“If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless, you’ve got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, for documentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you’re dumb and blind.” – – – Salman Rushdie
After Spring (2016) Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching
Imagine living in a war zone, it’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those living in such places as Syria and Gaza, and it’s far too easy to simply turn over the channel whenever the news erupts onto our screen. However, After Spring will connect with even the toughest, more unsympathetic beings. After Spring is a feature documentary that focuses on the Syrian refugee crisis. With the Syrian conflict entering its sixth year, millions of people continue to be displaced. The documentary follows two refugee families in transition and aid workers fighting to keep the Zaatari running, (the largest camp for Syrian refugees). Despite fighting for their lives to leave Syria, many of the refugees are eager to return to their home.
What the documentary does so brilliantly is provide us with snippets from home movies provide an illustration of Syria before the war, which help show us the stark contrast to the current lives of Zaatari’s residents, with several of them nostalgically recalling happier times for the camera. The camp is now home for over 80, 000 people, with more than 50 percent of the camp’s population being under 18 years old and perhaps more shocking is the fact that over 5,000 babies have been born in the camp since it opened in July 2012. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring has been executive produced by Jon Stewart and received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It comes at a time where President Donald Trump has been pushing for tighter border controls, and is a much needed documentary to remind us all that these are the real casualties of war. It puts a very human face on the refugee crisis, and there’s no way we can all continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend this is not happening. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Kurt & Courtney (1998) Nick Broomfield
Given its title, the documentary Kurt & Courtney could easily have been about the turbulent relationship between two of the 1990s biggest names in music. There is some of that in there, of course, in fact for the most part the subject of the marriage of Courtney Love and Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain is pretty negative. Nick Broomfield sets the scene, but essentially he is not shy to portray a rather heavy accusation that it was Love that killed Cobain, not suicide as officially declared.
A history of drugs, a tainted reputation, set upon by the media, Courtney Love was an easy target. She found further success with her band Hole following Cobain’s death, and this theory and that interview do Love no favors in terms of her involvement. Love was disturbed and enraged by the accusations, threatening legal action and demanding all Nirvana music used in the documentary be removed. Broomfield himself plays executioner in the film’s final moments, asking her himself before being removed. – – – – – Robin Write
We Are X (2016) Stephen Kijak
We are X serves as an accessible introduction to Japanese metal band known alternatively as X or X Japan. The documentary covers the group’s history in chronological fashion through a patchwork collage of band interviews, news broadcasts and quotes from various musicologists and celebrities. The passion the music exudes and the reaction it elicits from the rabid fans is eye-opening and, at its best, this documentary gives us a taste of what it feels like to be an X groupie.
Unfortunately, the rock stories that the film briefly touches on (lead singer Toshi leaving the band to join a religious cult, bass player Taiji getting fired from the band and eventually committing suicide in prison after an air rage incident, lead guitarist Hide’s apparent suicide causing a riot and three copycat deaths among Japanese youth) take a back seat to the long, introspective interviews of drummer and founding member Yoshiki. So much attention is focused on him that the film should’ve been called We are Yoshiki, but had that been the case, the movie would’ve attracted far fewer viewers – which is exactly why this documentary ultimately falls short. – – – – – Saint Pauly
Tower (2016) Keith Maitland
The horrific shootings at the University of Texas, Austin, on 1st August 1966 are innovatively memorialized in Tower. A documentary that acts beyond a mere reconstruction with actual footage and moving story-telling via animation traced over live action film known as rotoscoping. See Waking Life or Waltz With Bashir. The effectiveness of such a rarely used technique in this instance offers a fresh take on historical accounting. But remains a moving account all the same.
In such an essential account as this you could pick one of many, many moments. The film’s poster depicts one such heart-warming moment, when one of the first to be in the line of fire, a pregnant student named Claire, believes her time is up as she lays helpless baking in the Texan heat. Moments earlier she was strolling the tranquil grounds with her boyfriend. He is now seemingly dead and her imminent future is unknown. As many were terrified to help Claire, one savior runs into the open target zone, with shots still being fired, and lays close by Claire. Rita risks her own life to simply talk to the injured young woman, keeping her hope alive. It’s one of the most poignant displays of bravery you’ll see. Not only does the gun crime issue ring true today, Tower also has ample displays of astonishing humanity, making this all the more relevant. – – – – – Robin Write
Nanook of the North (1922) Robert J. Flaherty
In, 1926, Scotsman John Grierson invented the term “documentary” largely due to the films of adventurer/filmmaker Robert J Flaherty, the man responsible for the first commercially successful feature-length doc, Nanook of the North. There was no template for Flaherty to follow when he dragged his cameras and film-processing equipment to northern Quebec for his second attempt at filming the Inuit lifestyle, so his film is part travelogue, part anthropological study and, to generate interest, part fictionalized drama. Falherty’s goal was to capture an “authentic” lifestyle that was fast-disappearing, so he did a fair amount of pre-staging events, a practice that would be considered unethical today. The two best sequences in the 79-minute silent involve the building of an igloo and a walrus hunt. But this was 1920, remember – no snowmobiles, large and bulky –and mostly immobile – camera equipment, and freezing conditions. Without lightweight
Gore-Tex outerwear, glove warmers, or prepackaged dehydrated gourmet concoctions that would be common staples on modern day Arctic excursions, Flaherty’s experience of documenting a subsistence–based society likely took on considerably more gravitas, so his so-called manipulations, such as altering the igloo building sequence to accommodate his camera and insisting his subjects use traditional harpoons instead of rifles, with which they were already familiar, are forgivable. The authenticity of the project – and the people of the North – shines through, recorded for history just in time, before it changed forever. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) Andrew Jarecki
Capturing the Friedmans is not an easy watch, and upon first viewing it left me shocked and just numb. It was such a chilling, disturbing and uncomfortable documentary that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. The documentary centers around the destruction of a family after Arnold Friedman (patriarch) and the youngest son, Jesse, are accused of committing horrible acts of a sexual nature against children. By using footage filmed by the actual Friedmans we get an unique insight into the events and reactions leading up and during the trial of Jesse and Arnold. We witness a breakdown of a family from the inside which makes for a fascinating, if not discomforting watch. Throughout the documentary we see how the eldest son, David, is in denial of his father’s homosexuality and pedophilia. How the mother Elaine Friedman is a woman who had lost all identity of herself and eventually begins to turn on David (who still resents his mother to this day). The only son not to appear in front of the camera is Seth (the middle son) who refused to be interviewed for the documentary but he is shown in home videos, his absence speaking louder than words.
The documentary starts to pick a part the accusations made by the victims and then that’s when things become even more confusing, just who is telling the truth and who can you trust? Considering the recent news occurring (the Weinstein scandal and the #metoo movement), this documentary reveals that there’s layers to every crime and that nothing can be taken at face value. This is definitely a film to seek out if you are interested in human psychology, as Capturing The Friedmans is a fascinating character study and a devastating one to watch. It will be one of those documentaries that will stay with you long after you have switched it off. It has been over five years since I have watched it, but I just can’t build up the nerve to watch it again, there’s very fews films that have had quite that effect on me. – – – – – Bianca Garner
Life Itself (2014) Steve James
That feeling, that deep set of emotions, that simply rise to the surface as quivers or tears, was something along the lines of my experience within a matter of seconds of Life Itself. An incredibly warm, inviting, and painful documentary tribute to a great film critic. No, the great film critic. Those opening moments were instant reminders of what Roger Ebert represented. Entertainment. Chicago. Movies. Passion. And now loss. A legend of his field, doing what he was doing for longer than many of us have been on the planet.
And we are also invited to meet his friends, he family, his own critics, his fans. Seeing the strength of Ebert’s wife Chaz, or Martin Scorsese with a frog in his throat, all contribute honest and emotional views on the man and his work. As does the volatile relationship and deep friendship with the late Gene Siskel. Life Itself of course focuses on Roger Ebert, the man who loves the movies and loves writing, and his love was clear to see even in his final days when his illness slowly started to take him away. – – – – – Robin Write
Grizzly Man (2005) Werner Herzog
Every one knows that wild bears are dangerous. They will kill you if you get too close, or if they come near you and feel like you are a threat to them in any way. Timothy Treadwell was a man who ignored this idea so much, that ultimately, he died by one in a remote area of the Alaskan wilderness. In his mind, bears are friends who need to be looked after, and he was the guy to do it. He loved the bears, and thought of them more like his family, and felt that the government and the National Park authorities were the real danger.
The film is written and directed by Werner Herzog, and through the course of the film, he narrates and gives his opinions on Timothy Treadwell and his work and research, and what it must’ve been like to live for months around these wild animals. It was so well crafted and the story well told that it brought me to tears because it felt like we got to know him so closely that when he felt anger and pain for the bears, so did I. It’s a beautiful thing to see someone live their life so passionately for something they so deeply believe in, and in doing so risk their life because they feel it’s right. Great man, great story, and great film. – – – – – Al Robinson
The Thin Blue Line (1988) Errol Morris
The title term is actually a symbol that represents the position of law enforcement in the community and its purpose of maintaining order and safety, and Morris uses this as his starting point to re-examine a murder conviction (complete with a death sentence). His efforts uncovered five counts of perjury in the case, and initiated the overturning of the sentence and the release of the wrongfully convicted man.
Morris turns a potentially dry procedural essay into a riveting film by adding reenactments, stunning cinematography and a luminous Phillip Glass score. The film reaped critical praise, as well, and was named Best Documentary by numerous circles, only to be disqualified for the Oscar by the nominating committee, who claimed it was marketed as a non-fiction feature, not as a documentary. Go figure… – – – – – Steve Schweighofer
Afghan Star (2009) Havana Marking
Director Havana Marking’s thought-provoking documentary Afghan Star, sends out a lot of the right messages in the discourse of a rather strict regime. The opening moments are powerful all on their own, as a blind Afghan boy sings in a jolly manner, talking about the happiness he feels when he hears music. Afghan Star, then, establishes a sound platform for the struggles in Afghanistan as well as the reality TV song contest of the title. A heavy subject, the music, given is was banned during the Taliban rule.
The role of women holds further significance, a couple are allowed to even take part in the contest. When one of the women is eliminated, her hijab partially slides from her during her final performance. But she does not stop there. Her dancing to the song was considered so provocative and shocking to this culture, she received death threats and was evicted from her home. The price of fame. – – – – – Robin Write