Hot-button docus heat up Sundance

Fest slate features many political nonfiction films

It’s no secret that nonfiction films underperformed at the box office in 2007.

Only three (non-Imax) pics broke $1 million theatrically — the worst tally since 2001.

But while the documentary market may have regressed, at least temporarily, to pre-“Bowling for Columbine” levels, politically themed pics were by far the genre’s most reliable earners.

This year’s top two docs were Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” a polemic on the healthcare system that took in $24.5 million domestically; and Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” an expose on U.S. policy in Iraq, with $1.4 million.

That’s good news for distributors, because this year’s Sundance fest is shaping up to be a strong one for political nonfiction.

In this election year, the fest’s doc roster includes a high percentage of films dealing with hot-button social or political topics, including transsexuals in the Muslim world (“Be Like Others”), the global water crisis (“Flow: For Love of Water”), Hurricane Katrina (“Trouble the Water”), alternative energy sources (“Fields of Fuel”), the Iraq War (“An American Soldier”) and steroid use (“Bigger, Faster, Stronger”).

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“These filmmakers are on the edge and are providing us with something authentic that you can’t find in the mainstream media,” says Sundance programming head John Cooper. “I believe documentary filmmakers are feeling the power their craft can have, as (nonfiction films) drift into mainstream consciousness.”

Activist art?

While it’s fair to say that this year’s doc filmmakers together form a fairly liberal bunch, not all of them have put their political views front-and-center.

In “Secrecy,” Harvard professors Robb Moss and Peter Galison chronicle the massive efforts by the U.S. government to classify data from the general population.

“I don’t think of myself as an activist filmmaker, and I don’t think of this film as an activist film,” says Moss, whose autobiographical doc, “The Same River Twice,” screened at Sundance in 2003. “Activist films are a call to action, and while Peter and I certainly have our own political ideas, we didn’t want to start with an idea and work backwards — that got us involved in the war in Iraq.”

Patrick Creadon, whose “I.O.U.S.A.” investigates America’s massive international debt, warns of the potential dangers when documakers take one point of view.

“Once you’ve showed your hand politically to your audience, every decision you make in your work is shaded by that piece of information,” says Creadon. “I think many films — especially documentaries — fall short of achieving their goals because partisanship has played too large a role in the telling of their stories. I would rather see a film that searches for the truth in a story than one that tells me what the filmmaker thinks about a specific topic.”

Other filmmakers made pics with more transparent political agendas.

“I absolutely consider myself an activist,” says Stephen Nemeth, who exec produced two competition docs: Josh Tickell’s “Fields of Fuel” and Irina Salina’s “Flow: For the Love of Water.”

Both films, says Nemeth, indict specific organizations that are responsible for environmental catastrophe.

“Documentaries are the single best tools that movie producers, activists and filmmakers have to effect change in the people,” he says. “Every time one person is changed by a doc, they may be moved to vote, to go on a website, to write a letter to their congressman. I’m really excited that there’s this wave of docs that have so much ability to affect change on a global level.”

Provoke and evoke

And then there’s Morgan Spurlock. The gonzo provocateur, who took on the fast-food industry with “Super Size Me” in 2004, will return to Park City with “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” (which the Weinstein Co. bought last year). But despite his devotion to stirring up controversy, Spurlock resists the activist moniker.

“I’m not the kind of person who goes to marches and chants and holds up signs, I just make movies and TV shows about things I think are worth talking about,” says Spurlock, who describes his doc as “the funniest film ever made about terrorism.”

“I let my movies speak for themselves, and hopefully they will generate some sort of dialogue after people watch them. I don’t like to be told what to think, and I don’t make movies that do that either. I want you to make up your own mind when the credits roll.”

Most distributors headed for Park City say they remain open to buying docs tackling political or social issues, with some requirements.

“For us to buy a political doc it has to be marketable, it has to be an excellent movie that will get 3.5- to 4-star reviews and be awards caliber,” says ThinkFilm U.S. topper Mark Urman. “Being interesting isn’t enough. We will be tough as negotiators, but that’s also because my experiences with docs were with the ones that weren’t purchased for a lot of money.”