Documentary Films: Big Business and Huge in Educating
by Ron Levitt
Film documentaries -- at one-time second-rate features slipped into
a movie time slot to fill time -- have become a much desired class
act, adding millions in ticket sales for movie houses.
In the early years of cinema, the French used the term “documentary”
to refer to any non-fiction film. In the period 1900-1920, “scenics”
or travelogues became the rage. One would often find a travelogue as
an extra-added attraction at the movies. Then came newsreels,
propaganda films, films about real events or personalities, or other
observations of human life or nature. This was followed by what was
termed “cinema verite” -- usually the camera following some sort of
crisis. What they all had in common was they were usually just an
add-on to the movie.
Next came the modern eras of film. Documentaries -- many of which
were political weapons -- emerged as stand-alone features. In 1968,
“The Hour of the Furnaces,” a Quebec documentary, was so startling,
it influenced a whole generation of filmmakers.
And, now, in recent years, documentaries have reached a new peak.
They do not need to just be a sideline to a first-run feature film.
With films such as “Roger and Me,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “March of
the Penguins,” this film genre has become the new look of filmdom,
beyond mere entertainment. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” for example, set a
record for documentary profits, according to “Box Office” magazine,
earning more than $228 million in ticket sales, plus 3 million DVDs
sold since it first appeared.
Yes, documentaries have changed. Today, online, you will find
millions of documents on film documentaries and some 300 e-mail
links to this film genre. You will discover that film festivals
increasingly look for them to add to their schedules (Sundance, for
example, has announced $605,000 in grants this year for 14
documentaries). Some 20 distribution firms exclusively market the
non-fiction documentaries and there are some 20 film festivals
worldwide exclusively for documentaries, mostly in Latin America and
Europe. And, according to an online encyclopedia, the advent of DVDs
has made documentaries so financially viable that cinema release is
not even a necessity (DVD sales alone can make a profit).
So, it is not necessarily big news that, today, two documentaries
with somewhat of a Florida connection are making big news in film
and marketing journals and are catching the attention of critics,
public television and DVD marketers.
The first one is former V.P. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” --
his look at the impact of global warming. Gore’s film has already
grossed $15 million in the United States through its Hollywood
release and is projected (according to “Entertainment Weekly”) to
double that amount with its release overseas this month. Gore’s
film, you may recall, documents the possibility of having many
sections of the Sunshine State underwater by mid-century. And, Gore
(who many believe would be President if the Florida vote in 2000 had
been counted correctly) is now in huge demand by public television,
school boards and celebrity outlets, to discuss his theory. There is
talk that school boards may use his film as required viewing and a
“must” for PBS airing. All of this is happening because of this
movie with its frightening scenarios for the future. Scary, yes!
Powerful, yes! And, it has made Gore one of the most successful
documentary pitchmen since Michael Moore (the “Fahrenheit 9/11”
guru). For a politician once described as “somber,” the documentary
has now made Gore a Hollywood idol.
Less scary, but carving out a niche as an educational film, is
another documentary released this summer – “By the People,” a
painstaking look at how the election process works at the local
level, directed by Malindi Fickle. Fickle is the wife of businessman
Jason Brand, a Miami-bred son of prominent Dade physician Barry
Brand and photographer/educator Maddy Brand. Fickle’s documentary is
a look at an election office 11 days before the 2004 election. It
has been described by the reviewers (including the venerable “NY
Times”) as an intense, honest and fascinating look at the electoral
process at the local level (in this case, thrOugh the eyes of an
Indiana county clerk). It sounds like an un-cinematic topic, but
through Fickle’s adept and inquisitive camera, it shows that
“pulling elections off is akin to rolling water uphill.” The reviews
in just five cities since its July 28 release have school boards,
pubic television stations and film festivals looking as if they have
now discovered a unique educational documentary for their classes
and viewers. The film is now awaiting a Miami distributor for a
South Florida showing early in the fall.
Once you have seen “By the People,” you may better understand how
the vote counting debacle in Florida during the 2000 Presidential
election actually could happen. You will ask yourself how the system
can work better. (And, we must add, director Fickle tells the story
without taking any political sides).
Any thoughts that documentaries are just extra added attractions to
a major movie can now be tossed out. Documentaries are big business
and educate us on a variety of real topics!
Ron Levitt, an entertainment/travel writer, served as Assistant
Secretary of State, overseeing cultural affairs. The former United
Press Correspondent is president of the South Florida International
Press Club. Reach this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.