Current TV recently ran a series on its US channel dubbed 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die. The series, presented by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold), presents ten documentaries each episode which have been dubbed essential viewing by a panel of “pre-eminent film critics, academics and industry insiders”.
Spurlock’s series undoubtedly covers a vast swathe of documentary history, including Academy-award winners, popular favourites and films which can genuinely claim to have changed the world (An Inconvenient Truth, Paradise Lost). But are these 50 films truly representative of the best of documentary filmmaking?
For instance, the impression one might take from the list is that very few worthwhile documentaries have come from outside of the United States. Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Burma VJ, Bus 174 and Waltz With Bashir are the only four docs on the list to have been made outside of the US and Canada. What’s more, the line-up skews heavily towards the modern. Whilst it could be argued that the golden age of documentary emerged with the advent of portable film equipment and greater funding opportunities, only one of the films predates 1988. Where is Dziga Vertov’s masterful Man With a Movie Camera (1929)? Or D.A. Pennebaker’s famous Bob Dylan portrait Don’t Look Back (1967)? Even Nanook of the North, regarded as the first feature-length documentary (1922) and a watershed moment for the genre, is notable for its absence.
And one could argue that there are other egregious omissions from the list. That there is only room for one Errol Morris feature, when the great director also made Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line, is regrettable; the absence of The Times of Harvey Milk is heavily suspect. How did the Dixie Chick’s 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing make the list, while Ondi Timoner’s Dig! failed to make the cut? The full list of 50 documentaries certainly features dozens of timeless films, but it ultimately left this particular doc-lover wanting.
Crafting their latest instalment in the Paradise Lost series of documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger could scarcely have believed the surprise ending that fell into their laps. After documenting their subjects, the notoriously wrongly jailed ‘West Memphis Three‘, on death row for 17 years, Berlinger and Sinofsky were able to see Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin freed at last. After much deliberation, they were exonerated of the crime of killing three young boys in Arkansas in 1993. It was the vindication of a journey which saw the making and release of two other feature documentaries championing the cause, the recruitment of a series of influential celebrities, and more than a few near misses with the electric chair.
The Paradise Lost series is popularly seen as a major factor in the eventual release of the WM3; the documentaries raised awareness of their plight, and undoubtedly the funding for the trio’s legal defence could not have been secured without Berlinger and Sinofky’s involvement. It raises an important question for the medium - do documentaries truly have the power to change the world?
With The Thin Blue Line, for instance, the famous documentarian Errol Morris successfully presented evidence which pointed to the possibility that the murderer Randall Dale Adams was innocent of the crime for which he was imprisoned. One year after the film’s release, Adams was released; the fact that he later sought legal action against Morris to reclaim the rights to his life story is just a sad coda to a story of triumph, in which an acclaimed and courageous film helped effect real change.
Environmental docs have scored great successes too. The Cove, named 2010’s Best Documentary by the Academy Awards, raised awareness of Japanese dolphin fishing and forced Sea World to issue a statement denying that their dolphins were sourced from Japanese waters. An Inconvenient Truth, a climate change lecture helmed by former US vice president Al Gore, ignited a nationwide debate on the science and causes of global warming.
In modern times, the ultimate success of West Memphis Three’s campaign, and the undeniably enormous role played by Berlinger and Sinofsky in helping it, raises a number of interesting questions about the power of documentary to rally support for real-life causes. On one hand, the fragmentation of the media landscape means that viewing figures are dwindling for all but the most mass-market films, so films can struggle to capture the zeitgeist and motivate a unified body of viewers to action. On the other hand, the growth of social media means that publicising the right cause can be easier than ever.
En vogue at the moment is Kickstarter - beloved by artists, musicians, engineers and other dreamers. The site offers entrepreneurs a venue to pitch their grand idea, with the hope of raising donations to fulfil their stated financial goal. It’s like Dragon’s Den on a global scale.
The site has become a magnet for filmmakers in particular. Kickstarter allows them to circumvent the high costs and red tape involved in financing even a small film, by appealing directly to their eventual target audience. Most people might not be interested in a documentary about New York’s last arcade, or a horror film featuring a magical bat, but Kickstarter allows users to harness social media to promote these projects directly to the end user. The fans even get a few perks depending on the size of their donation.
The most high profile directors to approach Kickstarter recently have been Colin Hanks and Jennifer Fox. Colin Hanks is, of course, the son of Tom Hanks and star of Orange County and Roswell - he recently launched a bid for donations to finance a documentary on Tower Records, the now defunct record chain. It’s puzzling why Hanks, a millionaire, has to appeal for just $50,000 to produce the film, but it’s 80% on target already. Most documentarians would kill for $40,000 to make their next film.
Jennifer Fox is another director, and a veteran in her field, having a Sundance award and more than 30 years of experience in documentaries under her belt. When she was left with a hole in the budget of her new film, My Reincarnation, she faced bankruptcy if she couldn’t meet the cost. Appealing to Kickstarter to ease the burden, she was shocked to see the project reach a total of $150,000: 300% more than she needed. It’s the fourth highest earner on Kickstarter to date. Fox noted, “What Kickstarter showed me is that there were people all over hungry for this film that I didn’t even know about”.
The success of My Reincarnation and numerous other films appears to point the way to a new model of distribution, as well as a more efficient one. Why should financiers gamble on the success of a project, when sites like Kickstarter can provide solid proof of a film’s appeal? At this crucial stage in the birth of user-generated content, it’s a burning question.
From the mind of one of Britain’s premier TV documentarians comes All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a complex and free-associative exploration of humanity’s love affair with technology. Adam Curtis, a former lecturer of politics at the University of Oxford, has been well known for his unique style and the complexity of his arguments - showcased in the BBC series The Trap, The Century of the Self and the controversial BAFTA-winner The Power of Nightmares. He’s also a regular contributor to Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe. Curtis’ new series has been heavily (and cryptically) promoted by BBC2 in recent weeks - but what’s the story behind Machines?
Borrowing a title and theme from the cult poet Richard Brautigan, the series upends the assumption that computers and the internet have made our lives easier and more free. Curtis instead argues that subservience to machinery has warped our traditional view in society, impeding mankind’s progress by starving our capacity and desire for change. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Curtis argued that his goal for the series was no less than to “recapture the optimistic potential of politics to change the world”. No pressure.
The UK documentary Us Now paints a more optimistic portait of the technological revolution. Rather than changing the old order for the worse, the film argues that social networking and open source collaboration have left global citizens without the need for old systems. Furthermore, with the tools to create and modify our own content - entertainment, programs, communities - we’re slowly becoming active agents rather than passive consumers. From the online entrepeneurs behind Couchsurfing to the football team entirely owned and managed by its fans, Us Now brings the viewer into a brave new world of technological liberation. Has the internet revolution led us into a utopia or a dystopia? That’s for you to decide. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace will be shown on BBC2 on Monday the 23rd of May; Us Now is available for streaming at Joining the Docs now.
Conspiracy theories are an oddly resilient part of our culture. In the past weeks, the death of Osama Bin Laden provided a great deal of new material for dedicated theorists - whereas the moon landing, Roswell and the Kennedy assassination have proven irrestible to these observers in the past, they’ve grown stale. Bin Laden’s death could prove to be a real shot in the arm for people like this.
Of course, the mainstream media treated the rumours that Bin Laden was alive with very little credence. Even The Washington Post, a serious publication, noted the proximity of the terrorist leader’s death to Zombie Awareness Month. But even the seemingly decisive report following Bin Laden’s death proved to be riddled with inaccuracies - a careful spin on the truth of the situation by the US military and the White House press team. Why, many people argued, would the truth need to be treated?
Accusations of cover-ups and conspiracies have dogged the American government since the very beginning of the War on Terror. Two films from the past decade explored the facts and theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks with a keen eye for detail and a wilful disregard for the US government’s official story. Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, the big-budget successor to the wildly popular Youtube hit Loose Change, explored the aftermath from a forensic angle. Through careful scientific analysis, the film argues that the World Trade Center’s collapse could only have been the result of a controlled demolition - a thesis which the presence of thermite dust at Ground Zero heavily supports. The film has attained enormous success and mainstream notoriety.
Zero: An Investigation Into 9/11 is another film exploring the WTC collapse. Unlike Loose Change, Zero examines the global political ripples caused by 9/11 - including the coalition invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq - and raises a number of questions about how the United States could have profited from engineering the attacks (or allowing them to happen). Both eyewitnesses and academics (including Nobel-winner Dario Fo and novelist Gore Vidal) pick apart the alleged facts of September 11th in fascinating detail. Both films are available to view on Joining the Docs right now.
Established in Chicago in 1984, and now spreading across the globe, the poetry slam is an intriguing hybrid art form which synthesises the linguistic dexterity of rap music with the decorum and fair play of a spelling bee. Each performer in the poetry slam has just three minutes and a microphone to perform an original lyrical composition - while being scored harshly by a panel of judges. The best-known slam remains the annual National Poetry Slam in San Francisco, but the poetry slam is a recent American art form that hasn’t quite emerged into the spotlight as gloriously as its peers, particularly hip-hop. Perhaps the immediacy and talent of these performers can only be fully appreciated in a live setting, while artists like Kanye West and Public Enemy can sell millions of records around the world. Still, the steadily growing profile of the jam is something to be admired.
The new documentary Louder than a Bomb chronicles National Poetry Jam in 2008, a gathering of some six hundred Chicago teenagers, and has been collecting positive reviews while raising the profile of the poetry jam. The film will begin a theatrical run in the United States in May, and will be playing at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival in just a week’s time, among a small schedule of documentaries and feature films hand-picked by the man himself. As if to complete the trifecta of good news, it’s been selected as part of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s documentary schedule, among company including Becoming Chaz and Sons of Perdition.
The film follows the very similar SlamNation, a 1998 documentary directed by the Emmy award winning filmmaker Paul Devlin. The film follows the clashes of teams from Rhode Island (Team Providence), Illinois (Team Berwyn) and the New York team, featuring future megastar musician and New York Times-published writer Saul Williams. Their moments in the spotlight reveal jaw-dropping talent and nerves, but Devlin’s film scratches the surface of their mysterious world to uncover the burning ambition and fierce politics behind the performers’ skills. SlamNation is an unforgettable glimpse at a world which few have seen - it deserves to be seen by every documentary fan.
Not a month goes by without a fresh scandal involving the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. However, it seems that the premier may be in more serious trouble, after he was recently indicted for paying for sex with an under-aged girl. He’s also awaiting trial for tax fraud and perverting the course of justice. The fact that Berlusconi is currently trying to reinstate legislation which allows full legal immunity to the Italian Parliament should come as no shock.
Berlusconi’s apparent immunity to criticism, whether regarding his sexual misconduct, media monopoly or alleged links to the Mafia, might seem to be derived from his own frankness about his behaviour. As the man himself remarked in 2009 after a separate sex scandal, “I’m no saint… by now you’ve figured that out“. By presenting a jocular persona, like Boris Johnson and even Arnold Schwarzenegger before him, he’s been able to mostly deflect negative attention from some of his more serious failings as a politician. It’s the cult of personality for an era in which even Berlusconi can’t conceal his various vices; instead, he’s sending them up.
More likely, however, is that Berlusconi’s dominance of the Italian media is to blame for the inability to remove him from office. Andrea Cairola and Susan Gray’s documentary Citizen Berlusconi carefully weighs the evidence against Berlusconi, investigating his monopoly of Italy’s media; with two newspapers and 90% of the country’s television in his pocket, how can a serious and organised discussion of the Prime Minister’s suitability take place? The answers to these questions were enough to keep Citizen Berlusconi off Italian television screens for six years after the film’s US premiere - Gray and Cairola’s carefully researched conclusions are highly pertinent to the Prime Minister’s current situation. Cairola, an experienced journalist and investigator, brings the full force of his international education to this documentary, while Susan Gray’s experience of two decades’ work in documentary filmmaking is immediately apparent in the film’s skilful and rapid-fire attack.
Berlusconi’s transgressions are far more numerous and serious than any other Western leader could accomplish without consequences, but it seems that the past may be catching up with him. With another serious trial waiting in the wings, and with the tide of public opinion turning against him, what begins on April the 6th could be the undoing of Silvio Berlusconi.
While many eyes are locked on the Best Picture race this year, as The King’s Speech squares up to The Social Network, the Best Documentary category has been gathering an unprecedented level of interest. It’s particularly revealing of the strength of 2010’s documentaries that with only five slots to fill, many critical and commercial hits had to be excluded; Waiting for Superman, The Tillman Story, This Way of Life and from former Oscar winner Alex Gibney, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Each of the five films nominated this year brings something unique to the category, so predicting a winner would be best left to the bookies - but let’s try anyway.
A former nominee for directing No End in Sight in 2008, Charles H. Ferguson brings the full force of his MIT education to this expose of the global financial crisis. Featuring an impressive cast of interviewees, including politicians, journalists and financial insiders, Matt Damon’s narration has inevitably been the focus of many reviews. As winner of the Best Documentary prize at the Director’s Guild of America Awards, and with Oscar-magnet distributor Sony Pictures Classics throwing their weight behind it, the smart money is on Inside Job.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Easily the most widely seen of the nominees, the film début of the controversial and unpredictable graffiti artist Banksy is looking like an unlikely winner given his reputation for anti-corporate stunts. Academy president Tom Sherak has already drafted a contingency plan in the event that Exit wins the prize, while Banksy was notably absent from a recent panel of Oscar nominees. However, a bid to recover falling ratings might prompt the Academy voters to stir up some trouble.
Another unconventional art documentary, Lucy Walker’s Waste Land points a camera at the work of Brazilian trash pickers and their unique collaboration with the sculptor Vik Muniz. While the film won prizes at both Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival this time last year, it’s still an outside choice. Could the film regain momentum and grab enough votes to win?
A controversial choice of documentary, illuminating the practice of ‘fracking’ - in which energy companies use hydraulic technology to force gas reserves from out of the ground. Gasland director Josh Fox followed families from Texas to Wyoming to see how fracking had damaged their local environment. Of course, the film has been attacked by corporations and lobbying groups including Energy in Depth, who issued a seven-page rebuttal of the film’s assertions to Academy voters (a counter-rebuttal, by Gasland’s distributor Fox, quickly followed). It’s a frontrunner for sure, but far from the favourite.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival last year, the chances of an Oscar for Restrepo have been buoyed by ecstatic reviews, a renewed anti-war sentiment in the USA and unprecedented success via DVD and video-on-demand releases. Restrepo follows an American platoon stationed in Afghanistan, defending an army outpost against the Taliban. Restrepo will likely rival Inside Job for the most votes from Academy members.
A combination of topicality, momentum from other awards ceremonies, critical success and the marketing efforts of their distributors are all crucial elements in a winning film’s campaign for Oscar gold. The Best Documentary prizewinner is incredibly hard to place this year, but we’d have to put our hypothetical money on Inside Job - for relevance, star power and sheer quality. What do you think?
Sundance 2011 proved to be one of the biggest and brightest in recent years. While a stellar selection in both the fiction and documentary categories delighted audiences and critics, distributors were striking deals with a zeal unseen in recent years. As the documentary elite fly back from snowy Utah, and Robert Redford looks mournfully at the mess they’ve left behind, we’re looking over the prizes awarded to 2011’s documentaries.
U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize
How to Die in Oregon (Peter D. Richardson)
A contentious film about a hot-button issue, How to Die in Oregon snubs the rhetoric surrounding legalised euthanasia in favour of a close look at two personal stories. Winning universal acclaim from critics and audiences, it seems that Peter Richardson has succeeded unreservedly. Conventional wisdom might suggest that the Grand Jury Prize points towards an Academy Award for Best Documentary, but the two prizes haven’t shared a winner since 1991’s American Dream.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize, U.S. Documentary Competition
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (Constance Marks)
An audience favourite, Being Elmo wins a prize previously won by No End In Sight and The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. If a little more lightweight than those films, Being Elmo was deservedly beloved by the jury. A heartwarming portrait of the voice of one of the greatest Muppets, Being Elmo follows Kevin Clash from his days of backyard puppet shows to the Daytime Emmys. Critics have had mixed reactions: Katy Rich of Cinemablend.com writes that, “there’s so much joy crammed into the film that there’s no time to notice the lack of depth”, while Daniel Fienberg of HitFix notes that “the emphasis is strongly on manipulative moments”. Audience hearts remain melted.
Winner of the World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Documentary Film
Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich)
Stand van de Sterren - to give Position Among the Stars its native name - took the Special Jury Prize for the Netherlands after flattening the competition at IDFA in November. Winner of the IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, and the award for Best Dutch Documentary, Stars follows an elderly Indonesian woman as she contemplates society’s rapid transformation over the past decades.
Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award
Project Nim (James Marsh)
James Marsh’s follow-up to the smash hit Man on Wire carried the burden of great expectations, but Marsh’s skill for observation and choosing terrific stories has not abated. The tale of a chimpanzee raised to communicate with scientists, Nim allows the director to deftly explore the questionable validity of the project, while never detracting from the magic of the story. Anthony Kaufman of Screen International calls Project Nim “not exactly the wild fun ride of Man On Wire, but it’s quite a trip all the same”.
Elsewhere, the prized Audience awards were given to Buck in the US category and Senna in the international category - one of three wins for the UK this year. Both portraits of extraordinary men, each film was acclaimed by the paying public. Buck, doomed to be dubbed ‘the real-life Horse Whisperer‘ until the end of time, is nonetheless a certified crowd-pleaser. The story of Buck Brannaman and his talent for intuiting the thoughts and emotions of horses seems set for a wide release. Senna tells the story of the brief but glorious life of F1 driver Ayrton Senna. Asif Kapadia’s story seems to push all the right buttons, and for a film about Formula 1 to win over a mainly American audience is no mean feat. As Germain Lussier of Slashfilm puts it, “more than just a great sports story, Senna is a great story, period”.
If A Tree Falls and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 scooped the US and World Cinema editing prizes respectively. If a Tree Falls has been acclaimed for bringing a real kinetic energy and sense of urgency to proceedings, in a documentary about the radical conservationists ELF: the Earth Liberation Front. The Hollywood Reporter writes that, “Curry and co-editor Matthew Hamachek assemble the wide-ranging material into an informative, compelling story line”. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, similarly, arranges an array of archive, photographs and interview footage from a staggering period of time into a definitive document of the era.
Praising Sundance’s continued support for both documentary and dramatic categories, Kenneth Turan wrote for the Los Angeles Times that Sundance remains “as important a non-fiction showcase as any festival in the world”. On the evidence of this year’s crop, and the presence of Sundance 2010 films at this year’s Oscars, we would be inclined to agree.
Imagine ‘Your Life: The Movie’. All it takes is you, a camera and a dash of ingenuity to make a record of daily goings-on into your very own biopic. The results, once posted on YouTube, will be available to anyone in the world who cares to watch. The concept isn’t entirely new; enterprising amateur filmmakers have already embraced the challenge and the term ‘vlogging’ (that is, a video blog) has entered new media vocabulary.
Well-established filmmakers Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott, inspired by the prolific output of the YouTube generation, have added a broad new dimension to the idea for their upcoming documentary venture. The video-sharing website, which celebrated its five year anniversary this February and now has a daily offering of around 2 billion films, is the perfect springboard for a global scheme like this. Those responsible for the film want the creative power behind its content to be put into the hands of the world’s population. They’ve encouraged people to film aspects of their everyday lives which will be edited into a feature length narrative, in the hope that it will provide an animated snapshot of 21st century life. Now that all the entries have been submitted, Macdonald and his team are left with the mammoth task of filtering around 10,000 hours of amateur footage. The finished product will premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Life in a Day is a unique experiment in terms of both scale and scope and something unlikely to be achieved by less than top directors, who are able to conjure up mass exposure for the project. Macdonald, in an enlightening interview with Empire Magazine, explains how Scott’s company Scott Free approached him to take part. He’s a wise choice for the job having directed two award-winning documentaries, One Day in September and Touching the Void.
Away from the technological side, Macdonald’s passion for the project lies in the anthropology. By assembling fragments of life from all parts of the world he expects a more complete picture of society to form, a sort of 21st century ‘time-capsule’ for future generations. Encouraging the general public to be daring and resourceful will hopefully spur people’s creativity further and provide a boost for the arts industry.
Some people aren’t so sure about the much-heralded experimental nature of the project. Blog writers have pointed out that similar films have already been attempted and had little success. It’s definitely ambitious and a lot rides on people submitting enough footage to construct a decent film. Macdonald and Scott will have their work cut out making something totally fresh and insightful because YouTube broadcasting is already such a huge part of people’s lives. On the other hand the videos have never been put together quite like this before, condensing global experience to convey a message. With the world’s population in charge, it’s likely it’ll be something worth saying.
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