Even bold stage director Peter Sellars' detractors -- of which there have been many -- should appreciate the passion and intelligence behind his oft-controversial artistic choices as captured in this portrait documentary.

Even bold stage director Peter Sellars’ detractors — of which there have been many — should appreciate the passion and intelligence behind his oft-controversial artistic choices as captured in this portrait documentary. Mixing biography, career-overview, talking-head input, rehearsal and performance footage, the pic is analogous to last year’s “Absolut Wilson” in summing up the unique oeuvre and perspective of a U.S.-born avant-gardist often better appreciated (let alone funded) abroad. Scattered arthouse dates are conceivable, artscaster broadcast in various territories a certainty.

Petit, puckish, shock-haired Sellars, born to culturally adventuresome (if soon separated) parents, demonstrated an extraordinary creative precocity even before he became the first freshman to direct (“Coriolanus,” no less) on Harvard’s mainstage. He won further notoriety with confrontationally modern productions of classics for the Boston Shakespeare Company and Boston Opera. He was director and manager for the American National Theater in not-so-culturally-adventurous Washington, D.C., between 1984 and 1986, high Reagan-era years — noting here, “I’ve been fired over and over” with a certain pride.

Striking excerpts from such past rabble-rousers as an industrial-cacophony “King Lear,” diner-bound “Cosi fan Tutte,” or Handel’s “Theodora” set at Guantanamo Bay amply illustrate his intense, attention-grabbing staging concepts, as well as why they’ve outraged purists who accuse him of cheap shock value. In conversation, however, he argues articulately for interpreting through modern, politicized lenses works very much intended to address relevant social issues in their day.

Surprisingly, Sellars views such widely dispersed interests sans ego, calling himself “a rank amateur” in comparison with those who dedicate their creative lives to one particular artistic niche. “Art for me is a path — but not a destination,” he says.

Constantly traveling from his Los Angeles home for variably ambitious projects — including Vienna’s massive 2006 “New Crowned Hope” festival of newly commissioned works in several media to honor Mozart’s 250th birth anniversary — Sellars cuts a figure both endearingly warm and closed-off. As for his personal life, there appears to be none.

Several of his collaborators (as well as his mother) offer insights. A particular delight are views of the many stunning production designs sculptor-architect George Tsypin has created for Sellars. But the main focus is on Sellars himself, in rehearsal — where he’s often highly emotional — or simply describing his methods and philosophies.

Vet English docmaker Mark Kidel’s tight assembly covers a lot of ground, not stinting on generous performance clips, though naturally there are significant gaps in covering the subject’s prolific career. (No mention is made, for instance, of his little-seen, dialogue-free 1991 feature film debut “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez.”) An extras-laden DVD would be welcome.

Tech aspects are solid if more fitting the small- than the bigscreen.

A Journey with Peter Sellars

France - Austria - U.K.

Production

An Agat Films and Cie production in association with ARTE France, Wildart Film and Calliope Media. Produced by Marie Balducchi, Mark Kidel, Ebba Sinzinger. Directed, written by Mark Kidel.

Crew

Camera (color, DVcam to digiBeta), Ned Burgess; editor, Andrew Findlay; sound, James Becker, Bruno Pisek, Olivier Le Vacon, Savier Griette, Steven Corbiere, Doug Dunderdale. Reviewed at San Francisco Intl. Film Festival, May 4, 2008. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Peter Sellars, Gerard Mortier, Georges Tsypin, Kajia Saarihao, Osvaldo Goliov, Wolf Prix, Lynnette Walworth, Mark Danner, Michael Kustow, Patricia Sellars, John Adams.
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