Docu-sequels heat up big screen

Former United States vice-president Al Gore.
Former United States vice-president Al Gore.

Other than An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power and Buena Vista Social Club: Adios, Fahrenheit 11/9 is on the way

NEW YORK • It could be one of this summer's hottest sequels: In a world threatened by powerful unseen forces, one man goes on a desperate mission to save the planet. Only the star is former United States vice-president Al Gore.

"I'm glad we're not coming out the same weekend as Wonder Woman," he said in a recent telephone interview about An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, which opened last Friday (it opens in Singapore on Aug 17).

The follow-up to his 2006 surprise hit documentary about climate change might seem to face an uphill battle against Hollywood's big-budget blockbusters, but "I think there's room for both Wonder Woman and Al Gore," said Ms Diane Weyermann, one of the film's producers.

In fact, non-fiction films have become so popular lately that documentary sequels are now a subgenre unto themselves.

Buena Vista Social Club: Adios, a companion piece to the 1999 sleeper about Cuban musicians, reached theatres over Memorial Day weekend, and director Michael Moore is working to unleash Fahrenheit 11/9, a Donald Trump- themed bookend to Fahrenheit 9/11, his 2004 takedown of George W. Bush, which earned US$222 million worldwide. (Adios opens in Singapore on Aug 24 and Fahrenheit 11/9 is scheduled for a November release.)

To Mr Gore and others, this is a golden age of documentaries.

"In the crowded social media environment, points of view are displacing facts," he said, "and that's created a space in which well-made documentaries have become the most powerful and effective way to deliver a message with integrity."

The original An Inconvenient Truth brought in nearly US$50 million globally and won an Oscar for best documentary feature, although Mr Gore is quick to point out the statuette actually went to the film's director, Davis Guggenheim. "Some people think I won the Oscar," he said. "I correct them and say I have visiting rights to the Oscar."

This time, Guggenheim served as an executive producer and turned over directing duties to Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, married documentarians known for The Island President (2011) and The Rape Of Europa (2006).

Rather than focus on Mr Gore's climate-change slide show, which formed the original movie's core, Cohen and Shenk took a cinema verite approach, following the self- proclaimed "recovering politician" around for more than two years.

"We realised we had an opportunity to be flies on the wall of this incredible life Al Gore leads," Shenk said. "In the film, you see him meeting scientists in Greenland, training climate activists in the Philippines and dealing with the Paris agreement negotiations."

Sequels usually deal in known quantities, but when Trump pulled out of the Paris accord on climate change in June, the makers of An Inconvenient Sequel confronted one of the pitfalls all documentary makers face: You cannot control real-world events the way fictional storytellers can shape a narrative.

New material has been added to the cut of the movie that made its premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival.

"I was disappointed and a little surprised," Mr Gore said of the President's decision. "I had reached out to talk with him and his daughter Ivanka, who was a real advocate for the agreement. I thought there was a 50-50 chance he would stay in it, but I can't psychoanalyse him."

Lucy Walker, director of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios, learnt another hard lesson about docusequels when the film was re- edited against her wishes, as Ms Anne Thompson of IndieWire recently reported.

Walker did not have control of the final cut and the rights to crucial archival footage she wanted to use could not be obtained without the approval of the musicians, who wanted the film to focus more on concerts than politics.

The re-cut Adios came and went quickly, grossing less than US$150,000 (S$203,400), a fraction of its predecessor's nearly US$20 million take.

Director Michael Apted managed to avoid thorny archival issues for the pioneering series of documentaries he began in 1964 with 7 Up, which profiled 14 seven- year-olds in Britain. Every seven years since, Apted has revisited their lives and 63 Up is set for release in 2019.

"Granada has made every one of the Up films," he said of the British production company. "You've got to have access to the old material for these films to work and Granada allowed that."

Cohen and Shenk are confident the film will find an audience among people of all ages who are hungry for authenticity in this era of so-called fake news.

"The renaissance of documentaries is related to the way they're taking the place of investigative long-form journalism," Shenk said. "There's something unassailable about a documentary - you're not just reporting on Al Gore; you're with him."

As for the film's star, his quest to unite countries around the world in the fight against climate change provides plenty of inherent drama, especially given the opposition of the current US administration.

"I don't want to thank Donald Trump," Cohen said, laughing. "But Al Gore is going to look more like a superhero now than he would have otherwise."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2017, with the headline 'Docu-sequels heat up big screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe