LET'S GET the burning question out of the way for Jon Heder, who plays the painfully awkward teenage title character in the twisted revenge-of-the-nerd comedy "Napoleon Dynamite" (see review on Page 37): Was he cool -- or a dork -- in high school?

"Well, I'd say definitely . . . in between," says Heder, somewhat equivocally. In real life, the 26-year-old actor's Owen Wilson handsomeness and laid-back surfer demeanor clearly argue for "cool." In fact, with his toothy grin and mop of sandy blond hair, the college senior (he graduates from Brigham Young University in August) is virtually unrecognizable, that is if you're expecting the Brillo-pad-haired, four-eyed dweeb he plays in the film.

"I definitely have nerdy parts," he protests. "I mean, I always considered myself definitely not a popular, cool kid at school. I think there were parts about me that were cool, that other people liked, but I definitely was always, like, well . . . . I'm definitely -- I mean, especially freshman and sophomore year -- I was . . . man, I had . . . I was pretty nerdy, but uh . . . but yeah."

Come again?

"There's elements of Napoleon in everyone," Heder tries again, calling the role of the deadpan, slack-limbed, droopy-lidded Everyman not just natural, but strangely "relaxing."

"He's not a very animated guy," he explains. "It was very easy if there were long takes. If the lights were bright, you could just stand there with your eyes closed." Over the course of a short interview, in fact, Heder slips in and out of Napoleon's mannerisms with ease, summoning memories of his on-screen performance with frequent, half-muttered cries of "Dang!," "Gosh!" and "Idiot!," or one of the character's protracted, lung-clearing sighs.

Talking to Heder, it's clear that his inner nerd -- or more likely his inner extrovert -- is never too far from the surface, even though he wasn't too into the drama club in high school. "I've always been, I wouldn't say the class clown, but I've always been kind of funny, trying to entertain people, just through stupid antics and stuff," he says. "And then in college, I started auditioning because it seemed like people thought I had some kind of face. I was definitely more typecast for the dork." Not that this type of attention has been without its, um, benefits.

"I'd say most of my fan base is women, or girls -- you know, college-age girls," says Heder, quickly adding, only slightly disingenuously, that "it's not because of me."

Yeah, right. It's Napoleon's moon boots, MC Hammer pants, thick glasses and tucked-in T-shirts emblazoned with scenes of Idaho wildlife that have been driving the fans crazy at film festivals -- where, so far, the reviews have been raves.

One such fan, "Finding Nemo" co-director Lee Unkrich, caught Heder's film at Sundance this winter. Calling Unkrich's subsequent invitation to the actor (whose degree from BYU is, coincidentally, in animation) to attend a private screening and tour at the Pixar studios "way cool," Heder lets slip a tiny, unconscious gesture of geek triumph, pumping his fist close to his side while whispering approval with a drawn-out soo-weeet.

Which, in a flash, evokes not only one of Napoleon Dynamite's favorite expressions -- but Jon Heder's.

"I almost wonder if I'm crossing a line nowadays whenever I just say that," laughs Heder, who hopes he doesn't get typecast forever as the goofball with a heart of gold. "I know it's going to get a reaction out of some people. But I'm, like -- I mean, I'm not going to deny Napoleon is partly me. I mean, I am the guy who played him, but a lot of it was me."

'WEEPING CAMEL'S' SHAPED REALITY

Incorporating both traditional documentary techniques as well as a sketchy, preconceived plot of sorts, "The Story of the Weeping Camel" sounds like it might not be that different, at least in theory, from so-called reality TV.

"You mean like 'Big Brother'?" asks Luigi Falorni, an Italian filmmaker who, along with the Mongolian Byambasuren Davaa, directed the Gobi desert-set film, which chronicles an ancient nomadic ritual in which a camel that has refused to nurse its young is coaxed back into a maternal role through music (see review on Page 39).

After some back-and-forth discussion in German (the two met at film school in Munich), Falorni speaks. "One clear difference: You call it reality TV, but it's not reality. It's TV reality. What we try to do is find reality reality." To increase their chances of getting the film they wanted, they picked a Mongolian family with a large herd: 60 camels, 20 of which were pregnant at the time of filming, and exactly one of which did, in fact, reject her newborn calf, as the filmmakers had hoped would happen.

And what of the few sequences of daily Mongolian life that were re-created -- staged, in essence -- for the camera, rather than captured as they happened? Through a Mongolian interpreter, Davaa tells how she worked directly with the family, while Falorni shaped the elements of the story's structure. "I think of myself more as a collaborator than as a director of the action. My approach was to involve the family as much as possible, particularly in some cases where I had to pretend that I didn't know the situation, or the answer, or the circumstances, so that they would come up with their own words." Her goal, she says, was never to tell anyone what to do or say, but to guide them in such a direction that they would fill in the "skeleton" of the narrative "with their own flesh."

Preferring to think of the characters in this real-life tale as neither traditional documentary "subjects," nor as "actors" in a quasi-fiction, Falorni and Davaa call them "protagonists." Unlike many other documentarians, they also prefer not to probe too deeply into what makes their protagonists, which in this case include camels, tick.

"We need to experience sometimes that life has a kind of poetry," Falorni explains. "I don't need a physiological or animal-psychological study of why the tears are coming. There's something poetic about it that I enjoyed from the first moment I heard about the results of the ritual, and I didn't question further."

Davaa agrees, explaining that she never fully appreciated the "backward" traditions of her homeland until she left it. The camel ritual, which she first learned about in a short, 17-minute documentary she saw as a child, held a kind of abiding, fairy-tale power that tugged on her imagination, even in adulthood

"When there," her partner adds, "it seems organic, natural. You don't question. You don't ask the nomads, 'Why is the camel weeping?' Well, that's how it is. You don't have to find a reason for everything."

-- Michael O'Sullivan