New breed of documentary filmmakers rising

The Baltimore Sun

When most Americans think of documentaries, the first movies that come to mind are either nature movies like March of the Penguins or the first-person journeys of Michael Moore, which grab viewers by the scruff of the neck, nudge them in the ribs, kick them in the gut or tickle their elbows.

But other filmmakers of growing popularity and reputation -- such as Alex Gibney, who won this year's Best Documentary Oscar for Taxi to the Darkside -- have been developing personal fact-based filmmaking that retains a potent and direct address to an audience while permitting ironies and subtleties as rich as those of Marcel Ophuls (The Sorrow and the Pity).

The Maryland Film Festival has always championed the American documentary movement, so it's fitting that its 10th anniversary edition, May 1-4, features a variety of filmmakers who are pushing the edge of the frame when it comes to fitting new and thrilling complexities into documentary movies.

Gibney heads the list. After bringing his Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to the festival proper in 2005 (and Taxi to a special screening at Maryland Institute College of Art last fall), this year he will accompany Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, acclaimed at this year's Sundance by everyone from Variety to Salon.com.

As a writer as well as a director, Gibney has crafted a prismatic film biography of the creator of "gonzo" journalism. With a commitment and a talent rare in Rolling Stone today, Thompson dove headfirst into wild subject matter and reported on it in daring hallucinogenic styles.

Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), narrates the film and reads on-camera from the cracked Thompson canon, allowing Gibney to depict the cresting of Thompson's talent -- and how it slipped away.

In addition, Gibney serves as this year's "filmmaker host," introducing a screening of a favorite film: Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavajev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971).

The selection of an erotic counterculture hit may startle those who judge Gibney by his subject matter. But he's always used adventurous visual styles, musical counterpoints and novelistic juxtapositions to streak his films with ironies and suggestive undertones. And WR, which attempts to chart the energy released through orgasm, is, to quote the Criterion Collection DVD, a "documentary-fiction collision," examining the life and work of psychologist Wilhelm Reich before jumping into a helter-skelter chronicle of a gorgeous Slav's exploding sexuality.

The festival will shift from gonzo journalism to "immersion journalism" when it showcases the first documentary by Julie Checkoway, a Harvard-Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins graduate and former Gilman School teacher who taught the latter kind of reporting 10 summers ago at Goucher College's graduate program in creative nonfiction.

In 1997, Checkoway summed up her approach this way to The Sun -- "Simply put, I go places, stay there and write stuff" -- and that's how she applied herself to moviemaking with Waiting for Hockney.

In her own words, the film is about "a young working-class Baltimore man [Billy Pappas]," who "spends 10 years on a single portrait, believing it is his means to fame and fortune. But he also believes that only one man can lead him there -- the famous artist David Hockney. What happens when you finally meet the god of your own making?"

Pappas' work of obsessive art is a hyper-detailed graphite re-imagining of photographer Richard Avedon's melancholy portrait of Marilyn Monroe; Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, who encouraged Pappas, appears in the film and will show up with Checkoway at the festival.

Ellen Kuras, a cinematographer with masterpieces to her credit (Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold), spent more than two decades making her directorial debut, the documentary Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), co-directed by Thavisouk Phrasavath, the film's hero.

The movie depicts the anarchy of Phrasavath's native Laos in the Vietnam era -- and the challenges his family faced when they made New York their home.

Local Harry Potter fans should exult in the documentary We Are Wizards. It vibrantly delineates how geeks of every shape and kind mirror and honor J.K. Rowling's saga of a misfit boy coming into his epic own. But it also profiles a vast creative underground that battles against corporate forces trying to manage and control the spread of Potterphilia.

And more specific regional connections mark several other documentaries. Poet Charles Olson, the subject of Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, logged time in Washington, D.C., when he worked in the foreign language division of the Office of War Information during World War II. The Listening Project treks across the globe with four Americans who want to learn what the world thinks of their country. One of them, Han Shan, a New York-based human-rights activist, grew up in this area, and will present the film at the festival.

Mount Vernon's Agora Inc., a publishing empire based on high-end health, financial and travel newsletters, takes a rare turn in the limelight with I.O.U.S.A., exposing the roots of America's current economic crisis. Addison Wiggins, editor of Agora's The Daily Reckoning (and co-author, with Agora founder and president Bill Bonner, of Empire of Debt), collaborated on the script with the skilled team behind the smash 2006 documentary Wordplay, Patrick Creadon and Christine O'Malley.

Peter Gilbert and Steve James rivaled Michael Moore as spurs to America's continuing documentary revolution when they made the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, the deeply textured real-life story of two Chicago kids who hope to attain stardom on the hardwoods. After a dozen years of working apart, James and Gilbert have teamed up again on At the Death House Door, which follows the twin narratives of a wrongfully executed Texas man and a Huntsville death-row chaplain who has turned from death-penalty advocate to foe.

They may have gone from dreams to nightmares, but, for the health of the American documentary, this team's return is a sign of life.

For more information on the 10th Maryland Film Festival, go to md-filmfest.com.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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