Doc Tales

The Iowa City Documentary Film Festival brings nonfiction gems out of the shadows.

Wake up. Make coffee. Out the door by 7:45. Work. Eat lunch. Chat with a co-worker. More work. Traffic. Home. Pet the dog. Dinner. Bed. Reset.

So often, one day is like the rest. We often forget to open our eyes to the world we pass through. Thankfully, there is a global army of cameraphiles intent on bringing the world to us.

Captain, a still from Flotsam JetsamYet, if you want to see their work, you’ll have to look beyond the local megaplex. These films live in the arthouse theaters, the impromptu screening rooms and free range of the internet.

In April, for the seventh consecutive year, the Iowa City Documentary Film Festival (ICDOCS) brings two dozen short films to our fair city for a three-day celebration of non-commercial film-making.

“Documentary means a lot of different things, depending on who you ask,” explained festival organizer Alex Petsel. “The work that is screened varies greatly.”

“I often think of a quotation by Jean Marie Straub that all films are documentaries,” Filmmaker David Kelley (Flotsam Jetsam) said. “If you look at fiction and documentary films… sharing the same photographic medium, then they are both realistic and in a discourse with realism.”

In fact, some filmmakers see documentary as a dirty word, since audiences traditionally identify the term with the staid and somber educational films of their youth.

“When asked what I do, I often find myself saying ‘I make documentary films’ — and in an instant throwing in ‘not for television,” explains Minou Norouzi (All Shades of Grey).

ICDOCS’ loose definition of documentary gives the event a fine art feel, weaving experimental film, motion photography and traditional short stories into a unified experience. If Hollywood has a set formula, these films do all they can to ignore it.

Most of the filmmakers exhibiting their work will never see a royalty check, or even recoup the cost of making their film. In fact, they pay just to be a part of festivals like this. So why do they do it?

“The artists want to gain exposure for their work, for their cause or simply be a part of an international festival,” Petsel said.

“The work usually has its own story to tell, and I feel I am usually just a conduit for that story to be told,” said Annmarie Lanesey (Sittin’ on a Million) of her dedication to the craft.

A still from Sittin on a MillionHer film straddles the traditional lines of documentary to tell the story of an early 1900’s small-town madame. It blends a journalistic pursuit of an urban legend with performance art re-enactments. It’s the sort of creative storytelling that most of us rarely encounter on our digital cable package.

Much of the thanks for this new generation of video artists is owed to the advent of the digital camera. But this blessing can also be a curse, as the most well-known digital videos are YouTube sing-alongs, not the thoughtfully constructed work of dedicated artists.

Good thing, then, that festivals like ICDOCS persevere, to expose us to the unusual ideas and extraordinary stories that dwell in the seldom visited corners of our world.

If nothing else, it gives us something to talk about over lunch.

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