These are golden days for cinematic truth. Cheap digital technology and a pre-built marketing and distribution outlet called the Internet means just about anybody with a story to tell can make a decent documentary. If you shoot fast enough you don't even need to own a camera - just buy a camera with an in-store credit card and return it 29 days later for a full refund. In between, shoot shoot shoot.
The Internet can replace an expensive marketing campaign and the rise of pay-what-you-want downloads sort-of circumvents the piracy issue. Combine all this kick-ass digital technology with rising frustration around traditional media outlets and the current truth trend is really not that surprising.
What is surprising is how slowly the audiences are responding to some of the heavier films and with how little passion. Films like Sharkwater, The Cove, and Food Inc ought to be starting riots and revolutions but much of today's audiences simply watch, feel bad and move on. Are all documentaries just entertainment now?
Thankfully, the Whistler Film Festival knows the importance of documentaries. In fact, the initial film of the first fest was Ski Bums , a local-made doc (now cult classic) that's getting a special 10th anniversary screening this year, late-night on Dec. 2.
Music From The Big House sees Canadian director Bruce McDonald ( Highway 61, Pontypool) following Blues singer Rita Chiarelli into the infamous Angola Prison, a Louisiana maximum security joint once known as the bloodiest in America. Bordered on three sides by the Mississippi river, Angola is deep in Blues country and legend has it that Leadbelly, a 1930s inmate, once played "Goodnight Irene" for the Governor and was granted a full pardon.
Behind the towers, barbed wire and endless chain-link fences, Chiarelli finds inmates creating music with a true, raw feel that compels her to join them for a concert. Jamming and spending time with "Lifers" (in Louisiana a life sentence means just that) she gives a captivating performance, but Chiarelli and McDonald uncover much more than the music and deliver a film about hope, redemption, forgiveness, sorrow and morality. Amidst rapists and murderers Chiarelli reveals how music can empower a soul and break any boundary, push over any wall and climb any fence. Music From the Big House plays Dec 4.
The People Vs. George Lucas is a more lighthearted doc examining the tortured relationship between Star Wars fans and the films' creator. In 1977 Star Wars blew the lid of the planet and life changed. From conventions to mechandise to fan-made films featuring everything from Lego stop-motion to Ewok soft-core porn, there is no better example of participatory culture - people LOVE Star Wars.
But many HATE the prequel films and some glaring changes in Lucas's re-releases of the first trilogy. And they're out for blood.
Using hundreds of interviews from around the globe and dozens of clips of fan-made Star Wars tributes, director Alexandre O. Phillippe examines the bitterness and asks a key question - if you make a piece of art and sell it to a billion people, who really owns it? This one also plays Dec 4.
Marwencol focuses on Mark Hogencamp, an alcoholic beaten into a coma outside his local pub one night who wakes up brain damaged with no memories and limited motor skills. As self-invented therapy, Mark painstakingly builds an entire 1/6 scale model town and populates it with 12-inch dolls and action figures who play out a WW2 drama-romance-action tale starring characters based on people he knows in the real world.
It's really out there but he's really good at it and the New York Art scene catches whiff. Soon Mark, a guy who had to re-learn how to eat, walk and wipe his ass, is deep into the art-for-self vs. art-for-show conundrum, but with a few astonishing twists. This one plays Dec 2.
Check out whistlerfilmfestival.com for a list of all 14 documentaries playing this year, or the other 70 films.