A Feast of Documentaries

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Was Fahrenheit 9/11 a fluke? Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary earned $119 million at the U.S. box office in 2004, and helped unseat a Presi… oh, sorry, George W. Bush still won. But it entertained, enlightened and annoyed many people, sometimes the same people, and hinted that the documentary form, so long ghettoized in art houses and on PBS, might be ready to flourish among mass audiences.

Well, with one exception so odd it can be dismissed (the $79 million take for March of the Penguins), that didn’t happen. Last summer’s highly touted docs, from Murderball to Rize, Grizzly Man to The Aristocrats, raised hardly a murmur among mallrats and their families. You can count on the fingers of a maimed hand the docs that have grossed more than $15 million. Nonfiction films — including the couple dozen that have been playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival here in New York City (the documentary portion of which is being sponsored by TIME Magazine) — look destined to appeal to a small crowd, a niche crowd.

A liberal crowd, I hear you say. Or, as they have been called lately, the lonely crowd. Yes, most of these films, if they have a political slant, tilt left. Except for a few errant jabs at Fahrenheit 9/11, there are virtually no right-wing docs. If there’s a sympathetic take on the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy, or a study of Third World sweatshops (sorry, entrepreneurial empowerment sites) from the owner’s viewpoint, I haven’t seen it. That leaves the form open to cries from conservatives that docs are liberal soap operas, fables for the smug, gripes from the people out of power about those who wield it.

I wouldn’t dispute that, even though I’m a knee-jerk liberal and proud of it. Indeed, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few docs that challenge my political complacencies rather than appealing to them. Somebody might even make a film about a born-again preacher who isn’t venal or nuts. But politics aside for just a moment, non-fiction films have a nobler mission than electing John Kerry, or reinforcing liberals’ assurance that they dwell on the moral high ground. They remind us, Left or Right, that there’s a world beyond the one we so cozily occupy — that people in remote countries, who seem so different if we give them a thought, have lessons to teach us. They put a human face on a social issue, to indicate why we should be invested in public policy — because, directly or indirectly, it affects you and me. At the heart of most documentaries is this salient message: The Other Is Us.

This week, after watching more than a dozen docs showing at the Tribeca Film Festival, I realized that many of them possess more entertainment value than the Hollywood films I review for a living. They contain more intelligence, more surprises, a better chance for making me laugh (at the wit and foibles of the protagonists) or mist and moist up. Some of these films will get to a theater near you, if you live near an art house, or onto public and cable TV stations. From the notes that follow, you decide which ones are worth tracking down.

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