The blockbuster success of "March of the Penguins" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" shocked a lot of people. At least for a moment, the documentary was lifted out of the art-house ghetto and into the mainstream. Call me naive, but I've always found it shocking that this doesn't happen more often. Why is "X-Men: The Last Stand" playing in 3,690 theaters while "The Heart of the Game" is currently playing in two? Now I had a good enough time at that third X-Men installment, but for sheer edge-of-your-seat entertainment value, it was no match for this true-life story of girls basketball. The fact is, the heart of the movie game is rigged: you can find "The Break-Up" playing on four screens in the same multiplex, but in most parts of the country the delicious "Crossing the Bridge" will only be available, eventually, on DVD. Here are three nonfiction movies that, pound for pound, outsmart and outpunch just about every Hollywood giant now dominating summer screens.
‘The War Tapes’
From the start, images of the war in Iraq have been heavily proscribed by the Bush administration. Journalists have had their hands (and cameras) tied, and when they do venture forth it is at greater and greater risk to their lives. Which makes the footage we see in the unnerving documentary "The War Tapes" all the more necessary, and all the more shocking in its immediacy.
Director Deborah Scranton gave mini-DVD cams to three National Guardsmen who agreed to film their own experiences during Operation Iraqi Freedom—as well as their experiences when they returned home. The film has no overt political agenda: the filmmakers made a promise to the guardsman not to betray their feelings and opinions, which are too complex to fit into any neat left or right categories. Sgt. Steven Pink, 24, a carpenter with ambitions to be a writer, keeps an eloquent journal during his stay in Iraq, a ferocious mixture of cynicism, black humor, deep feelings and rage. The most gung-ho of the three is 35-year-old mechanic Spc. Mike Moriarty, who announces that it was 9/11 that made him want to go to Iraq (he never questions the connection, or lack of it). The third soldier, Sgt. Zack Bazzi, is a Lebanese-American whose motivations to fight are deeply ambiguous. His mother, who fled the civil war in Lebanon to bring her children to safety in the United States, is horrified that he is back in the Middle East, putting his body in harm’s way. Is he fleeing her? A young man who reads The Nation and is appalled that his fellow soldiers don't have the most rudimentary understanding of Iraqi culture, he's nonetheless the most committed soldier of the three.
But these men have few illusions about the war. We see them risking their lives to protect the trucks run by Halliburton subsidiary KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root), who are making huge profits on every plate of food they sell to the Army. Even the most patriotic of them is dubious about bringing democracy to the Middle East. It's more, they conclude, about bringing money, and oil, to the United States. Meanwhile, we are riding alongside them as IEDs explode around them, friends are felled by unseen enemies and innocent bystanders, like the Iraqi woman crushed by their speeding truck, fall by the bloody wayside. These are images you will not see on the evening news.
By the time they return to their families, wives and girlfriends, they are changed men. Pink seems deformed by his rage, which can't find an outlet. Moriarty, whose injuries threaten his livelihood as a mechanic, says no amount of money could convince him to return to duty in Iraq, yet he never wavers in his support for the war. Bazzi is now studying international affairs and psychology at the University of New Hampshire. This movie is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand, on a gut level, the day-to-day reality of our soldiers’ lives in Iraq. It should be playing in thousands of theaters across the country—it isn't, of course—and it's riveting enough to glue any "X-Man" patron in his seat.
‘The Heart of the Game’
When filmmaker Ward Serrill began filming the Roosevelt High School girl's basketball team and their new coach, Bill Resler, he had no idea it would turn into a seven-year odyssey. The long ordeal was worth it, for his story developed twists and turns a Hollywood screenwriter would envy. For starters, it has the singular Resler, a bearded tax professor who had never coached before, yet who turned the Seattle high school's team around in one year with his mixture of sensitivity and ferocity. (Fond of animal metaphors, he encourages his girls to indentify with wolves. "Draw blood!" he screeches at them.)
The tale takes a new twist with the entrance of star player Darnellia Russell, an inner-city scrapper who's never been in such close proximity to so many white girls. I'll let you discover the complications that arise on your own once "Game" eventually rolls out to 27 cities, but all sorts of legal, racial and class issues arise, along with the suspense that sports documentaries so predictably and compellingly deliver: will it be heartbreak or triumph for the Roosevelt Roughriders? You will care, passionately.
‘Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul’
This irresistible, eye- and ear-opening music documentary is the work of Fatih Akin, the director of "Head-On," deservedly voted best foreign film of last year by the National Society of Film Critics. The German avant-garde composer of that film's score, Alexander Hacke, serves as our guide on this marvelously eclectic journey, which will not only turn you on to some extraordinary musicians but is an incisive portrait of a uniquely contradictory culture defined by its contradictions. There's no place quite like Istanbul, suspended as it is between Europe and Asia, the secular and the Islamic, the modern and the medieval, license and repression. When I visited Turkey as a judge at the Istanbul Film Festival, I remember hearing from my hotel room, late in the afternoon, the Islamic call to prayers broadcast over the speakers in the courtyard. Simultaneously coming from the speakers on the other side of the hotel's courtyard was Frank Sinatra's "My Way." Only in Turkey.
In "Crossing the Bridge" we meet Turkish hip-hop artists, Sufi musicians, street singers, the movie and pop superstar Orhan Gencebay (an eloquent cross between Elvis and Burt Reynolds), Kurdish singer Aynur, the great Romany clarinetist Selim Sesler, Istanbul break dancers and neopsychedelic rock bands and the sublime Sezen Aksu, whose plaintive elegy to old Istanbul sent me scouring Amazon for her CDs. A superb sociological and musicological essay, "Crossing the Bridge" opens door after door of musical revelation.