The Inspired

Chosen for creating works bigger than themselves
December 1, 2002

Michael Moore

When Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine received a 15-minute standing ovation following its red carpet screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it became clear that the doc-maker responsible for Roger and Me had done it again. The film – which was the first doc to compete for a Palme d’Or since Silent World (Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle) won the honor in 1956 – went on to receive the festival’s 55th anniversary award. The response did not go unnoticed. Before the last drop of Perrier-Jouët had been sipped on the Croisette, United Artists plunked down US$3 million for U.S. rights to the film – a record price for a documentary.

In the months following Cannes, Bowling for Columbine brought audiences to their feet in Toronto, London and Amsterdam – to name only a few – scooping up festival kudos along the way. At press time, the doc was playing on 248 screens in 200 cities across the U.S., and had earned close to $9 million. And, interest wasn’t waning.

Despite its obvious success, Bowling for Columbine isn’t everybody’s idea of a great film. Moore’s attempt to make the big picture pertinent to a single act – in this case America’s international policies and so-called culture of fear, and the shooting at Columbine High – left some film-goers a little queasy, not to mention wistful for a more objective viewpoint. But, then it wouldn’t be a Michael Moore film.

Maybe Bowling for Columbine was the right film at the right time. Or maybe there will always be a place in the hearts of audiences for the ‘little’ guy who dared to drop in on Charlton Heston. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Bowling for Columbine and its filmmaker successfully shattered at least a few of the myths that hobble docs before they’re even given a chance. It will be a surprise if another 46 years pass before the next factual feature is invited to compete in Cannes. KB

Judith Helfand

Imagine you’ve just seen a film about a pressing social issue. When the credits roll, you feel angry and want to do something about it, but what? Judith Helfand knows that feeling, and she’s made a film that gives it an outlet.

Helfand is an environmental activist/filmmaker and co-directed (with Daniel B. Gold) the highly entertaining ‘toxic comedy’ Blue Vinyl, which has played to acclaim at numerous festivals. The film follows Helfand as she tries to find out just how hazardous the vinyl siding is that her parents put on their home.

To reinforce Blue Vinyl‘s point, Helfand devised a kitschy yet ingenious way of making audiences recall her film and its message long after they leave the theater. She attached pieces of blue vinyl – from her parents’ home – to brightly colored Mardi Gras beads and handed them out to viewers. A sticker on the vinyl – which, after you’ve seen the film, you just can’t throw away – directs you to a website ( filled with such activism advice as urging Martha Stewart to use less toxic material in her shower curtains.
RealScreen salutes Judith Helfand for knocking us out of our complacency. DW

Lars von Trier

There is no one formula for creating documentaries, and Danish director Lars von Trier does not think there should be. He does, however, think certain cinematic methods give filmmakers too much power over viewers’ perception of reality, and deserve to be challenged. To this end he created Dogumentarism, a method of doc-making that adheres to nine key rules.

The rules are designed to encourage filmmakers to use creative alternatives to traditional film techniques, both in the shooting process and in the finished doc. Sound can’t be produced independently of the original footage, for example, and edits must be indicated by six to 12 frames of black. Optical effects such as creative lighting are forbidden, and protagonists must be given a chance to address the audience at the close of the film.

So far, six Scandinavian and two U.K.-based filmmakers have agreed to each produce a dogumentary, and the word on the information highway is dogus will soon come out of Germany, France and the U.S. It’s obvious, therefore, that some in the doc industry consider the dogu method worth investigating. Others, however, are sure to dismiss them. Either way, Dogumentarism will be contemplated. KB

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