Controversial Docs Hit Road to Get to You

Bob Compton, Harvard MBA and venture capitalist, has a new calling: documentary filmmaker. And he'd like to change the way this country thinks about education.

So he's taking his film, "2 Million Minutes," which follows a half-dozen high school students in Indiana, India and China -- guess who's being served big dollops of science and engineering, and guess who's not -- to the conventions this month. Yes, he has an invitation from both the Democrats and the Republicans, and the plan in both Denver and St. Paul is to jump-start discussions on education with screenings of the film.

This fall Adrian Belic, an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, will tour the country with his latest film, "Beyond the Call," which he has already screened in senior citizens centers, high schools, junior highs, film festivals, military organizations and juvenile detention centers.

"Indiana Jones meets Mother Teresa" is how he'll describe "Beyond the Call." Three middle-age men take humanitarian aid, medicines and cash for schools and teachers to the world's most dangerous -- and most cinematically beautiful -- places.

Belic's first outing with the trio was to Afghanistan in 2000, but the men they had planned to meet had just been assassinated, so they rerouted to Cambodia and the Thai-Myanmar border. Aside from presenting the appealing Gonzo characters in exotic locales, Belic would like the film to inspire self-reflection and action in audiences.

And Patrick Creadon's "I.O.U.S.A." about "our ailing economy," in the words of the filmmaker, opened theatrically Friday, but what's really firing Creadon's jets is that the night before, a live digital feed went up in 400 theaters across the United States. After the credits rolled, the lights came up on a live town hall meeting in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha? Native son Warren Buffett was one of the panelists who discussed the film and its message about what all constituents should know about the national debt and their fiscal responsibilities.

Compton, Belic and Creadon are not alone: Filmmakers, concerned citizens all, are taking their docs to the streets, the conventions, the halls of Congress, the United Nations, town halls, college campuses, community groups and beyond.

Targeted Groups

Manic energy aside, documentary filmmakers are becoming more and more sophisticated about where and to whom they show their films.

"It's about niche marketing, identifying strategic partners, taking the film to its most interested audience," Robert West of Working Films told

"Linking nonfiction films with cutting-edge activism" is how Working Films identifies itself on its Web site; the group has linked filmmakers with the ACLU, churches, synagogues, United Way, Greenpeace and health-care institutions. It may be preaching to the choir, acknowledges West, but "sometimes the choir needs practice."

Citing Rory Kennedy's "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," which initially ran on HBO, as an example, Working Films linked up with Kennedy to screen the film before 600 congregations on one Saturday in October, through the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Together they created a viewer's guide and helped expand the national conversation on torture. "You think it's about terrorism, but this is a moral issue" was the message, West said.

Another issue where "a community screening with smiles" would have been inappropriate, said West, was one that began with the "horrendous hate crime" documented in "Two Towns of Jasper."

Early one Sunday morning in the sleepy Texas town of Jasper, a black man was beaten by three white men, chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged three miles until his body was literally torn apart. Filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams dispatched two crews -- one black, one white -- to Jasper to follow the trials.

With the help of Working Films, Dow and Williams linked up with a variety of organizations, including the National Council of Community and Justice and the National Coalition Building Institute for screenings.

"You had to be careful about the setting, who's invited, who's facilitating the conversation," West said.

Working Films is now working with Lisa Jackson to form effective partnerships around her film, which documents the stories of women who were raped and tortured by the Congolese army and foreign militias as part of the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" has already aired on HBO and it has been screened at the United Nations and The Hague; Jackson has testified before a congressional subcommittee and had an audience with U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, whose wife reportedly urged him to see it.

Will These Docs Make a Difference?

"Some of this is ineffable," Jackson told Screening "Greatest Silence" at the United Nations was instrumental in the passage of U.N. Resolution 1820, which elevated "rape and other forms of sexual violence" to the level of "war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide."

"It's all about implementation, of course," said Jackson, addressing the issue of how effective the resolution would ultimately prove.

Sexual violence, education ("2 Million Minutes"), inspiring Americans to take their chances on a bold humanitarianism ("Beyond the Call"), taking on the deficit ("I.O.U.S.A.") -- all are big topics for one documentary to take on.

But Jackson, Belic, Creadon and Compton can look to past documentaries that have made a difference.

Keith Beauchamp's "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," for instance, examined the case of the 14-year-old black teen from Chicago who, while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta in summer 1955, was beaten and murdered for whistling at a white woman in public.

Beauchamp's journey began long before he ever planned to become a filmmaker: As a 10-year-old growing up in Baton Rouge, La., Beauchamp saw a photograph in Jet magazine of Till's mutilated body in a casket; Till's mother had purposely left it open so that the world could see what had happened to her son. As a young adult, Beauchamp spent years pursuing leads and tracking down potential witnesses to a crime that was famous but whose details remained sketchy.

In May 2004, as a result of Beauchamp's dogged investigations -- and the attention the case received from Stanley Nelson's film "The Murder of Emmett Till" -- the Department of Justice reopened the case. While the prosecution failed to get an indictment, more facts about the case came to the surface, and, Beauchamp told, "This film had a profound impact with the families, in terms of receiving closure and learning the truth."

More recently, Oren Jacoby's "Constantine's Sword," based on James Carroll's best-selling book, traces the roots of violence and intolerance within Christianity.

One of the places the film takes audiences is the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where chaplains and the administration aggressively pursue a policy of proselytizing, where Jewish cadets are called Christ killers, where basic training includes not only physical and mental exhaustion but a haranguing by the chief chaplain for a) not being Christian, or b) if they are Christian, not proselytizing enough.

After seeing the film, Michael Weinstein, a cadet's father, founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a sort of clearinghouse for abuse in the military. A soldier serving in Iraq wrote to the foundation, saying that as an atheist he was hazed to the point where he feared for his life by fellow troops who were evangelical fundamentalists. A lawsuit against the Department of Defense has recently been filed on the soldier's behalf.

Yes, They Can

Compton has had audiences with Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain and the governor of Indiana to spread his message that the United States is falling behind in math, science and engineering.

So far, there's been one concrete change from his film: His daughters, once practicing for their swim teams four hours a day while their counterparts in India and China were studying chemistry and physics during those hours, are now swimming only one hour a day. All the better to compete in the global economy when they hit the job market.

Belic reports having "had young people studying medicine so that they could make a lot of money come up to me after screenings and say, 'This has really made me think about what I can do,'" Belic told "People have sent us e-mails saying they're spending the summer helping Katrina victims, or when they were touring Europe, they went to a homeless shelter."

Screening at prisons, senior citizen centers, juvenile detention centers, among other places, Belic said, "Friends of mine ask me, 'Dude, who's going to buy this? Why are you showing this here?' I tell them, 'Dude, that's not what this is about.'"