The third consecutive Oscar nomination for one of Washington's community of documentary filmmakers hasn't yet turned the capital into Hollywood East, but its does signal a certain coming of age for the sizable and ever-growing Washington film industry.
To sing of a host of Frederick Wisemans moving poetic lenses from social issue to social issue wouldn't be quite accurate. But over recent years Washington has become a thriving colony of producers, directors and production resources supported by a proliferation of movie-minded interests, ranging from Greenpeace to the federal government.
Washington makes a lot of films. "It's probably a $100 million industry," says Paul Klein, president of the Washington Film Council, referring to the private and public money regularly spent on video and filmmaking in the greater Washington area. "I've seen it change from a town that had four major studios and one client -- the government -- to a town with -- I can't begin to tell you the number of producers and studios. And they're increasing all the time."
The Oscar nomination this year is for Robert Gardner's "The Courage to Care," a film featuring interviews with gentile rescuers of Jews during World War II (showing today and tomorrow at the Biograph). Last year, local filmmaker Paul Wagner won the Oscar in the short documentary category for "The Stone Carvers," a meticulously drawn portrait of the stone carvers of the National Cathedral. Also nominated last year (under the feature-length documentary category) was local filmmaker Charles Guggenheim's "High Schools."
"Courage," "Carvers" and "High Schools" are just three examples of the myriad of films and videos made here. Washington documentaries, funded from many public and private sources, vary in subject from social statements about conditions for factory workers to how-to-put-on-your-life-jacket training films for the Navy. Where there's an organization, there's a film.
Finding organizations in Washington that want films made is not difficult. The city is glutted with associations, corporations, nonprofit institutions, international organizations, lobbying interests and political action committees -- plus that prolific disseminator of information, the federal government -- each looking to impart its message.
"There's a boatload of work out there," says Jim Oppenheimer, of Oppix and Hider Productions here. "And more and more people coming into this business all the time."
In a world where a "cheapie" video (most nontheatrical "films" made here are on videotape) can cost as much as $100 per screen minute, and a state-of-the-art political television commercial can reach $100,000 a minute, with little or no hope of earning box office returns, the search for money permeates every aspect of documentary filmmaking. Consequently, the filmmaker's quest is not so much to make a social statement as to find a social statement that will interest an organization.
Says local documentary maker Tom Goodwin: "You may think of about five or 10 ideas, but the ones you pursue are the ones you think have a chance of getting funding."
Which is not to say the work within those constraints cannot be exceptional. "The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for instance," says Oppenheimer, "might fund a general interest film about the bay for no other reason than to get it on the air, get it distributed to libraries and Kiwanis clubs, and to proffer their point of view that the bay should be saved."
"Courage" itself is an interesting case study. It started as the concept of Sister of Mercy Carol Rittner, who arranged, with the support of Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust Memorial Council, to run a "Faith in Humankind" conference in Washington on gentiles who had rescued Jews during World War II. She then decided to document it and approached Mutual of America for funding. Mutual financed part of the conference, persuaded United Way of America to make a film about it and paid for the film too.
Gardner, at the time an employe of the United Way, was -- in effect -- the last component of the creative process. But he spent more than a year writing the screenplay, directing the film and conducting interviews with more than a dozen people. "Courage" became a personal film as well as an institutional one.
"It's often very hard to say what constitutes an independent, creative piece of work," says Paul Wagner. "The most creative pieces of work can be sponsored."
"Carvers" was independently produced by Wagner but, along with two other of his documentaries, was made in creative partnerships with Smithsonian folklorists and was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts Program, the D.C. Community Humanities Council and the Cafritz Foundation. Wagner, who collaborated with folklorists Marjorie Hunt and Steven Zeitlin on his previous films, intends to repeat the experience with another film -- about the importance of older people in society, called "The Grand Generation."
"We've come up with the idea and gone out and raised money," says Wagner. "That's the key -- when you have the vision to make a film and get someone else to pay for it."
There are few documentary filmmakers, Gardner says, who can operate independently -- creating their own projects without any concern for financial sponsorship beforehand or financial return afterward. Many can switch from mode to mode (an industrial quick hit here, a socially conscious project there), depending on what is available, but most have their dream project.
"Most filmmakers, if you ask them, say, 'I'm making a film for the bearing manufacturers,' " says Gardner, " 'but what I'm really working on is a project on battered women.'"
Local filmmaker Lorraine Gray, who, with Ann Bohlen, made the documentary "With Babies and Banners" in the late 1970s, has just completed "The Global Assembly Line," a film on the use of factory workers abroad by American companies. Shot in the United States, Mexico and the Philippines, it premiered at the American Film Institute this month.
"How hard is it? Very hard," says Gray of her endeavors. "It's a full-time job. Once you start producing a film, it's going to be a minimum of three years' work down the road before you finish it."
She raised funds for "Babies" a "couple of thousand dollars at a time" and did extensive historical research. The labor was worth it: The film was nominated for an Oscar in 1979 and won the Grand Prize at the American Film Festival.
Ginny Durrin, another independent (she also distributes her own work through a national distribution cooperative), makes "social-issue and family-issue films" and is shooting two documentaries dealing with the issues of the homeless and AIDS; so far she has financed them herself. "I have started them both with my own funding and now am in the fund-raising stage to play catchup . . . I've gotten 20 people to work on it for deferred payment. Now I'm fund raising, first of all to pay them back and secondly pay myself back."
Some films Durrin makes are "curriculum-oriented and are made because I've carefully researched a need for them, and others because I want to do them."
For Gerardine Wurzburg, who with Tom Goodwin (their company is State of the Art Inc.) produced the PBS-aired series "Your Children, Our Children" in 1984, making a social statement is the primary objective: "A lot of people earn their living doing government films. We have just not done that . . . sitting on a set and worrying about the DOE just would drive me up the wall . . .
"I'm not putting those people down -- you have to earn a living. Maybe the story is I was able to get some breaks. It's not been an easy thing, but you choose how you want to spend your time."
On the institutional side, Gerald Krell speaks highly of the U.S. Information Agency's filmmaking arm, which he now heads and where he has worked for 23 years. "I think one can achieve a great deal of satisfaction within the government," says the winner of eight CINE/Golden Eagles (three of them won in one year). "It's not as bureaucratic as one would think. Some filmmakers have a harder time making documentaries on the outside. Here there's more flexibility in terms of achieving your own objectives . . .
"Once you get your marching orders from the agency, then you pretty much determine how you want to execute a given policy into film or tape . . .
"There is more freedom in terms of achieving your objectives than you might have with films financed by industry, foundations, whatever." Krell takes issue with those who believe that "if you're making films for the government you're restricted more than the others."
Although most of Krell's work is with USIA, there was a personal project one summer vacation, a 1980 one-hour documentary called "Homage to Verdi." The documentary, about Met baritone Sherrill Milnes, was shot in Italy and aired on some public television stations.
Sidney Platt, head of the National Geographic Society's educational film division, also champions the institutional film. At his department at the society, he says, "We have total control."
The division, which sometimes makes up to 25 films a year, works in collaboration with teachers and consultants. "We ask the people that need them mostly in educational institutions what they want, and we try to make it exciting and educational so the kids won't get bored and will learn something."
Another institutional documentary unit is the Labor Institute of Public Affairs, which makes videos for the AFL-CIO. With some 13 million AFL-CIO members and a budget of some $3 million, says LIPA director Nick DeMartino, LIPA serves both as an internal training unit and as part of the AFL-CIO's nationwide agenda. "We have a much wider range of audience than a typical small film company."
LIPA also uses many free-lance production crews from Washington; more than half of LIPA's 18-part television series called "America Works" (aired on WDCA in 1983) was made by Washington filmmakers, says DeMartino.
The real growth in Washington, says Charles Guggenheim, "has been in video production here. The technique of making a video has become more available, become easier." And, in addition to the proliferation of associations and organizations, he says, "Some of the political media people have gravitated towards Washington, because that's where the customers are."
Guggenheim, whose company "does a couple of million dollars in business a year," is large by Washington standards, where a $500,000 annual combined budget is considered high. "Most of our films are rather large pictures," says Guggenheim, who has a company administrative staff of about 14. Guggenheim Productions, which does films for public television, corporate clients, libraries, museums and associations, has higher shooting budgets per film than the average Washington documentary and must do big projects to justify its overhead. "Sometimes the sponsored films crowd out the films you would do if you had the choice," says Guggenheim.
Commerce aside, Guggenheim's films have been nominated for Oscars seven times; two ("Nine from Little Rock" in 1967 and "Robert Kennedy Remembered" in 1969) have won.
One distinguishing characteristic of the Washington filmmaking community, says Paul Klein, is a sense of professional camaraderie. "I would venture to say Washington is unique . . . in that most of us know each other. We don't feel threatened by each other. We share people, technology and information quite openly . . . It makes Washington a nice place to work."
Indeed, many filmmakers work for each other in different roles. While one may serve as the other's camera operator, the roles might well be reversed on a different film. Circles of friends and informal groups often meet to compare notes. One informal support group of about 15 filmmakers, including Wagner, Gray, Bohlen, Durrin, Wurzburg and Goodwin, meets regularly to discuss matters of mutual concern.
"I think the climate here is a comparatively healthy support system for documentary filmmakers to draw on," says Marilyn Weiner, who owns Screenscope with Hal Weiner. "There is still a network where people are willing to exchange information and be helpful . . . that you can share horror stories with."
The profession "is a strange way to make a living," says Wurzburg. "But we keep finding ourselves drawn to these stories, they're compelling . . . I love the sense of community that you can get involved in."
And even though there will be no retirement pensions for her, Wurzburg says, "You suddenly look up from your work and realize you've got a body of work you can be really proud of."
Even though most local filmmakers will tell you they do it for a living, the fanciful aspects of filmmaking apparently cannot be snuffed out. "I'm a businessman," says Jim Oppenheimer. "I consider myself a filmmaker, but I'm in business to make a living. I have certain notions about what I'd like to do sometime down the road."
One of those notions is a "pure documentary" about minor league baseball. "I'd like to see what that world is all about and follow the lives and careers of a couple of players throughout the season."
Gardner has received a development grant to begin a documentary project that would focus on the relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs. But there is another project he wants to tackle, one day: "The pathology of evil. Evil is often thought of as immoral, as opposed having something to do with pathological issues." He'd love to do it.
"It would be on the other side of 'The Courage to Care,' which is about the best in people."
Gardner's "The Courage to Care" will be screened today and tomorrow at the Biograph. Gerald Krell will present some of his work and speak at American University Friday, March 21, at the Wechsler Theater at 7:30 p.m. Filmmaking team Hal and Marilyn Weiner will appear at Wechsler to discuss their work on April 4, also at 7:30. Admission is free.