Burlington Free Press

Reality Films Rule

By Brent Hallenbeck

In the world of film, 2004 has been the Year of the Documentary.

It wasn’t a smash-em-up action movie or big-budget blockbuster with a roster of A-list stars that proved to be one of the year’s top hits, but a retelling of the events before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that stirred moviegoers, and controversy, in surprisingly large amounts.

Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ wasn’t the only documentary to cross the mainstream-public’s path this year. “Control Room,” which shows news coverage of the Middle East through the viewfinder of Arabic-language television, and “Super Size Me,” detailing one man’s quest to discover the effects of eating nothing but fast food for a month, were also unexpected box-office success stories.

Documentaries have had a place to call home in Burlington since the Vermont International Film Festival began 15 years ago. Suddenly, the below-the-radar genre that forms the core of the socially-conscious festival has become big business.

The festival, which starts Wednesday and runs for six days, has grown with the popularity of non-fiction filmmaking. The roster of movies entered in competitions at the festival, in large part because of the explosion of documentaries, has climbed from 38 last year to 60 this year. This year’s event is also one day longer than the 2003 version.

The festival’s executive director isn’t surprised at how documentaries have taken off in popularity in the past few months.

“We are all so politicized now, and the environment sort of nourishes these films,” said Mira Niagolova. While “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and “Control Room” take on mass media and the U.S. government during wartime and “Super Size Me” butts heads with McDonald’s, all try to scrape off the veneer of large, seemingly impenetrable institutions.

“It’s intended to show something that you’re not supposed to see,” Niagolova said of documentary film. “People are hungry for those statements.”

Not on TV 

This year’s Vermont International Film Festival includes a host of smaller but no- less-topical documentaries. “Go Further” follows actor Woody Harrelson and friends on a bio-fueled bus ride; “Crucible of War” traces the impact of conflict in the former Yugoslavia on the people of Croatia; and “The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face” details the director’s efforts to confront the man who sexually assaulted her mother.

Vermont-made documentaries include “Beyond Eighty-Eight Keys,” which profiles Montpelier concert pianist Michael Arnowitt, his degenerative eye condition and his political activism, and “Pioneers of Hospice: Changing the Face of Dying,” which tells of four trailblazers in the modern hospice movement.

Niagolova said documentaries still play a vital role despite, and perhaps because of, the proliferation of 24-hour television news.

“We think that we know, but maybe not always,” she said. “This is something that you don’t see on TV.”

Because many documentaries now aim to shoot holes in popularly held beliefs, critics have fired back that too many of the films are biased. Moore has been vilified by conservatives for his film that bashed the Bush administration. Some critics said “Super Size Me” valued entertainment over its serious message of obesity in America.

Erica Ginsberg, producer of “Crucible of War,” said documentaries are no longer seen as “some boring educational thing” and are now looked at as a viable form of entertainment.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said Ginsberg, of Greenbelt, Md.

Rick Winston, who helps to organize the annual Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier, said TV has indirectly helped documentaries enter the mainstream. He said the reality-TV craze has demonstrated that the concept of entertainment from real-life stories is no longer far-fetched.

Winston regularly shows documentaries at the Savoy Theater, the movie house he co-owns in Montpelier. This was a strong year at the Savoy thanks to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which spent a six-week run at the theater. Winston said Moore’s movie now owns the top three slots for weekly ticket sales in the Savoy’s 24-year history. “Super Size Me,” “Control Room” and “The Weather Underground” also did well at the Savoy.

Winston said the documentary field is changing, not only with more films with a pronounced point of view but also with more movies told from a highly personal perspective. The Green Mountain Film Festival included in its lineup last March the Oscar-nominated film “My Architect,” in which Nathaniel Kahn detailed his attempt to understand his father, Louis, the noted architect. Winston said a recent film receiving a lot of buzz, titled “Tarnation,” uses home movies and answering-machine recordings to tell a family’s story.

“Tarnation,” Winston said, was made for a grand total of $218, showing that documentaries are moving further and further away from big-budget Hollywood.

“It’s an incredibly rich field,” he said.

Personal interpretations 

Sue Bettmann of Middlesex had her film, “Beyond Eighty-Eight Keys,” shown at the Green Mountain Film Festival, and the documentary is also on the schedule for the Vermont International Film Festival. She has been involved in theater for years but had never made a full documentary until her feature about Arnowitt.

She was initially surprised to see documentaries become so popular around the time she finished hers, but she now understands why they have caught on.

“People were ready for these kinds of personal takes on things, personal interpretations of what’s happening to us,” Bettmann said. “The time is right. People are a little bit sick of the choice between Hollywood and Fox or nothing.”

The choices are only growing. Winston is starting to plan next year’s Green Mountain Film Festival and said there are many more good choices than he will have time to show. Candidates include looks at Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, playwright Sam Shepard and musical innovator Robert Moog.

“The number of really fascinating documentaries,” Winston said, “seems to be infinite.”

These are the showtimes for selected documentaries in the Vermont International Film Festival:

– “Beyond Eighty-Eight Keys,” American/Vermont, 76 minutes, directed by Susan Bettmann, Firehouse Center for Visual Arts, 6 p.m. Wednesday.
– “Pioneers of Hospice: Changing the Face of Dying,” American/Vermont, directed by Terrance Youk of Brook Hollow Productions, Firehouse Center for Visual Arts, 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
– “Crucible of War,” U.S./Bosnia-Herzegovina/Croatia/Serbia-Montenegro, 45 minutes, directed by Leon Gerskovic, Contois Auditorium, 8 p.m. Friday; Firehouse Center for Visual Arts, 9 p.m. Saturday. 
– “The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face,” Australian/South African, 74 minutes, directed by Cathy Henkel; Contois Auditorium, 8:45 p.m. Friday; Firehouse Center for Visual Arts, 12:50 p.m. Saturday.

Festival details

– WHAT: The 15th-annual Vermont International Film Festival
– WHEN: Starts Wednesday and runs through Oct. 18
– WHERE: Contois Auditorium, Burlington City Hall; The Firehouse Center for Visual Arts; and Merrill’s Roxy Cinema
– TICKETS: Features at Merrill’s Roxy, $10 general, $7 student; Vermont Filmmakers Showcases at Firehouse Center, $5 general, $3 student; all other screenings, $7 general, $5 student; gold passes for $100, silver passes for $60 and day passes for $25 are also available
– INFORMATION: Call 660-2600 or visit www.vtiff.org.

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