Conventional wisdom says that to get a movie made, a filmmaker has to have a bankable name in his pocket. Yet last month at the Nashville Film Festival, the stars of many of the most popular films weren’t stars at all. They were kids squaring off to win a national spelling bee. They were children of the 1960s looking back on their fierce activism, carefree hedonism and long-gone youth. They were World War II vets, and immigrant bridegrooms, and back-holler Appalachian families caught in a photographer’s eerily ambiguous gaze. They were folks like us.
Documentaries have always been a mainstay of the 34-year-old festival. This year, though, the NFF’s strong slate of docs actually outsold the fiction features. And many of those successes had some kind of local angle, either because of the subject (like Music Row songwriter Joe Robbin, the focus of a film called Music City Long Shot) or the filmmaker (like NFF regular Demetria Kalodimos). Some local filmmakers ventured outside the city, even the country. Producer Eric Geadelmann’s The Dance offered a portrait of longtime Louisiana penal-system boxing coach Billy Roth, and native Nashvillian Ben Fundis delivered Que Mira?, a glimpse of life among former street children in a Nicaraguan cloud-forest refuge.
What’s more, the momentum hasn’t stopped with the festival. This weekend, the Opry Mills IMAX will premiere Our Country, a Gaylord-backed large-form tribute to country music. It was co-directed by Steven Goldmann, an accomplished video maker with the Nashville production company The Collective, and written by Oscar-nominated Nashville documentarian Tom Neff. Neff himself was represented at the NFF by a short piece on trumpeter Herb Alpert’s artwork.
Spurred by a plethora of new outlets and technical advances, documentary filmmaking is enjoying a perhaps unprecedented level of popular attention. Granted, the bar isn’t all that high. The $22 million that Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine grossed is a pittanceexcept in the rarefied world of arthouse distribution, where it was a blockbuster. But docs such as the aforementioned spelling-bee saga Spellbound are starting to connect with audiences at the level of mass entertainment. Once seen as the brussels sprouts of world cinemagood for you, and somehow worse for itdocumentaries are reacquainting viewers with old-fashioned virtues of drama, relevance and the surprise of a well-told story.
All over Nashville, directors have documentaries in varying stages of readiness on a plethora of topics. Several are music-related, such as Allyson Reeves’ Fan Fair study Welcome to Nashville or Patrick Isbey’s history of the treasured bluegrass room the Station Inn. Others examine underground phenomena like the Middle Tennessee circuit of professional wrestling, the subject of Michael Carter’s immensely promising 5 Minutes From Opryland. Still others address the filmmaking process itself, as in Robert Ziegler and David Buchert’s Behind the Wall of Sleep, a case history of an indie horror film’s trouble-plagued shoot. A select few, like Coke Sams’ half-hour film brief on behalf of Death Row inmate Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, exhibit the activist zeal that informed the protest docs of the late 1960s.
These movies have more in common than used-car budgets and skeleton crews. They’re a record of real life, an increasingly rare commodity at a time when digital tricks and doctored videotape have all but obliterated film as a recording medium. Even the shoddiest documentary captures a fragment of history and a piece of the past. Fifty years from now, when people want to know how the Nashville of the early 21st century looked, played, behaved and sounded, these films will be a treasure trove.
The timing of this activity couldn’t be better. “Documentaries are certainly in the public consciousness more,” says Kelly Brownlee, a former Nashville Film Festival staffer and longtime documentary supporter. As a field organizer for the Independent Television Service’s Community Coordination Project, charged with drumming up audiences and awareness for ITVS-sponsored documentaries, Brownlee says viewership for nonfiction film has never been higher. She cites increased theatrical distribution, more film festivals and the current boom cycle of “reality TV” programming as factors in this new visibility. The grosses for current docs as diverse as Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans and Winged Migration would seem to bear her out.
To some extent, the surge in documentary filmmaking is but one lingering ripple from the indie explosion of the 1990s. Would-be auteurs had already seized upon the anyone-can-do-this aesthetic of lo-fi films such as Go Fish and Clerks. As the decade progressed, the advent of cheap, sophisticated digital cameras and home editing software placed the tools of production directly in the hands of the masses. Feature filmmaking, once a dauntingly expensive and exclusive process, became as affordable as an SUVand damn near as ubiquitous, judging from the ever-growing number of festival submissions.
But the inexpensive, unobtrusive cameras made a revolutionary difference in documentary filmmaking, where the budgets are smaller, the shoots longer and the subjects sometimes skittish around a crew. Film fans who loved watching documentaries suddenly realized they could make them. All they needed were ideas, rudimentary equipment and patience. Inspired by heroes such as Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens), Nashville residents Stephen and Suzie Lackey pooled $15,000 in wedding-gift money and credit-card debt to make Fans and Freaks, a study of comic-book fanatics. The film took two years to shoot and cut, and Stephen, who is legally blind, edited the footage working inches away from a 30-inch monitor screen.
Asked if the investment of time was worth the money he’s getting back, Stephen Lackey laughs and says, “No.” Ninety percent of the time you don’t make your costs back, he explains, and despite the seeming frontier of cable and video outlets, it is not a seller’s market. The film has been kept alive by festival dates and screenings at comic-book conventions, and the Lackeys are self-distributing the DVD on their Web site.
Even documentary filmmakers with more resources than the Lackeys can have trouble finding homes for their work. Thom Oliphant, an award-winning video director and a partner in The Collective, shot a hybrid concert film/documentary about country singer Mark Collie, meant to coincide with the release of Collie’s first new album since re-signing with MCA Records. The film followed Collie to Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, where he swapped songs and stories with inmates and performed the album’s prison-themed ballads. Once Oliphant was editing, however, Collie and MCA parted ways in the wake of corporate restructuring, leaving the project in limbo.
For a fiction film, this might have been a killing blow. Instead, Oliphant saw it as an opportunity to expand and refocus the feature, Alive at Brushy Mountain, which screened at the NFF this year as a work in progress. He credits then-MCA contacts Tony Brown and Bruce Hinton with allowing the project to find its own shape. “It started out with three components: Mark and Mark’s concert, the inmates, and the making of Mark’s record,” he says. What Oliphant found was that audiences tuned out the studio footage but responded overwhelmingly to Collie at Brushy Mountain and the inmate segmentsof which he had shot “hours and hours.”
In some ways, Oliphant’s experience embodied one of the appeals of documentary filmmaking: going into a situation and finding a different, more compelling story than the one you meant to tell. Once inside, he and Collie realized a better subject lay within the prison walls: the redemptive power that prisoners found in music, be it gospel or autobiographical songs. “I had all these preconceived ideas about what I’d find going in,” the director says. What surprised him, after six weeks’ shooting, was how sedate the prison was. “It felt confining and soul-destroying, but not violent,” he observes.
Why make documentary films, when there’s more money in music videos or features? For Oliphant, it’s a matter of freedom and a relaxed pace that allows him to get to know his subjects. “Feature filmmaking is 90 percent development and 10 percent production,” he says. “With documentaries, it’s almost the opposite.” For Demetria Kalodimos, whose offbeat slices of Nashville history stand in marked contrast to her night gig as a WSMV news anchor, it’s a chance to present unusual stories without worrying about commercial breaks or committee decisions. She likens searching for subjects to panning for gold: “You take this one little sparkling thing, dig around it and see if there’s a vein underneath.”
A similar impulse drives Kalodimos’ former production partner Kathy Conkwright, a staff producer for Nashville Public Television, to find what she calls “debunk-the-myth stories.” As a broadcasting student at Loyola University, she was keenly aware of being a lone Southerner in a sea of Yankees. “I ran into this stereotypical, archaic view of the South,” says Conkwright, a native of Harlan County, Ky., “and it was always being under- or misrepresented. I try to tell stories about the South everyone’s not used to hearing.”
Thus far, her subjects have included Rachel Jackson, in a piece that aired nationally, and pioneering black Opry star Deford Bailey. In both cases, she was drawn to the task of redressing historical imbalanceof portraying Jackson as something more than a scandalous footnote to her husband’s career, and of recognizing Bailey’s unsung place in country-music history. Still, Conkwright says she hungers to make more contemporary social-justice piecesthe kind she worked on as an associate producer with Bill Moyers’ production company, and as an assistant to Emmy-winning Frontline producer Ofra Bikel.
Conkwright’s pet project contrasts two students at the highest- and lowest-ranked schools in Tennessee, which sit only a few miles apart in Chattanooga. In theory, this would be a natural for PBS, which is rivaled only by HBO as an outlet for serious documentary filmmaking. But public television, at least at the local level, is in the same financial straits as public education. As a result, stations feel pressure to focus on historical pieceswhich are cheaper, more manageable and have a known outcomeover contemporary journalism.
Which means that even as documentary filmmaking reaches new heights of popularity, new sets of ethical, financial and aesthetic concerns come into play. Brian Gordon, the NFF’s artistic director, thinks the liberation of digital technology has been a mixed blessing. “When docs were shot on film, they were tighter,” he says. “Tape costs less than film, so there’s less reason to cut. That [bloat] bleeds over into all forms of filmmaking.” Nevertheless, while Gordon misses brevity as well as the rich look and depth of film stock, he says the lightweight digital cameras have created a new “aesthetic of intimacy.” Shockingly candid docs like Daughter From Danang and Capturing the Friedmans are powerful, he argues, because of a fly-on-the-wall effect that would have been hard to get in the days of clacking, whirring film cameras.
In this recent crop of documentaries, Nashville has yet to produce a feature as dramatically compelling (or ethically troubling) as either of those films. Local features have yet to engage with the world in the way that makes movies like Bowling for Columbine or Hoop Dreams so provocative or illuminating. But Kathy Conkwright hopes, through her position at NPT, to encourage local directors to seek out those subjects, to follow their passions. She’s fond of quoting This American Life radio host Ira Glass, who once said something to the effect that the best stories are sidebars to what people think should be the headline.
“In documentaries, it all boils down to the story,” Kelly Brownlee says. “And a lot of people around here know how to tell stories.”
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