By Ray Pride
While it’s never been a more fertile time to produce innovative, powerful, even poetic documentaries, the marketplace is another matter. Even a movie that cost a few thousand dollars has to find a way into the distribution pipeline, gain a little awareness, to get the attention of just a few more eyeballs at a time, maybe recoup a fraction of its cash outlay. Netflix, HBO, fantastic festivals around the world: but what about on the big screen at a theater near you? Several distributors, notably Magnolia (“Life Itself,” “Iris,” “Muscle Shoals”) and Radius (“Citizenfour,” “The Great Invisible”) are combining theatrical and video-on-demand releases for their films, but there’s so much more for audiences to explore, with only a fraction of the nonfiction getting farther than the spreadsheets of programmers and the notebooks of festival critics.
Longtime film journalist (including a stint as founding film editor at Time Out Chicago) and Chicago International Film Festival programmer Anthony Kaufman returns to the Music Box with his curatorial fervor for a second round of “Docs at the Box” in June, presenting five films that represent “the full spectrum of current nonfiction filmmaking, from archival-driven and vérité to avant-garde” each Tuesday night.
The attractions include a personal favorite from Sundance, “The Russian Woodpecker,” an elegantly shot, lovingly recorded, endlessly surprising portrait of Fedor Alexandrovich, a Ukrainian performance artist in search of his own truth behind Chernobyl, who may well be a sainted fool, a conspiracist and a hippie crackpot, all in one obstinately charismatic package. In Chad Gracia’s 2015 World Cinema Documentary jury prizewinner, mysteries pile upon mysteries upon lies upon rackets of Russian radio interference: it’s mesmerically good. The easy label of “a Ukrainian ‘Chinatown’” is a pretty good one, but there’s hardcore cinematic virtue in the midst of what could have been mere fearful jabber. Another Sundance attraction, presented by Netflix, is Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” offering a portrait of the late soul singer through archival and never-seen concert footage. “Guidelines” suits the experimental tag in its fragmented, but telling glimpses of a year in the life of a Canadian high school.
The topics sound all over the map, but that’s documentary today, and it’s exciting, especially to Kaufman. “It’s exciting for the same reason it was exciting the first time,” he tells me. “It’s exciting to be able to bring well-crafted and important documentaries to the big screen and share them with Chicago audiences. There’s something special about seeing these films in a theater, with a community, and experiencing them in a communal atmosphere. In some cases, particularly with issue-related docs like [Kartemquin’s Afghan cultural history] ‘Saving Mes Aynak’ [shown June 2] and ‘3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,’ [about a shooting of a young African-American man] it can be particularly powerful to face an important issue within that social environment and discuss it afterwards with filmmakers and experts. But then with a film like the Nina Simone documentary, it’s so much more rousing when seen on a big screen. Most audiences will encounter it on Netflix, but come on, if you could see Nina Simone sing in a theater, wouldn’t you prefer it?”
And as for artistic experimentation? “For artfully composed and captivating films like ‘The Russian Woodpecker’ and ‘Guidelines,’ the theatrical environment heightens that aesthetic experience. The second reason it’s exciting is to see the series, I hope, grow and create more audiences for documentaries. I think the first time out I was pretty new to Chicago, and now I’m starting to build a community and coalitions, like this time with Kartemquin (on ‘Saving Mes Aynak’), and Run of Life, the experimental documentary program (with ‘Guidelines’). As for documentaries, in general, I do think it’s a particularly ripe time for creative nonfiction storytelling, and that was certainly the main impetus for the series. I’m not the only person who is saying that right now that we are in the midst of the golden age of documentary filmmaking. And I see this series as the opportunity to showcase some great cinema, that just happens to be documentary.”
“Docs at the Box” play Tuesdays in June at the Music Box. Complete details at musicboxtheatre.com/collections/get-real-docs-at-the-box. The trailer for “Russian Woodpecker” is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.