Documentary is out of style. Not documentary films themselves, but the name they've traveled under since the term "documentary" was coined in the 1930s. Today's supporters feel "nonfiction" is a more attractive label, and it's being heard with increasing frequency in cinema circles.
The rationale is simple. Nonfiction books are hugely popular, filling a major portion of every bookstore. By contrast, documentary films are rare in multiplexes and other commercial theaters. Perhaps some blame goes to that four-syllable name, which sounds more forbidding than the movies it represents.
I hope this notion is accurate, and that "nonfiction" films achieve more box-office visibility than "documentaries" have managed in recent years. The jury is still out on the new arrangement, but venues with a long-standing interest in real-life movies will continue to show them without worrying about terminology.
Among the best of these venues is the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which has filled its seventh annual program with a stimulating mix of fiction and nonfiction works focused on issues of immediate social, political, and humanitarian interest.
One such issue is capital punishment, which has taken on fresh importance because of news events - such as New York State's reinstatement of the death penalty - and recent Hollywood pictures like "Dead Man Walking" and "Last Dance."
"Procedure 769," a nonfiction movie by Dutch filmmaker Jaap van Hoewijk, takes the unusual approach of scrutinizing neither the condemned prisoner (Robert Alton Harris) nor his attorneys, but rather the diverse group of witnesses who attended his execution. The movie uses repetitive material to fill out its feature-length running time, but this flaw is outweighed by the wealth of information it provides on a subject that cries out for greater understanding.
Since nonfiction movies are a form of journalism, it's fitting that journalism itself figures in a major festival offering. "Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press" recalls the inspiring career of a reporter who infuriated entrenched powers by tackling not only geopolitical enemies - like the Italian and Spanish fascists of the 1930s - but the shortcomings of his own natural habitat, the American press. He wrote pioneering articles on everything from the biases of media conglomerates to the bad influence of paid advertising, and he trumpeted the evils of tobacco in the 1940s. Rick Goldsmith's movie should be required viewing for everyone who writes, reads, or thinks about the news.
Other festival attractions deal with subjects from many lands. A retrospective of fiction works by socially alert South Korean filmmaker Park Kwang-Su includes "A Single Spark," about an activist who gives his life for improved labor conditions, and "To the Starry Island," about the Korean War's effect on ordinary people. "Black Kites," by American director Jo Andres, gives a poetic view (indeed, too poetic) of an artist's ordeal in war-torn Sarajevo, using journals and drawings she made in 1992.
More films come from Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines, and South Africa, among other countries. Also included are revivals of worthwhile older movies, from the 1932 melodrama "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" to the 1964 classic "Campaign Manager," a nonfiction look at Barry Goldwater's political machine.
Rounding out the festival is "Chronicling Coexistence," a program of films and videos by Palestinian and Israeli directors made since the signing of the 1993 peace accord. Featuring new works by such world-class artists as Amos Gitai and Michel Kleifi, it's a wide-ranging tribute to Arab-Israeli cooperation and dialogue. It will travel to about 20 venues in the US.
* The festival continues at Lincoln Center through June 27; it then plays June 29-July 3 at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.