In this candid film, complete access is what sets it off

May 25, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If nothing else, "Startup.com" is testimony to the idea that it pays to be nice to your roommates.

The startlingly candid documentary from veteran filmmaker Chris Hegedus and partner Jehane Noujaim, about the meteoric rise and even more meteoric fall of a pair of Internet entrepreneurs, benefits from all sorts of serendipity.

For one, its timing couldn't have been better: In the middle of making it, Wall Street's Internet bubble burst, leaving many dot-com companies on life support. That included the venture profiled here, govWorks.com, designed to help the public interact with its local governments and perform such mundane matters as paying parking tickets online. ("Startup.com" had its local premiere at the Maryland Film Festival.)

But what makes the film extraordinary is the complete access the filmmakers had to the two college friends, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman, who founded the company. Cameras follow them everywhere: board meetings, prickly sit-downs with potential investors, cordial and not-so-cordial get-togethers with family and girlfriends, even the gym where both men work out. None of that might have been possible, save for one fortunate happenstance: Noujaim and Isaza Tuzman were roommates.

But Noujaim, for whom "Startup.com" is her feature-length documentary debut, acknowledges the relationship caused her some mental anguish.

"It made making the film easy, because there's a lot of good stuff you can get just by hanging out with people," she says. "Sometimes, I would just put the camera on my back and head out to dinner. But it was hard too, in the sense that you feel in a little bit of a position of power with the camera, and you instinctively feel you have to protect your friend."

Hegedus has been making documentaries for more than two decades, usually with partner D.A. Pennebaker (the two collaborated on the Oscar-nominated "The War Room"), who is listed as a producer of "Startup.com." She had been looking for months for a way to make a documentary about the dot-com revolution, and when she met Noujaim and heard her pitch, she knew she had found both the right subject and the right partner.

"Right away, I could see Jehane had the right instincts for this type of film," she says.

Noujaim adds with a smile: "We had a good vibe when we first met. We're both Tauruses."

Of course, what eventually proved to be a plus could have been just as big a minus. Noujaim could have pulled back, or used her position as documentarian to act as a liaison between warring parties (something she was most tempted to do when Isaza Tuzman and his girlfriend found their relationship on the rocks). But she refrained.

"You're able to think that it's OK because, in the end, you want to tell the true story," she says.

Plus, even when you don't know the camera operator personally, it's hard to act naturally when your every move is being filmed. It's tough being a fly on the wall, when the people in the room know your name. Still, Noujaim and Hegedus agree they were largely able to remain above the fray.

"People always know you're there, but they tend to ignore you after awhile," Noujaim says. "They really have no choice."

Both Isaza Tuzman and Herman have seen the finished film. Isaza Turman, who dominates the film and emerges as pretty much the bad guy (especially after firing Herman), actually attended its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival and answered audience questions afterward. Herman watched it later, and while he didn't exactly enjoy the experience, he admitted the film was "honest."

"That's probably the greatest compliment you can get from people you are filming," Hegedus says.

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