Michelle Esrick began working on her documentary "Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie" a decade ago. "I never went to film school," she says. "I didn't plan this at all. I was an actress before, a poet and a painter. I probably did everything but make a film."
She must be a fast learner, because Esrick's film is one of 18 feature and 10 short documentaries that have been selected to be screened during the prestigious International Documentary Assn.'s DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which begins today in Los Angeles -- at the ArcLight in Hollywood -- and New York. The showcase runs through Aug. 20.
"Saint Misbehavin' " chronicles the life of the irrepressible Wavy Gravy. He was an emcee at Woodstock 40 years ago, he's a hippie icon, a clown -- even a Ben & Jerry's flavor at one time.
"I first met him in '92," Esrick says. "A friend of mine was writing a book and I went with him on an interview. We just stayed kind of connected."
She had a "serious" calling to make a film about him. "The one thing I am probably good at is if I want to do something, I will find the people who have done it well," she says. She contacted seminal documentarian D.A. Pennebaker ("Don't Look Back," "Monterey Pop"), who is the executive producer.
"He became my mentor," Esrick says. "I would show him cuts along the way and get his opinions."
N.C. Heikin, who had directed for TV and theater, also makes her feature documentary debut with "Kimjongilia," a haunting chronicle of several North Korean defectors who now live in South Korea.
Heikin felt compelled to make "Kimjongilia" after she accompanied her husband a few years ago to a conference in Tokyo on human rights in North Korea.
"I started hearing testimonials," she says. "I was flabbergasted. I don't know why I took it completely personally. I said, this can't go on. Every year, I would go to more of these human rights conferences and I would meet more of these defectors and heard more and more stories. I asked them if they would be in the film once I decided to do the documentary."
Heikin admits it was extremely difficult to get funding for the documentary, which premiered this year at Sundance. "I am in debt and it's pretty frightening," she says. "It isn't just the shooting and editing . . . I would say making the documentary itself was 3 1/2 years."
Lee Storey is a Phoenix-based attorney who had no background in entertainment before she made "Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story," a fast-paced documentary examination of the squeaky clean youth choir that came to fame in the mid-1960s.
Embraced by the Nixon administration, Up With People was the antithesis of the anti-war movement. The group was born out of a controversial moral and spiritual movement called Moral Re-Armament -- actress Glenn Close, who belonged to the movement and the singing group when she was a teenager, is featured in an archival clip.
Storey felt the urge to tell Up With People's story when she learned after 15 years of marriage that her husband had been a founding member of the singing group and a member of Moral Re-Armament. "He kept it very quiet," she says.
Three years ago, she attended the Sundance Independent Producers conference and "learned how to bring all of these things together." She also brought in producer Bari Pearlman and executive producer Jack Lechner who helped her with the process.
"I learned from scratch. It was a completely new language," Storey notes.
Now in its 13th year, the DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase serves another purpose by enabling documentary filmmakers from around the world to qualify for the Academy Awards by giving their films a theatrical run, according to IDA executive director Michael Lumpkin.
He notes that to qualify for an Oscar a film must have had a theatrical run of at least a week in Los Angeles and New York.
For more information on the DocuWeeks Showcase go to www.documentary.org