Laura Dunn, John Maringouin, Gary Hustwit

Even though public awareness of nonfiction films has skyrocketed over the past five years, many worthy docs continue to be overlooked. The Truer Than Fiction prize — and the $25,000 unrestricted grant that accompanies it — exists to give one under-the-radar pic a better chance at finding an audience. That certainly happened with previous winners, such as “Occupation Dreamland,” “Born Into Brothels,” “Love and Diane” and “Hybrid.”

Laura Dunn

Building on the environmental focus on her student Academy Award-winning short “Green,” about pollution in Louisiana, the Austin, Texas-based documaker Laura Dunn took a local Texas subject — the controversial housing developments threatening Edwards Aquifer, and by extension, the city’s idyllic Barton Springs watering hole — and transformed it into a more universal philosophical examination about our attitudes toward nature, progress and capitalism.

Inspired by a suggestion from exec producer (and mentor) Terrence Malick, “The Unforeseen” marks Dunn’s feature debut, chronicling the story of Gary Bradley, a wildly ambitious real-estate cowboy whose housing ventures severely compromised the beloved natural treasure and made him one of the most vilified men in Texas.

“I was trying to evoke the feelings and qualities that you have when you’re in natural spaces,” says the 32-year-old helmer. “The pace is slower; the feel is gentler than what you might expect. Nature is the muse of this film.” Pic, which includes interviews with environmental defenders Robert Redford, Willie Nelson and Ann Richards, premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance 2007 and is hitting arthouse theaters this month.

John Maringouin

In 2002, John Maringouin, then 28 years old, had nearly completed production on his experimental feature “Self” when he decided to shoot some documentary footage that would function as the film’s ending. His subject: his estranged father Johnny Roe, an addict, abstract painter and violent criminal who had tried to kill Maringouin when he was a baby.

“I had only seen my dad once since my mom took me away from him, and I hadn’t really ever tried to confront what had happened,” Maringouin says. “Then, without really understanding what I was doing, I found myself standing on his doorstep with a film crew.” Twelve days later, he emerged from his father’s squalid Louisiana house with enough material for a completely new film.

“Running Stumbled” is a raw, harrowing portrait of the relationship between Johnny and his common-law wife Marie, who have each been consumed by their illnesses, addictions and debilitating co-dependence.

“I had spent years obliterating Johnny from my life, but that’s bad, because then he became this bogeyman,” says Maringouin. “I guess this movie is about me deciding to hang out with the bogeyman.”

Pic premiered at Rotterdam 2006 and has since played a number of top international fests.

Gary Hustwit

It’s not easy to get general audiences interested in a film about a font. But that’s exactly what Gary Hustwit pulled off with his debut feature, “Helvetica.”

“Ever since I bought my first Mac back in ’88, I’ve been something of a closet graphic designer,” Hustwit says. “I’ve always wanted to see a movie about typography, something that really explains what it is, how it affects us and who creates it. Eventually, I decided to make that film myself.

What began as a “geeky side project” about the world’s most ubiquitous typeface and the graphic designers who use it soon became an obsession for Hustwit, who also produces documentaries and runs the indie DVD label Plexifilm.

“What I hope comes across in the film is the creativity involved in doing something most people take for granted,” he says. “These people are so good at what they do, but it’s almost always overlooked. I really wanted to shine a light on a world most people don’t know too much about.”

After premiering the pic at South by Southwest last year, Hustwit released “Helvetica” independently, and it continues to play in theaters around the country.

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