Docus tell tough tales with passion

Projects vie for Truer Than Fiction nod

See nomineesRevealing unseen and unknown aspects of today’s world is one theme that runs through the five documentaries nominated for the Independent Feature Project/West’s DirecTV/IFC Truer Than Fiction Award (and $20,000 unrestricted cash prize).

Projects were also a test of the filmmakers’ fundraising stamina and storytelling ability.

Lauded for their indie vision and commitment are: Sandi Simcha Dubowski for “Trembling Before G-d”; Alix Lambert, “The Mark of Cain”; Monteith McCollum, “Hybrid”; Edet Belzberg, “Children Underground”; and “Promises,” directed by B.Z. Goldberg, Carlos Bolado and Justine Shapiro.

“Promises” and “Children Underground” are also under Academy Award consideration for best documentary feature.

Each of the contenders garnered successful festival runs and critical kudos.

“It’s nothing like we expected,” says co-helmer Goldberg of festival and worldwide audience reaction to “Promises.”

The doc examines the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians through the perspective of children on both sides. “There’s much more than what’s on the TV news; the issues are more complex,” says Goldberg.

Humor and humanity

Despite the pain inherent in the situation, the filmmakers bring out the humor and humanity of the participants, seven Israeli and Palestinian children between the ages of 9 and 13. “Promises” was shot in 1997, 1998 and 2000.

Although the film has aired on PBS, Cowboy Pictures is distributing “Promises” theatrically Stateside.

Production coin came from individuals, grants (such as the Norman Lear Family Foundation) and San Francisco-based Independent Television Service (ITVS). Goldberg credits the IFP for invaluable support in launching the doc at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival under its market umbrella and connecting the filmmakers with international distribs.

Specialty house New Yorker Films is handling the U.S.-wide platform release of Dubowski’s “Trembling Before G-d,” which broke the opening-day record for grosses at Film Forum in Gotham when it opened in February. In conflict with their own religion and faith, closeted in their own community, Dubowski’s docu chronicles the world of gay and lesbian Hasidic and Orthodox Jews.

“It’s an extremely emotional film on a very volatile subject; audiences are fascinated by this hidden world, tantalized by the fusion of sex and religion, and the questioning of faith and fundamentalism,” contends the helmer.

Dubowski overcame major obstacles to filming, as most of the participants refused to have their identities revealed, by the use of backlighting and silhouettes.

The director says the release strategy combines the muscle of self-distribution with a distributor. Many screenings have been followed by discussions. (Dubowski led the ones at the Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in Hollywood.) Outreach to religious, human rights, gay and lesbian groups has been extensive.

“The film doesn’t give an easy answer,” says Dubowski. “People stay in their seats after screenings and want to talk.”

Even with grants from more than 20 foundations and co-production funds from Keshet Broadcasting/Channel Two, Israel, Dubowski is still seeking coin to cover the rest of the budget. Helmer journeyed worldwide during the five years of production; editing took 17 months.

Director Lambert also traveled for doc “The Mark of Cain.” A still photographer with an interest in nonverbal languages, she was initially intrigued with the story of the dying art of Russian prison tattoos. For decades, Russian prisoners have transformed their bodies into chronicles of their crimes and beliefs by covering themselves with intricate, almost painterly tattoos of symbolic motifs, from domed Russian Orthodox churches to feral animals.

“What I hoped would happen did,” says Lambert, who visited prisons 700 miles outside of Moscow. “The tattoos tell the story of something bigger. They were an in to talking with prisoners. Those talks flowed into horror stories of prison.”

Lambert chronicles a prison system that’s overcrowded with inhumane conditions, and in dire need of reform. Her feature, shot on minidigital video and 16mm then transferred to digital Beta, received initial backing from an arts patron, with finishing funds coming from foundations, including a grant from the New York Council of the Arts.

Lambert believes that her $80,000 project is at break-even; the feature was excerpted on ABC’s “Nightline” and has aired on the European Discovery Channel. She is pursuing a U.S. distributor while finishing a book of photographs, directing segments of “Life 360” for PBS and developing a screenplay.

McCollum’s “Hybrid,” shot in 16mm black-and-white, was the Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner in 2001. A mix of animation, stop-motion and genuine hog calling, the film is a biopic of the filmmaker’s grandfather, Iowa farmer and seed hybridizer Milford Beeghly.

Rather than a scientific treatise on seed hybridization, “Hybrid” is a rumination “about a man’s family and how he’s alienated his family because of his passion for his own field,” says McCollum of the impossible to categorize doc.

“If you put corn first, it’s off-putting, since there’s not a whole lot of interest in corn,” deadpans the helmer, who began the film as a student project at the Art Institute of Chicago.

McCollum is self-distributing the feature domestically; pic will air on France’s Arte TV and a trimmed version will air on PBS’ “POV” showcase in July.

Next up: a doc on the history of milk.

Completing the lineup of nominated docs is Belzberg’s “Children Underground,” which received the IFP’s 2001 Anthony Radziwill Documentary Achievement Award at its fall Gotham Awards. A story of children ignored and reviled by their families and government, “Children Underground” follows the harrowing lives of Romanian street kids, revealing a tragic subculture.

Direct TV/IFC Truer than Fiction Awards nominees

Edet Belzberg (“Children Underground”)

Sandi Simcha DuBowski (“Trembling Before G-d”)

B.Z. Goldberg, Carlos Bolado and Justin Shaprio (“Promises”)

Alix Lambert (“The Mark of Cain”)

Monteith McCollum (“Hybrid”)

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