Dominating Documentaries

If it's the truth you want to see, settle into a seat at one of the many factual features

The 4th Annual Maryland Film Festival

Thursday May 2nd Through Sunday May 5th

May 02, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Words you never see quoted from the late, great critic Pauline Kael are ones she penned in praise of documentaries.

"I still like in movies what I always liked," she wrote in 1968, "but now, for example, I really want documentaries. After all the years of stale stupid acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them, I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of non-actors and for knowledge of how people live -- for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we're tired of."

What Kael would have loved about the Maryland Film Festival -- and what all of us who are tired of "stale stupid acted-out stories" should applaud -- is that it brings a robust crop of documentaries to Baltimore's big screens every year.

The most electric time I had at the last festival came as the passions of the Vietnam era surged through the Senator during the opening-night screening and discussion of Investigation of a Flame. Such exciting and accomplished work as Startup.com and Unfinished Symphony gave the overall programming a lift, and there was no better place to view a more conventional effort, Rediscovering George Washington, than at a work-in-progress showing at the Charles, with filmmaker Michael Pack and biographer Richard Brookhiser on hand for critical tussling afterward.

At this year's festival, which begins tonight and runs through Sunday, documentaries don't just stand out -- they dominate. Their presence underscores the explosion of creativity in the form.

There's a good reason why, at every Oscar season, the judging of documentaries at the Academy Awards rouses almost as much controversy as the judging of figure skating at the Olympics. The documentary has become to independent moviemaking what figure skating is to amateur sport: a magnet for attention. Even the reality-TV explosion of recent years riffs on documentary landmarks of decades past, like the films of Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter) and Fred Wiseman (High School, Law and Order).

The best documentaries may not always end up on your neighborhood movie screen. But today they have chances to reach people in ways they never have before: not just on public television or cable, but through home video and DVD outlets that market them aggressively. Because of their journalistic value, these movies have longer after-lives than many comparable fiction films. And they often attract those youthful filmmakers who have the largest appetites for complexity.

Documentaries have done as much to keep real-life drama and discovery pumping through contemporary movies as any auteur masterstroke or mainstream genre. Looking at this year's Maryland Film Festival roster, I wondered: Is the title of Blue Vinyl a homage to David Lynch's Blue Velvet? The movie promises to convey a Lynchian sense of perversity within banality; co-director Judith Helfand investigated the side-effects of vinyl siding after her parents applied it to their home. The Execution of Wanda Jean could be a rigorous corrective to Dead Man Walking, as director Liz Garbus infiltrates the final appeal process of a woman on death row.

After watching the fence-straddling heroics of Patton, have you ever wondered what it was like to serve that brutal, inspired megalomaniac? Davidson Cole's The 95th, the story of the infantrymen who liberated Metz, France, under Patton's command, may provide the answer. (Amazingly, Cole also made this year's edgy fiction entry, Design.)

And have Star Trek and Universal Soldier movies worn out your affection for cyborgs? Peter Lynch's Cyberman will either revive or kill it off forever. It's a documentary about a man who considers himself a cyborg because he wears his computer equipment like a superhero's gimmick-laden uniform and, through an "eye-tap," shoots first-person images onto his Web site.

Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdattir, who first brought the tale behind Boys Don't Cry to celluloid in The Brandon Teena Story, follow it up with Women: The Forgotten Face of War. It's based on interviews they conducted in Kosovo after the Serbian Civil War. Glenn Kirschbaum's The Unfinished Civil War deals with our Civil War, from Gettysburg re-enactors to the fight over the Confederate battle flag above the capitol in Columbia, S.C.

Festival director Jed Dietz singles out three documentaries for particular attention: Johnny Symons' Daddy & Papa, about gay fatherhood; Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa's Sister Helen, a portrait of a recovering alcoholic who became a nun and started a halfway house for substance abusers; and Mitchell Scherr's The Season: Cal Ripken, an unprecedentedly intimate account of the Orioles great (co-produced by ESPN and Major League Baseball) that will receive its only re-edited theatrical presentation at this festival.

But there are easily half-dozen more of equal local or artistic interest: Lucia Small's My Father the Genius, depicting the perilous relationships of a man who thinks he has a beautiful mind (architect Glen Small); Richard T. Slade's A Head of Time, Ahead of Time, a salute to jazz composer and Towson State University band director Hank Levy; The Last Season: The Life and Demolition of Memorial Stadium, Charles Cohen and Joseph Matthew's still-evolving documentary about the battle to preserve the beloved edifice.

Add in items like Love, Josh, an account of a 15-year-old boy handling his father's death (from Academy Award winners Susan Hadary and William Whiteford), and you have an embarrassment of riches.

Or perhaps that phrase is a bit off. Fictional fluff-meisters should be embarrassed. Docu-mentarians and their audiences should be delighted.

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