Docu fnalists depart from instruction

The three finalists for the Chaz & Roger Ebert Truer Than Fiction kudo, which comes with a $25,000 grant, represent a departure from the “instructional documentary”; these films were made to let audiences discover rather than passively receive ideas.

JESSICA ORECK
“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo”

It’s hardly the norm in the American doc world for an ethnobiologist to make a film, but Oreck’s twin fascinations with Japanese society and bugs form the point of intersection in her amusingly titled “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo.” “It can be pretty boring for audiences to absorb a direct, informational film about a society, especially a foreign one,” says Oreck. “So I think the best way is to understand how various societies and cultures perceive the natural world.”

Oreck admits that she had long wanted to do a project dealing with creatures that many may judge as disgusting — say, beetles — “and, then, I stumbled across material about the Japanese obsession with insects. The stars aligned when my sister got me in touch with an entomologist, Akito Kawahara, who introduced me to just about everyone in the film.” Oreck didn’t conquer Tokyo — “you always feel somewhat like outsiders” — but her frequently amusing insights into the Japanese love for the fragile, the tiny and the transitory provide a rare Westerner’s look at a culture that proudly sets itself apart.

BILL ROSS AND TURNER ROSS
“45365”

The small town of Sidney, Ohio (pop. 19,000), is the sort of place that dots the American road map — once a manufacturing center and now, as filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross term it, “an interstate exit.” But it’s where the brothers grew up, and after spending nearly a decade away post-high school, they determined that their first feature film should be about “the place we know the best.”

Titled after the town’s ZIP code, “45365” garnered South by Southwest’s doc award and observes pieces of time and life in Sidney without didactic commentary. “Doing little stories but in an oblique way was our plan all along,” Turner Ross explains.

“It was important to find key characters, like a father and son, high school buddies, a criminal and cops, in order to fill out an honest, true mosaic of our town,” adds Bill. “We’re not telling audiences what to think. Some may find the film sad, but we think it’s like a love song about a place that deeply informed us, and with that love is a little heartbreak.” It receives a spring release through distrib Seventh Art.

NATALIA ALMADA
“El General”

Almada’s second feature documentary, “El General,” was developed through the Sundance documentary lab and received major funding from ITVS, Latino Public Broadcasting, PBS and American Documentary’s “P.O.V.” program as well as Sundance and Tribeca — and was programmed in the 2009 Sundance fest’s U.S. doc competition, winning the director prize. So it’s easy to ignore the fact that the film is profoundly Mexican to its core. The film, being handled by domestic distributor Women Make Movies, is based on audio recordings of Almada’s grandmother recalling life with her father, Plutarcho Elias Calles, one of Mexico’s most controversial presidents and a key figure in the Mexican Revolution. “Since we’re having the centennial of the Revolution,” says Almada from Mexico City, “audiences here sometimes wrongly assume that I’m cashing in on the event, not realizing that it takes years of fundraising, filming and editing to make a documentary.” Almada, whose previous “Al otro lado” is hardly a conventional look at Mexico-U.S. immigration, resisted making a typical profile doc and instead wove it out of the fabric of her grandmother’s memories. “She attended Catholic school even as her father was at war with the church. These were the contradictions and they resonate today, since for most, the revolution’s promise remains unfulfilled.”

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