July 2005  | This Issue

Richard Dreyfuss Scene4 Magazine

Richard Dreyfuss travels from Hollywood to "Docuwood" to save Democracy
by Arthur Kanegis


ichard Dreyfuss was at the SILVERDOCS Film Festival this June, but he wasn't there to promote his appearance in a new movie.  Rather, he was one of us all filmmakers pitching our proposals to make documentary films.   Dreyfuss came from Hollywood to Docuwood (As the LA Times has dubbed the Washington, DC area the third largest production market) because he is a man with a mission, a man who wants to create his "opus."

"America is in danger of losing our democracy," said the Oscar-winning actor.  In a Scene4 interview at the festival, Dreyfuss shook his head, incredulous: "To think that that we in this generation would see our free press, the fundamental pillar of our democracy, go away like this? One could not possibly foresee it.  And we can't let it happen."    

"We think we had the media we had a few years ago," Dreyfuss said, "But media has been consolidated.  Although it's five different companies it's not.   It's one company.   We don't get the details of the real news.  We're not offered the information to process."

"Today's media lacks any sense that it has a separate mandate, that it is independent and that government has no authority over it. This is crazy; it's not the way we were raised."

Dreyfuss came of age during the heyday of the Vietnam war when after a few years of accepting administration handouts, the media finally broke out and began to show people what was really going on.  Images of a napalmed little girl running through the streets, GI's throwing back their medals and people filling the streets in protest filled the airwaves compelling Dreyfuss to think for himself. He chose to register with his draft board as a "Conscientious Objector" he could not in good conscience kill another human being.  So he worked in a Los Angeles hospital, serving his country by healing people instead.

Today, war-ravaged children, GI resistance and huge world-wide demonstrations dwarfing the Vietnam days have actually occurred, but the images don't appear on TV so the majority of the US public remain complacent in their spoon-fed "Matrix."

This irks Dreyfuss:  "Media is not a Bush tool, or a Karl Rove tool.   When is the media going to turn around and say 'excuse me Mr. President, you didn't answer the question?'  They'll never do that because they wouldn't get the next interview."

"We're not offered images of the dissent.  But democracy requires an informed and engaged civic body. That's why I've chosen to make a documentary film to cut out the middleman."

To Dreyfuss, documentary filmmakers are one of the last lines of defense for freedom of expression at a time when it is under attack.

Dreyfuss was one of several key filmmakers to pitching to THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT pitch panel.  The project, a consortium of Canadian, British (BBC), French, Japanese, Danish and other broadcasters, chose SILVERDOCS as their exclusive session location to hear US-based film pitches.  They intend to fund a slate of ten films which will be broadcast around the world.


 "Everything is different now," Dreyfuss said.  "For a long time the consequences of having an informed electorate, of not voting or voting were dealable, one could survive them.  Richard Dreyfuss Scene4 MagazineNow if an inert and frightened civic body is manipulated by the media into placing control into the hands of a few crazies, the consequences of those decisions could end the world."  

"So we have to get back to basics.  Democracy is a fundamental touchstone, something our entire society can agree on.  That's why I'm producing this documentary.  It doesn't have a name yet.  It's the biography of the idea.  The biography of Democracy."

As I talked to this passionate man from Brooklyn, I felt a strong connection, perhaps in part because he was born in October 29th 1947, just six days before I was born.    I was also a conscientious objector, and his films have inspired me over the years starting with his role as a bright, contemplative teen in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973).  And who could forget the tension as his arrogant shark expert in Steven Spielberg's Jaws drove us all on the edge of our seats?; and the awesome, uplifting feeling that we felt when he discovered that we are not alone in the universe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

At age 29 Dreyfus became the youngest performer ever to receive the Best Actor for his performance in Neil Simon's romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl.  And stared in Who's Life Is It Anyway? 1981

In 1986 he starred as the husband of Bette Midler who finds a homeless man (Nick Nolte) in their swimming pool in Paul Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills a pointed comedy shaking up our concepts of wealth and status.  Also in '86 he narrated Rob Reiner's Stand By Me.   The next year he performed with Barbra Streisand in Nuts and in Barry Levinson's Tin Men.   I loved the scene in Stakeout in which Dreyfuss is a cop confronting an angry gun-welding guy, but instead of blowing him away, Dreyfuss talks him down, getting him to spill his guts out.   

Dreyfuss went on to do Mazursky's Moon Over Parador (1988), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), Postcards From the Edge (1990), What About Bob? (1991), and Quiz Show (1994) and then my favorite, his 1996 Oscar-nominated role as a high school music teacher who sacrifices his dream of becoming a famous composer to help his students in Mr. Holland's Opus.  When the transformed students played his Opus at the end, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.  

In '86 he also lent his voice to the sarcastic centipede in Tim Burton's The Giant Peach. Then he stared in Sidney Lumet's Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), Krippendorf's Tribe in 1998.  In 2001, he stared as another professor in the CBS drama The Education of Max Bickford.   In 2004 her performed as a Karl Rove-type politico in John Sayles' hard-hitting political satire Silver City.  

The festival, sponsored by The American Film Institute (AFI) and the Discovery Channel, is becoming one of the premier showcases for documentary films, bringing together hundreds of filmmakers with cable-casters and others looking for documentaries to finance or acquire.  

Among the festival's 89 films representing 43 countries are "Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice," a stirring tribute to the black female a cappella ensemble which for over 30 years has been belting out songs for social change; "The Comedians of Comedy," directed by Michael Blieden; "The Aristocrats," directed by Paul Provenza; and "Off to War," which follows a small-town Arkansas National Guard unit as they are called to service in Iraq.

"There is an absolutely clear and extremely urgent need for documentaries," Dreyfus said during the press conference announcing the SILVERDOCS slate.    We must exercise our freedoms under the Bill of Rights and "remind people that dissent is honorable, not dishonorable."

The  SILVERDOCS 2005 Award Winners are:

Sterling Award Feature:

Best Short:
POSITIVELY NAKED by David Nelson and Arlene Donnelly Nelson

Dr. Martens Music Doc Award:
YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME by Keven McAlester

Feature Audience Award (tie):
STREET FIGHT by Marshall Curry
and THE BOYS OF BARAKA by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Shorts Audience Award:
GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA by Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman  

For more information see www.silverdocs.com


© 2005 Arthur Kanegis
© 2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Arthur Kanegis a writer, producer and founder of Future WAVE (Working for Alternatives to Violence Through Entertainment) www.futurewave.org   He recently won the Moondance International Film Festival Screenplay competition for his script based on the true life story of Garry Davis, a Broadway comedian whose experiences in war propelled him into becoming the first World Citizen:  www.onemotionpicture.com  

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