“You kind of form a bond with your subjects, in a way. You’re in it together. To a degree that people don’t realize, documentary films – or at least the kind of documentary films I’m interested in – are a collaborative undertaking with the subjects.” – – – Steve James
Nuit et brouillard / Night and Fog (1956) Alain Renais
Although he is remembered primarily for his very artistic later films that played with narrative structure and imagination, the early Renais examined stark reality of man’s inhumanity to man in this short documentary about the holocaust. By 1956, most everyone was aware of the Nazi concentration camps, but aside from a few seconds of newsreel footage, few in the general public had seen the visual evidence that had been kept from them because of its graphic nature. Renais wanted as many people as possible to experience the shock of discovery, and his film is uncompromising in its efforts to confront the horror and the shame of that dark chapter of history.
Naturally, both French and German censors fought Renais at every turn, fearing the effect public repugnance to the graphic sequences would have on modern military and governments. Renais would not give in, believing that the motivations behind the “Final Solution” and the complicity of occupied France were as important to the story as the harrowing images of the crime. Even the Israeli Knesset prevented a release of the film until the 1970s. While the film is uncompromising and watching it can be unbearable at time, Renais’ goal was that we make it our duty to fully understand the entire abomination, to grasp not only what occurred, but why and how. Night and Fog is likely the longest 32 minutes on film, but it embeds itself in your memory. As it should. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Leading into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy (2018) Thomas Riedelsheimer
British sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy, writes a love letter to nature in every piece of art he puts out. Not by any existing standards, Goldsworthy uses nature and urban environments themselves as the canvas. His site-specific endeavors are colorful, joyous, and sometimes thought provoking. His aesthetic is naturally produced, growing from a place of wonderful curiosity and a challenge to excel. Cracks on a fallen tree become jaw dropping pieces of art when painted in bright colors. Perfectly arranged stones atop a riverbed are more than that when they’ve been decorated with the bursting color of yellow leaves. We see a man so intent on pushing forward and leaning into life with no restraints that it becomes contagious to watch.
Director and cinematographer, Thomas Riedelsheime, carefully and respectfully documents this interesting landscape artist. With aerial shots as breathtaking as some of Goldsworthy’s works, Riedelsheime paces ease into our viewing, making this documentary an essential therapy of sorts. It’s the study of a man who sees more in the mundane. Every tree has a story to tell, and if you exercise your creativity enough, you will find something to appreciate about it. Life, like nature, can be patient. It can help you express things and find comfort in that release. “Leaning Into The Wind: Andy Goldsworthy” is an ethereal examination into an artist’s boundless roots to his passion. – – – – – Jessica Peña
Stories We Tell (2013) Sarah Polley
To make a documentary essentially about yourself could quite easily be considered a little self-important in some arenas. Important, yes, but director Sarah Polley has no agenda here to sell herself, inflate her ego, not even demonstrate aspects of her personality. Her family, and the life-altering changes of her heritage, are made the prominent force of the film. In fact, Polley displays here what is truly personal and private, to anyone, that is, the revelation that a huge section of your upbringing was not what you thought it was.
Through home videos, candid interviews with Polley’s own family members, and friends, Stories We Tell constructs a backstory of an altered parental perception. At times moving, this is always fascinating. Polley is shown to be meticulous in making this very film, with several moments have her ask the father she grew up with to read certain lines again. The filmmaker wanted this document to be perfect, a complete record of the secret, but also the views of everyone involved, and how it affects them, and more importantly of course, Polley herself. – – – – – Robin Write
Dear Zachary : A Letter to a Son About his Father (2008) Kurt Kuenne
In my previous entry, I mentioned how there are very few films that have left me unable to rewatch them despite finding them interesting and a fascinating watch. Like Capturing the Friedmans, Dear Zachary has had the same effect on me. I have never been so heartbroken, angry and griefstrucken as I have watching this documentary. I recall breaking down after class at university after watching this film, and being so deeply affected that I was unable to function for the rest of the day. That may sound slightly melodramatic, and I expect some may be scoffing at me, but if you are not affected by this documentary then you must be made of tough stuff. Kurt Kuenne decided to to memorialize a murdered friend (Andrew) when his friend’s ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son, making a series of interviews with those who knew his friend, as a way for the son to understand who his father was before he was so cruelly taken away. We discover that Andrew’s parents, Kathleen and David, have moved to Newfoundland, Canada where the ex-girlfriend has gone. They await an arrest and trial of the murderer and try to negotiate with the ex-girlfriend to visit their grandchild, Zachary, and seek custody of their grandchild.
Already this is a hard watch, but then the unthinkable occurs. Without giving much away, this documentary shocked me and I did not expect the events to turn out the way they did. It’s hard to imagine how Kuenne felt capturing this in “real time” but it comes across as raw and intimate, we don’t feel like an outsider looking in on the situation, we are part of this tragic story. The overall end result is an emotional punch that leaves us reeling and unable to shake the feeling of despair off, this is a tough documentary to watch but it is such a beautiful, heartwarming and touching film that helped the family find some kind of comfort. It is also a story of how enduring the human spirit is, and how we mustn’t allow ourselves to be consumed by grief. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Chavela (2017) Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi
This is why documentaries should be made: to introduce an audience to an extraordinary aspect of the world in a way that no book or internet article ever could. Isabel ‘Chavela’ Vargas was a cigar smoking, womanizing, alcoholic lesbian in Mexico before any of that was cool. Her career took off in the 40’s and had its ups and downs until she died in 2012. Along the way she was *very* close to Frida Kahlo and, much later, dear friends with Pedro Almodóvar. The Wikipedia aspect of the life story is fascinating enough, replete with original footage of the trail blazing ranchera singer and her epoch.
But what sets this film apart is the music. The footage of Chavela Vargas singing at the beginning of the film brings as many tears as it does goosebumps while her obvious passion bypasses the brain and goes straight for the heart. She had a soulful voice that came from some primitive place inside her, and she sang with all of her emotions on display yet with no fear and no shame. That contagious intensity is something no article or book can ever convey, and why Chavela is a prime example of a documentary that had to be made and begs to be seen. – – – – – Saint Pauly
Super Size Me (2004) Morgan Spurlock
In 2003/2004 Morgan Spurlock decided to prove the top brass at McDonald’s wrong and show that eating their food can be dangerous after a couple of teenage girls filed a lawsuit against the company saying that essentially, they were fat because of eating McDonald’s food. Morgan took the experiment to the extreme by eating nothing but 3 meals of McDonald’s every day for 30 straight day. At the start he weighed 185.5 pounds and was at a healthy blood sugar and cholesterol level.
Throughout the course of the documentary, Morgan also shows us what the food served at some schools are like and how American’s are eating unhealthily and making bad food choices, and how making smart decisions can improve the quality of your life. By the end of his 30-day eating experiment, he had gained 25 pounds and his blood sugar and cholesterol levels were horrible. On top of that, the doctors were worried that he was going to possibly go into liver failure after day 21. Yikes! Watching this film terrified me about how nasty eating fast food can be, and also, I was worried for Morgan that something really bad was going to happen. It’s a good thing nothing did, and in the end, we the viewer was treaded to a fascinating and entertaining documentary. Check out the film but stay away from super sizing. – – – – – Al Robinson
Warehoused (2017) Asher Emmanuel, Vincent Vittorio
With the candid, provoking feature-length documentary Warehoused, I was not only reminded of the power of the non-fiction genre, but once again lucky enough to gain further insight into parts of the world we still somehow take for granted. Welcome to Dadaab, Kenya. Spending quality time with the individuals whose lives are directly involved in the plight of the asylum seekers, unable to just work, and have an income, often be without family, the documentary also features the key roles played by the likes of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and such agency workers. A home, and the freedom of a a simple, essential component of life for you and me, is a tough reality to establish for many of those depicted here.
Many of us have not participated in the civil war in Somalia, for example, we huff and puff if we have to wait in line at the bank, turn away food if it has too much salt, consider it rude if someone doesn’t give up their seat for you on the bus. We don’t know how good we have it. Still. The people of Dadaab are seen to be making bricks, so in turn they can earn money to buy books to learn. That kind of grass-roots way of life has an optimism, an enthusiasm, even in those hard times, there is a fresh, practical journey. I was almost envious of their outlook and goals. – – – – – Robin Write
Hoop Dreams (1994) Steve James
On the surface, Hoop Dreams is the simple tale of two African-American kids trying to get into the NBA, but like an iceberg, 80% of the mass of reality lies below the surface. Their recruitment and journey to achieve their goal becomes an expose on how class, race, privilege and education greases the cogs of development for some, or clogs them into impassibility for others. It took James five years to shoot about 250 hours of film for what was originally intended to be a 30-minute short. What we now have is a snapshot of American Society and the maze to success that must be negotiated , and it’s a labyrinth of hurdles that varies, depending upon ones color and economic standing.
In addition to receiving universal acclaim, the film is also noteworthy for exposing inequities in the Documentary Feature category at the Oscars. Despite the fact that Hoop Dreams bested most fiction features on critical “best” lists that year, it shockingly failed to nab the Oscar nomination expected, leading to an investigation of whimsical practices by the nominating committee. Like the film’s protagonists, the film failed to “make the team,” a result that probably disappointed many but led to reforms to a process where “subjectivity” is actually discrimination in sheep’s clothing. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
All This Panic (2016) Jenny Gage
Stories on film about teenage girls is a fairly common thread, and a soaring trend. As is the coming of age theme – almost a genre of its own. So when something seriously special leaps from the pool, I have no choice but to lead with my heart and shout about it. Director Jenny Gage and cinematographer Tom Betterton collaborate to craft a mini-marvel of a documentary about teenage girls heading towards adulthood in Brooklyn. I say mini, as at less than 90 minutes this felt way too short. That’s a personal gripe that doesn’t alter my love for the project, only demonstrates my longing to hang out in the adolescent zone longer.
Even as a male, who grew up in the UK rather than the States, All This Panic sends you back to your youth. Those discussions with your parents like you believe they don’t truly understand you. Coming to terms with the struggles adults can go through before you fully grow up yourself. And, of course, those biological, social changes you encounter. Friends come an go. You can’t decide what you truly want. Sexuality. Finances. A thoroughly honest portrayal as well as a nostalgic reminder of our prospering adolescence. Even New York felt homely, and I am yet to visit. The Boyhood comparisons are valid, the transitions from scene to scene as well as the physical changes of the girls are immaculately captured. Wonderful. – – – – – Robin Write
De Palma (2015) Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
There’s no doubt that you have heard of the American film director Brian De Palma, the man who brought us Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and my personal favourite The Untouchables. However, who is De Palma exactly behind the camera, and what makes him tick? Rather than go down the usual route of having interviews, VOX pops and talking heads, Baumbach and Paltrow opt in for a single static mid-shot of the director discussing his films. De Palma’s work is explored in his own words, and his words only, there is no need for any other critical evaluations and input from outsiders. The document is broken up with clips from De Palma’s vast array of films, from his very earliest pieces such as 1968’s Greetings (which starred a very young Robert De Niro), to his most well known films such as Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981) and Scarface (1983). We have the director recount stories about his troubled childhood, with his overbearing mother and distant father (who he caught having an affair and confronted him about it on behalf of his mother).
Like Hitchcock, we can see how De Palma’s upbringing affected his work, and how his films often feature reoccuring themes such as misogyny and sexism. De Palma doesn’t shy away from the controversy, and has even been quoted in the past saying I’m always attacked for having an erotic, sexist approach — chopping up women, putting women in peril. I’m making suspense movies! What else is going to happen to them?” This document goes beyond the sensualized headlines and the rumours, to actually try to unravel the enigma that is Brian De Palma. By taking a look back at his work, we are left with the realization that they just don’t make films like that anymore, and whether or not you’re a fan of his work, you can’t help but find this documentary an interesting insight in the mind of the auteur. – – – – – Bianca Garner