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Stories That Just Had to Be Told

Movies: With just one exception, this year's Oscar nominees for documentary feature focus on remarkable individuals.

March 05, 1997|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five documentary filmmakers are, it's safe to say, breathing a sigh of relief, having made the final Oscar cut. Since recent quality films such as "Roger & Me," "The Thin Blue Line," "Crumb" and "Hoop Dreams" were bypassed, they were taking nothing for granted.

"I was frightened," said Leon Gast, director of "When We Were Kings," the critically acclaimed documentary about the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight fight in Zaire. "Since a lot of my favorite films haven't made it, the nomination is a victory in itself."

Other than Gast's, each of the documentaries focused on a single individual whose life, the directors were convinced, was worth years of theirs.

Rick Goldsmith started researching "Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press" in 1988 when his subject, the noted muckraker, was 97. Jo Menell approached Nelson Mandela about cooperating with "Mandela: Son of Africa, Father of a Nation" two years after the South African president's 1990 release from prison; Anne Belle took five years to complete her portrait of the ballerina for "Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse." And Susan Dryfoos, producer-director of "The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story," interviewed the legendary caricaturist as far back as 1983.

"Hirschfeld started calling the project 'The Dead Sea Scrolls' because it was so long in the making," recalls Dryfoos, director of the oral history program at the New York Times where the artist's drawings appear. "Each question raised another. Each interview presented a new point of view. And Hirschfeld himself is a private man, not given to self-promotion or self-revelation. Though he's keenly intelligent, he's not analytical. Drawing is his language."

Menell and co-director Angus Gibson faced a different challenge. Mandela's greatest frustration was the media's tendency to portray him as a "messiah or demigod," he once said. One of his incentives in cooperating with this film, financed and distributed by Chris Blackwell's Island Pictures, was to set the record straight. Mandela narrated much of it, taking the filmmakers to his childhood home and Robben Island--his prison for 27 years. Three hundred hours of interviews and archival footage had to be pared down to two.

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"We got in so deep that we didn't know which story we were telling--the one about 75 years of struggle and the demise of apartheid or the one about Mandela himself," said Menell, a South African who worked for the BBC during the '70s and '80s since he was banned from working in his homeland. "We got our knickers in a twist because we were trying to say too much. Jonathan Demme, a producer on the film, told us to focus on the latter. On the wall we hung a sign reading 'It's about Mandela, stupid.' "

Belle, too, set out to humanize a legend--one she and co-director Deborah Dickson sought to portray as more than a "beautiful, porcelain, otherworldly figure."

"This is both an artistic story and a love story," said Belle, for whom this is the third in a trilogy of ballet-related films. "Farrell had an intensely close relationship--personal and professional--with Balanchine, who was 41 years her senior. When she married a younger dancer, he was devastated. Some reviews compared Farrell's story to 'The Red Shoes'--that classic about a ballerina who takes her life after being caught in a love triangle. While the parallels are there, this tale is less dramatic--thank goodness. Though Farrell considered suicide, it never came to that."

George Seldes, a controversial foreign correspondent-turned-press-critic who died in 1995 at the age of 104, inspired activists from Ralph Nader to I.F. Stone. But when it came to raising money, Goldsmith says, that legacy didn't help.

"The National Endowment for the Arts turned me down four times," said the Berkeley-based director who is making his feature-length film debut. "They like famous names and--especially since America's move to the right--people embraced by the mainstream. Still, since Seldes was nearly 90 then, I had no time to waste. Using generous contributions from friends, I interviewed him at home in Vermont. Seldes was very chatty but never thought it would amount to much."

"When We Were Kings" started out as a concert film, a documentary of the "African Woodstock" preceding the bout with a little fight footage woven in. The thrust of the Gramercy Pictures movie changed when the fight was postponed six weeks--and, again, in 1994 when producer Taylor Hackford was brought in.

"Taylor told me to build up the fight scenes and bring the film into the '90s," Gast said. "Differing approaches to race, everyone agreed, contributed to the drama. Foreman paraded with a flag after his 1968 Olympic victory. Ali called the Vietnam War immoral and refused to serve in the armed forces--that seems all the more impressive in this day and age when athletes are concerned more with sneaker contracts than with being role models."

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