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These documentaries are real contenders

By screening at DocuWeeks, features and shorts including 'The Power of Two,' 'Unfinished Spaces' and 'Library of Dust' qualify for Oscar consideration.

August 18, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

A documentary about two Japanese American twin sisters with cystic fibrosis, a visit to an unfinished Cuban school of the arts and a poignant examination of the long-forgotten cremated remains of former patients at a mental hospital are among the feature and short films that will be presented during the International Documentary Assn.'s 15th annual DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase that opens Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5 and continues through Sept. 8.

DocuWeeks is one of the ways for documentaries to qualify for the Academy Awards. "For a feature, you have to play a week run in Los Angeles and New York," said IDA executive director Michael Lumpkin. "For documentary shorts, you have a week run either in L.A. or New York."

Besides DocuWeeks, other ways for filmmakers to qualify their work include getting distribution and a theatrical release (as with "Buck" or "Senna," for example) and renting out a theater for a week in the two cities.

Though a place in DocuWeeks doesn't guarantee an Oscar nomination, Lumpkin pointed out that of last year's lineup, one feature ("Waste Land") and two shorts did go on to be Academy Award finalists.

For Marc Smolowitz, a documentary producer making his directorial debut with the feature "The Power of Two," getting a week's theatrical engagement at DocuWeeks has opened many doors. "The Power of Two" examines the tight bond between twin sisters Anabel Stenzel and Isabel Stenzel Byrnes, who have battled cystic fibrosis all of their lives and have become advocates for organ donations after they both had double lung transplants.

"Suddenly, we have a national movie on our hands," Smolowitz said. "DocuWeeks helps put it on the radar with press and all the buyers who handle distribution opportunities for documentaries. Everything going forward now is a whole new world."

"The Power of Two" is getting its world premiere at the showcase. "It's an interesting opportunity to be world premiering in a theatrical showcase as opposed to a festival," said Smolowitz. "The film is placed in some six festivals throughout the fall and now we are getting a lot of requests for screeners [for festivals] outside of North America, which is very encouraging."

Having their lives chronicled in the documentary, said Isabel Stenzel Byrnes, is "a bit daunting. But it's very exciting. It's beyond our imagination in terms of what we have been through in the past. We never thought we would be 39 and that we would be in a film. CF remains a pretty unnoticed and mysterious disease. So this is a wonderful opportunity to put this small illness in a public setting."

For Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, directors of the feature "Unfinished Spaces," the DocuWeeks engagement concludes a decade-long struggle to get the film made. "This is a tremendous opportunity," Murray said.

The film had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.

"For an independently produced film, it is such a special thing to have these theatrical runs for the Oscars," Murray said. "Being a documentary filmmaker is amazingly difficult, just to maintain standards. It took a lot of time just with the independent nature of it and doing a lot of stops and starts."

Lumpkin has a soft spot for the documentary short. "You get so many interesting films," he said. "So many of them are just wonderful, perfect little jewels of film."

Like "Library of Dust." Clocking in at 16 minutes, the film explores the thousands of corroding copper urns that contain the unclaimed remains of former psychiatric patients at the Oregon State Hospital (the location of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") that were discovered in 2004.

Veteran documentarian Ondi Timoner ("We Live in Public") is making her DocuWeeks debut with "Library of Dust," which she co-directed with Robert James, who brought her the idea.

"He was trying to convince me to make a feature film with him," Timoner recounted. But she thought the subject matter was too ethereal for a feature. "I was saying I don't think so. I thought it would make such an incredibly poignant short film, a short essay. I think the film touches our own mortality. I thought if we could keep it short.…"

For more information and a list of the screenings, go to http://www.documentary.org.docuweeks2011.

susan.king@latimes.com

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