of surprise and the level of intimacy.”


According to Kirby Dick
, “Any documentary has a certain freshness because it’s unique to that situation.” He contrasts this with typical fiction films. “You watch films for ten years and you will see many of the same stories recycled. For a substantial part of the audience, there’s a sort of fatigue factor that’s setting in about that. And that’s much less true with documentaries because it’s so subject specific.”

“There’s a finite amount of feature films that get made. And…what’s being made in the feature world, both commercially and independently, isn’t quite satisfying the audience,” observes Christian Vesper. “What docs are providing are unique and new stories.”

Dan Petrie, Jr. (WGAw President and writer of The Big Easy and Beverly Hills Cop 1-3) agrees: “As mainstream studio films have been increasingly dominated by sequels, by built-in titles, by things that are ‘pre-sold’ to make huge opening weekends, that has rekindled people’s interest in independent films of all kinds –- both fiction and documentaries. We’re also seeing non-fiction independent films also get that boost. People who love films like Motorcycle Diaries and Sideways are the kind of adventurous filmgoer that would gravitate to Fahrenheit 9/11 or Super Size Me.”


Dan Petrie and Harry Thomason
Photo: Eric Borduas (c) 2005 Hgen


For Harry Thomason
who’s directing credits include not only a WGAW Award nominated documentary (The Hunting of the President) but TV shows (Emeril, Designing Women and Evening Shade), documentaries are just plain better. Referring to his fellow WGAW Award nominees, he observed, “Every person who’s here tonight who made a documentary did it themselves and they didn’t have some idiot in the studio or the network trying to give them notes. And I think that always makes for a better film.”

The blossoming of documentaries is feeding an international thirst for global products. In searching the world’s major documentary film markets, Christian Vesper praises the wealth of international products. For example, “the Dutch make a ton of documentaries in English about subjects that appeal to all audiences. There’s a really big pool to take from, which is great. There’s room for all the broadcasters…that’s another reason why the broadcasters have turned their attention to documentaries.”

Now before you reach for your digital video camera and head out to make your own hot doc, be forewarned. Documentary filmmaking isn’t easy.

First, there’s the omnipresent challenge of finding financing for the project. “Funding is always a challenge,” admits Kirby Dick.

Then there’s the matter of dealing with real life. “In dealing with reality and shaping it into a story you have to have trust in your subject, you have to have a relationship there, you have to be able to stand back and just figure out what is the best way to tell this story. What is the ideal journey here that you want the viewer to have? And so it adds this mix of distance and intimacy that you have to have,” says WGAw Award nominee Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal). “Especially when you’re dealing with real people, it’s sometimes hard to take that step back and look at the big picture.”

This requires managing
the interaction with the subject –- developing a strong working relationship while maintaining objectivity. “It’s such a rich and complex emotional interaction between filmmaker and the subject. It’s just so unpredictable and that interaction gets reflected back in the films.”

And then there’s the ethics involved. “You have this dual responsibility [as a filmmaker],” explains Kirby Dick. “One is to get the subject to open up and take as many emotional risks as you can get them to take. At the same time, you have a responsibility in that process not to harm them. And it’s a very delicate balance because it could be very, very stressful for subjects to go into.” He adds, “Dealing with friends, family and associates of the subject is always very tricky….They might be seeing the relationship from the outside and have their own, legitimate concerns about what your subject might be going through.”

Then there’s all that footage to sort through. “We shot 250 hours of footage,” notes Morgan Spurlock, “So you’re in the process of trying to find the movie in the edit room.” Kirby Dick loves the entire process. “There’s something just very thrilling about shooting hundreds of hours of footage trying to find every possible situation that you can shoot and then coming back and then trying to fashion a story out of that. It causes you to become so intensely immersed in the subject matter and in the creation of something. It’s just really thrilling.”

Yet that involves some difficult decisions. “We had so much material and we had to cull most of it and still tell the story. That’s what we found the most difficult,” admits Harry Thomason. “We have so many good things that have never seen the light of day – that we just had to leave on the cutting room floor.”

Morgan Spurlock agrees: “Along the way, there are things you love that you have to cut out of the film.” He had to leave his favourite scene (an Overeaters Anonymous meeting) out of Super Size Me – although he was gratified to include it as a ‘deleted scene’ on the DVD.

Yet despite all this, “getting enough of a story is a huge challenge. Because you can know what the story is and it can be there and you can sit down and write a novel about it…but if you don’t get certain moments or certain interviews, you just can’t convey [the story] in film,” explains Kirby Tick. “There’s always more to get. I’m always surprised when I finish a film that it works as well as it does because usually during production, I’m thinking, ‘There’s so much I didn’t get!’”

Not to mention possible legal issues. “What made The Hunting of the President different for me from other documentaries was there were so many people from the right wing watching, saying, ‘If you make a mistake, we’re gonna come after you. We’re gonna sue you’,” explains Harry Thomason. “So what we did at the outset was say, ‘Look, we’re not going to put any adjectives in this film. We’re going to describe events exactly like they happened…and if anybody can find anything wrong with this film when it comes out, we’ll take it.’” Did it work? “We did our homework and we researched really well and we’re still waiting for that first person from the right wing to call and say, ‘Well you made a mistake.’”

“I just don’t know that there’s anything as hard,” wails Paola di Florio. “The commitment, the drive, the passion that you need to get through…It’s the most arduous process that I’ve ever been through. It’s amazing we make it through.”

So why do they do it?

“Because there’s something really compelling in the story that just needs to be told,” says Paola di Florio.
 


Kirby Dick
Photo: Eric Borduas (c) 2005 Hgen

Kirby Dick echoes this sentiment, choosing subjects that will “remain fascinating to me over the several years that it takes to make a documentary.” Morgan Spurlock agrees: “Something you’re going to devote two years of your life to? You better like it. You better love it. You better eat, drink, breathe and sleep it!”

What do these talented auteurs like best about documentary filmmaking?

“The unfettered freedom to do what you want to do,” says Harry Thomason.

“The production, the shooting, the editing of a documentary is a far more emotional experience, generally, than dramatic filmmaking,” says Kirby Dick. “ Your personal experiences, your personal points of view get pulled into what you’re doing and get buffeted by the whole process of making the film. I find it’s a more emotional experience.”

“The intimacy of being let into people’s lives and the trust that develops and then taking responsibility of that communion and really making something of it that the world needs to hear,” says Paola di Florio.

For these documentary filmmakers’ efforts, their growing audiences are grateful.

 
Liisa Kyle is the Managing Editor of HGEN: In the Loop and is  a prize-winning international journalist
who has written for every major newspaper