“I’ve been encouraging documentary filmmakers to use more and more humor, and they’re loath to do that because they think if it’s a documentary it has to be deadly serious – it has to be like medicine that you’re supposed to take. And I think it’s what keeps the mass audience from going to documentaries.” – – – Michael Moore
Resan (The Journey) (1987) Peter Watkins
Watkins won the Oscar in 1965 for his 47 minute feature about the probable effects of a nuclear attack on Britain called The War Game, but he obviously had a lot more to say about military spending, nuclear weapons and social responsibility – this baby runs a cool 14 ½ hours, the longest cinematic film ever made. The 19 chapters were filmed in 14 countries over the span of three years and, having seen it at a festival about a decade ago, it’s a heavy but fascinating (and convincing) slog. If you are like me and like your facts thorough and irreversibly convincing, search it out. One can only wonder if Watkins has had a night’s sleep lately given our current dilemma of fools having their fingers once again on the button. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Cropsey (2009) Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio
Have you ever wondered whether some urban legends are based on truth? Well, in this 2009 documentary, two filmmakers (Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio) set out to discover the truth about the mysterious bogeyman called Cropsey. Both Zeman and Brancaccio grew up on Staten Island which saw a string of missing children cases in the 80s, and decided that this should be the premise of their documentary. As they began to shoot the documentary, they discovered that a man called Andre Rand had been convicted of the murders of the several missing children. When beginning filming the director sent Andre Rand a letter. A month went by with no reply so Zeman and Brancaccio decided to visit him in person on Rickers Island.
The filmmakers begin to question Rand, and at first he’s willing to participate but soon they discover that he is playing them. Not only do the filmmakers talk to the killer, they also interview the police officers who arrested them and the families who were affected by the crimes. This documentary gave me the creeps, and it’s not one that I should have watched alone. It left me a little disturbed especially when you discover that the islanders are still scared by the Cropsey monster, and it’s insane asylum is still accessible, leaving you wondering whether there really is a monster still living there. – – – – Kati Angliss
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) Michael Moore
The movie everyone was talking about at some period or other in 2004, aligned with its social significance. And a documentary too. Following the excellent, essential Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore turned his attention to George W Bush and the war on terror. A president who looks pretty good right about now, huh. Fahrenheit 9/11 caused huge controversy, dividing American audiences, but people had to listen to this.
It also took the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation. However, Moore shot himself in the foot a bit come Oscar time, boycotting the Documentary Feature category to campaign Fahrenheit 9/11 as Best Picture contender. It could have been a Best Picture contender, but the Academy were not ready for that, and Moore was not playing that game. Especially given what happened the last time he was at the ceremony, and won. On this occasion, while Bush got the votes, Moore did not. – – – – – Robin Write
Deliver Us From Evil (2006) Amy J. Berg
Upon first glance Oliver O’Grady looks like a friendly, trusting soul. But the truth is that he has molested and raped approximately 25 children in Northern California between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. It was O’Grady’s gentle and pleasant manner which helped him ingratiate with the dozens of families whose children – including one 9-month-old baby – he molested over a period of 20 years. As church leaders studiedly turned the other cheek. From 1973, when O’Grady’s first offense occurred, until he finally went to jail in 1993, he was shuttled from parish to parish in Central California, often after outraged parents were assured that he would be defrocked or at least removed from contact with children, it was apparent that those higher up in the Church were scared of causing a scandal and would rather bury the truth than allow victims get justice.
Roger Mahony, the Los Angeles archbishop who oversaw O’Grady’s protection for decades, is now a cardinal in the Catholic Church. This is the first feature-length documentary from director Amy Berg (who went on to direct An Open Secret, please see my previous entry) but she is a natural filmmaker who deals with the subject in a sensitive matter. This makes for an discomforting watch, especially because O’Grady himself also appears in the film, speaking candidly about his career as a sexual predator and recounting his misdeeds in detail, often giving interviews in a public area. The real crime is how Berg, the Catholic Church and its leadership has often protected those within the hierarchy at the expense of their worshipers. This is an interesting analysis into the betrayal of trust and the irresponsibility of authority and it will leave you angry, and outraged for how the Catholic Church allowed these crimes to continue for so long. – – – – – Bianca Garner
The Last Waltz (1978) Martin Scorsese
The Band (Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm) may have been called that because they were primarily known as backup for the likes of Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, but they were the ones who provided the solid base for the soundtrack of the late 60s and early 70s. The Canadian-American entity had matured beyond its role as a viable concert band – at least in Robbie Robertson’s eyes – so a farewell concert was planned to occur in the Winterland Ballroom, the San Francisco venue where they started.
Plenty has been written and said about the reasons behind the finality of the project, as happens with any musical group that has reached its peak, but the resulting concert, as captured by Martin Scorsese, was a grand and star-studded affair that included the likes of Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchel, Neal Diamond, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Neil Young – and these were just for starters. And, naturally, as it was Scorsese at the helm of the filming, the bank of cinematographers was made up of, among others, Michael Chapman (as DP), Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs.
Band member Robbie Robertson became close friends with Scorsese and later went on to be a consultant on Scorsese’s later films, including Raging Bull and The Departed. Depending upon who’s memory you tap into, he was also either the hero or the villain behind The Last Waltz as few bands can seem to be able to call it “a wrap” without some dissing and complaining, but the important thing here is the recorded record – and one that “should be played loud,” as the title card says.
The resulting film was a critical smash – more than one critic called it the greatest concert film ever made. It marked the end of an era that began with Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Now and peaked a decade earlier with Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, clearly defining, through it’s music, a cultural revolution that was a unique combination of optimism, rebellion and, of course, music. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Citizenfour (2014) Laura Poitras
You kind of pay attention when intelligence agencies, and the National Security Agency (NSA), are revealed to be taking part in some rather unethical practices. Like it or not, this kind of effectual citing is like glue to the mind. Citizenfour dives straight into this, a documentary taking large chunks of it’s time in an interview far off in Hong Kong with a so-called whistle-blower for the time being shutting himself away from the world – including his nearest and dearest.
Why? He has information about the whole access to information scandal that would land him in hot water too. Am I saying too much? Journalist Glenn Greenwald is at the center of reporting this back out to the world. A task I could have perhaps admired much more were I not still haunted by his more abstract and damaging involvement in the Zero Dark Thirty torture mud-throwing. Regardless, Citizenfour does have it’s fair share of blatant manipulative angles, as do many documentaries, but it is hard not to be compelled and intrigued by the direct involvement of director Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, behind and in front of the camera respectively. It unravels quickly into something relevant, something worthy of attention, whichever side of the fence you sit. – – – – – Robin Write
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014) Brian Knappenberger
You might not know who Aaron Swartz was, but you are probably aware of Reddit. This is the story of programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz. From Swartz’s help in the development of the basic internet protocol RSS to his co-founding of Reddit, his fingerprints are all over the internet. But it was Swartz’s groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that ensnared him in a two year legal nightmare. It was a battle that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26. If you’re interested in the Internet, technology, open publishing, or freedom, then this documentary is a must-see.
Aaron had a simple objective, to make the world a better place, and to help us live our lives so that they make a difference. The film traces Swartz’s life from the time he was a three-year-old prodigy able to read a meeting notice posted on the refrigerator to his later years, but does gloss over his mental health issues (including his ongoing battle of depression), which seems a shame and rather insensitive. We do get the opportunity to see Swartz’s video blogs, and the real story here is his battle with the government as he hacked into the MIT’s computer system. Swartz defended his action in hacking MIT’s computers in a manifesto that read in part, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves… It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.” You may not agree with his politics, but this is an interesting documentary that is a moving and disturbing story of a very important young man, and how the government tried to make an example out of him. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Blackfish (2013) Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes on the bold task of making us look closer at the tragic events surrounding the orca, Tilikum, and the whole killer debate. Whatever your idea of fun is, what is entertaining about taking young whales from their mothers, holding them enclosed from their natural wild habitat? That is not even the half of it I’m afraid. The enlightening, heart-stirring documentary is named Blackfish, a term used in the film to define “an animal that possesses great spiritual power, they are not to be meddled with.”.
Cowperthwaite’s evidence is vast in backing this up, but my God we knew this already. Didn’t we? Documentaries persuade and manipulate, sure, but where is the line drawn with animal cruelty? I spent a lot of my time watching this shaking my head in disgust at the treatment of these animals, in Blackfish centrally around Seaworld and their apparent lack of awareness, training and ethics. It’s an essential film for many reasons. Loss of human life is an awful thing, there is no controversy there – but with the very state of nature that leads us to this bad place, we one day as human beings might learn finally to leave well alone in the first place. – – – – – Robin Write
Listen to Me Marlon (2015) Stevan Riley
This is Brando on Brando for 103 minutes, and by using recordings made by the world’s greatest ever actor, director Stevan Riley has managed to create a beautiful insight into the mind of Marlon Brando. With exclusive access to his extraordinary unseen and unheard personal archive including hundreds of hours of audio recorded over the course of his life, we explore Brando’s exceptional career as an actor and his extraordinary life away from the stage and screen with Brando himself as our personal guide. The film explores at great depths the complexities of the man by telling the story uniquely from his own perspective, entirely in his own voice.
Like De Palma documentary (please see my previous entry) we do not have any talking heads, or interviewees, just Brando. The extraordinary and precious tapes range from confessionals through to self-hypnosis works but no matter what they’re labelled as there all an insight into the inner workings of a man that had fame and celebrity thrusted upon him at an early age, and struggled to cope with the workings of the Hollywood machine. Listen to Me Marlon offers a once in a lifetime chance to hear Brando speak openly about his life as a kid, where he recalls his alcoholic parents and his estranged relationship with his father (“I never had any money. My father was a traveling salesman. I was making more in six months of work than he made in ten years. He measured everything by money. He couldn’t understand how this ne’er-do-well son of his could possibly do that.”)
We hear how he dealt with becoming a budding star (“I arrived in New York with holes in my socks and holes in my mind.”). And how he became obsessed with the island of Tahiti (“If you took some kid and you put him up in Tahiti, he’s a completely different kid. All these kids of mine are filled with love from Tahiti.”) And we find out that later in life he became a man that held many regrets and unfortunately found himself apart of a number of tragedies that clearly affected his life. This is such an interesting and compelling documentary that I am sure Brando would have approved of, and certainly proves that “Everybody’s got a story to tell, something they’re hiding.” – – – – – Bianca Garner
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) Banksey
Is it real or is it Banksy? The documentary by the well-known but never seen street artist sets out to tell the story of Thierry Guetta, the camera-carrying immigrant shop-owner who breaks into street art. The story takes so many bizarre twists and turns that you wonder if it’s true or just another Banksy stunt. Non-believers would say the transformation and series of events is simply not possible while supporters claimed it was just too weird not to be true. Whether or not it’s true probably doesn’t matter as the film is more of a document of the mind of the street artist, an anarchic collection of spontaneity, non-sequiturs, and those oh-so-temporary public art installations.
Therefore, the film is real, regardless whether or not the story has been staged. As Banksy’s ex-spokesman said, “I think the joke is on…I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.” Personally, I hope Banksy lives forever. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer