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Sundance: Directors talk about the state of documentary filmmaking

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Despite the fact that none of the 15 films on the Academy’s documentary short list this year have grossed more than $5 million, four of the top documentary filmmakers working today remain optimistic about their future and the future of non-fiction filmmaking Alex Gibney, director of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Lucy Walker, behind the new film Countdown to Zero, Mark Lewis who directed the first 3-D documentary Cane Toads: The Conquest, and Davis Guggenheim, whose latest film Waiting For Superman marked the first sale of the Sundance film festival, participated in a panel Sunday afternoon, hosted by Entertainment Weekly and Participant Media, to discuss the state of documentary filmmaking. Said Guggenheim, “I think features are stuck. There are not a lot of movies out there that I’d like to direct. But I’m very envious of all these other guys sitting up here with me today.”

Of the four films, all of which Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media financed or co-financed, only two have secured distribution. Paramount Pictures will likely debut Superman this fall with hopes of drawing Academy interest, while Casino Jack will be released by Magnolia in May. Still Cane Toads and Countdown to Zero are trying to find theatrical distribution for their films. “I’m optimistic,” says Gibney, who chronicled the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist who bought and sold Washington D.C. with gobs of money from special-interest groups. “It will be difficult and hard, but the future is bright.”

The four films featured, while all very different, all tell stories that you don’t see elsewhere. “There are things beneath the surface that must be talked about,” says Guggenheim, who examines why our nation’s public school system is completely broken in Superman. “If we don’t talk about them, no one will. And I think god for Participant because we are saying things that no one else will say.”

Lewis, who has a fascination with Australia’s leading natural menace, the Cane Toad, has spent his career making fascinating nature documentaries about animals. “The subjects I make films about can’t speak for themselves…like the chicken,” he laughs, reminiscing about his 2000 film The Natural History of the Chicken.

Walker’s films consistently feature unbelievable access to her subjects. This time around, the British filmmaker secured on-the-record interviews with Valerie Plame, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev, as she reveals just how easy it would be for terrorist groups to secure the materials necessary to put together nuclear bomb. “The best weapon in making a documentary is picking the most interesting topic. We worked tirelessly with our producers to get to these people and it worked. I kept showing my friends my iPhone pictures of me with these people but I had to stop. It was getting obnoxious.”

Go to Participant Media’s home page to learn more about the documentaries discussed above.

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