Last weekend the International Documentary Assn. began screening for its members the 20 works nominated for its five annual Distinguished Documentary Achievement awards. The awards will be presented at a luncheon in Hollywood on Nov. 19 and at a reception at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
What is remarkable, given a longstanding worry that the documentary is an endangered form, is that the nominees were culled from more than 100 titles submitted or recruited worldwide.
What is not less remarkable, given the alleged difficulties of the form, is that some of the films have already had wide recognition.
Appropriately, the membership screenings commenced with a two-day showing of Claude Lanzmann's extraordinary nine-hour "Shoah," his memorializing of the Holocaust through exhaustive interviews with those who were there.
The same subject is explored in an American documentary, also nominated, Manny Kirchheimer's "We Were So Beloved: The German Jews of Washington Heights." Kirchheimer himself was one of the thousands who had to flee Hitler.
This year's Academy Award winner, "Broken Rainbow," about the relocation of 10,000 Navajos following a land dispute on the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations, by Victoria Mudd and Maria Florio, is an IDA nominee.
Several of the nominated works have been widely watched and heralded on television, including Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's historic look at Charlie Chaplin at work in "The Unknown Chaplin," based on lately discovered and ingeniously interpreted outtakes. Susan Lacey was executive producer of the film in the PBS American Masters series.
Harrison and Marilyn Engle's robust portrait of "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt," mixing archival footage and skillful re-creations, the music of Sousa and narration by George C. Scott, was recently telecast and will be issued on videocassette in November.
The excellent and controversial "CBS Reports" film, "The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America," has been nominated, as has an ABC "Frontline" segment, "The Lifer and the Lady," about the efforts of a prison volunteer, Leslie Earl, in behalf of convicted murderer Ron Cooney.
A familiar television face is documented in "Jacques Cousteau: The First 75 Years" by John Soh. Another portrait, "What Happened to Kerouac," Richard Learner's exploration of the life and work of the Beat Generation figure, has just now begun a theatrical run in Los Angeles.
"Directed by William Wyler," written by Scott Berg and made by Aviva Slesin and Catherine Tatge with Wyler's daughter Catherine as executive producer, will have its first public showing in Los Angeles at the American Film Institute as an AFI benefit Wednesday. It centers on an exuberant interview with Wyler himself, filmed only three days before he died.
"What you realize," says Robert Guenette, president of the association and himself a documentary producer-director ("Counterattack: Crime in America" among many others), "is that the state of the art is healthy, despite what you hear. Somehow, the documentarians scrounge up grants or funds or just beg, borrow or steal the money, but they get the films made." (Or the tapes, videotape with its flexibility and lower cost having given the documentary a new hold on life.)
In addition to the titles cited above Guenette mentions, as further evidence of the virility and variety of the documentary, "Antonio Gaudi," an impressionistic celebration of the work of the great Catalonian architect, by Hiroshi Teshigahara, who made "Woman of the Dunes" in 1964 and emerged from retirement to do this.
Robert Gardner's "Forest of Bliss," is an ethnographic study of the business of death in Benares, India, not made as an entertainment but, Guenette thinks, engrossing and beautiful.
Not without lively discussion, a music video has for the first time been nominated. It is Steven VanZandt's "Sun? City/The Making of Sun City," which uses archival footage about apartheid in its look at performers' feelings about working the big show business center in South Africa.
Keva Rosenfeld's "All American High" is an exchange student's impression of an American high school. "Routine Pleasures," by Jean-Pierre Gorin, melds model railroaders, the art of Manny Farber and Gorin's own workings into an offbeat personal statement.
A light entry from abroad is "Tosca's Kiss" (Daniel Schmid, Han-Ulrich Jordi and Marcel Hoehn), a tour of Casa Verdi, a retirement palace for opera singers founded by Giuseppe Verdi. "Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo" (Susana Munoz and Lourdes Portill), is a documentary treatment of the same reality--women protesting Argentina's "disappeared ones"--that was at the heart of this year's Oscar-winning "The Official Story."
"American Rebel" by Will Roberts introduces Dean Reed, an American socialist singer-director, who became well-known in Eastern Europe but not at home. "My Mother Married Wilbur Stump" is Skip Sweeney's family album account of his widowed mother's marriage to an alcoholic saloon pianist--and how her grown children reacted.
It is not, Guenette admits, that the documentary lacks for problems. There are still not enough documentaries or public affairs programs generally on television, and Guenette says the IDA is talking informally with some consumer groups across the country about monitoring the channels to see how well they are meeting their franchised obligations.
"We're five or 10 years from being able to be effective in this area, but it needs doing."
The IDA has also filed friend-of-the-court briefs in legal actions against government restrictions on the export and the import of documentaries thought to be controversial.
After a shaky start, the IDA now has a primarily local membership approaching 500. The real point, Guenette says, is not that there are problems but that there are signs of health. "There's an audience for documentaries. Look at '60 Minutes."'