SALEM — If you are tired of reality TV, you might want to check out some documentary films at the sixth Salem Film Fest, which opens tonight and runs through next Thursday.
Rather than forcing reality into a few stale formulas, as the networks have been doing for years, the 34 films at this year’s festival each provide a unique look at the world we all share.
“It’s a really solid lineup, on many levels,” said Joe Cultrera, program director for the festival. “We look for films that aren’t just one thing — but are good stories, well-told and technically sound.”
The film fest for documentaries is also a full-blown festival that will include an opening event for VIPs, film fests for high school and college students, a movie trailers party, a filmmakers big bash party and filmmakers breakfast, and three forums with panel discussions.
Cultrera, a Salem filmmaker who has created several documentaries of his own, worked with a committee to select the final lineup of films from 120 entries, which filmmakers from around the world were invited to submit.
“We’re open to see what was out there,” Cultrera said. “We don’t go in with a focus.”
They do, however, tend to favor films with a low profile.
“We don’t generally go toward festivals that have a huge distribution or a big-name narrator that will ensure success,” Cultrera said. “We’re looking for films that are as good or even better than those, but films that don’t get that kind of release and are made independently of the system.
“That’s what we’ve been successful at, is finding those kinds of films.”
One exception to this rule is “West of Memphis,” a controversial documentary about the case of current Salem resident Damien Echols, who was on death row in Arkansas until his murder verdict was overturned.
Tomorrow’s screening of the film, which Echols made along with Academy Award-winning directors Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, quickly sold out.
The festival has therefore added a second screening, Tuesday, March 12, at 8:30 p.m.
“But you also have ‘In No Great Hurry,’ a wonderful, small film, a real discovery,” Cultrera said.
The documentary profiles a photographer who always took his time taking pictures and didn’t stumble into success until he reached his 80s.
There is also a film about a fashion show in a Philippine prison, about a Finnish punk band whose members are mentally disabled, and one presenting two elderly women taking care of a small herd of cows.
“It’s an absolutely stunning film,” Cultrera said of “Women With Cows.” “It’s strange and wonderful at the same time.”
While a number of the films share complementary themes, each was chosen for its individual merits, Cultrera said, and the qualities that make a documentary successful will be the topic of one of the festival’s three forums.
Paul Van Ness, owner of CinemaSalem, where most of the films will be screened, has thought a lot about what works well in a documentary.
“The idea of effectiveness for me has to do with beautiful production values,” he said. “Because you can tell a great story and be creative in doing it, but if it isn’t gorgeous, people aren’t going to watch it.”
The kinds of documentaries Van Ness grew up watching in school have a bad reputation, which he feels they deserve.
“They were very didactic and paternalistic,” he said. “And their definition of truth was objective. They were boring.”
But in the last 10 years, as documentaries have developed new standards for truth — and truth will be the topic of another forum at the festival — they have also incorporated a wider variety of techniques to tell their stories.
“Documentaries have evolved into subjective, visual poetry,” Van Ness said, “and somebody’s processing of experience as they’re looking at some external situation.”
If such films are now influenced by filmmakers’ personal reactions to a situation, as much as by how scholars agree to define it, that doesn’t mean they are less committed to telling the truth.
Audiences can tell when they are being lied to, Van Ness said, and filmmakers who don’t exercise the highest standards in making a film will end up being ignored.
“Credibility comes from people intuiting that they are not being manipulated,” he said. “That they are not being told only part of the story, but the whole story — but from an individual perspective.”
If you go What: Salem Film Fest, International Documentary Film Festival When: Today through Thursday, March 14 Where: Screenings and most events at CinemaSalem, 1 East India Square, Salem. Events include Opening VIP Reception and 5-Minute High School Documentary, today; Movie Trailers Party, tomorrow; Mass Reality Check, documentaries by Massachusetts college students, Saturday, March 9, National Park Service Visitor Center, 2 New Liberty St., Salem; Forum: Truth in Documentaries, Saturday, March 9, National Park Service Visitor Center; Forum: What Makes A Documentary Good, Sunday, March 10, at National Park Service Visitor Center; Filmmakers Big Bash Party, with Big Ol' Dirty Bucket, 43 Church, 43 Church St.; Filmmaker Breakfast, Sunday, March 10, Hawthorne Hotel; Forum: The Making of a "Frontline," Sunday, March 10, Peabody Essex Museum, Morse Auditorium, 166 Essex St.; Wrap Party/Awards, Thursday, March 14, CinemaSalem Cafe. More information: Tickets and full schedule of films and events at www.salemfilmfest.com/2013/tickets. Individual tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for seniors/students/children. All-access passes $125 for adults, $110 for seniors/students/children. All-films pass, $110 for adults, $95 for seniors/students/children. Three-day weekend pass, March 8 through 10, $95 adults, $85 for seniors/students/children. Filmmaker Big Bash Party, March 9, $20. See website for pass limitations.