‘This is the golden age of documentaries’; Docutah celebrates 10 years of international filmmaking

Stock image, St. George News.

FEATURE — It may never have Hollywood actors, producers or directors and scripted feature films, but Docutah founder Phil Tuckett says the St. George-based International Film Festival will always have the “crème de la-crème” of documentaries from around the globe.

Stock image, St. George News

From the beginning, many people, including other festival organizers from California, told Tuckett and his partners a film festival in the middle of the Southern Utah desert wouldn’t work. It would be “too difficult,” they said, too expensive and too labor intensive.

He remembers listening to a conference call one day, with all the gloom and doom and naysaying, and thinking, “This is something I want to give a shot.” He told St. George News, with his personality as an optimist, the naysayers just made it more desirous to start the festival.

He decided to pattern it after the successful Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, which also originally had its share of detractors.

“You’ll get a lot of people who’ll tell you all the reasons you can’t do something,” he said.

Tuckett said he admires the determination and vision of the people involved in Cedar’s festival, who had an idea and just stuck to it, traits he hoped to emulate with Docutah.

“The Shakespeare Festival’s been going for 40 years; we wanted Docutah to go 40 years at least, if not more,” Tuckett said.

Now in its 10th year, the festival begins next week, running from Monday through Saturday. Tucker says he expects it to be Docutah’s best season yet, with a lineup of 65 films from 30 countries, four DOCtalks and a number of special events. Many of the films will be screened in Utah’s Dixie.

The gatekeeper

To be a winning documentary and take home the festival’s coveted Raven Award, foremost it has to be 100 percent authentic, professional and demonstrate competency in the medium, Tucker said. When he got his start making films in 1968 working for the National Football League making short documentaries, he said he learned straight away that “a good documentary can be every bit as powerful, and in some cases more, than a well-done scripted film.”

Promotional poster for 2019 Docutah International Film Festival. | Image courtesy of Docutah, St. George News

Recently, Tuckett said some documentaries have been corrupted by the wave of reality TV-style filming, which has nothing to do with documentary films.

“Reality TV are scripted segments of a show where writers feed lines to supposedly real people,” he said. Any film that displays such tendencies is disallowed from the festival.

“I am the gatekeeper,” Tuckett said. “It’s my job to make sure that these hybrid, bogus elements that start to smell a little bit like a setup and reality TV, do not make it into our festival, for any reason.”

The festival received 320 submissions this year, and each one is vetted to ensure authenticity. The judging panel sees some submissions that feel scripted, Tucker said, explaining how that goes against classic documentary form.

“If you’re going to just pick people off the street to implement your ideas and the things you write, that’s scripted,” He said, chuckling. “If you want to do a scripted film, then stand up like a grownup and say, ‘I’m doing a scripted film.’”

Scripted feature films are too safe, he said, always created with the biggest audience in mind. There is nothing safe about a good documentary, he said. 

“It’s like a God complex that we are going to create the world that we want the audience to see,” Tuckett said. “You don’t get that in documentaries — to me, that’s exciting. You don’t know what’s gonna happen next because nobody wrote the script.

Hidden Gems

Festival awards are presented in 10 categories: Best Feature, Best Short, Audience Favorite-Feature, Audience Favorite-Short, Best Foreign Film, Emerging Artist, Humanitarian, President’s, Dean’s Award and the Mayor’s Award. In each of the 65 films that made the cut, the content had to be accurate to the subject matter being portrayed, something Tuckett said he takes very seriously. 

Besides catching a wave of recent popularity, he thinks that sense of accuracy is one of the reasons Docutah continues to grow. 

“We’re catching the interest of people who can see that our festival has the credibility of substantive material that is worth seeing. If you’re a fan of documentaries, this is the golden age of documentaries. There is no doubt about it.

Tuckett says he’s noticed the age demographic lowering for the medium. Several submissions in the festival were filmed with a younger generation in mind.

He said all of the submissions are intriguing and resonated with himself and the rest of the judging panel but noted there are a few hidden gems people may not have heard about. Following are Tuckett’s highlights of some of these lesser-known titles.


“Stuffed” examines different forms of Taxidermy throughout the world. Some may think there is something seedy or strange about the profession, Tuckett said, but it is in fact an art form of exquisite end results. Plus, the film includes an active discussion about hunters and having their kills stuffed.

Promotional poster for “Stuffed.” | Image courtesy of Docutah, St. George News

Are they monsters or are they protecting the environment by preserving it? It’s up to the viewer to decide. Tuckett said it is a good example of the kind of documentary that shows both sides of an issue, challenges rigid thought and gets people talking.

“It’s monumental,” he said.

“Song For Our People”

When Mustapha Khan, a music producer from New York City, was a kid, he attended a Southern Baptist church with a preacher who would say when white folks die and they go to the pearly gates, St. Peter ushers them to heaven, but when black folks die, they go to the gates and, instead of St. Peter, it’s their relatives in slavery who ask, “What did you do with your freedom?” That stuck with Khan his whole life, prompting him to produce a documentary and a song.

At a special screening event Thursday night at the festival, Tuckett said four of the people involved in producing the music in the film will be teaming up with eight Dixie State students to form a band and perform the song. Khan will also be on-hand for a question and answer session about his journey through the production.


Because of Tuckett’s background, he assumed many sports films would have been submitted to the festival, but he said only a handful have made it over the years. “Pooh” is the story of Derek Rose, a young man who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago and made a great reputation for himself as a basketball player. Drafted by the Chicago Bulls, many thought he would be “the second coming.”

“That was a lot of pressure and a weight on this young man’s shoulders, and it didn’t go smoothly,” Tuckett said. “The expectations were so high, they were crushing for him.” He was humbled, hammered, injured and rejected by his hometown team, setting him on a downward spiral, but he eventually made his way back to playing with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Meeting with Gorbachev”

Long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog filmed an interview with former president Mikhail S. Gorbachev to talk about what happens behind the scenes as a world leader. Co-directed by Andrè Singer, the documentary resonated with Tuckett, who found the conversation “fascinating.”

Chernobyl, Russia, date and location unspecified Stock image, St. George News

“As he was going through this disaster, you can see that in his dealing with it, you could see the Soviet structure crumbling,” Tuckett said, adding that anyone with an interest in world history should not miss the film.

“To Win It All: The Road to the Six Invitational”

Follow three top “Tom Clancy’s: Rainbow Six Siege” teams as they train and compete in an international video game championship for a life-changing amount of money in front of 3,000 people — all while juggling the complications of life, relationships and family.

“They’re cheering, in costume, for these six young guys on stage playing ‘Rainbow Six Siege.’ I didn’t realize this existed in the world,” Tuckett said. As part of the event, Dixie State will be hosting its own tournament, just as seen in the film.

“We don’t have two million dollars to give the winner, but they will get free software,” Tuckett said.

Festival soldiers on

Dixie State University professor Phil Tuckett, date and location unspecified | Image courtesy of DSU, St. George News

Tuckett, 73, jokes that he won’t be around another 30 years to see how the festival endures, but he said he does know they will need some wealthy local people to step up and help them continue to the next level. With the festival’s potential in mind, he said he’s a little impatient with the lack of funding.

“At least we’re started now. Who knows where we’re gonna end up, but I’m happy with where we are so far.”

In the perfect scenario, Tuckett said, Docutah will end up being among the top five documentary film festivals in the world.

Opening night for this year’s festival is Monday with a special screening of “A Town for All Seasons: The Story of Leeds” at Dixie State’s Eccles Theatre Main Stage at 7 p.m.

A full rundown of films and trailers is available on the Docutah website. Tickets for the festival are available online or at the Dixie State box office before and during the event. Tickets can also be purchased at Red Cliffs Theaters throughout the festival.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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