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100 Must See Documentary Films – File Four

“I like the idea of the documentary as a portrait. There’s not a chronological beginning, middle, and end structure. You build something in the editing room that’s shaped by getting to know the person and digging deeper, unpeeling the layers of them as you get to know them.” – – – Spike Jonze

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Side by Side (2012) Christopher Kenneally

Despite being around for over an hundred years now, filmmaking is still a very young art form, but it is one that is still changing and adapting as technology advances. The question is whether it is changing for better, or for worse. As narrator Keanu Reeves puts it, “Since the late 1880s, visual artists and storytellers have used moving images to create amazing works. Movies have inspired us, thrilled us, and captured our imaginations… It is only recently that new technology has emerged that is challenging film’s place as the gold standard for quality and workflow. Digital technology is evolving to a point that may very well replace film as the primary means of creating and sharing motion pictures.”

Side by Side investigates the history, process and workflow of both digital and photochemical film creation. It brings to light just what artists and filmmakers have been able to accomplish with both film and digital, with a range of different filmmakers being interviewed from the likes of Christopher Nolan to Martin Scorsese. Through various interviews with directors, cinematographers, colorists, scientists, engineers and artists we discover their experiences and feelings about working with film and digital, and see that it’s not as black and white as we may think initially. While some are relieved that they can view the footage on set before waiting for the dailies to be created, others are less convinced, as Joel Schumacher jokingly comments, he is “convinced that everybody is just looking at their hair.” This is a must-see for every cinephile out there, and it will leave you wondering whether we are now missing something special about cinema as we move into digital and leave the celluloid film in the trash can. I know where I stand on the debate, but what about you? – – – – – Bianca Garner

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Finding Vivian Maier (2013) John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

There’s a beautiful little scene in Smoke (1995) were one character shows another his collection of candid photographs from the same street corner of New York. In doing so, we too invest in the wonder of capturing life through a lens. I immediately thought of this when I first saw the enticing Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof came across a box of negatives at an auction and what he found inspired him to dig much, much deeper. The film uncovers Vivan’s life, via some accounts of those that knew her, were she was a nanny, something of a hoarder, and clearly an extraordinarily talented photographer from Chicago.

Finding Vivian Maier crams many of her wonderful photographs across the screen as the story is told. Her photos could also be intriguing, intrusive, and moving to some of those featured in them when viewed many, many years later. It is captivating not only because of the array of marvellous, magnetic photography on offer, but also because it presents and explores it’s own ethics. This documentary presents a private woman, who would not have liked this exposure, and we could have missed out on a treasure there. – – – – – Robin Write

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TalHotBlond (2009) Barbara Schroeder

The internet can be a scary place. As a teenager I know that there’s some real creeps out there. This documentary makes you question just who you think you are talking to online. For those who haven’t heard of this documentary Talhotblond is a 2009 documentary, detailing an Internet love triangle which resulted in a real life murder. It follows a 47 year old married man called Thomas Montgomery (screen name: marinesniper), who pleaded guilty to murdering his 22-year-old co-worker Brian Barrett (screen name: beefcake). The two men were involved in a love triangle with “Jessi,” who they thought to be an 18-year-old girl with the screen name ‘talhotblond’. While both men knew each other from work, neither had ever met “Jessi” in person.

In the beginning of their online relationship, Thomas was actually pretending to be 18-year-old man named “Tommy” who was in basic training and later deployed. His wife later discovered the affair and revealed the truth to “Jessi”, but the two continued to chat. However, while “Jessi” was a real person, Thomas had been chatting with her mother, Mary Shieler, posing as her daughter online. Jessi was unaware of her mother’s actions until after Barrett was murdered and her mother’s role in the case became public. Such a crazy story – you couldn’t make it up! It’s not the best documentary ever made but it’s a really entertaining one, and if you like good mysteries you’ll enjoy this one. – – – – – Kati Angliss

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Harlan County USA (1976) Barbara Kopple

Kopple originally set out to document some infighting within a coal miners’ union and stumbled upon a strike by the union against the Duke Power Company of Kentucky. As a result she uncovered the living conditions of the workers and their families and the thuggery and manipulation perpetrated by the company. At times, the presence of her camera actually prevents some of the intended violence, and this is where her film takes flight and positions the documentary medium on an entirely new level – the role of “witness.” The film is both enlightening and incredibly suspenseful as it immerses us in the action on and behind the picket lines. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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Maria by Callas (2017) Tom Volf

Maria by Callas, director Tom Volf’s first-ever film, takes on one of the best-known opera singers of the 20th century: Greek American soprano Maria Callas. ‘Takes on’ is an apt description, as Callas was as passionate off stage as she was on, and Volf’s film feels tentative at times as if afraid of her renowned mood swings. Yet Maria by Callas does nothing to dispel the myth of her temper because, as the name of the documentary suggests, much of the footage used here is from television interviews she granted in the course of her career, thus is literally her speaking about her own life and she pulls few punches.

The film encompasses the main events of her life, from her childhood in New York to her friendship / romance with Greek tycoon Ari Onassis, several of her performances and a startling collection of private home movies. The high-quality footage (the home movies, performances, news stories of the time are all impeccably restored) will be wasted on someone with only a passing knowledge of La Callas, and while opera aficionados and Callas fans won’t learn anything new about the diva, the glimpses into her personal life will hold a good deal of appeal. – – – – – Saint Pauly

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Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) Evgeny Afineevsky

Back in 2013 and 2014, the world beared witness to an extraordinary if not bloody and violent revolution take place in Ukraine. What began as a student demonstrations supporting European integration quickly grew into a violent revolution calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich. This documentary shows the events through the eyes of the protesters an shows the brutal acts of the police, BERKUT and the Titushki, leaving the viewer somewhat shell shocked by what they are seeing unfolding on the screen. We manage to get glimpse of the different types of protesters, their Ukrainian nationalism and pro-European sentiment. The documentary doesn’t shy away from showing us the violence, and from the very start, it documents the savage brutality of the law-enforcement agencies who were called upon to put down the protests. Violence escalates from beatings with iron sticks and tear gas to machine-gun fire and snipers with real bullets mowing down crowds of demonstrators.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that we see on-camera deaths occur, and footage of police and militia face down people armed only with bricks and fire. Some have criticised the document as being biased and one sided, and yes we hear very little about what’s going on in the Ukrainian Parliament. Regardless of whether it is or is not biased, we can all marvel at how director Evgeny Afineevsky, and his crew managed to document the intense 92-day struggle. This is an important piece of recent history which needs to be seen, whether Ukraine becomes better or worse for the uprising is still in question, but we can all recognise the importance of freedom in the testing times. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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Histoires du Cinema (1998) Jean-Luc Godard

This eight episode visual essay is as much a trip into the mind of a great thinker and filmmaker as it is a critique of cinema as art and industry. Intensely ambitious and visually meticulous, it washes over you unlike anything you have ever seen – a great quilt of a film patched together using film clips and soundtrack dialog samples interspersed with the odd bon mot from Godard, himself. The effect is more ethereal than academic, and represents just how malleable cinema can be. Godard doesn’t present cinematic history in the restrictive terms and mechanisms we are used to, but wallops us with montages and sounds that subliminally direct our minds and attention where he wants us to go.

It took him 10 years to complete and, clocking in at 266 minutes, is his longest film when the parts are viewed in one sitting. Godard approaches his task not only as a filmmaker, but also as a poet, artist, historian and critic as he ties the impact of cinema to society and history as the medium evolves. I used to recommend this for cinephiles only, but, just between us – seeing the world through Godard’s eyes once in awhile is damn good for anybody’s soul. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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Don’t Look Back (1967) D.A. Pennebaker

Although the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back depicts a young Bob Dylan tour in England, there is much about the film that offers insightful glances at those people around him. Fans on the chase, journalists (or those claiming not to be journalists), fellow musicians, as well as those working for or with Dylan. Director D. A. Pennebaker is not afraid to just let the camera roll, especially apt during scenes of confrontation.

Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman has a couple of key, and dare I say funny, moments of audacity and aggressive loyalty to the folk singer. The escalating squabble about the hotel room noise morphs into insults even as the argument disperses. Could easily be a scene from This is Spinal Tap. The influences don’t end there. Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There also hat-tips that specific scene in the documentary. Even F. Murray Abraham plays a music big wig named Grossman in Inside Llewyn Davis. And, of course, the opening video footage to Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” where he holds up and drops cue cards displaying chunks of the lyrics, has been mimicked many, many times. – – – – – Robin Write

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Going Clear (2015) Alex Gibney

Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison Of Belief is Alex Gibney’s fascinating and in depth look at former members of the religion and their experiences. He interviews many celebrities as well as non famous members to capture the consistent abusive narrative that interweaves throughout the documentary. We’re given a great insight to the history of the religion including the life of L. Ron Hubbard as well as their fight to become a tax free recognized religion by the United States government. HBO has stated that it worked with 160 lawyers to ensure not being sued by the frequently litigious religion.

It’s a wild and insane ride into a haunting world of real specters and cult like behaviors. If this film were a feature it would probably be classified under the horror genre. Some of the most interesting parts are interviews with Director Paul Haggis and Actor Jason Beghe. Their immense traumatic and painful pasts are on display and you can really feel for these former true believers. The human rights abuses that are covered by former members is shocking and appalling and it might drive the viewer mad not understanding why someone would stay. Gibney deftly spins a tale of corrupt power grown too big and the machinations that keep that power in place. – – – – – Rob Motto

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One Day in April (2016) Thomas Miller

One Day in April sets off as it means to go on, a steady pedal towards a chunk of local glory in Indiana. Often dashing on ahead, leaving us back here in the crowd watching. Somehow exhilarated and euphoric. The opening sequence throws you right into the mix, though the cycling relay is devoid of sound to begin with, the audio kicks in via a slow-motion collision. From there, a very brief history of the sport’s success and development – the sound of the crowd back in 1951; the buzz of commentary in the background; you can almost hear the ambitious grunts of cyclists.

The college competitors discuss the pride of participation, but ultimately crossing the finish line as the winner. They battle through intense training, qualification measures, a very regimented process. There are falls, injuries, there are time targets not met, there are disappointments on the way, as the big day in April fast approaches. One Day in April authentically depicts the grueling journey these students go through. There’s fine seasonal photography too, whether it be drifting snowflakes amidst a misty white climate, or the sun-shone avenue with tress of oranges and browns. – – – – – Robin Write

In case you missed the first three files of Documentary Films >>> OneTwoThree

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