What's Up With All the Documentaries?

These days no one dares leave home without a camcorder.

!!!, with Outhud and Cheeseburger Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Monday, December 30, $8, 216-321-5566.
Unity Minister Fred Wright: The man most likely to - have a documentary made about him. - Walter  Novak
Unity Minister Fred Wright: The man most likely to have a documentary made about him.

In the '60s, plenty of people with no musical talent aspired to be the next Bob Dylan. They saved their lunch money for an acoustic guitar, figuring that if a warbly kid with a face like a dog's butt could be a star, just think what a handsome fella with a few lessons could do.

Forty years later, documentary filmmakers are as ubiquitous as folksinging frat boys once were, and camcorders have become the must-have instrument of the moment. This newfound populism not only livens up the artistic mix; it also puts a lot more dilettantes out there, declaring every trip to the john a masterpiece.

The judges of the Ohio Independent Film Festival (OIFF), for instance, have noticed an influx of real-life entries with the potential to be the next big thing -- at a family reunion.

"We've been seeing more feature-length films that no one would be interested in, except the person who made it and their loved ones," says Annetta Marion, co-director of the festival. "Films of a woman's quest to have a baby or My Uncle Jack."

Perhaps this inward-looking trend is evidence of arrogance run amok. But really, who can blame folks for thinking their navel lint might find an audience, when a white-haired couple's marble collection has the power to transfix millions on Antiques Roadshow? Turn on HBO, and there's a good chance you'll stumble upon a self-referential documentary like Journeys With George (in which a journalist films the President in order to find herself) or Blue Vinyl (one woman's epic quest to chronicle the environmental hazards of her parents' house siding).

Hoping to foster more polished projects, the OIFF recently hosted a documentary-making workshop at WVIZ-TV studios. Twenty Clevelanders paid $150 each to attend the workshop, led by Thom Powers, director-producer of the sassy HBO/Cinemax documentaries Breasts and Private Dicks.

Most neophytes arrived with fairly sophisticated documentary ideas, ranging from gay parents' court battles to the history of gospel quartets in Cleveland. Classically trained clarinet player Deb Halinski, for instance, wanted to trace the gradual, 20-year coming-out process of Dan, an old high school buddy back in Normal, Illinois -- while Ira Reynolds, a laid-off realtor, was working on a biography of former Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson.

Powers was pleased. "I'd like to see more videos coming out of the Midwest," he said, noting that most major documentaries concern things happening on the coasts, rather than unemployed steelworkers and kids watching the corn grow.

Fred Wright, a colorful minister in the Unity Church, surprised the class by proposing one of the least-colorful topics: Why People Don't Go to Church. Tired of his flock showing up when they feel like it, he wants to "help people stick around, so they can have a personal experience with a transcendent God."

Although Wright's last liturgical gig was in the suburbs, it's not hard to imagine the wavy-haired Texan charming the pants off the farm wives at a rural tent revival. His snow-white tresses (reminiscent of Charlton Heston's Moses) and electric-blue horn-rimmed glasses even prompted a few students to seriously consider chucking their original ideas in favor of filming Fred.

"We've voted you the person most likely to have a documentary made about him," a classmate informed him. Being a man of God, Wright decided to be charitable and take that as a compliment.

Perhaps the recent fascination with documentaries stems from "actual" real life seeming increasingly scripted. The average forklift operator can barely live a day without being videotaped, whether it be by a gas-station security camera or a well-meaning family member testing out a new webcam. Life itself is a performance, lived for an audience -- so when a kid from Iowa does something just for the heck of it, like surprising Mom with plastic poop on the kitchen floor, it seems entertaining enough to compete for the $10,000 prize on America's Funniest Home Videos.

And now that a six-pack of digital videotape is cheaper than a tank of gas, documentarians seem to outnumber non-documentarians. The stoner across the street is suddenly mining his inner life for a nut graph that will shed light on his entire existence. That's not necessarily bad. Most people could use a little more time for reflection, for playing back the family fight at Christmas dinner in slow motion, so they can reexamine their behavior during the moment the carving knives started flying.

Powell says he hasn't heard of anybody making a documentary about people making documentaries, but he's sure someone's thought of that and is furiously working on it right now. "In the course of making your project, you're gonna hear about someone doing a similar [one]," he warns the class. "It's just gonna happen."

He talks about grant-writing, pitching ideas to studios, and the importance of getting good sound. "You can always get away with a bad picture, but I don't want to see any of you in the field, shooting without your headphones on," he scolds.

The only issue he doesn't address, it seems, is just who is going to watch all these documentaries. Fred Wright? All the people who don't go to church? Watching someone else's life unfold, they just might wonder what happened to their own.

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