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It’s a Boom Time for Documentaries

October 16, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ Mark Jonathan Harris, already the winner of two Academy Awards for documentaries, may have come up with that rarest of the rare: a documentary that Americans might actually see in theaters.

By feature-film standards, ``Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport″ has performed modestly: The movie has opened in nine U.S. and Canadian cities in the past few weeks.

But documentaries and feature films inhabit parallel universes, and just playing in theaters is a big deal for a documentary.

Harris’ film _ about the children who fled Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia without their parents in the months before World War II _ may be benefitting from a wave of popular acceptance for documentaries, helped by the profusion of cable channels on television.

``We are in the midst of a breakout time for documentaries,″ asserted Amitai Adler of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Association. ``Ten years ago there were only two to three cable channels, and now they cannot buy documentaries fast enough.″

Adler estimated that more than 1,000 documentaries a year are made for television _ shown on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, E!, VH1, Animal Planet and others, not to mention traditional outlets like PBS.

Another 30 to 40 documentaries a year appear in movie theaters before being shown on television, thus meeting the requirement for Oscar eligibility, Adler said.

``Now you have a tremendous possibility of selling your work _ which is kind of remarkable _ and a good chance of people actually seeing your work, which is even more remarkable,″ he noted.

The most successful documentaries in recent years _ certified grand slams _ have each had some powerful draw. ``The Buena Vista Social Club,″ a look at Cuba’s vibrant musical scene, had a soundtrack that went gold, selling over 500,000 CDs. ``When We Were Kings″ featured former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, a compelling figure to people around the world. The documentary ``Hoop Dreams″ tapped into a core of diehard basketball fans but also had a story line that rivaled the best in commercial fiction.

So far the reviews for ``Into the Arms of Strangers″ have been just short of lavish, exemplified by Joe Morganstern of The Wall Street Journal, who told readers to make sure to see ``Into the Arms of Strangers″ in a theater and not wait for the video.

``This movie exceeded my expectations everywhere we went,″ said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures, which is promoting the movie.

``We cannot afford to spend a lot of money to promote a documentary, so we rely on good reviews and a great word of mouth.″

Harris, a film professor for 20 years and author of five children’s novels, wrote and directed ``Into the Arms of Strangers.″ (He previously won the Oscar for best short documentary for ``The Redwoods″ in 1968, and for best feature-length documentary for ``The Long Way Home″ in 1997.)

Harris says he deliberately set out to give ``Into the Arms of Strangers″ the story-telling power of a commercial film. It focuses not on the Holocaust, but on the universal pain of parents and children separated by war.

``Documentaries are often seen to be full of good information, but they go down like spinach and castor oil: good for you but hard to swallow,″ Harris said during a break in a week of interviews.

``Although this is a documentary, it is structured in the way a film is structured. You don’t know who is going to meet their parents again,″ he added. ``If the story is just pain and suffering, the audience will stay away. The story is much more complex than that.″

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