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100 Must See Documentary Films – File One

“My hat’s off to documentary filmmakers. I don’t know if I’m ever going back to it. You’re treated like a second-class citizen at most film festivals. You take the bus while everybody else is flown first-class. If you’re a feature film director, you’re put in a five-star hotel, and if you’re a documentary director, you stay in a Motel 6.” – – –  Terry Zwigoff

Our 100 Series returns, with the Documentary Film. And about time. A vastly developing genre of filmmaking, both in its production, but also in its access to a greater audience. And yet it still remains a neglected field, outnumbered, but not necessarily outsmarted by the indestructible fiction cinema. Well, we are about to change that. With my editors, contributors, guests – passionate fans of documentary films – let’s throw 100 Must See Documentaries your way over thee next couple of weeks. Here is your starter for 10…

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Elena (2012) Petra Costa

Years to be actually produced, but a near-lifetime in the making. Petra Costa’s mesmerizing Elena lays across turmoil of the Brazilian dictatorship and brings to life the true beauty and pain of growing up, suffering loss, and the alteration of memories. An experience that will live long in mine. The subject of the documentary is very much the older sister of Petra, who having been frustrated by the dream of being a movie star, upped and left for New York. Much younger than Elena, Petra spent her remaining childhood as an emotional experience of absence and loneliness.

Petra, of course, has since followed a similar path, first as an actress, and now as a clearly expressive, accomplished filmmaker and story-teller. The personal imprint of the film Elena is visualized through some beautiful use of imagery, as well as enticing framing of the director herself as she steps into her own moving story. Home videos, Elena’s diary, various letters, and newspaper snippets, all portray pieces of a puzzle that have haunted the love and loss of her big sister. Documentaries have the power to move, inspire, persuade. This one both broke my heart, and filled it with love. – – – – – Robin Write

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Auhor: The JT LeRoy Story (2016) Jeff Feuerzeig

Towards the end of the nineties and the start of the millenium a new voice broke into the literary scene, the teenage author J T LeRoy. But, just who was J T LeRoy? To the outside world, they were a transgender young adult who had been born a boy, and forced to become a truck stop prostitute by their mother (who was apparently a prostitute as well). JT’s short novels struck a chord with the public and celebrities who wanted to become BFFs with the up and rising literary star. The thing was, there was no JT LeRoy, they were a work of fiction created by struggling writer Laura Albert. Feuerzeig documentary looks back at the rise and fall of J T LeRoy, featuring interviews with Albert as she explains her master plan and how she managed to dupe the entire literary and celebrity scene, using her sister-in-law to pose as J T by wearing a long blonde wig and sunglasses (yes this ludicrous disguise actually worked).

The documentary features actual recorders of phone calls “J T” had with celebrities such as Asia Argento (who had a relationship with J T!), Debbie Harry, Gus Van Sant, Tom Waits and Courtney Love (who actually snorts coke during a telephone conversation). It seems astonishing that people would fall for this con, but it also shows you how much we adore a good sob story. The real victim here is Albert, who had little choice but to continue living the lie to get her work out into the world, and as the documentary delves deeper into her background we discover that she has suffered tremendous amounts of abuse, been ignored and forgotten about by society. This is a fascinating tale of life and art intermingling, which asks us to try and separate the art from the artist. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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The War Game (1965) Peter Watkins

This Academy Award winner was initially produced for television (take that, AMPAS) but was deemed to be “too horrifying” for 1965 home audiences by the BBC. It did not air on that network until 1985, the week of the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.. Watkins employs a news magazine style in a tightly packed 48 minutes to illustrate the domino sequence that leads to nuclear conflagration and its effects on Britain. The Vietnam conflict was a “thing” in 1965, so this is where Watkins lights the fuse. China invades South Vietnam so the US begins attacking China.

The Soviets, in response, take West Berlin by force, which causes NATO to unleash nuclear warheads at the Soviets, who, in turn, retaliate, and Britain is suddenly faced with a barrage of intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Watkins shows the initial panic in the population, followed by the firestorms, flash blindness and complete destruction of society left without an infrastructure. The film was a byproduct of the “ban the bomb” movement in the 60s and played a large part calling public attention to the dangers of escalating tensions where nuclear arsenals are among the chips to be played. Perhaps, given the current atmosphere between Britain and Russia, it should be given a re-release. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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So Help Me God (2017) Jean Libon, Yves Hinant

The poster for So Help Me God includes the tagline, “It’s not cinema, it’s worse!” This line references the idea that the documentary about Anne Gruwez, an older, politically incorrect judge in Belgium, is not real cinema but rather an intimate look at this one woman over a period of three years. Co-directors Yves Hinant and Jean Libon captained “Strip-Tease”, a Belgian television series dedicated to finding quirky individuals and stripping them of all artifice. They do much of the same here, though the long format gives them the freedom to explore Gruwez with surprising intimacy.

So Help Me God teaches us nothing about the Belgian judicial process or criminal justice or absolutely anything else. It unabashedly eschews any effort at instruction in favor of a detailed portrait of an offbeat character. You won’t learn anything about anything but you will laugh and cringe at the exact same moment. You will be shocked by photos of murdered women, terrorists holding heads of their victims, and a disinterred body (note that there are some very graphic, uncensored images in the film), but even more shocked by the judge’s comments and judgements. – – – – – Saint Pauly

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Dirty Wars (2013) Richard Rowley

Named after Jeremy Scahill’s 2013 New York Times bestselling account, Dirty Wars is a transnational dark account of military operations. Scahill acts as narrator taking us through various middle eastern countries. He speaks with locals, Imams, and town figures who offer their own perspective on the war in terror. One of the most recurring themes in Scahill’s work is the unseen machinations of foreign policy. Here it’s all about deconstructing the Western narrative of Islamic terrorism as widespread menace. It’s more a side effect from 60 years of military operations.

Eventually you’re going to be sick of being pushed around by foreign powers, no matter how stealth it’s operations are or how gargantuan it’s tanks. It’s a harrowing documentary that raises more questions than it answers, and makes you wonder what ends all the anti terror propaganda really serve. Scahill sums up the 84 minute doc by connecting the secretive missions of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) with further endangering the safety and security of the American people.

“Somehow, in front of our eyes, undeclared wars have been launched in countries across the globe. Foreigners and citizens alike assassinated by presidential decree. The ‘War on Terror’ transformed into a self-fulfilling prophesy. – How does a war like this ever end? – And what happens to us, when we finally see what’s hidden in plain sight?” – – – – – Rob Motto

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Kedi (2017) Ceyda Torun

Never mind Bob, these street cats roaming around the streets of Istanbul are Deniz, Gamsiz, Sari, Bengü, Duman, Aslan Parçasi, and Psikopat. The very notion of a cat documentary, unless you’re a feline nut of course, may not appeal to the greater audience. However, and as much as I frowned upon the idea for a second, I was immediately intrigued. What director Ceyda Torun depicts here, is not just the day-to-day activities, befriending humans, the quest for food, even the odd cat-squabbling, but strands of genuine narrative. A day in the life like you have perhaps not seen.

There’s a fine score by Kira Fontana, in-sync with these cnadid cats and their very real personalities. From the opening shots, though, the cinematography from Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann is exquisite – capturing a beauty of the Turkish capital many of us only wondered about prior. I myself was head-shakingly impressed with animal coverage, the inner-city camerawork, pretty much at ground level, as the cats go about their day. Much of the delight of this gem is mirrored by many of the people that are interviewed, who get to mingle with these intriguing creatures. – – – – – Robin Write

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How To Survive a Plague (2012) David France

This moving and deeply significant documentary is about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and the efforts of ACT UP and TAG. This two hour epic by David France, a journalist who covered AIDS from its beginnings, was produced by using more than 700 hours of archived footage which included news coverage, interviews as well as film of demonstrations, meetings and conferences taken by ACT UP members themselves. France says they knew what they were doing was historic, and that many of them would die. For France it was his first film, and he dedicated it to his partner Doug Goul who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992. Looking back from 2018, it’s hard to imagine just how dire the situation was for the LGBTQ community when the AIDS epidemic struck, and what is perhaps most shocking is that there were many who felt the community deserved the epidemic.

What makes this documentary so powerful is the use of the archive footage which is expertly pieced together by France in order to give the viewer a complete idea of what it was like during these times when it seems no one could agree on what to do next. How to Survive a Plague went on to received awards for best documentary of 2012 from the Gotham Independent Film Awards and from the Boston Society of Film Critics. The Independent Spirit Awards nominated it for Best Documentary. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in the 85th Academy Awards The film also won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary and a Peabody Award. Not only did this film win over the hearts of the critics, but also the public and it currently has an approval rating of 99% of Rotten Tomatoes. This is a film that needs to be seen, as it is such an important part of contemporary history. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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Man with a Movie Camera (1929) Dziga Vertov

Vertov claimed to be a purist who purported that a documentary should be nothing but the unvarnished truth…and then he learned to tinker with camera tricks such as double exposures, reflections and very clever editing. This is not only a documentary about a day in Soviet life, it’s about the man filming it with his camera and about the audience watching the film.

It’s an ambitious venture, especially since Vertov wanted nothing to do with narrative dialog cards – he wanted his viewers to arrive at their own conclusions about what they were seeing. When it was initially screened, the film was almost universally derided as camera trickery and hooliganism, yet, by 2012, his film ranked eighth on Sight & Sound’s list of the greatest films ever made, lodged right behind 2001:A Space Odyssey and The Searchers and ahead of The Passion of Joan of Arc and 8 ½ – the only documentary feature to crack the top ten. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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The Venerable W. (2017) Barbet Schroeder

The Venerable W. opens with the serene countenance of Ashin Wirathu in Buddhist monk accoutrements calmly explaining that Muslims are like African catfish: they grow fast, reproduce quickly, destroy their environment and eat their own. This is not your traditional Buddhism, and filmmaker Barbet Schroeder’s documentary of the controversial monk takes pains to explain why it isn’t.

Through interviews with Wirathu’s colleagues, humanitarians in the field, Muslims in Myanmar and Wirathu himself (where he states, for example, Americans need Donald Trump to keep the country safe from Muslims), we are subjected to a horrible yet brutally honest picture of a powerful leader and his racist teachings. The film explores Wirathu’s role in planning, staging, and encouraging a variety of riots and violent demonstrations in Myanmar. Footage includes amateur video recordings of victims smoldering in the streets, too close to death to do anything but flail about while bystanders beat them with sticks. (Warning: There are some scenes of graphic, non-simulated violence in this film.)

The Venerable W. teaches us that no religion is safe from extremism, not even one as peaceful as Buddhism. Still, as the film reminds us, one of the laws of Buddhism is, “Hate cannot eradicate hate; only love can eradicate hate.” – – – – – Saint Pauly

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Man on Wire (2008) James Marsh

Is it ever okay to break the law? Some might say so, at least as long as it is for a good reason, such as fulfilling a dream to walk on a high-wire between two of the tallest buildings in the world, without a harness, and 1,000 feet above the ground. In order to do this, Philippe Petit had to plan it out with a team of others who would help him get the wire and all the materials up to the top of the buildings and not be seen by any of the security guards. On the morning of August 7, 1974 Petit broke the law by doing his high-wire walk for 45 minutes before he came back and was immediately arrested.

The documentary builds the tension throughout the film by showing us how he first got the idea, how the idea grew to a plan with his friends, and then to almost getting caught near the top floor by a security guard before finally performing his walk in-front of thousands of New Yorkers looking up to him from down below. You really feel the sense of danger when he was up on the wire, but also a sense of calm because he was so meticulously careful. It was like no one else in the world could ever do what he did for as long as he did, and not fall. It’s a wonderful documentary that everyone should see if they want to experience a thrill. – – – – – Al Robinson


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