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Long Night's Journey Into Day 

Jonestown on his mind: A documentary maker struggles with the ineffable

Wednesday, Mar 12 2003
November marks the 25th anniversary of Jonestown, and you can bet the loft that the media -- yet again -- will make wide-eyed sport of the mysterious deaths of 900 followers of Jim Jones in Guyana. "It's hard not to be morbidly fascinated by Jonestown," concedes S.F. filmmaker Paul VanDeCarr, "but meeting people who were either in Peoples Temple or lost family or friends at Jonestown, and putting faces on this awful tragedy, leveled that fascination out for me." As a 10-year-old in Boston, VanDeCarr was captivated by the 1978 Newsweek story and photo spread. "Jonestown was the first major news event that impressed itself on my imagination," he recalls. "My little mind was blown."

After Jonestown, as the working title of VanDeCarr and co-director Rick Butler's documentary-in-progress suggests, will take a more contemplative view of the aftermath of a calamity that is, like most, just another blip on the TV screen to those of us not directly affected. The film will spotlight several families, including a few who've never spoken publicly before. "They're most angry and frustrated and pained by the event itself, but lurid or sensationalist coverage only exacerbated matters," VanDeCarr explains. "Basically, I've spent the last year and a half developing relationships. It was just by sticking around and being in regular contact that they came to trust me."

Perhaps they realized that VanDeCarr is serious about transforming public perceptions. "Jonestown was about 70 percent African-American," he notes, "and yet most of the news coverage and documentaries focus on the white people who were in the Temple leadership." Or maybe they discerned his reverence for the role of storytelling in everyday life, honed at Harvard Divinity School. While the film will have a strong narrative, VanDeCarr is planning impressionistic and experimental touches to evoke what facts cannot. "You can never describe the ineffable," VanDeCarr says, "but you can point to the fact that it's there." The filmmakers hope to finish After Jonestown next spring; to receive e-mail updates, drop a line to

Swimming Ed Burns, your 15 minutes is up. The new indie heartthrob -- at least behind the camera -- is David Gordon Green, the cute-as-a-lamb-chop director of George Washington and All the Real Girls (now playing at the Lumiere). "What independent film provides is the structure for making small, intimate gestures seem epic," Green said during a recent visit. "The perfect example of that -- the best independent film of the last five years -- is You Can Count on Me, which takes a simple little relationship study and makes it feel like a 16-wheeler is riding through your living room."

Green's North Carolina-set movies are low-key, observational affairs geared to the pace of real life as it's lived in the South. "Americans can see themselves [in my films] in a way that they're not typically portrayed, that's more authentic to how they behave and less the idealized, glamorized cosmopolitan shine that [Hollywood] likes to throw on us," Green asserted. "It's incredible what you'll discover when you get off the beaten path and look a little bit outside Times Square and Sunset Boulevard. It's not aggression and it's not decomposition. It's about support and work ethic and getting a good nap at the end of the day." So which filmmaker does Green look up to most? "I'd say [documentary maker] Frederick Wiseman, just a guy that's off doing his own thing, totally solid, totally confident, totally distinctive." Green is set to begin shooting Undertow in Savannah with Dermot Mulroney next month, coincidentally right after Wiseman visits the Pacific Film Archive (April 2-7).

Detour Elliot Lavine, who probed many a dark corner of American cinema during his long tenure programming the Roxie, holds forth in "'B' for Best! An Approximate History of American 'B' Movies," a six-week class beginning April 30 at Film Arts Foundation. Enrollment is limited to 20, so don't dally; call 552-8760 or ... HBO reprises its Frame by Frame documentary series June 6-8 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Last year's one-week S.F. debut has, alas, been shortened to a weekend. ... Belated congrats to Saul Zaentz, who was honored with a Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Artists at the Feb. 23 BAFTA Awards. ... As we predicted (Reel World, Feb. 19), Alan Rudolph's The Secret Lives of Dentists will indeed play the S.F. International Film Festival; it'll open the fest on April 17.

About The Author

Michael Fox


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