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Growing appeal of the documentary

To make a documentary is to undertake a major challenge.You need easily portable equipment, a capable crew, and ready access to your subject matter. You can't tell the actors what to say, or stage a scene over and over until it comes out right. Reality is your raw material, and you must bend it into shape without distorting the facts or your personal vision of the situation.

To show a documentary can be more challenging yet. Audiences shy away from nonfiction films. Exhibitors question their commercial potential. Critics compound the problem by dwelling on conventional productions with familiar faces and stories.

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Still, a growing body of filmmakers isattracted to the documentary form. Some want to expose an evil or right a wrong. Others want to record some place or personality for all time. A few are driven by purely personal motives, wanting to capture their own cinematic responses to some privately meaningful stimulus. And there are entertainers, too --pretty image they've dicovered in some nook or cranny of the world.

Out of this activity, a lot of movies emerge. Some are worth looking at. Of these, a few are widely seen. And of these few, a handful end up on the screens of real movie theaters. But only a handful.

Lately, ther has been a burst of action on this front. In recent months, at least five independently filmed documentaries have begun commercial engagements here, in the usual debut city for serious movies. The most celebrated of these films is "Best Boy," by Ira Wohl, which won this year's Oscar for best feature-length documentary. It began as Wohl's attempt, as a filmmaker, to get closer to a family member he had always taken for granted -- his mentally retarded cousin, Philly. It grew into an account of Philly's first steps away from home, and into a life of his own. It is an involving and moving film. And it is proof that personal material can be shaped into motion-picture art.

"Best Boy" is a documentary success story -- an independent production that found a path into the commercial mainstream, albeit in small way. Similar good fortune has attended "Gizmo!," by Howard Smith, which documents some of the wacky inventions and stunts that cameras have captured during the past few decades.

"Gizmo!" is a whimsical and funny film, commingling laughs and history. Yet its box-office statistics are remindful of the uphill battle faced by most documentaries. As filmmaker Smith pointed out recently, "Gizmo!" opened at a respected Manhattan theater, with large newspaper ads quoting famous critics on behalf of the movie. Business was fair, but not terrific. As always, audiences were skeptical of a film that doesn't tell a story. With the same advertising campaign and impressive "quotes," a fiction film might have outpolled the biggest hits of the year.

By contrast with "Gizmo!" and "Best Boy," most documentaries must content themselves with lower promotional profiles -- if they are lucky enough to get into theaters at all. Consider the fate of "Joe and Maxi," which faded into oblivion after just a few days at a New York movie house. Even at the end of its run, few filmgoers had ever heard of it, although it is a worthwhile and unconventional project.

"Joe and Maxi" was directed by Maxi Cohen and Joel Gold. If began as a portrait of Miss Cohen's father. After he was medically diagnosed as terminally ill, however, the movie became a sort of cinematic diary, chronicling Miss Cohen's changing relationship with her parent. Though the subject matter is somber, the effect is to emphasize the resilience of the real-life characters, who muddle through this crisis with impressive fortitude. It's a peculiar film, in many ways, but it should not have been dismissed as per-functorily as it was.

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Social issues present safer territory for filmmakers, in some ways, and one socially oriented documentary managed to get a theatrical engagement and an Oscar nomination, all inone year. "The War at Home" deals with the protest against the American involvement in vietnam, as this was experienced in Madison, Wis. It intercuts material from the 1960s with recently filmed interviews. As a record of protest activity in a particular time and place, it is efficient and direct. As a statement about the 1960s, or about the Vietnam war, or about the American "youth movement," it has limited but significant value.

More dramatic is "The Trials of Alger Hiss," a fine documentary directed by John Lowenthal. The filmmaker has a strong point of view regarding his topic, and he puts his cards on the table: Hiss was wronged, he feels, and the time has come to set the record straight.

Significantly, however, many perspectives are aired. The result is a remarkably complete account that begins at the very beginning -- the establishment of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee -- and proceeds with a thorough history of the Hiss case before offering its own conclusions. Among other unexpected dividends, Hiss emerges as an attractive screen personality. More to the point, his controversial case is brought up again for discussion and reevaluation.

But how about the documentaries that don't make it to the regular theatrical circuit? Are they forever doomed to obscurity? not if the filmmakers are enterprising and creative enough.

For an example, take "We Are the Guinea Pigs," directed by Joan Harvey. The distributor of the movie, Parallel Films, regards it as an "education" picture about the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. So the organization is talking it up with schools, church groups, antinuclear groups, and the like -- looking to have the movie shown wherever interest crops up.

In a sense, "We Are the Guinea Pigs" is a special case, since it is an avowedly antinuclear film. As such, it may have special appeal to those already convinced of the rightness of its cause, and it may be useful to those working on behalf of that cause.

If the film's proud antinuclear stance is considered an ideological plus by some, however, it is an artistic minus.No serious attempt is made to air more than one side of the nuclear issue, even for the sake of perfunctory balance. The argument isn't won in the film, it's avoided. "We Are the Guinea Pigs" is less an educational experience than a polemical one, and even those who heartily agree with it perspectives may regret its refusal to acknowledge other points of view, even where the most complex and controversial aspects are involved. This is one film that could use a lot more reasoned discourse, and a lot fewer shots of winsome children at play --rock-song lyrics I've ever had to listen to.

In terms of searching out a market for film, perhaps the most inventive entrepreneur of all is George T. Nierenberg, director of a splendid documentary called "No Maps of My Taps." Undismayed by the traditional documentary problem, Nierenberg is busily inventing his own exhibition system, revolving around his own movie.

The film itself is a delicious 59-minute account of the lives and times of three great tap-dancers: Sandman Sims, bunny Briggs, and Chuck Green. They dance a lot, to Lionel Hampton's music, and their work is wondrous to behold -- especially Sims, who is perhaps the most legendary of the legendary three. But they also talk, and their brief interview segments hint that each of these fine black artists has lived more intensely than most people over dream possible.

Nierenberg is a skilled domentarian, who understands the value of efficiency; the film movies at a quick tap-dancing pace, with a Bojangles lighness of touch. Nierenberg also understands how to set up a revealing confrontation -- filming his subjects not just onstage and backstage, but in the littered streets of Harlem, where they have known their hardest as well as their most triumphant times. And most important, Nierenberg knows the value of concentrating on the subject of his film, bringing out its essence with no fuss or wasted time.

Unfortunately, 59 minutes is an awkward length for a movie -- too long for a short subject, too short for a feature. Even high-quality fiction films have been spurned for similar reasons. But Nierenberg has fashioned his own approach to the movie marketplace. He has carted his film around the United States, screening it at film festivals, dance festivals, arts festivals, and enterprising movie palaces.

And he carts the actual tap-dancers with him, whenever possible, following the film with live performances onstage. It has recently been aired on the Public Television Service (check local listings for late airings and repeats), and a special engagement at a New York theater -- complete with live hoofing after the movie -- is hoped for. In the meantime, "No Mayps on My Taps" has already been seen at locations from Portland, Ore., to Ithaca, N.Y. And it's still going strong --filmmaker can muster for his movie, if he has the energy and imagination.

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