2003 may be the year in which feature-length documentaries come into their own.
Grown-up moviegoers seem to be tiring of Hollywood's endless parade of comic book-like franchise extravaganzas (Terminator, Charlie's Angels,Matrix, The Hulk, etc.). Ordinary ticket buyers are now willing to plunk down money at their multiplexes for the kind of fare previously shown only on PBS or at obscure Greenwich Village art houses.
It's been a long time coming. Over the past 10 years occasional docs like Hoop Dreams, The War Roomand Startup.comhave found a large audience in mainstream commercial theaters. But the flow of product has never been steady.
This year is different. Michael Moore's loathsome Bowling for Columbine, with its distorted depiction of contemporary American gun culture, has grossed more than 10 times its costs in theatrical release. Equally profitable revenues from broadcast, video, DVD and foreign distribution are predicted. This unexpected blockbuster success has encouraged other distributors to program similarly low-cost documentaries against this summer's big-budget franchise films.
Spellboundand Capturing the Friedmans, currently in selected theaters across the country, are two very different documentary experiences. The first, which follows the teen-age contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee, is positive and uplifting. The second, which investigates a much publicized pedophilia case, is difficult and disturbing, raising more questions than it answers. Both are better than most of this summer's feature films.
The Oscar-nominated Spellbound is a compelling portrait of eight national spelling bee contestants — five girls and three boys of different races and geographic areas. The first section is a series of character studies that pays careful attention to social context, focusing on each kid's family background and hometown.
The second section is the suspense-filled contest itself, in Washington, D.C., where 249 final-ists vie for top honors. The stakes are high. The prizes, which include college scholarships, can make a substantial difference in these teenagers’ lives.
One of the film's greatest strengths is that director Jeff Blitz gets us to root for all of his main characters. Our hearts are broken when any of them misspells an obscure word (like cephalagia or cabotinage) and is forced to drop out of the contest.
The movie's subtext is the continuing power of the American dream. A disproportionate number of the finalists are from first-generation immigrant families for whom good spelling is proof of assimilation and a ticket to social and economic advancement.
Angela Arenivar's dad, Ubaldo, is a Texas ranch manager who does-n't speak English. He illegally crossed the border from Mexico before she was born in hopes that his children would get an education. Angela's victory in the regional championships is the fulfillment of his dreams, and the family will get to travel to the nation's capitol for the first time in their lives.
Nupur Lala is also the daughter of recent immigrants. “You don't get second chances in India the way you do in America,” her father explains after she wins her regional bee in Florida.
Some of the kids have had to overcome other kinds of obstacles. Ashley White, an African-American girl from southeast Washington, D.C., is from a single-parent family. Even though she's received almost no community support or recognition, her dreams remain intact. “I'm a prayer warrior,” she exclaims. “I just can't stop praying. I rise above all my problems.”
We cheer when one of the movie's characters finally gets the grand prize (I won't spoil things by revealing which one), and we walk out of the theater believing that all of these kids are winners. Their passion, intelligence and hard work leave us feeling good about America and its younger generation.
Andrew Jarecki presents us with a darker view of contemporary culture. He originally wanted to make a film about children's birthday party clowns. But after interviewing Manhattan's top performer, David Friedman, he realized he had stumbled onto a bigger story. Capturing the Friedmanswent on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
David's father, Arnold, and his younger brother, Jesse, were convicted as child molesters in a controversial 1987 case in Great Neck, N.Y. In a bizarre twist, David videotaped his family's response to these traumatic events, and this footage becomes the centerpiece of JareckI's film, along with present-day interviews with the surviving Friedmans, law enforcement officials, the alleged victims and their families.
Arnold Friedman is a moral monster, an admitted pedophile and consumer of child pornography. But as the film progresses, it's not clear if either he or his son were guilty of the molestation charges. The police and the surrounding community may have succumbed to a kind of hysteria that blinded them to the truth.
This is tough material, definitely not for children or family viewing. But Jarecki never exploits his subject matter; nor does he take a definitive position on Arnold and Jesse's innocence or guilt. Arnold appears capable of the monstrous acts with which he's charged, but it's also possible the police framed him. The only certainty is that the Friedman sons paid a terrible price for the sins of their father.
These two challenging films may be only the beginning of what could become a constant stream of dramatically satisfying, theatrically released documentaries. If you look hard enough in the months ahead, you may discover at a multiplex near you docs with titles as diverse as Bonhoeffer, Al Sharpton, Balseros and People Say I'm Crazy.
John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.