The documentary Nobelity is a "what can we do to help?" movie, and as such, has an unusual distribution plan. The film's opening weekend is meant to coincide with Earth Day, April 22. The distributors have coordinated screenings with local and national non-profit groups at churches, community centers and independently owned movie theaters. In Austin, the movie will screen this weekend at a church and a wilderness preserve, and will play at Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek in May; check out the variety in the list of screening locations across the country.
Nobelity combines several styles of documentary: the old-school documentary talking-heads style seen mostly on TV these days, the personal documentary popularized by Michael Moore (although Ross McElwee does it better), and a sweeping panoramic visual style, like the film Baraka. The movie succeeds best at the panoramic visual style, and least when the talking heads go on for too long.
Director Turk Pipkin structured the movie's story around his quest to learn more about the world's problems and the ways he might help. He turns to Nobel Prize winners for information and advice, and travels around the world to chat with a number of Nobel Laureates. The movie alternates between interviews and outdoor montage sequences set in the regions where the Laureates were interviewed, to give us an idea of the personality of those regions.
One difficulty is that not all the Laureates give attention-getting interviews. Jody Williams, Wanjari Maathai and Desmond Tutu are the most fascinating subjects. It is difficult to sustain an audience's interest with talking heads, and a few of the Laureates have trouble explaining concepts in terms that are easy to digest during a documentary. Pipkin interviews some of the Laureates outdoors, which helps improve the film visually.
Another difficulty is that Pipkin isn't as engaging onscreen in this film as he is in person. (Pipkin is an actor, comedian, writer,and magician, with an amazingly colorful and varied bio.) The interview sequences include far too many reaction shots of Pipkin nodding earnestly and asking questions; it reminded me of TV news interviews. On the other hand, Nobelity is at its best during the few sequences where we see Pipkin interacting with people in other countries, as when he shows children in India how to perform magic tricks.
The personal style in this documentary seems forced and artificial. I don't feel like I'm watching Pipkin uncover some central important theme or message, like I do in Ross McElwee's films or more recently in Doug Block's 51 Birch Street. I feel like Pipkin decided on his message first, then constructed a movie around it, staging any necessary personal scenes. For a personal documentary to succeed, the film needs a meaningful, personal connection. "Let's save the world" is too general a theme for a personal documentary; if we'd seen more about how this movie affected Pipkin and his family directly, that might have made the story more compelling. Instead, Pipkin is more of a glorified narrator ... except in the Calcutta montage; I wish we'd seen Pipkin interacting throughout the movie with the people in each locale.
Talking heads aside, Nobelity is a gorgeous movie. If no one had told me it was shot in HD, I would have assumed it was shot on film. The outdoor sequences are truly striking, whether the scene is the Texas Hill Country or the streets of Calcutta. I saw the movie at The Paramount in Austin, where HD projection equipment had been rented, so perhaps we were getting a higher-quality visual experience than an audience who will see the documentary in a small church. Still, the movie is worth seeing simply for its visuals.
It's a tough trade-off: the talking-heads sections of the film will play better on DVD or in small community venues, but those audiences will lose some of the quality of the lush outdoor sequences. But the goal of the movie is to convey the theme expressed by Jody Williams: "There is nothing magical about change -- it is getting up off your ass and taking that first step." The sold-out Paramount audience applauded that line, as well as several others during the film. (They were especially fond of Desmond Tutu.)
Nobelity is a good call-to-action film that tries to avoid divisive political stands in order to appeal to a large audience. Indeed, Nobelity often feels more like a tool for change than a documentary. I hope it will generate a lot of interest in helping non-profit groups. However, I remember seeing Heather Courtney's Letters from the Other Side at SXSW and wanting to reach into my wallet immediately afterwards to help the women profiled in that film. I didn't have that compelling urge after seeing Nobelity. It needed more of a personal connection. Pipkin said after the screening that he wants to shoot a follow-up film focusing on the actions his family and other people try to help solve the problems mentioned in Nobelity; hopefully, that focus will provide the personal stories that Nobelity lacks.