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Doc­u­men­tary films at the Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val

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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)

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