This is a good time for documentaries, according to CinemaSalem owner Paul Van Ness.
Just two months ago, Comcast started offering documentaries that viewers can download for a fee. This commercial growth has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the quality of the documentaries being made, Van Ness said.
Now, documentary films are more likely to challenge an audience intellectually, he said, taking a balanced view of issues instead of crudely telling people what to think.
"People no longer associate them with paternal narration style," Van Ness said, "or with a condescending visual style where not much care is given to enthralling you with images."
The Salem Film Fest, which is celebrating its fifth year of screening new documentaries, has an important role to play in the development of these movies. In addition to providing an audience, the festival goes through a screening process to select movies, which in turn gives filmmakers a credential to help them gain access to commercial outlets.
Joe Cultrera, a Salem filmmaker who helped found the Film Fest and serves on its selection committee, credits advances in technology for a rise in the number of documentaries being made.
"When I got started, everything was in film, which is really expensive," said Cultrera, who has made five documentaries of his own and is currently working on a series for the National Geographic Channel. "The whole industry has gotten more democratized as video has come along."
That spread of democracy is also evident in the fact that half the films chosen for this year's festival were made by women — "which is extraordinary in this business," Cultrera said. "It's always been a very male-dominated field."
The committee only became aware of the number of women they had selected when the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, which will host a discussion at this year's festival on "How Media Covers Documentary Film," asked them to break down this year's films by gender, according to Cultrera.
So how do they choose films for the festival? The committee favors technical quality and storytelling technique in the films they choose, among other aesthetic qualities that make films interesting to look at. All the movies include narration or interviews to some degree, but they are driven as much by the characters they present as by the issues they explore.
The lineup this year includes "Hell and Back Again," which tells the story of an American soldier recovering from his wounds and was nominated for an Academy Award.
The 32 films on the schedule profile a number of other courageous, and sometimes quirky individuals, including the host of a cable access show in southern Ontario and a ventriloquist with cancer of the throat.
Some unique communities are also examined, including a 130-year-old Jewish cemetery near Berlin that somehow survived destruction by the Nazis, and a town called Darwin, Nev., whose 35 citizens live at the end of a dirt road in the middle of Death Valley.
The exceptional craftsmanship of these films would be impossible without contributions from some skilled technicians, such as cinematographers, editors and sound men, who don't usually get as much credit as a producer or director, Cultrera said.
The Film Fest has, therefore, invited American Cinematographer magazine and its executive editor, Salem native Stephen Pizzello, to host a panel that will discuss "the artistic and technological challenges of documentary filmmaking."
The Film Fest's other main criterion — aside from high-quality — is to present foreign filmmakers whenever possible.
"It's really interesting to see other people's perspectives," Van Ness said. "It's so interesting to escape the blind spots that any culture has about itself when it talks about the world."
There is usually a 50-50 mix of foreign and American films at the festival, which this year will include entries from Switzerland, Canada, Yemen, England and Germany.
It will also include, for the first time, a filmmaker from Salem, Don McConnell, who made a documentary called "Reggae in the Ruff."
A Salem State graduate, McConnell worked for the New England Aquarium for five years making underwater videos for exhibits and documenting stranded whales and dolphins. The job took him to Jamaica, where he met the band of aging reggae musicians that he focuses on in his documentary.
"Ruff" in his title refers both to the style with which the men play music and the lives they lead in harmony with nature.
"These guys play it the old way; they call it roots reggae," McConnell said, who is also producing a CD of the band's music. Local musician Henley Douglas Jr., saxophonist for The Boston Horns, will play some of their tunes at a wrap party.
Jamaica is breathtakingly beautiful in McConnell's film, but he also means for us to see paradise as a state of mind that these men have succeeded in cultivating.
"It's a philosophy of living in balance with nature, without chemicals — a relaxed view of letting it soak in," he said.
If you go
What: Salem Film Fest
Where: CinemaSalem, Peabody Essex Museum and Salem Visitor Center, Liberty Street, Salem
When: Thursday, March 1, through Thursday, March 8
Tickets: For individual films, $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, students and children, available online at salemfilmfest.com. Passes also available for all films ($75 adults, $65 seniors, students and children), weekend only ($65, $50), and all access, which includes special events ($100, $85).
More information: Salemfilmfest.com has complete schedule of films and special events, including opening reception, forums, award presentations and more.