Surprising Poetry Doc Highlights DocuWeeks’ Round 2

“Louder than a Bomb” uses familiar ingredients, but it’s fresh and vital and exhilirating

The second week of the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks showcase at the Arclight in Hollywood takes viewers around the world, with films set in Russia, Finland, Tibet, New Zealand and South America.

But I want to talk about the film that’s set closer to home, on the north side of Chicago.

“Louder than a Bomb” is, in many ways, the kind of documentary we’ve seen frequently over the past few years. It’s a teenagers-preparing-for-a-big-competition doc, similar in some ways to movies like “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom.”

Louder than a Bomb“This is a film with very familiar ingredients,” co-producer/co-director Greg Jacobs tells theWrap.  “But you can use the same ingredients and make a very different cake.”

In the film, Jacobs and Jon Siskel twist the genre in surprising ways – and, crucially, in the cast of largely urban kids preparing for a high school poetry competition, they showcase an energy, vitality, eloquence and charisma that make it one of the most inspiring and exhilarating documentaries in months, or maybe years.

The movie doesn’t have theatrical distribution yet, and it may not be Serious and Important enough to figure in the awards picture – but now that it has qualified for the Oscar via the DocuWeeks showings, I find it impossible to rule out a film this vibrant and this moving.

It’s no surprise that Jacobs and Siskel (nephew of the late critic Gene Siskel) know what they’re doing – they won the Emmy for the 9/11 documentary “102 Minutes that Changed America” in 2009. But “Louder than a Bomb” tackles a subject that might seem old hat, using a format that could appear played out, and does so with remarkable freshness and vitality.  

It’s not groundbreaking or monumental on the scale of that other Chicago-set high school documentary, “Hoop Dreams,” but “Louder than a Bomb” is surprising and seductive, an all-but-guaranteed crowd-pleaser from a pair of filmmakers who stumbled on their subject matter by accident.

“I happened to be driving near Wrigley Field, past a club called the Metro,” says Jacobs. “On the marquee it said ‘LOUDER THAN A BOMB HIGH SCHOOL POETRY FINALS, TONIGHT,’ and there was a line of kids of all races and colors and shapes and sizes down the block. And I thought, that’s a strange thing to see on the North Side of Chicago on a Saturday night. It seemed interesting, so we decided we’d take a look.

“And every step of the way, you’re waiting for this thing that tells you this isn’t a good idea, but it never happened.”

The film follows three individual poets, and one team, on their inevitable march toward the “Louder than a Bomb” poetry finals. But toward the end, things suddenly change, courtesy of an event that Jacobs initially thought doomed the movie. It didn’t; instead, it made the film richer, less predictable and more moving.

(And for traditionalists, keep your eyes open during the credits and you’ll get the answer you’re looking for.)

Steinmetz high schoolJacobs and Siskel showed the film at the finale of this year’s “Louder than a Bomb” poetry competition, and have since screened it at festivals to an enthusiastic response. Variety’s Robert Koehler called it “an affecting and superbly paced celebration of American youth at their creative best.” 

“Our ambition from the beginning was to make an entertaining movie first, and one that had broad appeal,” says Jacobs, who is looking for theatrical distribution. “And I think what we’re finding as we go around to the festivals is that the diversity of the appeal, and the intensity of the reaction, is astounding.”

The “Louder than a Bomb” DocuWeeks screenings begin on Friday at the Arclight; it will screen twice daily through next Friday, August 12. (In New York, where DocuWeeks is simultaneously taking place at the IFC Center, the film screened as part of the first week.)

Other films at DocuWeeks for the next seven days, the second of the program’s three weeks, include “Apaporis,” Antonio Dorado’s trip down the Amazon and through the Andes; “My Perestroika,” Robin Hessman’s intimate look at five ordinary Russians living through the collapse of the Soviet Union; “Steam of Life” (“Miesten vuoro”), tales told by Finnish men in saunas, and filmed by Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen; “Summer Pasture,” a family drama set inside Tibet from Lynn True and Nelson Walker; and “This Way of Life,” Tom Burstyn’s family portrait from a remote village in New Zealand.