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Missouri Breaks: Documentaries Enjoy a Renaissance in St. Louis

By Doug Whyte

'The World's Greatest Fair,' a documentary about the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, premieres to a sold-out crowd of 4,000 at the Fox Theater. The film will be syndicated on PBS later this year. Courtesy of Civil Pictures

The Gateway to the West. The River City. St. Louis, Missouri. Not necessarily the first place you think of when it comes to documentary filmmaking, but within the last few years, as in many other parts across the country, documentaries have entered a renaissance period here. Filmmaking tools are now so affordable that anyone willing to invest the time and energy to tell a story can do so. Audiences have finally realized that some of the most compelling stories come from the truest form of drama--documentary films. In St. Louis there is no shortage of engaging stories and aspiring artists who want to tell them, as well as places to screen them and people to view them.


The history of St. Louis documentary filmmaking is small, but significant. Charles Guggenheim, considered by many to be one of the central figures in the evolution of the American documentary, got his start in St. Louis as station manager of KETC, one of the first noncommercial educational television stations in the nation. He then went on to create Guggenheim Productions, where he produced A City Decides, the 1956 film about the events that led to the integration of the St. Louis public schools in 1954. This was the first of 12 Academy Award nominations he would earn. A later nomination went to Monument to the Dream, the1967 film about the construction of the St. Louis Arch. Just before he left St. Louis for Washington, DC, Guggenheim won his first Academy Award--of four he would win over his 50-year career--for the film Nine from Little Rock (1964), which tells the story of the Arkansas school integration crisis.

In addition to Guggenheim, George Hickenlooper began his filmmaking career in St. Louis, where, as a high school student, he made shorts that premiered on the local public television station. His breakthrough came in 1991 when he premiered Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), the internationally acclaimed documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now!, at the Cannes Film Festival.

While the present-day scene doesn't include a household name like Guggenheim, St. Louis is bursting with documentary filmmakers who are getting their films screened and broadcast nationally. This long list includes Jill Petzall ( When the Bough Breaks), Margie Newman (Snowflake Man ), Mike Steinberg (Stan Kann: The Happiest Man in the World ), Roberta "Bobbie" Lautenschlager (Fundamental Fairness), Bob Miano and Scott Huegerich (The World's Greatest Fair) and Kathy Corley (Howard Nemerov: Collected Sentences), as well as such newcomers as Richard Zimmermann (Journal: Las Vegas) and Ben Scholle (HairKutt ).

"It's easy to assume that nothing is going on in St. Louis," muses Margie Newman, a local PBS producer. "People used to think you had to go to the West Coast or East Coast to make films but are now staying here for numerous reasons, including cost of living and character. There is character in St. Louis and a wealth of environments and subjects--this place is reality. And for documentaries there is real value in a place. It's not all dollars and equipment."

While Newman makes an excellent point, one of the big factors behind the burgeoning local documentary scene is--you guessed it--funding.


At the heart of this documentary renaissance in St. Louis is the unique and valuable funding source CALOP (The Committee for Access and Local Origination Programming). While hundreds of producers across the country are competing for opportunities like The Paul Robeson Fund and ITVS (Independent Television Service), St. Louis documentarians have a solid funding source in their own backyard. Developed by Frank Ollendorf, a forward-thinking city manager in University City, Missouri (St. Louis County ), CALOP annually awards over $75,000 exclusively to St. Louis documentary filmmakers. With an average of 40 applications submitted each year, CALOP awards 10-12 grants averaging $6,000 each, with some grants reaching as high as $15,000.

CALOP's story is unique in the arena of funding for films. Back in 1980, a bidding war was underway for the right to be the cable provider in University City, and Ollendorf, who says he is committed to history, culture and education, saw an opportunity to provide something valuable to his community. He not only secured equipment and a studio for public access television, but he negotiated that two percent of the cable company's revenue be redirected toward local producers of content. He formed CALOP to redistribute these funds to local independent producers.

Today, CALOP funds are still strong, and have been converted to $1 per month per cable subscriber. According to Ollendorf, Charter Communications, the current licensee, has put up some resistance to CALOP, but as long as cable television exists in University City, so will CALOP. Ollendorf insists that if more politicians and city officials across the country believed strongly in the power of documentary film and its impact on history, education and culture, they too would negotiate such deals.

It's no secret that funding is the Achilles Heel of documentary filmmaking. So take this personal story of St. Louis charm: A few years ago I began production on a documentary about two eccentric, disparate funeral directors entitled Pushing Up Daisies. The Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly paper, wrote an article on the film. Since I had recently moved to St. Louis, I was unaware of CALOP, but the following week I received a call from a member of the committee who told me that my film would be perfect for the grant program. I was encouraged to submit a proposal and some footage, and a few weeks later they awarded me $10,000. Talk about being spoiled--I still wait by the phone for calls to come from other funders. Doesn't it work that way everywhere?

Many of the grants that CALOP makes to local filmmakers are for seed money, usually the toughest money to secure for a film. Also, CALOP gives all ownership rights to the filmmaker and only requires that the film be broadcast on public access with the CALOP logo.


In addition to CALOP, KDHX-TV dhTV , the community and public-access television station for the city of St. Louis, provides many avenues of support for local filmmakers. From inexpensive camera, lighting and editing classes to free access to equipment and editing suites, KDHX-TV dhTV is making good use of Charter Communication's financial support.

KDHX-TV dhTV is also committed to supporting independent filmmakers in St. Louis beyond just access to equipment and classes. Two years ago it launched City Visions, "an initiative to develop, encourage and otherwise support the growth of independent film in St. Louis by providing the access, training and environment needed to support the creative vision of St. Louis filmmakers." City Visions consists of many different support programs including a documentary salon, a small granting program for short films, the hosting of the 48 Hour Film Project, free filmmaking workshops with nationally recognized filmmakers and a television show highlighting local films and videos.

One of the most popular programs of City Visions is the River City B-Rollers, a monthly documentary salon where St. Louis documentary filmmakers screen trailers, rough cuts or finished work and get feedback from other filmmakers as well as documentary enthusiasts. The River City B-Rollers has become a home for local documentary filmmakers, giving them a chance to workshop their projects before releasing them to the public, network with other filmmakers and find collaborators. Documentarians, at least in St. Louis, tend to be solitary in their efforts, and this monthly group has really helped the community connect and collaborate with each other.

With CALOP funding (and strict deadlines), there is a guarantee of at least 10-12 documentaries produced and completed in St. Louis each year, which keeps the salon busy every month. Attendance averages 25 people and within the last few months some particularly fascinating documentaries have screened that, before their showing, were completely under the radar. In February, filmmaker Scholle, a film professor at Lindenwood University, screened a rough cut of his documentary HairKutt, about a man detoxing from heroin. "I found their feedback really helpful," Scholle recalls. "They all understood the issues I was dealing with, and their comments were invaluable."

Another popular City Visions program, developed in partnership with the Webster University Film Series (an alternative film exhibition program), presents free quarterly filmmaking workshops with nationally recognized filmmakers. Recent workshop presenters have included Ross McElwee ( Bright Leaves), Brett Ingram (Monster Road), Yvonne Welbon (Sisters in Cinema), Doug Hawes-Davis (Libby, Montana) and Jesse Moss (Speedo). These workshops take place in conjunction with the screening of the filmmaker's work at the series and give St. Louis artists a rare chance to learn filmmaking techniques and get advice from some of the most innovative and successful independent filmmakers in the country.


St. Louis is extremely supportive of local work, and at the forefront of this support is Cinema St. Louis. Each year, Cinema St. Louis presents two exciting events--the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase and the St. Louis International Film Festival.

Held each June at a prominent theater, the showcase is a four-day festival that exclusively screens locally produced work. According to executive director Chris Clark, Cinema St. Louis received over 100 submissions last year, one-third of which were documentaries. The buzz surrounding this event grows each year, with the local playing field becoming increasingly more competitive. Whereas in the past almost every submission was screened, the showcase is now reserved for the best of the best, often creating drama over which films get accepted. Each year the local films improve, the audience numbers increase and the showcase garners more attention from the press.

After the showcase, Clark selects about 20 local films to play at the St. Louis International Film Festival in November, which is starting to gain some international recognition. In addition to Cinema St. Louis, other screening opportunities in St. Louis include the St. Louis Movie Lounge, a monthly four-hour screening of local films at a tavern; the Webster University Film Series <, an alternative film series that screens documentaries, foreign films and avant-garde cinema; and the True/False Film Festival  in Columbia, Missouri (about two hours outside of St. Louis), which, after its first year, is already being touted as a premiere destination festival.


In St. Louis, educational opportunities for documentarians exist, but are not overwhelming. Below is a brief summary of the film programs in the area:

Webster University offers undergraduate degrees in audio production, film production, film history and criticism and video production. Its film program is growing--enrollment increased by a dramatic 400 percent over the last six years. Though it is not available yet, Webster is also developing a Certificate in Documentary Production.

Lindenwood University's Communications Division offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in video and television, and documentary production is a significant part of the curriculum. Faculty and alumni are active in the field and the university's educational access cable station, LUTV, offers a venue for student work to reach 50,000 households in the area. 

Washington University offers a stand-alone Film and Media Studies program that includes film theory and history, video production and digital post-production.

St. Louis Community College offers a Film Studies and Production program that includes film and video classes for beginning and advanced students. Film production courses progress from Super-8 to 16mm and video production courses offer both digital field capture, multi-camera/studio work and Avid editing.

St. Louis University has a Film Studies Certificate Program that offers students an interdisciplinary education in the many aspects of cinema, as they are reflected in fine and performing arts, communication, contemporary criticism, history and foreign languages and cultures. The program is directed at students who wish to acquire a solid basic knowledge in film history and analysis.

Doug Whyte is a documentary filmmaker who recently completed Pushing Up Daisies (7th Art Releasing) and is in post-production on Silver Spurs, a documentary about a Western-themed group home for the mentally ill.