Grab some popcorn: it was a good year for local documentaries

Dec 28, 2011

It’s been a good year for documentary films focused on issues in St. Louis and for local filmmakers. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” about the urban housing complex of the 1950s and 60s; “Brick by Chance and Fortune,” which looks at St. Louis’ architectural heritage; “The Gray Seasons,” about a four-year span with the Saint Louis University women’s basketball team; and "Give a Damn?," the story of three St. Louisians who explore the issue of poverty across three continents; have all been popular at film festivals in 2011.

As part of St. Louis Public Radio’s series, “A Good Year”, Bill Raack spoke with Cliff Froehlich, the executive director of Cinema St. Louis. Here's a summary of their conversation: 

Why Was This the Year of the Documentary in St. Louis?

CF: One reason is the access to equipment and the relative affordability to make these kinds of movies. In the past, when you used film it was difficult and very expensive. That's not the case anymore. It doesn't take as much money with digital filmmaking. Also, the success several years ago of Frank Popper's documentary, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" about the political campaign of Jeff Smith, probably inspired and motivated a lot of people to make their own movies. That film had a significant impact on a nationwide level. Finally, there's been a general rise in the documentary film overall. Some of the best filmmaking that's being done of any kind are compelling documentaries, not the traditional narrative movies.

Are These Local Documentaries Finding Audiences Outside of St. Louis?

CF: In a few instances, yes. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" is already established and getting national theatrical distribution. But that path is a very difficult one for all films to follow. I think a lot of people will find a lot in that film that's highly relevant to their communities. It's not just St. Louis that's being discussed. That's a key -- you need a topic that resonates in some way on a larger scale. I think "The Gray Seasons" will have a chance if it gets seen by the right people and exhibited in the right places. Sports stories transcend and it doesn't matter where they take place, there's universal relevance to them.

While the St. Louis University women's basketball team may not have any kind of national profile whatsoever, this film could end up raising that profile. "Brick" will have a little bit harder time. While there are other cities that also have the same architectural history, it has more of a parochial appeal because of the very specific St. Louis nature of the film. "Give a Damn?" has no limits as to where it could go if enough people see it.

How Will the Elimination of the Missouri Film Office This Year Impact Filmmaking the the State?   

CF: It's a sad thing, obviously. We still have the state tax credit for filmmakers but now it's much more difficult to find out about it and access it. That's going to be a problem moving forward in attracting people to come to Missouri to make movies. On the other hand, there's a flourishing local film base. Most are shorts but some are documentaries and there are plenty of feature films being made here in town, with no state funding. With this new digital revolution in filmmaking, anyone can make a movie. Not everyone should, of course, but anyone can. If you have a good story, dependable technical assistance and a couple of decent actors, you can do it for almost nothing. There are going to be plenty of opportunities for filmmakers to do similar sorts of work without any kind of tax credit.    

So you can experience a little bit about each of the documentaries discussed, here are their trailers: