July 6, 2005

Documentaries shed image, still face challenges

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Get real, moviegoers.

With box offices receipts down for the year and fansblaming boring remakes and sequels, three documentaries thatare part of a new style of non-fiction films are winning ravereviews for turning real people -- and in one case, penguins --into movie stars.

"Murderball," "Rize" and "March of the Penguins" are morelike Hollywood feature films, their makers and promoters say,structured with tension, conflict and resolution. Their backersavoid using "documentary" to describe them altogether becausedoing so seems akin to telling kids to eat their vegetables.

Still, even as this new type of non-fiction film gainspopularity and box office appeal, film makers continue having ahard time financing them due to the stigma of documentaries asbeing stodgy and educational. The hope is that stereotype willsoon grow as old and stale as this summer's Hollywood remakes.

"Murderball," about quadriplegics who play a tough form ofwheelchair rugby, is being compared to an action-packedfeature, while "Rize" director David LaChapelle likens his taleof overcoming adversity through dance to a movie musical.

And do not call "March of the Penguins" a nature movie.Director Luc Jacquet told Reuters he wanted to create anImpressionist painting on film. What "Penguins" became was anallegory for the age-old struggle to tame mother nature.

"You can see a well-made documentary and it will have asmuch humor and strength as a feature. That is a change," saidMark Urman, head of U.S. distribution for ThinkFilm which isreleasing "Murderball."


"Murderball" follows U.S. and Canadian teams vying to winan Olympic championship in quad rugby, a game in which playersroll up and down a court carrying a ball across a goal line.

Players block and tackle in their armor-plated wheelchairs,and audiences get into the action through cameras that havebeen strapped to the chairs.

Off-court, players bring viewers into their work, familyand sex lives. The audience learns the Canadian coach waskicked off the U.S. team, and he wants revenge.

"Rize" shows two forms of street dancing sweeping ininner-city Los Angeles called clowning and krumping in whichkids shake their bodies violently, jump up, flip around andchallenge each other with new moves.

But "Rize" connects with audiences when the kids bringLaChapelle's camera into their homes and lives. The kids joindance groups to avoid street gangs, and the troupes give themconfidence to help them overcome adversity.

And if moviegoers think rugby-playing quadriplegics andcity kids are tough, they haven't seen the Emperor penguinswhose mating ritual Jacquet filmed over 14 months onAntarctica.

"Penguins" shows the Emperors' trek to their breedingground. After laying one egg, the females leave the males tostore up on food but must avoid hungry leopard seals.

The male holds the egg on his feet because if it touchesthe ice, the egg would freeze in seconds. When hatched, thebaby penguins quickly become prey for Antarctica's petrel bird.


This style of movie first won media attention at 2003'sSundance Film Festival where winners for dramatic feature film"American Splendour" and documentary "Capturing the Friedmans"blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction.

The box office success of 2004's "Super Size Me," $28million worldwide, has shown that documentary makers -- eventhose who are not Michael Moore -- can earn big profits.

Finding investors, however, remains a problem because theidea of documentaries as purely educational fails to exciteyoung audiences who make up the largest moviegoing group.

"It's safe to say no one we know is interested, per se, infinancing documentaries, so we don't lead with that," saidMicah Green, co-founder of media consultancy Cinetic "We'reselling the story. We're selling it as a piece ofentertainment, film making, film maker or concept we believein."

Until movie makers can make the documentary seem lessacademic and more entertaining, they face an uphill battle tolure large numbers of fans to cinemas.

But with each "Murderball," "Rize" or "Penguins," the filmsopen moviegoers' eyes, and in a season when remakes and sequelsseem to be boring audiences, their freshness can be appealing.

What these films need, industry players said, is their ownplace in the pop culture arena.

"What I hope," said Adam Liepzig of National GeographicFilms which backed "Penguins," "is that we get nominated forbest love scene at the MTV Movie Awards."