Docu helmers dig for stories behind reality

The Truer Than Fiction filmmaker grant, introduced in 1997, functions as a leg-up for up-and-coming documentary helmers and comes with a $25,000 cash prize backed by Lacoste. Past recipients have included Oscar nominees Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk (“The Lost Boys of Sudan”) and Oscar winners Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman (“Born Into Brothels”). Here’s a look at this year’s nominees:

Margaret Brown

Mobile, Ala., native Margaret Brown risked alienating her entire hometown when she laid out a number of its unexplored racial divisions on film with her second feature docu, “The Order of Myths.” Instead, she seems to have struck a positive nerve. “Since we showed it in Mobile, there have been all these different church groups meeting to discuss the film,” she says. “It’s in the hands of the community now.”

The film focuses on Mobile’s Mardi Gras festivities, which remain segregated to this day. Yet despite its intensely regional focus, the film hits on a number of universal themes, particularly the uneasy balance between righting old wrongs and maintaining traditions.

“I showed the film in Russia, and at the Q&A, people said it reminded them of how the Russians and Albanians relate,” Brown says. “People see the film and always seem to make connections with what’s happening in their own community.”

Brown’s previous docu, “Be Here to Love Me,” chronicled musician Townes Van Zandt; she’s now working on a narrative feature.

Sacha Gervasi

Sacha Gervasi may be a debut documaker, but he’s hardly a newcomer to the entertainment business: His variegated career includes stints as a rock drummer, a journalist, a screenwriter (“The Terminal”) and a teenage roadie for early-’80s thrash-metal band Anvil.

It’s the latter experience that Gervasi revisits in “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” which examines the band in the present day as members struggle to put on a tour. The film, hitting theaters in the U.S. and U.K. this spring, is by turns hysterical in its intrinsic “Spinal Tap”-isms and touching in its sympathetic depiction of middle-aged men guilelessly committed to their teenage dreams.

“It’s all about struggle and making a sacrifice to do what you believe in,” Gervasi says, noting that his film was itself just as much a shoestring endeavor as its subjects’ tour. “I broke the cardinal rule of filmmaking — I paid for it myself.”

Gervasi’s next project is a Steve Zaillian-produced biopic on the life of diminutive “Fantasy Island” actor Herve Villechaize, a subject he likens to “Anvil!” “They both seem to be these extraordinary, exotic things, but when you peel back the outside layers, they’re just as normal and human as anyone else.”

Darius Marder

Some aspiring filmmakers wait around for years before inspiration strikes — for first-timer Darius Marder, it took about a week. Shortly after quitting his job to pursue filmmaking, Marder happened upon a stranger who told him about Lance Larson, a man contracted to recover valuables plundered by American GIs during World War II.

Marder was immediately intrigued by the story and what he calls its “unusual, fable-like element of folly.” The resulting film, “Loot,” is an unusual documentary: quiet, implicit and in many ways the antithesis of the staid, talking-head format that is so representative of the medium.

“I wanted the story to feel like something that you’re living in the moment, with events building on themselves like a fictional narrative,” Marder says.

“Loot” bowed at the Los Angeles Film Festival last June and was quickly picked up by HBO. Larson has another docu in the works as well as a fiction screenplay. “I’m really hooked on this way of telling stories,” he says. “(Documentary) is at such a vital place right now, and I want to really explore that and take it to a different place.”

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