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Things To Do in Denver When You're Doc-Crazy: Starz Denver International Film Festival

By Kathy McDonald

Giving heartland audiences a true international program, the 27th annual Starz Denver International Film Festival  (SDIFF) screened 189 features and shorts from 34 countries during its 10-day run last October. One of the most highly anticipated events on Denver's fall cultural calendar, SDIFF treats nonfiction films admirably, allocating them prime screening times and inviting numerous documentary filmmakers to participate in the festival.

"We've always taken the nonfiction genre seriously and always had a lot of documentaries," says the festival's co-founder and artistic director Ron Henderson. "I feel strongly that we don't want to ghettoize documentaries."

The festival catalog lists documentaries and narratives together, encouraging fest- goers to consider all titles. This year's doc slate offered an eclectic mix: from Jonathan Nossiter's Mondovino (the Cannes standout) to Sonny Boy (the crowd-pleasing personal story from Soleil Moon Frye) to intimate biographies such as Terry L. Benedict's The Conscientious Objector to features that tackled topical issues. For example, the human cost of conflict in the Middle East is revealed in Arna's Children (Juliano Mer Khamis, Danniel Danniel, dirs.; Pieter van Huystee, prod.) and Checkpoint (Yoav Shamir, dir.; Amit Breur, Edna Kowarski, Elinor Kowarsky, prods.).

Since 2002, SDIFF has benefited from a permanent home base at the 12-screen Starz Film Center, on the campus of the University of Colorado at Denver. The Denver Film Society (DFS), the festival's organizational parent, also sponsors a year-round schedule of screenings at the center. "Over the years we've cultivated an audience willing to take chances on films they've never heard of, from countries they've never heard of," Henderson says, pointing to the festival's broad-based local support.

Most festival screenings were centralized at the on-campus multiplex, energizing audiences and creating a lively film festival buzz. Over 32,000 admissions were tallied, with 85 percent of screenings sold out.

Adding to the celebration of cinematic arts, this year organizers initiated the Maysles Brothers' Award for Best Documentary. Albert Maysles, the venerable and influential filmmaker, was pleased to lend his imprimatur: "I'm happy to do whatever I can do to help the process; not only recognizing talent, but also mentoring, helping people visualize a project and sometimes helping them film it."

A panel of three jurors, including this writer, selected director Danny Schechter's WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception as the award's inaugural recipient. Maysles presented the prize at the gala closing night ceremony, describing Schechter as a person of good conscience who's doing important work.

WMD meticulously details the commercial news media's coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and examines how the government manipulated the shaping of public opinion via the news media. Jurors and standing-room-only audiences at the festival responded to Schechter's informative and entertaining approach to a very complex subject.

Festival programmers received more than 400 unsolicited documentary entries in 2004. Narrowing the selection was not easy, but Denver Film Society program director Brit Whithey explains the rationale for inclusion: "We want the audience to leave festival films questioning prior pre-conceived notions or re-evaluating inherent truths."

Films that effectively reveal insight into a person, such as Brett Ingram's Monster Road—about claymation artist Bruce Bickford—or Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith's Overnight, the chronicle of one man's sensational rise and fall in Hollywood--are also sought out. "We have good audiences here who stick around for the Q&As and ask relevant questions, rather than just nuts-and-bolts production questions," Whithey adds. In addition to the documentary offerings at the festival, two panels at SDIFF covered nonfiction topics. The first featured Kartemquin Films' principals at a Saturday morning coffee talk; the second, entitled "Shocking and Awful," dealt with the media and the invasion of Iraq.

Los Angeles-based director Smith was impressed with SDIFF's staff and its efforts on behalf of filmmakers. Denver was his eighth film festival, part of a year-long festival trek that began at Sundance.

During the festival, sections of downtown Denver were transformed into Hollywood on the Platte, with major star power from the opening night festival premiere of Ray, complete with Jamie Foxx, actor Bill Pullman promoting Rick and the red-carpet treatment for Lifetime Achievement honoree Morgan Freeman. The venerated actor wore two hats at the festival: one as award recipient and the other as executive producer of the music documentary series Blues Divas, directed by Robert Mugge.

Filmed at Freeman's Clarksdale, Mississippi blues club, Ground Zero, Blues Divas records eight performances from blues music's most talented women, and three of the eight hour-long performance documentaries from the series premiered at SDIFF. "Traditionally, blues has been more appreciated outside of this country, even though it's an American art form," Freeman explains. "We are pushing a reawakening." Freeman also appears in the films as on-camera host and interviewer of artists such as Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples and blues guitarist Deborah Coleman. He opened his club in the same storied town where bluesman Robert Johnson first divined the Mississippi Delta blues.

Coleman and her band The Thrillseekers performed at the festival's late-night lounge, providing a vibrant live-action link to the Blues Divas documentaries. Mugge describes Denver as his favorite festival, lauding "the incredible hospitality extended and the quality of the screening facilities."

Dirk Simon, director and producer of Between the Lines, premiered his feature-length documentary at the festival, citing the Denver Film Society and Henderson's passionate support of independent filmmakers. His film reveals the consequences of one East German border guard's quest for freedom. "They care about content and are willing to take risks," Simon contends. "They try to support filmmakers in the best way they can."

Only weeks before the US Presidential election, Schechter's WMD was a lightning rod for discussion. The film is densely packed with ideas that challenge both journalists and the film's audience to question the "news" that is disseminated each day. "I want to provoke some debate because filmmakers have abandoned their higher mission to be a voice, or challenge to, the self-satisfied status quo," Schechter maintains.

Describing himself as a "dissenting insider with an outsider's perspective," Schechter is a former war correspondent and network news producer. WMD combines embedded journalists' footage from Iraq and TV newscasts from the US and abroad to create a digital quilt of on-air war coverage.

"Documentary filmmaking as a medium of information has become filmmaking as a medium of emotion," contends Schechter. During the course of his investigation, Schechter demonstrates how the Pentagon adopted Hollywood-style storytelling techniques to sell and present the Iraq invasion (think "shock and awe" and Jessica Lynch's "dramatic" rescue). "What I saw was a whole style of work that lends itself to manipulation," Schechter says.

He implores filmmakers to pause and reflect about their role in the media: "Documentary makers should think about how easy it is to loose one's essential voice, to be a conscience and to be a voice for change."


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Variety and Daily Variety's special reports.