Documentary Film Week out to prove fact as rich as fantasy

PHOTOGRAPHY is truth,'' said a character in a Jean-Luc Godard film, ``and the cinema is the truth 24 times a second.'' If there's any substance to that whimsical claim, nobody has worked harder to dig it out than the devoted band of documentary filmmakers. But moviegoers haven't shown much interest. Fictions and fantasies reign at the box office, while factual films get pushed into noncommercial venues like museums and public-TV programs. So drastic is the situation that some observers wonder if nonfiction cinema has become a celluloid dinosaur with an uncertain present and a limited future.

Hoping to prove just the opposite, a not-for-profit group called Valley Filmworks has organized a seven-day celebration of the documentary in all its facets -- and booked a major commercial theater as home for the occasion. Slated for Nov. 7-13 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in Manhattan, the ambitious ``Documentary Film Week'' will feature about 35 movies of all shapes and sizes. Helping to launch it next Wednesday will be an inaugural evening at the 57th Street Playhouse, hosted by no less a fact-monger than Walter Cronkite.

Perusing the program in advance, I was struck anew by the vigor and diversity of the documentary form. Contrary to conventional wisdom, nonfiction filmmaking can be as visually and dramatically exciting as fictitious fare, and -- in the hands of an artist -- offers a flexible vehicle for personal ideas and feelings. Hand the same subject to a pair of filmmakers, and the resulting movies can be as different as any two variations on a fictional theme.

Consider two movies from the festival. ``Racetrack'' is the latest of Frederick Wiseman's many examinations of American institutions. Part 1 of ``God's Country'' is another visit by director Louis Malle to an unfamiliar location far from his French homeland. Both use their ostensible subjects -- a New York raceway and a small Minnesota town, respectively -- as microcosms of society. And both study not just physical details, but nuances of human nature that manifest themselves in response to their surrou ndings.

What a difference there is between the two, though. Wiseman's film is detached and almost cold, from its steely portraits of men and women to its clinical (and explicit) images of horses mating, giving birth, and undergoing surgery. By contrast, Malle's film is engaging and warm, seeming to reach out and embrace the people it interviews on subjects ranging from politics and gardening to sex and infirmity. Wiseman's approach is a valid one, giving us an appropriately hard-edged depiction of the dubious h uman drive toward power and domination. I far prefer Malle's, however, with its fine eye for color and its open affection for the everyday folks who inhabit it.

Many other items on the ``Documentary Film Week'' program prove the ability of nonfiction cinema to offer personal and expressive visions of human experience, and to do so through a wide variety of styles and structures. There's a black-and-white bleakness to ``Come Back Africa,'' a much-praised attack on apartheid by Lionel Rogosin, and to ``Salesman,'' a dour look at the American way of business by Albert and David Maysles, with Charlotte Zwerin. Yet there are joy and uplift in ``Tosca's Kiss,'' a vi sit with aging opera musicians by Daniel Schmid, and graceful beauty in ``Moana,'' a classic sojourn in Samoa by Robert Flaherty.

Similarly, the density of Chris Marker's travel film, ``Sans Soleil,'' is balanced by the simplicity of Werner Herzog's look at a black minister, ``Huie's Sermon.'' Wim Wenders is personal when he ponders New York in ``Reverse Angle'' and impersonal when he invites his colleagues to sound off on cinematics in ``Room 666.'' Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill bring unexpected wit to their look at Army women, ``Soldier Girls,'' and Les Blank celebrates an unlikely subject in ``Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers.'' Art is Klaus Wildenhahn's topic in the drab ``What Are Pina Bausch and Her Dancers Doing in Wuppertal?''

Mental illness and death are the respective concerns of Robert Frank's ``Me and My Brother'' and Stan Brakhage's ``The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes,'' both harrowing and highly unconventional studies by noted artists. Another experimenter, Jonas Mekas, revels in friends and experiences in ``He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life.''

Rounding out the program will be yet more movies, and a symposium on the ``aims, ethics, and future'' of documentary film -- a lively art that may seem all the livelier after getting so much attention this month in New York, a city that has strong influence on film-releasing patterns. If the ambitious ``Documentary Film Week'' succeeds in putting nonfiction movies a little closer to the spotlight, it will have done a valuable service.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.