Opening a new door to the world

Special to The Times

There are some things that are almost too terrible to watch -- or to listen to. One such event occurs in Kim Longinotto's "The Day I Will Never Forget," when a pair of young sisters are pinned to the floor by older women and forced to undergo circumcision. Their sickening, pleading screams are straight out of a horror movie. Only this is a documentary.

"The Day I Will Never Forget" is about the practice of female circumcision in Kenya. It's an entrant in the Sundance Film Festival's newest category, World Documentary, which sounds tediously ethnographic but in fact contains some of the most arresting work around -- and also some of the most overtly political, especially when compared to this year's documentary competition, which features domestic work that is, in the words of festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, "more reflective." "For some reason, you look at the [American] docs this year and you see a lot of personal and socio-historical filmmaking," he says.

Gilmore says that he instituted the new category because international filmmaking is an area that he always wanted to make stronger at the festival. What he had in mind was not the familiar European auteur work that makes its way through the big-name festivals but rather films few people see at festivals. Certainly world documentaries qualify; in the past, Sundance has relegated them to the World Cinema section at the rate of one or two a year. They routinely got lost.

That won't happen this year. There are nine films in the new section, from Spain ("Balseros"), Brazil ("Bus 174"), Great Britain ("The Day I Will Never Forget"), Russia/Germany ("Frescoes"), Belgium ("Iran, Veiled Appearances"), Mexico ("The Passion of Maria Elena"), Denmark ("The Purified"), China ("To Live Is Better Than to Die") and Canada ("The True Meaning of Pictures: Selby Lee Adams' Appalachia"). Obviously they are here to be seen, but they're also here to be picked up for domestic distribution, either on the air (HBO already has three of them) or possibly theatrically.

As is often the case with documentaries, making these films isn't necessarily about making money. Longinotto is touring the U.S. with her film to raise awareness about the plight of African women. And editor Lixin Fan, whose film, "To Live Is Better Than to Die," can't be shown in China, where it is set, because the government is uncomfortable with its subject, AIDS, says, "The reason to make the film was to let the world know what is happening in China."

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Different worlds

At first blush, China's problems might not seem like an interesting subject to many Americans, except that Sept. 11, 2001, proved that the rest of the world is not as far away as it used to be, which dovetails nicely with the World Documentary category. Diane Weyermann, Sundance's director of documentary filmmaking, who was charged with organizing it, says that her mandate was to look "for storytelling that's different from what we do here." She cites as an example "Frescoes," about Armenians in contemporary Russia, which is told in the Russian cinematic tradition of images rather than words, as opposed to the character-driven, talking-heads, reportage approach typical of American documentaries.

These world films also differ from domestic documentaries in the kinds of stories they tell. "Balseros" is about Cuban emigres. "Bus 174" is about a televised bus hijacking. "To Live Is Better Than to Die" is about a family dealing with AIDS. What many of the foreign documentaries have in common is their scrutiny of contemporary society. It might be fair to say, then, that the international documentaries are more cutting-edge than domestic ones, though Sheila Nevins, executive vice president of original programming at HBO, says, "Documentaries by their nature are political." As John F. Wilson, senior vice president of programming at PBS, puts it, "Everything from history informs the present. It not only informs the present, it allows you to look at it through a different lens."

Both Nevins and Wilson say the problem for American documentary filmmakers is that contemporary subjects can quickly become dated. Either the world shifts under the filmmaker's feet because of the speed with which information is disseminated or other media cover subjects that were traditionally fodder for documentaries. Certainly that's not as much of an issue for, say, a Belgian filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about Iran's youth culture ("Iran, Veiled Appearances").

On the other hand, Gilmore thinks that this generation of American filmmakers is less political than generations past. But he concedes that this may be a money issue as well. International documentarians tend to get financing from institutions or individuals that give them a lot of rope, he notes. "The Day I Will Never Forget" was partly financed by Britain's Channel 4, "Balseros" by Catalonian public television, "The Purified" by the Danish Film Institute, "To Live Is Better Than to Die" by a Chinese condom manufacturer (it cost $1,000). On the other hand, seven of the 16 U.S. and foreign documentaries in competition are being presented by PBS, which has a mandate to be evenhanded.

"You can certainly argue that those financiers are not people who are interested in alienating part of their audience by becoming political," Gilmore says, referring to PBS.

Wilson counters that PBS "didn't put these things in motion. They aren't the product of an original commissioning procedure. These are the films being made."

Perhaps the difference between American and foreign documentarians simply boils down to the urgency of the issues confronting them. The extent of the breakdown of social systems in Brazil ("Bus 174") and Mexico ("The Passion of Maria Elena"), the ongoing economic crisis in Cuba ("Balseros") and the AIDS epidemic in China go far beyond what most Americans experience on a daily basis.

It's a measure of how vast the gap is between domestic and foreign filmmakers when director Xuehal Wang was harassed by police during the filming of "To Live Is Better Than to Die." And that wasn't the end of his difficulties. He had to smuggle the completed film out of the country in friends' luggage, he was initially denied a visa by the American government to attend the festival and he and editor Lixin may face retribution from the TV station where they work or from the Chinese government on their return.

"We just don't give a damn," Lixin says of these possibilities. "There are people who need help. To be in this festival is the biggest reward."

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