Still from David McDougall's <em>Gandhi's Children</em>.

Still from David McDougall's Gandhi's Children.

"Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,'' Deborah Kingsland laments. She is talking about the second-cousin status documentary has in Australian cinema.

There are no shortage of film festivals at Canberra's cinemas, but Kingsland and local filmmaker and writer Simon Weaving are curators of a new festival opening next week at Palace Electric called Stronger Than Fiction, and I want to know what sets it apart from the many others.

''Documentary gets a run in other festivals, but it's usually one film buried in a program of dozens of fiction films or a short film to complement the program,'' Kingsland says. ''But we have brought together a season of internationally award-winning feature documentary.''

Juliet Lamont's <em>Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls</em>.

Juliet Lamont's Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls.

''This is the golden age of documentary filmmaking,'' she says, ''which is something filmmakers have been saying since Hoop Dreams in 1994, but it is as true today.''

Kingsland knows of which she speaks. The Canberra native has recently returned to our city after three decades making and teaching documentary in Europe and Africa, and, having taught film at CIT and University of Canberra, sees a need to encourage young audiences towards documentary.

''If I was young and starting out, of course I'd be making fiction because that's all I can see being made around me,'' Kingsland says, ''but it is really hard to do great drama with all the things you need working in your favour, from good performances and a big, good crew, while there is all this life going on out there all the time and it's amazing what stories you can capture if you just tune in.''

Still from <em>Beth B's Exposed</em>.

Still from Beth B's Exposed. Photo: J Elon Goodman

Stronger Than Fiction is a festival of new international documentaries hand-picked by Kingsland and Weaving, with a line-up featuring a dozen films shot in eight countries on topics that include female wrestling, life inside a North Korean prison camp and a 1970s cult family, and with opportunities for audiences to hear firsthand from the filmmakers themselves.

Filmmaker Juliet Lamont will introduce her doco on Myanmar's first girl band, Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls (Thursday, September 26, 7pm), and director Brett Whitcomb introduces his chronicle of the rise and fall of the first all-female wrestling TV show in GLOW: The Gorgeous Women of Wrestling (Sunday, September 29, 7.30pm).

Canberra filmmaker Clare Young is an amazing young woman who apprenticed herself to Jane Campion for the gestation and production of her incendiary Queenstown-filmed mini-series Top of the Lake, with Young producing the behind-the-scenes doco From the Bottom of the Lake (Sunday, September 29, 11am) that will be included as a special feature on Campion's series for its DVD release.

Still from Clare Young's <em>From The Bottom of the Lake</em>.

Still from Clare Young's From The Bottom of the Lake.

Young's film gives a never-before-seen look behind Campion's creative process, something audiences can ask her about in person with an audience Q&A hosted by ScreenACT's Monica Penders.

Canberra-based ethnographic filmmaker David McDougall presents Gandhi's Children (Saturday, September 28, 11am), the latest in his ongoing series about children in institutions in India. Kingsland describes McDougall as one of our city's living treasures, a fact acknowledged recently by McDougall's lifetime achievement award from the Royal Anthropological Society.

''Yes, that was a bit unexpected,'' McDougall says, ''but I know a number of the past recipients of this award and I'm in good company.''

McDougall's recent work looked at children in academic institutions, but in Gandhi's Children he looks at a correctional institution and shelter for children on the outskirts of New Delhi that provides food and accommodation for 350 homeless boys, with the filmmaker living in the centre with his subjects while he filmed.

''I was trying to see as much as possible through their eyes,'' he says, ''to give a sense of their reasons for being there and their responses, how they coped with it.

''The film is about their physical and social environment and their relationships with each other, something difficult to project because many kids obviously had had bad experiences.''

After four decades of ethnographic filmmaking, McDougall says a good director needs to ''spend a lot of time with your subject, be patient, and not direct anybody to do anything for the camera''.

''Once you start directing them, then they begin looking to you to say, 'What do I do next?'''

''Getting on with people and treating them with respect is particularly important with children as with adults,'' he says, ''as people often condescend to children, but the thing is to enlist them as equal investigators.''

Other films on offer include French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert's chronicle of 24 hours in the life of Radio France in La Maison de la Radio (Friday, September 27, 6pm), while British film director Phil Grabsky returned to Afghanistan every year across a decade to shoot The Boy Mir (Sunday, September 29, 3pm).

''Documentary places you in contact with the actual subject and gives you a perspective that a narrative film, even if it is 'based on a true story', cannot,'' Kingsland says.

She has even managed to encourage ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell, to speak after the African doco Call Me Kuchu (Sunday, September 29, 5pm), discussing the interesting legal status of gay rights in Uganda alongside, no doubt, our Legislative Assembly's work in the area. Filmmakers Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall put their personal safety on the line documenting Uganda's first openly gay man and his work to change a government that wants him dead for Call Me Kuchu.

Kingsland says Palace Cinemas has expressed an interest in taking the festival beyond this inaugural outing, which, she says, is a wonderful reward for her hard work. ''I used to think I knew all about hard work because I was a filmmaker,'' she says, ''but it is nothing to pulling a festival together.''

Thursday to Sunday, September 26-29, Palace Electric Cinema. Tickets and full program at strongerthanfictiondocs.com