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Documentary Film Week out to prove fact as rich as fantasy

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PHOTOGRAPHY is truth,'' said a character in a Jean-Luc Godard film, ``and the cinema is the truth 24 times a second.'' If there's any substance to that whimsical claim, nobody has worked harder to dig it out than the devoted band of documentary filmmakers. But moviegoers haven't shown much interest. Fictions and fantasies reign at the box office, while factual films get pushed into noncommercial venues like museums and public-TV programs. So drastic is the situation that some observers wonder if nonfiction cinema has become a celluloid dinosaur with an uncertain present and a limited future.

Hoping to prove just the opposite, a not-for-profit group called Valley Filmworks has organized a seven-day celebration of the documentary in all its facets -- and booked a major commercial theater as home for the occasion. Slated for Nov. 7-13 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in Manhattan, the ambitious ``Documentary Film Week'' will feature about 35 movies of all shapes and sizes. Helping to launch it next Wednesday will be an inaugural evening at the 57th Street Playhouse, hosted by no less a fact-monger than Walter Cronkite.

Perusing the program in advance, I was struck anew by the vigor and diversity of the documentary form. Contrary to conventional wisdom, nonfiction filmmaking can be as visually and dramatically exciting as fictitious fare, and -- in the hands of an artist -- offers a flexible vehicle for personal ideas and feelings. Hand the same subject to a pair of filmmakers, and the resulting movies can be as different as any two variations on a fictional theme.

Consider two movies from the festival. ``Racetrack'' is the latest of Frederick Wiseman's many examinations of American institutions. Part 1 of ``God's Country'' is another visit by director Louis Malle to an unfamiliar location far from his French homeland. Both use their ostensible subjects -- a New York raceway and a small Minnesota town, respectively -- as microcosms of society. And both study not just physical details, but nuances of human nature that manifest themselves in response to their surrou ndings.

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