NEW HAVEN — Gorman Bechard, co-director of the New Haven Documentary Film Festival, believes that if you want to find the energy and artistry of American film, it won’t necessarily be at your multiplex.
“So much of what is put out by Hollywood, I don’t care if it makes a billion dollars at the box office on the opening weekend, it’s still just a rehash. It’s the same crap over and over again,” said Bechard, festival co-founder and a prolific filmmaker and writer.
In his estimation, the American documentary is where it is at for cinephiles these days and, furthermore, there is no better master of the form than Michael Moore.
The New Haven Documentary Film Festival — running from May 30 to June 9 and also a lead-in element of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas — will celebrate Moore’s contributions with a retrospective of his work, including seven of his most famous films including “Roger & Me,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Where to Invade Next,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Fahrenheit 11/9.”
“Michael Moore changed how Americans view documentaries by making the first documentary that made $100 million at the box office,” Bechard said. “In that respect, Michael Moore is the Steven Spielberg of documentaries.”
Moore himself will be on hand to introduce the films and participate in panel discussions about his artistic process. Bechard said what attracted Moore to New Haven was the opportunity to speak about his film work as an artist and not as a political raconteur. “He’s never done a retrospective of his work where he’s there showing the films … he wanted this to be just about his films, which is great,” Bechard said.
In its sixth year, over 100 documentaries will be featured in different venues around the city. “The films begin at 11 a.m. and go to 11 or midnight every night,” said Bechard.
With his landmark Civil War documentary, Ken Burns made audiences aware of the glory of traditional documentaries, said festival coordinator Karyl Evans. However, the humor and energy of Moore’s work put documentaries on the map for the general public and another generation of filmmakers.
“I think a lot of it is that the smarter filmmakers are moving to documentary,” Bechard said.
“Michael Moore made documentaries something the general public was more aware of, that documentaries aren’t all so serious and educational,” Evans said.
The festival was founded six years ago when Bechard and Yale professor Charlie Musser met then-local filmmakers Jacob Bricca and Lisa Molomot at a film festival in Montana. Stunned that it took a trip to Montana for four New Haven filmmakers to meet, the group vowed to make a community back in their home state.
“There is no real communication between filmmakers and the festival grew as a link out of that for filmmakers to meet, to mingle, to watch each other’s films and to find an audience,” Bechard said.
In the early days of the festival, it was an opportunity for local filmmakers to show their work. While that opportunity still is an important part of the offerings, the growth of the festival allows Bechard to seek out films featured in larger festivals. “Now we basically go and look for the films we love,” he said.
Diversity of subject matter, tone and representation is the festival’s governing aesthetic. Social justice-themed work is a large part of festival programming, but for those looking for beauty, quirkiness or deeply human stories, all of that is present as well.
“I really try to balance it out that for as many hard-hitting documentaries that we might have about community policing and some things like that, we also have fun things like a documentary about the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest,” he said. "There is something for everybody here.”
Local filmmakers can’t underestimate the festival’s networking opportunities, Evans said. Evans, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, often worked alone. Since getting involved in the festival, however, Evans now works with collaborators she's met there.
“A lot of it is by yourself and you wonder, is there anyone else out here struggling like I am?” Evans said. “My main mission is to create more community among documentary filmmakers in Connecticut.”
Both Bechard and Evans will show their own films as part of the festival, but there is other work they are excited about. Bechard is looking forward to “Billion Dollar Bully,” a documentary about Yelp’s strong-arm business tactics, and “Circus of Books,” the story of a family who ran a gay pornographic bookstore in Los Angeles. Evans is interested in “3 Seconds Behind the Wheel,” a film that follows distracted drivers over a six-month period.
The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction is certainly a hallmark of the festival. Bechard made his first documentary at the age of 50, a film about the legendary band The Replacements. Evans is currently working on three documentary projects, telling the stories of trailblazing women throughout Connecticut’s history. No Hollywood superhero movie can hold up to stories like that.
“It is just the best storytelling method on the planet right now. It beats books. It beats everything,” Bechard said.
For the full schedule, including films such as “The Hurdle” (the story of young Palestinian men using creativity and sport to practice their freedom amid conflict) and former New Havener Eric Schrader’s “Zulu Summer” (which begins with a radio DJ in Montana receiving a suspicious email from an African prince), visit nhdocs.com.