Real Appeal

Suddenly the height of cool, documentaries are turning their subjects into unlikely stars.

August 04, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

After decades of silence, Dow Mossman returned to writing when a documentary about his tra- vails as a first-time novelist became an unexpected hit. Baltimore artist Dan Keplinger became a local celebrity and saw interest in his paintings skyrocket when a film about his struggles with cerebral palsy won an Oscar. David Friedman, whose father's and brother's convictions for child sex abuse were scrutinized by movie audiences nationwide, saw his family's good name at least partially restored.

In the past, documentaries were, as Friedman puts it, "something you had to go to the public library to see." Those singled out by moviemakers as the focus of films typically viewed only in art houses could look forward to living in relative anonymity.

But in recent years, documentaries have become big business. Filmmakers like Michael Moore, whose 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11 pilloried George W. Bush in an election year, and Morgan Spurlock, whose 2004 Super Size Me painted McDonald's as the source of all dietary evil, proved that even documentary films could find wide audiences. (Most recently, Luc Jacquet's March of the Penguins became this summer's surprise box-office hit.) Cable TV networks, including HBO, Showtime, Discovery, A&E and Bravo, fill their schedules with a constant stream of nonfiction programming. Even the broadcast networks have embraced documentaries of sorts, as evidenced by the preponderance of prime-time reality shows.

The success of these films has spawned a small universe of unlikely celebrities. People like Mossman, Keplinger and Friedman, whose extraordinary lives might have otherwise passed without notice or acclaim, have become movie stars, at least for awhile. The latest to join their ranks is Mark Zupan, a Texas quadriplegic whose ferocity on an indoor rugby court makes him the standout in Murderball, a documentary about the sport of quad rugby. The film opens tomorrow at The Charles.

Unlike professional actors who yearn for the limelight, these men weren't necessarily seeking movie-star status. They all, however, approached their unlikely film careers with different expectations.

Film's focus changed

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki initially asked Friedman, a professional party clown in New York, to be part of a documentary about clowns. But when Jarecki discovered that David and his family had been at the center of a sensational 1988 court case, in which dozens of children were said to have been molested, the director changed his focus.

David Friedman's father, Arnold, and his brother, Jesse, were sent to prison for molesting children while conducting computer classes in the family's basement. Arnold died in prison in 1995, while Jesse was paroled in 2001 after serving 13 years.

"When he changed the topic from being about me and my career to being about my family, there was a lot of trepidation," David Friedman says. "I decided to make the movie as a way to bring attention to Jesse's case and possibly help him get released from prison."

Though Jesse Friedman was paroled while the film was being edited, David still hoped the project would clear his brother's name (Jesse confessed while in prison, but has since recanted). Capturing the Friedmans proved sympathetic to its subjects, suggesting the convictions were made in an atmosphere of mass hysteria, fed by overzealous investigators and prosecutors. Still, David was disappointed the film did not come down more squarely on his relatives' side.

But he doesn't regret his participation. "It was comforting to hear people say, `I believe your brother and your father are innocent,'" he says. "Twenty years ago, people were ready to burn them at the stake. After seeing the film, it's comforting for me to hear those kinds of reactions."

Quick to agree

As befits his personality, Dan Keplinger never hesitated when filmmakers William Whiteford and Susan Hannah Hadary asked if they could chronicle his life. In 1999's King Gimp, Keplinger, whose cerebral palsy has left him unable to control most of his muscle movements and who uses a wheelchair to get around, displays a self-confidence that suggests he knew he'd make a good movie subject.

"There was no hesitation of doing this project," Keplinger writes in an e-mail. "I just did not tell the producers about what I was doing if I didn't want it to be [in the] film."

Keplinger's fame might have remained local - he grew up in Baltimore and attended Towson University - had the film not been nominated for an Oscar. When it won, Keplinger, who had accompanied Whiteford and Hadary to Los Angeles for the ceremony, threw himself to the floor of the Shrine Auditorium in celebration. Weeks later, King Gimp premiered on HBO.

"I did not know what to expect so I just went with the flow and had fun with it," Keplinger says of the resultant notoriety.

Removed from writing

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