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DocuWeeks Addresses Hot Topics: Religion, Abortion …

Oscar-qualifying showcase kicks off in Hollywood, New York


The International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks series in Los Angeles and New York, which kicked off Thursday night with an HBO-sponsored screening and party at the Arclight in Hollywood, is a three-week showcase that can have a huge impact on the Oscar race.

In the Documentary Feature category, for instance, 17 films will qualify for Academy Awards consideration over the three weeks. That number that could represent as much as 20 percent of the entire field.

12th and DelawareAnd that’s one of the points of DocuWeeks. “The idea was to give documentaries the opportunity for a real showcase in great theaters, and to do it in line with current Academy rules,” says Eddie Schmidt, president of the IDA’s board of directors and an Oscar-nominated documentarian whose films include his two collaborations with Kirby Dick, “Twist of Faith” and “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”

The DocuWeeks showcase operates as an Oscar qualifier by splitting up its field of 17 features and one shorts program into three separate sections, and then running each group of films twice daily for one week. By doing so, the films meet the Academy’s rules for one-week theatrical engagements in Los Angeles and New York.

Over its 13-year history, DocuWeeks has qualified more than 160 films, and landed 17 Oscar nominations and seven wins, including the Iraq feature “Taxi to the Dark Side.”

Last year it led to a different honor: the Australian short documentary “Salt,” a lyrical meditation on loneliness and isolation that should have been recognized by the Academy, instead won the IDA Award for Best Short Documentary.

“The genesis was to give documentaries that theatrical showcase for the Academy,” says Schmidt. “But because this is a curated program, it does help usher in other awards, including ours.”

The films, the first six of which run from July 30 through August 5 at the Arclight and at the IFC Center in New York, are chosen by IDA screening committees from entries sent in by filmmakers around the world.

Once selected, filmmakers must pay to be included in the showcase. “It’s comparable to what you would pay if you had to do it yourself and four-wall your film in a theater,” says Schmidt. “But we do some of the work for you, and you have the full advantage of our staff and the publicity we generate.”

This year’s showcase kicked off, as usual, with an HBO documentary that was otherwise not part of the program: “12th and Delaware” (photo above), a look at two facilities – an abortion clinic and a crisis pregnancy center run by pro-life group and devoted to persuading women not to get abortions – that sit across the street from each other in a Florida town.

The film from “Jesus Camp” filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady will debut Monday, August 2 on HBO – but in a DocuWeeks tradition, the cable channel, an enormous force in the documentary community and a longtime supporter and sponsor of the IDA, hosted the opening-night screening and party.

The first batch of six films screening in Los Angeles includes “HolyWars” (photo below), a Stephen Marshall film that looks at religious extremism by closely following – and eventually bringing together – a zealous young Christian missionary who travels to Pakistan to spread the gospel, and an Irishman who coverts to Islam and becomes an avid supporter of the Taliban.

HolyWarsThough the director’s voiceovers sometimes underline his points too obviously, the film is an unsettling work that can be read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of extremism, or a look inside the surprising change in a believer who once seemed unshakable.

Among the other films in the lineup are “Waste Land,” a new film from director Lucy Walker (whose “Countdown to Zero” opens on Friday as well), and Chico Colvard’s “Family Affair.”  The former is reportedly a subtle and inspiring look at an artist whose subjects are the scavengers in a huge Brazilian garbage dump, the latter a devastating and complex look at how pedophilia affects a family. 

Other entries: Julia Bacha’s “Budrus,” which follows a man who expanded Palestinian territory through cooperation with Israelis; Carter Gunn’s and Ross McDonnell’s “Colony,” which details a crisis that has wracked the beekeeping community and threatened the foot supply; and “For Once in My Life,” Jim Bingham’s and Mark Moorman’s verite-style documentary about a group of mentally and physically disabled musicians.

“We do strive to be diverse in our programming,” says Schmidt. “And one of the things I appreciate is that we find people who want to come and see as many films as they can.”

The DocuWeeks program at the IFC Center is presenting a separate slate of films spanning the entire globe: the South American journey “Apaporis”; “Louder than a Bomb,” about Chicago high schoolers competing in a poetry slam; “Steam of Life,”  set in a Finnish steam bath; the Tibetan family story “Summer Pasture”; the New Zealand-set “This Way of Life”; and a shorts program.

Future weeks will see the Arclight films moving to New York, and the IFC entries heading west.

Further information is available at the IDA website.