Thursday, August 9, 2007

Truth & Marketability

Gina Piccolo's article from this past Sunday's LA Times touches on interesting questions about truth, marketability, and documentary films. Currently in negotiations for distribution for Billy, of course, we were intrigued....

"...when a quiet little film about Antarctic birds can pull in more than $125 million worldwide, documentaries have proven they can appeal to the masses, competing for box-office dollars right alongside Hollywood blockbusters. Entering that arena creates a new dilemma for ambitious documentary filmmakers. On the one hand, they want a theatrical release, because that's the tried-and-true path to a broad audience and a high-profile career. On the other, if they stray too far from real life, they risk losing the social and cultural caché of a documentary. A feature film telling the same story just doesn't pack the same wallop."

Audiences of all kinds crave authenticity, and the desire to satisfy that hunger in splashy, dramatic ways has helped warp the line between truth and fiction to the point that the scandals are hardly shocking anymore... Filmmakers, meanwhile, have answered the demand for heightened reality with a flood of documentaries, driven by accessible technology, a polarized political climate and the promise of fortune planted by those rare blockbusters. The market is saturated with docs, YouTube clips and camera phone videos motivating filmmakers to find creative ways to break through the clutter.

In this context, merging documentary and feature film seems like an almost evolutionary step .... It's also the source of the skepticism surrounding "Billy the Kid," about the small-town coming of age of a disabled teenager. In the film, Billy Price meets a girl, falls in love and loses her in a matter of four days -- a neat dramatic arc some viewers suspected was set up. Before Sean Farnel, the programmer for the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, agreed to screen it, he quizzed director Jennifer Venditti until he was convinced the film was authentic.

"There's a lot of new ideas about what documentary is and what it means," said Farnel. "And a lot of the rules that have been set are now being broken. The core of it gets down to the responsibility of the filmmaker to represent events as she or he experiences them. Within that, there's quite a bit of play -- as long as, overall, you've told a story how you've experienced it."

We love Piccolo’s article as a response to John Anderson's Variety review of Billy that misunderstood the film as being scripted:

“The major fallacy about "Billy the Kid" is its masquerade as verite filmmaking. On the contrary: Almost every scene is a set-up, with sequences involving Billy and his would-be girlfriend, Heather, shot from multiple angles, but not, it seems, multiple cameras. That the film feels scripted should shock no one. Venditti apparently spent all of eight days shooting, hardly time to get anyone comfortable, so even the scenes of mother and son are stiff and inhibited, as if being observed by a stranger.

Leave a comment and tell us what you think about the state of documentary film and Billy the Kid's place in it.

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