Volume 21, Number 35 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 9 - 15, 2009

Richard Creadon’s “I.O.U.S.A.” follows U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as he travels the country trying to raise awareness about the mounting crisis of America’s national debt.

Labors of truth, vying for Oscar contention

“Docs on the Shortlist” Film Festival
Jan. 8-10
Tribeca Cinemas
54 Varick Street (at Laight)
212-941-2001, tribecacinemas.com

By STEVEN SNYDER

Anonymity is the biggest challenge facing documentaries—films that typically lack the big advertising budgets needed to draw mass audiences away from the multiplex. But that all can change with an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, which can give just about any non-fiction work instant notoriety, or by being named to for the Oscar “shortlist”—the preliminary list of 15 titles, all vying for the five final nomination slots (to be announced Jan. 22).

In a rare event, Tribeca audiences will have a chance to check out a number of these shortlisted contenders prior to this year’s Oscar nominations with the two-day “Docs on the Shortlist” Film Festival, sponsored by the Tribeca Film Institute and Gucci. The event kicks off Jan. 8, with special screenings of both James Marsh’s “Man on Wire,” a film about Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers, and Gini Reticker’s “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a tribute to the remarkable group of women who risked their lives to reshape the political climate of Liberia. The latter premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, where it was bestowed with the award for Best Documentary.

The marathon continues on Sat., Jan. 10, with a quartet of screenings. “At the Death House Door,” directed by Peter Gilbert and Steve James, tells the true-life story of the chaplain who once worked at the infamous “Walls” prison unit in Texas, a man of God who ministered to 95 men condemned to death. “They Killed Sister Dorothy,” directed by Daniel Junge, uses the mysterious and vicious 2005 murder of a 73-year-old nun in the Amazon to tell a larger story about the conflicts raging in the Brazilian rainforest. “The Garden,” directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, focuses on a rather remarkable community garden in South Central Los Angeles – a communal space that was founded after the 1992 L.A. riots and today stands as the largest of its kind in America.

The fest closes on Saturday evening with Patrick Creadon’s financial documentary “I.O.U.S.A.,” one of the more remarkable films from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, which was re-edited after the festival to incorporate new facts and statistics pertaining to the impending economic decline of 2008. The movie follows U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as he travels the country – Al Gore-style – trying to raise awareness about the mounting crisis of America’s national debt. Explaining our nation’s complex financial practices, and drawing a parallel between our government’s financial irresponsibility and that of businesses, lenders and families, “I.O.U.S.A.” reaches out to the likes of Warren Buffet, in hopes of shedding light on an economy that has lost sight of the fundamentals.

Creadon said there was little way to know, when he launched this project years ago, that his movie would be circulating the country amidst the greatest economic decline since the Great Depression. “When we started, the sub-prime problems were just beginning and the Dow was surging past 14,000,” he says. “Initially, our movie was focusing on the deficit, and the fact that a day of reckoning would be coming for our country. While the things we’re dealing with now are short-term problems (at least, we hope things like the credit crisis and the housing credit are short-term problems), ‘I.O.U.S.A.’ is trying to tell viewers that we are driving towards a cliff, that there is a bigger, systematic problem – a fiscal cancer in our country that’s still present, behind all our other problems.”

While a documentary about the economy was something of a hard sell for audiences a year ago, today it’s emerged as one of 2008’s most prescient, prominent projects. It’s little surprise, then, that Tribeca organizers scheduled “I.O.U.S.A.” as the final screening of this weekend’s festivities; it would hardly be a surprise to hear Creadon’s name announced as one of this year’s Oscar nominees. Creadon says the distinction would make a world of difference: “It raises the level of excitement, of interest—a nomination for a documentary puts you on the map. Just to be on the Oscar short list is an incredible exciting, for all of us. Our genre is such a unique and important part of the film business, and to know these documentary filmmakers … they are people who are going out there to try and make the world a better place. I know people will roll their eyes when they read that, but it’s the truth.”

Organizers at the Tribeca Film Institute are surely hoping for a repeat of last year’s Academy Awards, when “Taxi to the Dark Side”—Alex Gibney’s torture documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival—walked away with Oscar gold. Tribeca has increasingly become a destination festival for documentaries aiming to make a splash.




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