Director: Jessica Yu
Topic: The life of outsider artist Henry Darger, a reclusive eccentric who left behind a 15,000 page novel titled “In the Realms of the Unreal” and hundreds of huge paintings when he died in poverty
Financier: Funded mostly by ITVS, with some investment from L.A.’s Cherry Sky Films
Budget: About half a million
Shooting format: Mostly 35mm, with digital animation sequences and some video interviews
Why it made the list: Combines several techniques to give a remarkable sense of the life of the artist, and brings his work to life using animation, narration and interviews. Yu is a previous Oscar documentary winner.
Memorable scene: When Darger dies, his landlords enter his apartment and find a trove of art he created over 60 solitary years. His collections of pictures of little girls and balls of string are obsessively categorized and lovingly preserved; his landlords keep his room nearly intact for 27 more years.
Distribution/broadcast status: Premiered at Sundance 2004. Wellspring to open in theaters in New York and San Francisco Dec. 22 and in Los Angeles in January. Broadcast premiere will be on PBS’ “POV” in late 2005.
On making the film: “When I first saw Darger’s artwork at the L.A. County art museum, I was amazed by it, but there wasn’t much context to explain it,” says Yu, who 10 years later was taken to Darger’s apartment in Chicago, preserved just as he left it. “My heart started beating really fast. I got a sense of the bigger story and realized that’s a story you could tell in film.” Darger was a poor janitor with no friends or relatives, so biographical material on him was nearly non-existent, which proved challenging, Yu says. Only three photos of him were found, and when neighbors shared their memories of the artist, their recollections often contradicted one another.
Darger’s landlady, Kiyoko Lerner, who owns the rights to his works, was willing to cooperate once she realized the film could make his work accessible to a larger audience.
Yu used Darger’s paintings in animating scenes from his writings, and selected child actress Dakota Fanning, who was only 7 at the time, to narrate.
After losing his baby sister to adoption at an early age, Darger spent the rest of his life obsessed with the protection of little girls. His work was so vivid and disturbing that initially Darger was characterized as a possible pedophile or child murderer, although no evidence of those allegations was ever presented.
In the vein of artist biopics such as “Crumb” and “American Splendor,” the film examines the life of an even more extreme figure. “They’re people who didn’t have such an easy time in real life, but created an alternate universe to live in,” says Yu, “In Darger’s case, his alternate world meant much more to him than his actual life.”