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2006: A Last Look Back

By Tom White

As we poise gingerly on the precipice of another year, we tend to look back longingly, one last time, at the year that brought us here. Fortunately, the Awards Season--which kicked off right after Thanksgiving with the IFP Gotham Awards, followed a week later by the IDA Awards, then by a spate of critics' picks, reflections and ruminations rumbles through the winter, reaching a crescendo at the brink of spring with the Academy Awards. So here is January, named for Janus, the god of doors, gates and beginnings, depicted always with two faces, looking forward and looking back.

The infrastructure for distribution and exhibition continued to expand at warp speed, as YouTube, MySpace and Google dominated the digital landscape, and newer players like iklipz, Revver and Jamon entered the fray. Mobile technology advanced as well, with the resolution and capacity for cell phones begin to rival those of cameras. Access was never easier for the citizen journalist, v-logger, blogger and podcaster. And the Web continued to provide a context for the filmmaker to harness that creative energy with marketing savvy and d.i.y. chutzpah. The big players took on this wild frontier, with one failed, but nonetheless intriguing, experiment--HDNet's simultaneous release of Steven Soderbergh's Bubble in theaters, on DVD and on cable--provoking a lot of discussion about where multi-window, multi-platform models were heading.

Our community saw the publication and distribution of Documentary Filmmakers Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, coming out of the Center for Social Media, a much-needed guideline to the often arcane and Byzantine world of copyright and clearance. Somewhat related to the issue of fair use is orphan works--works for which no copyright owner can be found--and the US Copyright Office presented a report on Orphan Works to Congress, a report for which former IDA Board Members Michael Donaldson and Barbara Gregson, among many other individuals, provided vital testimony. The Orphan Works Act will be winding its way through Congress this coming year.

Also in the Nation's Capital, the Smithsonian Institute took the documentary community by surprise with a deal it had struck up with Showtime that would limit access to the institute's venerated collection, unless a filmmaker was producing something for the Smithsonian Networks. Filmmakers, as well as historians, librarians, educators and attorneys, mobilized, and then lobbied Congress. At year's end, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) filed a report based on its investigation of the Smithsonian-Showtime deal; the GAO criticized the deal for being vague about the parameters of access and the criteria for granting filming requests.

And what about the films of 2006? As the war raged on in Iraq, docmakers continued to go it alone, mining the wartorn region for the stories that big media overlooked. Iraq In Fragments, My Country, My Country, Blood of My Brother, The Ground Truth, The War Tapes, Baghdad ER, Off To War: These films showed us the scars and horror of war, from the ground level. And the respective filmmakers--James Longley, Laura Poitras, Andrew Berends, Patricia Foulkrod, Deborah Scranton, Jon Alpert and Matt O'Neill, and Brent and Craig Renaud--deserve their accolades for their courage, lyrical vision and sensitivity in introducing us to civilians and soldiers who have struggled and suffered through the ongoing conflict.

Religion and faith have also figured largely in the Bush Administration and among certain sectors of the American electorate. Three films that look at the dark power of religion in America--Deliver Us From Evil, Jesus Camp and Jonestown: The Rise and Fall of Peoples Temple--find themselves on the short list for Academy Award consideration.

One of the biggest stories of 2005--Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath--inspired one of the biggest docs of 2006. Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke is a sweeping, magisterial meditation--indeed, a requiem, as its full title declares--on the staggering sociocultural, political and environmental ramifications of this disaster.

And in a quieter, but no less blyrical and elegant, epic, A Lion in the House, Julia Reichardt and Steven Bognar followed a group of children and their families through the throes of cancer. The filmmakers find the humor, heartbreak and humanity in all of these characters.

Of course, the biggest film of the year, one that has garnered both kudos and big box office bucks, is "that Al Gore documentary," An Inconvenient Truth. Taking the template of the former US Vice President's power-point presentation on the perils of global warming, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim manages to present a man who, in the wake of losing the presidency, found his passion. By the end of its theatrical run, the film found itself sandwiched between March of the Penguins and Bowling for Columbine as the third highest grossing documentary of all time, according to

And 2006 was another banner year in this much hyped Golden Decade of the Documentary. While we may never witness a zeitgeist kind of year like 2004, in which a phenomenal 11 docs topped the $1 million mark and Fahrenheit 9/11 earned nearly $120 million domestically, this past year was respectable, with seven films surpassing the seven-figure barrier. In addition to An Inconvenient Truth, there was Wordplay, Who Killed The Electric Car?, Why We Fight, Shut Up & Sing, The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man--films about, respectively, a hobby, an environmental issue, America and its military-industrial complex, the Dixie Chicks and John Lennon and their strikingly similar battles for freedom of expression in a politically divided nation, and a portrait of an artist as an eminence grise.

The year-end IDA Awards Gala was graced with an unprecedented number of A-listers, including Al Gore himself, who delivered a de facto keynote address, in which he declared, "Our democracy is achieving an opportunity for new life and receiving new flows of energy because of the vitality and creativity of documentary filmmakers."

As we look at the year ahead of us, intent on filling the blank slate of days and months with rich and vital stories, the landscape, though challenging and daunting and often frustrating, looms as large as an IMAX screen and as deceptively small as a cellphone.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.