From YouTube to YouScreen
Documentary films at the Santa Fe Film Festival
Brent W. Leung never read (or even found) a “how to make a documentary” book as he was shooting his first documentary. Heather Ross had eight years in the trenches before she took on a documentary about girls in prison who turned the tragedies of their lives into theater. And though Jeff Sumerel had studied filmmaking some years ago, he didn’t expect to stumble into the documentary world.
All three documentarians have films screening in this year’s Santa Fe Film Festival. They are just three of nearly 50 documentaries showing at this year’s fest. SFFF operations director Karen RedHawk Dallett said the emphasis on documentaries this year is a byproduct of the economic climate (they’re “less expensive to make,” she said) and the increased influence of such documentary-driven television stations as PBS, Discovery Channel, and The History Channel.
Likewise, with reality television gaining popularity, audiences seem interested in watching real life play out on-screen. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ( Super Size Me) straddles both worlds— he also produces and stars in the reality TV program 30 Days. Spurlock, like documentarians Michael Moore ( Roger and Me) and Errol Morris ( The Fog ofWar), infuses his docs with traditional narrative storytelling techniques or unusual, in-your-face investigative reporting. Moore’s films have become renowned for his sometimes overbearing presence as he confronts his on-camera subjects without much warning.
Leung put himself smack-dab into his documentary on AIDS, called House of Numbers, taking a you-are-there journalistic approach as he interviewed various experts, scientists, patients, parents, and men and women on the street about HIV and AIDS. The result— already generating controversy via highly critical responses in The New York Times and other media outlets— is a film that asks more questions than it answers about the deadly virus.
“I had no experience making a documentary; it was extremely difficult on multiple levels,” Leung recalled. “And another challenge is that we didn’t have the type of budget that Michael Moore has, or the staff, so a lot of it had to be done by myself and one other person.”
“I understand that certain documentaries have a very strong perspective, but I was taught that journalism is supposed to be unbiased,” he said of his approach to the topic. “One thing I strived for was to show both sides of the story, because if you are going to talk about HIV or AIDS or something that affects humanity on such a global level, you can’t just give one side.” He declined to say what the budget was, but private capital funded the project. House of Numbers screens at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, at The Screen on the College of Santa Fe campus.
Heather Ross’ Girls on the Wall, another festival entry, focuses on a group of teenage girls who are prisoners at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville as they write, produce, and act in an original musical based on their life experiences. Ross, who has worked in the documentary world for about eight years, said she was inspired to make the film after hearing about the girls’ situation on a radio show.
“You don’t see a lot of stories where teenage girls are the heroes,” she said. “They were further marginalized by being poor— many were African American or mixed race, and they were incarcerated, so all of that combined made for a voice that hadn’t been heard very much.” These girls are locked up, but they need to let it all out, and they do so via poetry, performance, singing, and dancing— while learning how to forgive the people who did them wrong.
Ross started shooting the film in 2005; postproduction work took several years. Her budget was about $200,000, with much of the funding coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—“a godsend,” she said. The film will air on public television early next year. Given documentary’s reputation for focusing on fact, not fiction, does Ross see her film as “the truth”?
“I would say the film is an accurate representation of my experience making the film, my experience meeting the girls, and what I surmised their stories to be,” Ross said. “Someone else could have gone in there and made a very different documentary.” Girls on the Wall screens at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, at Regal DeVargas and at 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, at the New Mexico History Museum.
While Leung and Ross rely on more traditional methods to tell their stories, Jeff Sumerel uses creepy puppetry and a hallucinatory mix of imagery, voice-over commentary, and personal interviews with his protagonist— performance artist/philosopher Theodore Gottlieb, aka Brother Theodore, who died in 2001— to craft his imaginative To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore (which, unfortunately, played only once at the festival, on Dec. 3).
Sumerel studied filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute some 30 years ago. He and editor Jeter Rhodes were a two-man show, making the movie for roughly $70,000 over a period of about eight years. “I know that seems like a really long time, but I clarify that by saying that, out of the first five years, it was about two to three weeks a year following a lead or doing some research, and even in those first few years I wasn’t sure I was even making a documentary,” Sumerel said. “I was exploring an opportunity.”
That opportunity came after Sumerel stopped at the 13th Street Repertory Company theater in New York City to talk to managers about doing a oneperson show there. “They happened to say to me, ‘ Brother Theodore did his show here for 17 years,’ and I said, ‘ Well, if Brother Theodore wants a documentary made about him, have him call me,’ ” Sumerel recalled. “And he called me! Not only was I surprised, I was thinking, ‘ Yeah, but I was just kidding!’ ”
The documentary makes it clear that Gottlieb, who attracted a cult following in the 1950s in New York for his dark monologues, was always aiming to break into the mainstream of pop culture. Perhaps this film will do that for him. Sumerel managed to land a screening for the film at the Museum of Modern Art. “And I thought, ‘Mission accomplished,’ ” he said. “I was ready to rent a hole in the wall somewhere in New York just to make sure it got a screening in New York.”
Sumerel, like Leung and Ross, thinks documentaries will continue to grow in popularity. “In some ways, a documentary can rekindle our childhood innocence,” he said. “You know: ‘wow, everything is fascinating!’ ”
Leung feels there will “always be an audience to see a good documentary that entertains people.” To Ross, documentaries offer “the chance to hear other people’s stories. Just look at how huge YouTube is getting and how unpolished the content is. People are just doing their thing for the camera, and millions of people want to see that. They want to see something unfiltered and true.”
Brent W. Leung shooting
House of Numbers
Keyosha, left, with guard Michelle Lapacek and Heather Ross, shooting Girls on the Wall
Cutting-edge humor: Brother Theodore (right)