So I just caught Searching for Sugarman (2012- Malik Bendjelloul) on LoveFilm and it got me to thinking how awesome documentaries have become over the last ten years. Seriously think about it-how far they’ve come since the genre even began. The term documentary was actually coined way back in 1926 by film-maker John Grierson as a way to describe films that documented reality or at least documented something as close to reality as was possible (see The Observer Effect of Quantum Theory if you really want to noodle your brain on that subject!)
Consider how they used to wag their finger and tell us what to do in case of threats like stranger danger, nuclear war (duck and cover, you idiot!) or how to confront inner perils like greed and violence. They’d come on TV riding high on a wave of high-horse moralising and soap box preaching and then the makers wondered why we all used to hit the channel-change button at the thirty second mark.
It’s all changed these days though. Don’t get me wrong they can be just as educational as they used to be , but now…now we have all the beauty that proper movie-makers like Werner Herzog and Sacha Gervasi can bring to the table too. Crisp cinematography. Indelible characters and powerful emotions. They’re public and personal at the same time, showing us how we all fit into a bigger picture, whether we want to admit it or not.
So in honour of this silent revolution, I’ve picked five of the best documentaries I’ve seen so farm in the hopes that it might in some small way show my appreciation in a tangible form.
And they are as follows:
1. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003- Andrew Jarecki): Welcome to a documentary on the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middleclass Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes. Sounds pretty off-putting…even depressing, right? But seriously go with me on this one because the film is about way more than the alleged child abuse. Through the subtle weaving together of home video footage and painfully candid interviews, the director also manages to question the irrational hysteria that surrounds any threat of paedophilia in society as well as the legality of ‘acceptable’ techniques used to gain confessions. This film is not just about one family and its flaws, you see. It’s about society and its knee jerk denouncements too. It’s the private and personal on display right before your eyes. And that’s something we all need to take a minute to recognise, if you ask me.
2. GRIZZLY MAN (2005- Werner Herzog): You may want a tissue for this one, sorry. This is a devastating and heartrending look at a pair of grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed in October of 2003 while living among grizzlies in Alaska. Mixing together fantastically untamed scenery with the portrait of two obsessive individuals (a thing that Herzog knows all too intimately FYI), this nature doc is a mini masterpiece incorporating real footage left behind by the pair and a series of interviews with friends and family. By breaking all the rules and inserting himself into the narration & action Herzog somehow manages to make the emotions of loss and waste even more palpable than they would have been in the standard detached format. And in fact, if you don’t cry at the scene where he listens to the recording of the bear attack on Timothy Treadwell then point blank tells his close friend to destroy the thing and never listen to it even once, then quite frankly you have no soul.
3. ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008- Sacha Gervasi): Aka Spinal Tap… if the band had never become famous and simply let harsh reality sideswipe their dreams of an amp that hit 11. This documentary follows the band years after a fledgling European tour as they head home and keep trying to make that next big album that’ll launch them into the big time. Full to the brim with iconic characters and long suffering wives, the film charts the costs of human fixation and friendship, the camaraderie between Robb Reiner and Steve ‘Lips’ providing the sweetest darkest humour you’ll find pretty much anywhere. Director Gervasi’s obvious love of the band (he toured with them as a roadie in the 80’s) also shines through in every shot, even in those uncomfortable moments of explosive anger and total total defeat. It’s the whole music world in microscosm that’s on offer here, people. And basically, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to live the rock and roll dream, warts and all- this documentary is definitely for you.
4. PROJECT NIM (2011- James Marsh): This film tells the story of a chimpanzee who is taken from its mother at birth and raised like a human child by a family in a brownstone on the upper West Side in the 1970s. So far, so cute huh? Except that this is a doc from the makers of Man on Wire, the Oscar winning film that showed the depth of man’s arrogance and hubris. And so here instead of a Disney flick, we have a tale of compassion, consideration and cruelty all moulded into one. Professor Terrace, the project leader is shown as a cold, egotistical figure, as far apart from Nim’s loving ‘carers’ as it’s possible to be while teaching the chimp sign language. But it’s the way the human characters individually respond to the situation when the chimp finally reverts back to his innate violent nature that really cements this movie’s importance. And Marsh’s insistence in staying out of the story and keeping the lens firmly fixed on the people in front of him that really brings these devastating relationships to the fore.
5. THE IMPOSTER (2012- Bart Layton): And finally the most ludicrous, jaw dropping story of them all- concerning a young Frenchman who claims to be the missing 16 year old son of a grieving Texan family despite his obvious difference in appearance and accent. Honestly, if you didn’t know this was true, you’d think this film was a badly made mockumentary but true it is. And although the stylised reconstructions may feel a little jarring at times especially when juxtaposed with real life interviews of the family and the police, the weird mishmash of images actually serves to highlight the idiocy of the whole situation. Topping that off with a series of camera angles and chiaroscuro-lit shots that add mystery at every turn, every second of the movie forces you to question the film’s authenticity. And even though I get the feeling that Layton is playing with us a little more than is respectable, the film still gets the thumbs up from me for the sheer audacity of everyone involved.
So there you have it. Honourable mention also goes out to The Devil&Daniel Johnston, The Cove, Being Elmo, My Kid Could Paint That, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and of course Supersize Me and anything by Michael Mooore. There’s so many to choose from, you can’t miss, really. So go on, give one of these movies a go- you won’t regret it.