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'Undefeated,' Michael Moore and the art of entertaining documentaries

March 1, 2012 |  6:47 pm

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Even in documentaries, it helps if the main character is animated. That’s one of the themes being explored at the University of Missouri’s conference on documentary filmmaking titled Based on a True Story -- in very windy, but so far tornado-free, Columbia, Mo.

In preparing for a Thursday panel -- looking at the role, if any, of entertainment in documentary filmmaking -- I began thinking about how audiences have come to expect as much entertainment as information, as much drama as data, in documentaries.

The good news is that so often documentary filmmakers deliver it all, as new Oscar winner “Undefeated,” with its underdog team and its charismatic coach, did so winningly well.

Or consider documentarian Michael Moore, who in the years since his groundbreaking “Roger & Me” has essentially become the main attraction –- his brand of in-your-face tactics, as he tackles various issues, is one of the main reasons audiences keep coming back. It's also his main challenge: How can he keep re-inventing himself? Or can he? And what would a Michael Moore film be without the filmmaker literally in the picture? Might be interesting to see.

It’s an approach that filmmaker Morgan Spurlock uses more lightly –- a little outrage and a lot of comedy -– whether he’s actually supersizing himself to talk about fast food in "Super Size Me" or selling the shirt off his back to examine product placement in movies, as he was in last year’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

But really, most documentary filmmakers find their challenge in not being center stage. Instead, they're trying to build a compelling story around their featured player –- whether it’s the life and death of a race-car sensation like "Senna" or a bunch of babies in "Babies," their first year of life followed in detail. Or a chimp named Nim, who became a science project in the '70s, and an examination of our right to subject animals to such research in the outstanding “Project Nim.”

It requires the patience of Job to film far more than you need in hopes of finding those moments of truth that will take life on-screen, the serendipity that surprises. Like fictional film, ultimately, it's about telling a story. In the case of documentaries, the story is a true one, and that is very powerful cinematic material indeed.

For a taste of these films, watch the video above.

[For the Record, 12:01 p.m. March 6: A previous version of this post referred to Based on a True Story as a film festival. It is a film conference held by the University of Missouri.]

RELATED:

'Undefeated' wins feature documentary Oscar

Sony Pictures Classics nabs documentary 'West of Memphis'

'Undefeated' is a provocative look at race and class in sports

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic, reporting from Columbia, Mo.


 
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