“It’s a funny thing with documentary films – you want them to feel as entertaining and as gripping as a fictional film. With a fictional film you want it to feel as realistic as a documentary film.” – – – Jonathan Demme
Dior and I (2015) Frédéric Tcheng
A large chunk of audiences had already made their minds up about the subject of the fascinating fashion ins and outs from, say, the house of Woodcock or the house of Dior. Seriously people, do you want to watch films or not? Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary has a sartorial platform, sure, but you could also argue this is a kind of coming of age for Raf Simons, fashion designer and the “I” of the title.
It is his pensive, nervy face we see, his tears of sheer overwhelming triumph, as he helps build and execute the fall Haute Couture show. Given the film’s technical flair, which it never overdoes, there’s a real visual empathy here. Captivating, compassionate, long before you start star-spotting. Maybe there’s more to this if you’re forte is the fashion industry, but Dior and I is so good, it really doesn’t matter. Embracing someone’s natural determination and joy, does. – – – – – Robin Write
The Celluloid Closet (1995) Rob Friedman, Jeffery Epstein
Originally intended as a treatise by the movement for LGBT equality, this classic documentary is now a historical record of the treatment of homosexuality in product put out by Hollywood. It’s based on a book by the same name by Vito Russo who, unfortunately succumbed to AIDS-related complications five years before the film was completed. The film’s impact was astonishing and essentially lit the fuse that triggered the social changes we’ve already begun to take for granted. Produced by HBO and narrated by Lily Tomlin, The Celluloid Closet examines the portrayals of gay characters in cinema, from the sissy-boys in silent film to the overt, perverted psychopaths in some otherwise well-respected dramas in the 80s and 90s. This film is the sort of record that corks the bottle, making a return to those intolerant times all but impossible. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Stop Making Sense (1984) Jonathan Demme
Whether it’s inaccurate sign-posting or essential to the genre of documentary, Stop Making Sense is essential viewing. Pretty fantastic for the ears too. I mean, there’s really no excuse to have not seen a live concert gig from Talking Heads. Directed by Jonathan Demme, who would use said band in upcoming soundtracks of his fiction films, we get to experience highlights of the three night tour for their album Speaking in Tongues.
The film opens with lead singer David Byrne on an empty stage. After the terrific “Psycho Killer” starter, Byrne is joined onstage by further band members, equipment, in turn with each song. Not to mention his expanding suit. Demme’s admirable touch is evident, one early shot of Byrne directly facing the camera and slowly swaying away would be transferred to the moment Buffalo Bill tucks his bits between his legs in front of the mirror seven years later. – – – – – Robin Write
Dark Days (2000) Marc Singer
People will live in extraordinary places, just as means to survive, in Dark Days we get a glimpse into a secret community living beneath the very streets we walk over. British filmmaker Marc Singer, shot Dark Days during the mid-1990s but it was not completed and released until the year 2000, Singer follows a group of people living in an abandoned section of the New York City underground railway system, more precisely the area of the so-called Freedom Tunnel. Singer became determined to shot this documentary after he discovered how many people were homeless after he had relocated from relocated from London to Manhattan. Singer befriended many in New York’s homeless community and later, after hearing of people living underground in abandoned tunnel systems, he met and became close to a group of people living in The Freedom Tunnel. After living on and off with them for a number of months, he decided to create a documentary in order to help them financially, despite Singer never being filmmaker before, as he saw the production of Dark Days as a means of gaining better accommodation for the residents of the tunnel.
The film’s crew consisted of the homeless individuals themselves, who rigged up makeshift lighting and steadicam dollies, and learned to use a 16mm camera with black-and-white Kodak film. Post production took years, as financial difficulties created delays, but the end result was a beautiful, moving and honest portrayal of this community struggling to survive against all odds. During filming, Amtrak announced they would be forcibly evicting the homeless living in the tunnels in order to reroute their trains through the tunnel, perhaps a disturbing reminder of how little we care about these individuals (we just want our trains to run on time). This announcement, plus the police presence backing the decision, prompted Singer and photographer Margaret Morton to go to the Coalition for the Homeless for help. There is a happy ending of some sorts, as eventually Singer and Morton managed to secure housing vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the film’s subjects, which enabled them to move out of the tunnels and into their own apartments. The documentary was praised by critics, and went onto win three Sundance Film Festival awards in 2000: the Audience Award Documentary, the Excellence in Cinematography Award Documentary, and the Freedom of Expression Award. I would highly recommend watching this film as a double-bill with The Divide. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Food, Inc. (2008) Robert Kenner
Some documentaries are historical records, many entertain and inspire, and then there are those that serve as a clarion call to avert disaster. These are the ones that meet with a combination of resounding opposition (from entities that have something to lose) and the passivity of a habit-induced public unwilling to disturb their current patterns. We are familiar with “Big Oil” and “Big Tobacco”, but what about “Big Food”? Kenner’s documentary is a nightmare portrait of factory food production controlled by just a few multinationals that are based almost exclusively on satisfying the gluttonous demands of fast food-addicted consumerism.
It’s not a pretty picture in that he focuses on the dangerous, unethical and wildly unsustainable practices of meat and grain production, chemical contamination from petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, and the uphill battle by the healthy eating movement to redirect marketing away from the cheap and easy. Kenner took three years to complete his film, fending off lawsuits from industry giants along the way. This is one of those documentaries that is so convincing in making its case that one wonders why things haven’t changed, why common sense; that is, until one comes across a critics who claim that sustainable farming cannot support the population and chemical giant Monsanto’s legal attacks on farmers who try and implement change. This is a tough run to watch – you may just swear off food altogether – but is to be commended for its demand for transparency. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
78/52 (2017) Alexandre O. Philippe
It seems almost alien to us to consider that before 1960, men and women weren’t seen sharing a bed together let alone a couple having an affair, but this was how Psycho opened with a soaring zoom into the seedy hotel room. It’s a hell of a introduction to what would seem to be our main character, Marion (Janet Leigh). However, it wasn’t Leigh in the shower in the film’s most infamous scene, it was her body double Marli Renfro. And, it is Renfro who we are introduced to first in Alexandre O Philippe’s documentary.
Shot in crisp black and white, we see Renfro among others watching the shower scene in the motel room where Marion checked in for the last time, it seems eerily surreal and one can’t help but wonder what old Hitch would have thought about this? It is refreshing to see so many revered and admired individuals coming together to praise something that inspired them. Of course, what is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary is the discussion of socio-economic context of the time when Psycho was released. The film discusses how society was gripped in a moral panic, between the increase of delinquent teenagers, postwar blues, the increase in depression and therapy and the decline of the Nuclear family. Psycho is a representation of all that fear and distrust which was occurring at the time. – – – – – Bianca Garner
A Walk to Beautiful (2007) Mary Olive Smith
Mary Olive Smith’s awakening documentary A Walk to Beautiful (broadcast on television on NOVA on PBS) won an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Programming – Long Form. It’s a diamond amidst the rough. A heart-swirling take on five Ethiopian women not only having to suffer physical turmoil of childbirth injuries, but also facing being shut out by their families and community. Their medical conditions arise from the lack of heath care and the very real and extreme poverty they experience.
Their spiritual and actual journey take them to the Fistula Hospital, where these extraordinary women can be treated. Accustomed to the conditions they could have only imagined are still tough to comprehend for them, so on the flip-side, when proper care and support is provided to these women in their physical conditions, their reactions hold an endearing apprehension. “I have come home cured. Share my joy.” one young woman says to her father as they embrace on her return. Wonderful. – – – – – Robin Write
Burden of Dreams (1982) Les Blank
Shortly after Coppola became mired in the Philippines with his nearly career-ending efforts on Apocalypse Now, Werner Herzog came face to face with his own demons while trying to film Fitzcarraldo in the jungles of Peru. Blank specialized in filming musicians for much of his career, so when he became entangled with Herzog and his disaster fraught jungle shoot that included hoisting a small ship up the side of a mountain using nothing more than a block and tackle and manpower.
Blank documents the loss of the two leading actors, the eccentricities of Klaus Kinski (who assumed the lead role) and the obsession of director Herzog who was determined to complete the project despite its being located in the middle of a tribal border war. It makes one think that the recent advent of CGI may have made life easier and less dangerous for filmmakers, but it surely has taken the somewhat sadistic fun out of it for those of us that enjoyed watching the struggle of an artist to realize a dream. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) Jan Harlan
Narrated by Tom Cruise, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures goes through each one of his movies and talks to various participants about their memories of working with Kubrick. For those who know very little about Kubrick, the documentary is an excellent career overview. Kubrick film clips include footage from his early films such as Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, to his more ‘’Hollywood films’’ like Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, to his far out 60s features such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, we also see clips from the later part of Kubrick’s life such as Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.
Directed by the late director’s brother-in-law and collaborator Jan Harlan, the film simply focuses on the life of Stanley Kubrick (rather than try to understand what made the genius tick). Not only do we see footage from Kubrick’s films, but also the photos he took in his youth, before discovering cinema.We have interviews from a wide variety of people such as Arthur C. Clarke, Shelley Duvall, Nicole Kidman, Jack Nicholson, Malcolm McDowell, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Matthew Modine, Sydney Pollack and Peter Ustinov, all give us a fascinating insight into this mysterious man. If you’re a fan of Kubrick’s work then this is a must-see and I believe that Kubrick would be flattered by this documentary. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Icarus (2017) Bryan Fogel
Acquired by Netflix, and winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Icarus was one of many exceptional documentaries to come out of 2017. Bryan Fogel delves deep into the whole doping scandal discovered through the sport of cycling. Happening upon scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory, Fogel finds an unlikely ally in his investigation. His experiment to demonstrate and prove that the standard for drugs testing for athletes is simply not good enough, Fogel takes up training himself, so he can feel the effects of the drugs himself.
Rodchenkov’s involvement was key, not only overseeing and supporting Fogel’s mission, but also revealing the Olympic doping in Russia meant they had been cheating for years and years. Including at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As a result, Rodchenkov was in extreme danger with the Russian government, an eventually had to be granted protective custody. It’s an alarming unfolding of events, the excess of which the Russian government still somehow denies. – – – – – Robin Write