October 1, 2002

Documentary Thrives at DoubleTake

Emmylou Harris, left, and friends from <em>Down from the Mountain</em>.

The fourth annual DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival (DDFF) was held last spring in Durham, North Carolina. Having fielded 530 submissions and attracted an audience of nearly 10,000, the festival ranks among the largest in the United States for documentary film.

Startup.com, directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim and produced by Frazer and DA Pennebaker, won the coveted MTV News.Docs.Prize. The film follows two freewheeling young entrepreneurs in their attempt to create a successful Internet business that would allow citizens to go online for their government transactions—parking tickets, auto registrations, etc. Viewers get an intimate look at the dot.com business, but it is the interaction of the two young players that is the heart of this well-done work of direct cinema. Sensitive, informative, moving and insightful, the film enjoyed a successful theatrical run.

Pennebaker and Hegedus also screened their latest film Down from the Mountain (Nick Doob also directed), a filmed concert by the musicians featured on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Meeting the performers—Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch et al—is a treat. Hearing the music, which is rooted in the Appalachian South, is stimulating. But it is the sure camera work and editing that makes this performance film great! While on not so grand a stage, it does recall Pennebaker’s classic Monterey Pop.

Other award winners at DoubleTake included Crazy by Heddy Honigmann of The Netherlands, which won The Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award. Sharon Greytak earned an honorable mention from the Center for Losing It, her personal view of the disabled person’s struggle for identity throughout the world.

The DDF Jury Award went to Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen) and Avant de Partir (Before Leaving) (Marie de Laubier), while Amato: A Love Affair with Opera (Stephen Ives) won the Audience Award. In Amato, director Ives takes us to the tiny Amato Opera House in lower Manhattan, where we meet elderly Tony and Sally Amato, whose love of opera and each other make for a winning film. Rohan Sen’s Shanti won the DDF Short Film Award; this eight-minute meditation contrasts shots of people reposing on benches in a New York park with the noise and frenzy of the city around them.

Other noteworthy films in competition included:

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. This 92-minute work by George Butler is the riveting tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-16 voyage to the Antarctic. The goal he set for the expedition was to be the first explorer to cross the continent on foot; when the ship The Endurance is trapped in pack ice, however, the focus quickly shifts to survival and rescue. The film includes original 35mm stills and footage from the expedition itself. Contemporary footage from the site of the original expedition blends smoothly with the historical material, resulting in a film that is both gripping and suspenseful.

Camp Scott Lock-up by Susan Koch and Jeff Werner. Using a vérité style and excellent editing techniques, this film focuses on four young women incarcerated in a military-style boot camp in Los Angeles. The film makes us care deeply about what happens to these young inmates, for their sake and ours. The filmmakers had extraordinary access, and their bond of trust with the young women infused the work with honesty and integrity. Camp Scott Lock-Up was partly produced by MTV’s Lauren Lazin, Executive Producer/VP of MTV News and Docs. She noted in a discussion following a screening that MTV committed to the film because one-quarter of the MTV audience knows someone convicted of a crime. She firmly sees MTV as a leader in encouraging its viewers to take a stand against discrimination and get involved in opposing hate crimes.

Friendly Persuasion by Jamsheed Akrami was a fascinating introduction to Iranian Cinema. Informative, balanced, and incisive, the 100-minute study includes film clips, interviews with major Iranian filmmakers, and a candid discussion of the impact Islamic restrictions have had on the Iranian cinema.

The Press Secretary by Ted Bogosian won the DDFF Roland House High Definition Documentary Prize. The film profiles former Clinton White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, who attended screenings of the film. While pedestrian in both style and technique, The Press Secretary raises some important questions about how new technology has created an incessant and immediate demand for information. The film clearly demonstrates that this demand has transformed the relationship between the American public and their government in a not altogether helpful way.

A highlight of the special program strand of DDFF was the appearance of Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Three of his films were screened: Close-up (1990), which blends documentary and fiction techniques in this account of the arrest and trial of a poor man accused of impersonating celebrated film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; Homework (1989), Kirarostami’s scathing foray into an Iranian elementary school; and the much-anticipated world premiere of ABC Africa and Tribute. The film, consisting of mostly sketchbook work with small format cameras, was a disappointment. While the subject matter was moving and underscored the importance of helping Africa to battle the AIDS epidemic, the form and style were improvised and not well-developed.

Barbara Kopple was feted with the DDFF Career Award. The festival screened three of her films—American Dream (1991), A Conversation with Gregory Peck (1999) and My Generation (2000)—as well as a reel of clips from her canon that she herself selected.

Two curated programs ran throughout DDFF. One was “2001: Fast Forward,” programmed by Kent Jones of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This semi-tribute to Stanley Kubrick was intended by Jones to examine “not just assorted technologies, but also our perceptions of them, the way we experience them, the poetic imprint they leave on our lives.”

The second program, “Visualizing Change in the American South,” was curated by Tom Rankin, executive director of the Center of Documentary Studies, the home base and sponsor of DDFF. Each of the films in the program was chosen to reflect the chronicling of social and cultural change in the South, though the choice of Mississippi Masala, a fiction film starring Denzel Washington, seemed an odd inclusion despite its reality base.

The festival also presented three panel discussions. The panels were:

  • “How Much Reality Should You Handle?”—moderated by Caryn James of The New York Times, and featuring Kopple and representatives from HBO, Live Planet, Court TV’s The System, and the reality programs The Real World, Road Rules and Love Cruise.
  • “2001: Fast Forward—Science & Technology Symposium” —moderated by Robert Krulwich, science correspondent for ABC News and PBS’ NOVA series, with filmmakers Stan Winston, Bogosian and Kent Jones; Professor Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University; Max N. Wallace, CEO of Cogent NeuroScience; and author James Gleick.
  • Local News Series”—moderated by filmmaker David Van Taylor and featuring producers, on-screen participants and broadcasters involved with the upcoming five-hour PBS series Local News, which chronicles a year at a local news station in Charlotte, North Carolina.

DoubleTake is an outstanding festival for those who love the documentary form; a ripe resource for those who teach documentary production and critical study; and a friendly and stimulating environment to those who have the passion to be documentary filmmakers themselves. The festival next year is scheduled for April 4-7, 2002 (info at www.ddff.org). Mark it down as a treat for yourself.

 

Ron Sutton is a former professor at the American University School of Communications. He is retired and living in North Carolina.

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