Reel to real

Chris Walny just loves film. For years she vigilantly attended movie festivals all over North America, growing increasingly irritated that Detroit didn’t have one. The freelance film producer from Royal Oak finally decided to start one herself, using her own money and her own time.

“There’s like 12 film festivals in Chicago. There’s no reason we can’t have one,” says Walny. “I’m out to teach people that documentaries aren’t dull — we select cutting-edge and creative films. Documentaries are not the good-for-you vegetables of film. They can be really great. We’ve got a lot of great stuff that we’re really proud and excited to show.”

This weekend, the second annual Detroit Docs will showcase some of the best in international and local documentaries, with 65 films from 10 countries. Thirty directors will be in attendance, some flying in from L.A. and New York to discuss the ins and outs of filmmaking and their featured work. Dozens of local filmmakers are expected to attend.

Once fodder for academics and intellectuals, a new wave of documentary filmmakers increasingly is exploiting elements of traditional fictional film, using narrative, humor, drama, suspense and slick editing to heighten the viewer’s experience of a real-life tale. Detroit’s documentary festival is one of a growing number across the country, though to date there are only a handful.

“This is huge,” says Anthony Morrow, executive director of the Detroit Film Center, one of three festival venues. “There have been other festivals in Detroit, but this is the first one to strike a nerve.

“This is so important for Detroit and Detroit filmmakers, because filmmakers need to know they are creating art for someone, that they have an audience. Now we have something to shoot for.”

Walny hopes the festival will be a catalyst for more local documentaries.

Morrow says Detroit Docs is the impetus for a documentary filmmaking class at the DFC.

“Detroit has so many stories to be told, so many stories that haven’t been told,” Morrow says.

Because independent film in general is getting hotter in Detroit, the DFC is launching the Detroit Film Festival in September 2004, he says.

Walny had to hunt down local entries for Detroit Docs last year. This year, there were more than 20 local films submitted, with 150 entries total, including some award-winners.

Friday, Detroit Docs will feature films about music, including a flick about when Elvis Presley met President Nixon at the White House and Tokyo Below, a film about Japan’s underground music scene made by Detroit director James R. Petix.

Films will show at the Hastings Street Ballroom, the DFC and the Birmingham 8. Wacky stuff is planned, like a performance by Rockin’ Richard, a local roller-skating performance artist who once won the “Gong Show” with his act, scoring the maximum 30 points. A rock ’n’ roll photography exhibit at Tangent Gallery, adjacent to the ballroom, will accompany the festival.

Bands play all three nights. Seminars on Sunday will address how to market your documentary and psychological issues that come up with “reality” film.

An interesting moment on Saturday is an 11 p.m. screening of a doc that bills itself as “feminist pornography,” about women who claim the adult industry as their own.

Meanwhile, since Walny launched her event, a spate of other small festivals has popped up in metro Detroit. Also this weekend, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Service is holding its 2003 Arab Film Festival at Henry Ford Community College Auditorium. The festival includes some of the most popular films from the Arab world, including the Grand Jury Prize winner from 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Divine Intervention. For a schedule, visit or call 313-843-2844.

At the Detroit Docs festival, ticket prices — $10 for a day pass, $25 for the weekend, with student and senior discounts — include popcorn, candy, pizza, deli food and enough eats to satisfy meal-sized hunger, says Walny.

“We want people to just come and hang out and watch films, and not have to go anywhere,” she says.


For the Detroit Docs schedule, blurbs on the films and a ton of other information, go to


Following are reviews of selected documentaries on the Detroit Docs lineup:


Walk This Way

Rockets Redglare

Lustron - The House America’s Been Waiting For

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]