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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, July / August 1996

By Lisa Leeman

Dear Members,

By now, many of you have probably read Peter Nichols' recent article in the New York Times, titled "Smile When You Say Documentary." The article is definitely making the rounds in documentary circles—it has been both faxed and e-mailed to me from colleagues across the country. Nichols seems to be pointing out a paradox that we documentary makers, distributors, and exhibitors are already acutely aware of: that while documentaries seem to be enjoying more critical and commercial success of late, they are still perceived to carry a stigma.

"Documentary can be a mark of death for a film on video.... With Roger and Me they didn't use the 'D' word," Nichols quotes Mindy Packard, director of marketing for BMC Independents, which recently released Nick Broomfield's Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam. Nichols writes that to many people, "documentaries are like kissing one's sister."

But Nichols also tells us that Hoop Dream, Crumb, Truth or Dare, Unzipped, Hearts of Darkness, and A Brief History of Time were all "best renters." "In the last five years, public perception of documentaries has changed," says Milos Stehlik, a managing director of Facets International, a Chicago mail-order distributor with hundreds of documentaries in its catalog. (Stehlik feels the "D" word stigma comes from boring educational films shown in classrooms in the 1960s and '70s.)

So I want to know, if documentaries are making more money than ever at the box office, and more docs are getting theatrically released, and cable nonfiction programming is expanding, and home-video demand is u p for documentaries, does the "D" word stigma really still exist? And if so, who holds it? The public, or is it perhaps in the minds of overanxious distributors?

Packard adds that documentaries "have their audience, but we like to talk in terms of acclaimed feature films based on truth." Th is brings me to a personal gripe. It has been said recently, by both filmmakers and by distributors, that some of the commercially successful documentaries of late are different, because they use traditional dramatic structure as a new tool that separates them from other docs. I must point out that good documentaries have always used dramatic structure: three-act narrative, character development, conflict and tension, a build to a climax and resolution. From Flaherty to Lorentz to Pennebaker and up to today, good documentarians have been availing themselves of these tools. After all, we are storytellers, simply weaving our tales from the raw footage of life.

Could this mean that we, as documentarians, also hold this stigma towards docs? Are we so used to being considered the "poor cousins" of feature films that when it comes time to sell our own nonfiction films, we try to distance ourselves from other documentaries and to identify with feature films?

The power of some of these docs that are being marketed so carefully to omit the "D" word is that they are nonfiction—that is what makes them astonishing and compelling. For doc junkies like myself, a well-told nonfiction story wins hands down over most fiction films. I realize this is a matter of personal taste, but my point is that maybe it's time to reclaim the word documentary. When you're ready to sell your next doc, ask yourself if you really need to distance your film from other documentaries, or can you just play up the strengths of your film? With docs like Crumb and Hoop Dreams ending up on many critic's "Best Films of the Year" lists, why not capitalize on the resurgence of public interest in docs and nonfiction storytelling?

Or, as Peter Nichols writes, "smile when you say documentary."