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Doc Hollywood: Nonfiction Debuts as a Sidebar at Festival

By diane estelle Vicari

From <em>The Diplomat</em>

Driving down Melrose Ave. on a warm August day, one couldn’t miss the distinctive bright banners of the Hollywood Film Festival flanking either side of the historic gate at Paramount Studios. In the festival’s fifth year, Founders Carlos de Abreu and Janice Pennington have worked tirelessly to counter the myth that Hollywood could not host another film festival.

“Our mandate since day one has been really clear: to bridge the gap between established mainstream Hollywood and emerging filmmakers from the global creative community,” says de Abreu. This year, de Abreu added a documentary sidebar. “In 2001, we have made a concerted effort to make sure that documentaries are a major part of the Hollywood Film Festival,” he asserts. “Hence, they have their own section under the umbrella of the festival. I personally love documentary films, and it was crucial for me to give time, attention and resources to the filmmakers and their films”

Seventeen documentaries shared screens between the Paramount Studios theaters and Raleigh Studio’s Chaplin Theater over a period of two days, while at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the festival presented a panel dedicated to “Documentary Filmmaking in the New Millennium.” For any documentarian attending such a panel at any festival, the refrains are all too familiar: “There is no money to be made in documentary”…“The financing is becoming less and less available”…“Very few documentaries will ever see the light of a theatrical release”… A diverse cast of filmmakers, program executives and entertainment attorneys built a strong case for any debutante documentarian, discussing how to protect one’s rights, when to pitch and to whom, what to expect from a distributor, how to get representation, whether or not to send unsolicited material, whether to submit to a festival, etc.

R.J. Cutler, the Emmy Award-winning director/producer of American High, offered some words of hope. “What is your vision?” he queried. “What do you need to do with your art? If you can answer that, everything will come from there. Seven hundred people will say ‘no,’ but you only need one person to say ‘yes.’ Don’t leave here discouraged. Probably anyone you’ll approach has been in the same position once.”

Representing PBS, Los Angeles-based senior vice president and Chief Program Executive Coby Atlas reminded filmmakers that “documentaries are not monoliths. There are so many different ways. Not one size fits all.” Under CEO Pat Mitchell, PBS has opened its doors to a whole spectrum of esoteric, intellectual and challenging documentaries that may not have found a home otherwise. PBS has an open submission policy, fielding some 7,000 documentaries a year. “Everything gets a fair viewing,” Atlas maintained.

Bob Reid, the former head of programming at Discovery Channel, emphasized, “If you believe that your documentary belongs to the Discovery Channel, then bring it to us before it is made. Take time to write a one-page description about the film; having a good title can make all the difference in the world.”

Despite the festival’s efforts at an intensive marketing campaign, from a special issue of The Hollywood Reporter to mailings to thousands of potential attendees, the lack of attendance at some of the documentary screenings was a clear reminder that it takes more than just a great story to convince the public to spend an afternoon at the movies.

Tashi Delek (Juan Carlos Romera, Spain), a poignant story about a Spanish woman working at saving orphaned children living on the street in Tibet, opened to an audience of 10. But to Romera, who shot his documentary under political tension with limited funding and a Hi-8 camera within Tibet, to be part of the festival “is a dream come true.” Romera has used his film as a fundraising tool to promote awareness of human rights violations in Tibet. In the film festival catalog, he writes, “There is no greater error than doing nothing because we believe we can only do a little.”

Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke’s latest film, Cunnamula, is an astonishingly honest portrait of the lives of Aboriginal people and white Australians sharing a small outback community some 800 kilometers west of Brisbane. The film earned the Best Documentary Award at the festival.

Among other sociopolitical documentaries was Rudyland, a film by Matthew Camahan and John Philp about New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani. High Noon In Jakarta, from Australian director/writer Curtis Levy, presents a journalistic view of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid’s takes on the entrenched power of the military in his country.

The closing night of the festival featured another doc from Australia, The Diplomat, which was preceded by a warm, humble speech by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos-Horta of East Timor, the subject of the film, and the recipient of the Hollywood Humanitarian Award. Ramos-Horta eloquently expressed his belief that “what democracy is, is a fight for an idea.”—a perfect metaphor for filmmaker Tom Zubrycki’s three-year documentation of Ramos-Horta’s mission to free his country from Indonesia’s occupation. This film may best exemplify the commitment of the Hollywood Film Festival to the community of political and social documentary filmmakers. The following evening, at the Hollywood Movie Award Gala, a night among the best of Hollywood’s stars, each guest received information about the Fund for East Timor, as well as materials from Artists for Amnesty.

As emerging filmmakers shared the stage with the likes of actress Nicole Kidman, director John Frankenheimer and production designer Robert F. Boyle that night, de Abreu delivered again on his mandate. Noticeably missing, however, was a representation of pioneer documentarians. The question one should ask is not so much “Can the Hollywood Film Festival ‘bridge the gap’?” but rather, “Can the Hollywood establishment open its doors to non-commercial ventures?” The Hollywood establishment has been built on exploitation and financial success. But in the documentary community, what can be exploited and by whom? In the end, isn’t it up to the independent filmmaker, when the opportunity arises, to have the courage to push through that door and exploit his/her participation in the festival? How will he/she be received? Will he/she continue to share the platform of the Hollywood elite once the curtain falls? Only time will tell.

In closing the festival, de Abreu reiterated, “The Hollywood Film Festival believes in inclusion, not exclusion. We have an open door to anybody around the world—documentarians, distributors and reputable organizations.”

The festival and the International Documentary Association are currently discussing a collaborative venture for 2002 to program up to four documentaries that focus on social issues and human rights. For the second year, the Hollywood Humanitarian Award will be given to an individual who is the subject of one of the films, for his or her dedication to fighting injustices and creating social changes for the improvement of human rights.

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IDA Board member diane estelle Vicari is an independent documentarian and owner of DOCdance Productions. She can be reached at