A festival for Oscar hopefuls works the docs

Times Staff Writer

A candid look at one of America’s most innovative composers, an inspirational story of a Tibetan monk who survived decades of torture, and a gritty examination of notorious gangs are among the 18 feature and four short documentaries making up this year’s edition of the International Documentary Assn.'s DocuWeek. Developed to give filmmakers an opportunity to qualify for Oscar consideration by providing the theatrical platform necessary to be considered for an Academy Award nomination, DocuWeek opens Friday and continues through Aug. 28 at the ArcLight theaters in Hollywood and Sherman Oaks. Twenty-five films featured in previous DocuWeek programming have gone on to garner Oscar nominations, with six winning the Academy Award, including Alex Gibney’s 2007 film, “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Highlights of the festival:

With the country in the grips of Olympic fever, this film explores the 26.2-mile running event -- in this case, the Chicago marathon -- offering a fascinating look at the reasons why people from every walk of life become marathon runners. Filmed on four continents by director Jon Dunham, the movie chronicles six runners -- including Deena Kastor, who won the Olympic bronze medal in Athens (but failed to finish the marathon in Beijing because of injury), and Gerald Meyers, a 70-year-old, four-time marathoner who runs for just fun.

Andrej Didyk’s film follows 36-year-old North Korean defector Jung Sung San as he organizes an explosive theatrical play in Seoul about his experiences in a North Korean concentration camp. Though the musical numbers may seem repetitive to Western audiences, the refugees’ harrowing stories are gripping.

‘Spirit of the Marathon’


‘Yodok Stories’

‘Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts’

Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks, who received an Oscar nomination for directing the 1996 drama “Shine,” about the troubled life of a gifted pianist, returns to the musical world with this intimate look at famed composer Philip Glass. The film gives a revelatory look at his composing, his life as a father of two young boys, the importance of his Buddhist religion and even his prowess as a pizza maker.

‘Fire Under the Snow’


With only positive images of China being broadcast during the Olympics, this heartfelt look at the resilience of the human spirit from director-producer Makota Sasa is a vivid reminder of the other side of life under the reign of Chinese communists. Sasa allows his subject, the Venerable Palden Gyatso, to tell his own story with simplicity and warmth. The Tibetan Gyatso, who has been a Buddhist monk since he was child, was arrested in 1959 after a peaceful demonstration. Imprisoned without a trial, he was tortured and starved during his 33-year incarceration. His spirit, though, was never broken, and he’s now one of the leading activists striving for Tibetan independence from China.

‘Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father’

Get out your hankies for this powerful story about a young doctor, Andrew Bagby, who was murdered by his ex-girlfriend in Pennsylvania in 2001. Bagby, who was just 28, was beloved by his friends and family, including the film’s director, producer and narrator, Kurt Kuenne. After she is determined to be the prime suspect in the murder case, Bagby’s ex-girlfriend flees to Newfoundland and announces shortly thereafter she’s pregnant with Andrew’s child. While awaiting extradition, she gives birth to a son named Zachary and is given custody of the child. Andrew’s parents, believing their grandson’s life is in danger, move to Newfoundland to fight for custody. Though Kuenne began the film to let Zachary know about his father, the focus switches to Andrew’s parents after another tragedy strikes the family.

‘The Wrecking Crew’


A documentary by Denny Tedesco about the group of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, including his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco. During the 1960s in Los Angeles, they played on classic songs for the Beach Boys, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan and Dean, the Monkees and the Mamas and Papas and were Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Though the documentary could have benefited from tighter editing, it’s a nostalgic and groovy love letter to these unsung heroes of some of the classic recordings of all time.

‘Made in America’

Having examined skateboarding in “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and surfing in “Riding Giants,” Stacy Peralta turns his camera on the violent history of the Bloods and Crips gangs of South L.A. Grim and riveting, the documentary features interviews with current and former gang members. Not for the faint of heart.

For more information and a schedule of all the films, go to