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Documentaries You Won't Find on Broadcast TV

Sampling the fare in the purview of HBO's Sheila Nevins, executive vice president for original programming:

May 28, 2000|PAUL LIEBERMAN

"TAXICAB CONFESSIONS"

To make "Taxicab I," which aired in January 1995, the filmmaking Gantz brothers from Woodland Hills eavesdropped on the banter of 550 Manhattan cab riders with five cigarette-sized hidden cameras. Their first hourlong show featured a crack-addicted prostitute who told of being rejected by her father, a lesbian who made a pass at the (female) driver and a cop who described how a man got caught between a subway and the platform, his body twisted like a damp rag--the man remained conscious but was doomed the moment he was freed and unraveled. "The randomness of life," Joe Gantz called it. And a documentary franchise was born.

"AMERICAN HOLLOW"

Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Ethel and Robert Kennedy--born six months after his 1968 assassination--spent a year filming the Bowling clan, which seemed unable to escape Mudlick Hollow in eastern Kentucky. Last December, not long after it was shown on HBO, Kennedy and Nevins traveled to Cuba for a screening at a film festival. "They like anything that shows America as a Third World country," Nevins says. But the documentary hardly took a knee-jerk liberal view of the Bowlings' poverty--they seemed to choose the age-old Appalachian life. Clint Bowling swore he was leaving after being spurned by his fiancee, then quickly returned. And since the film aired, "he's got like three marriage proposals," Nevins says.

"KING GIMP"

William A. Whiteford and Susan Hannah Hadary began filming Dan Keplinger when he was 12. Who could guess that the young man, afflicted by cerebral palsy, would graduate college and become an accomplished artist, using a brush affixed to a helmet on his head? Or write the documentary that in March won an Oscar? The announcement sent a shaking Keplinger toppling from his wheelchair. "Not many people helped," recalls Nevins, who was seated next to him. "Most sat there staring. And the [TV] camera cut away. They never questioned why this person was falling out of his chair. It was because he was so excited." This past week, Keplinger had his first solo art gallery show, in New York. "King Gimp" premieres June 5.

"PARADISE LOST 2: REVELATIONS"

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's first "Paradise Lost" documentary ran in two parts, for 2 1/2 hours, in 1996, following an Arkansas town's rage over the slaying of three second graders. Three teenagers, branded Satan worshipers, were eventually convicted, including Damien Wayne Echols, who called himself "the West Memphis boogeyman." The follow-up "Revelations," which debuted this past March, suggests the trio were railroaded for their differentness and all but pointed the finger at the Bible-thumping father of one victim. But the documentary generated controversy of another sort after disclosure that families on both sides of the case were paid "honorariums" for working with filmmakers on their first effort--and the father, remarkably, for the second. So was it cinema verite or paid performing when he went to his son's grave and ranted to the camera, "For you morons, infidels and fools who think I had anything to do with it, go to hell!"

"THE BEST OF REAL SEX"

They're in the 25th go-round of the decade-old "Real Sex." Every couple of years, they do a "best of" too, sifting through the scenes of suburban housewives learning to pleasure themselves, or of a sex toy factory or of Kansas couples studying erotic filmmaking or from that mud pit in the California desert. When the "Sopranos" mob drama became a hit on HBO, someone thought that one of the burly characters--Big Pussy--resembled a fellow once questioned in their regular man-in-the street feature. So they went back and checked. Bingo.

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