Within the U.S. at least, documentaries tend to live within two different frameworks: the first is the editorial harpings of Michael Moore. The second is Oscar-nominated documentaries that are either too depressing or too under-funded by distributor advertising to gain an audience. Fortunately, things are changing: last year three stunning documentaries managed to get serious attention while also stepping out of the box (Catfish, I’m Still Here, Exit Through the Gift Shop). Also, the rise of Netflix Instant has put a plethora of documentaries at the finger tips of millions of people who might not have otherwise even seen the DVD cover of these films (2 of the 3 films on this list were titles I found at random on Netflix). So here are three documentaries that will make you re-think your assumptions about documentaries.
A documentary on the investigation of war crimes by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, the Winter Soldier hearing is a black and white film of guys telling their stories in a press conference setting. That’s it. Yet the film is as profound as it is disturbing. Each of the men tell their stories of war crimes committed by themselves or others (brutal killings of prisoners, women, and children) in unflinching detail.
Yet when the film was completed, it received little press coverage. According to its wikipedia article, the film went ignored for over 30 years before it caught critical attention in 2005. Despite blunt descriptions of war crimes that were connected to orders and attitudes of military brass, no one was charged for the crimes.
Of course the subject matter isn’t the most pleasurable, as it speaks to the true darkness of war, atomizing the oxymoron of a “clean war.” But the doc’s importance outweighs its troubling content, as it contextualizes the mess of the Vietnam War while also reminding us that sending men to kill does not show honor, but madness. If we’re willing to go to war, we should have enough justification for bringing a Goya painting to life.
Directed by Tony Kaye, this documentary on abortion will have you re-assessing your beliefs – regardless of your position on the topic. Kaye spent over a 16 years compiling this film, speaking to an assortment of intellectuals (Noam Chomsky, whose line “everyone is right” typifies the whole film), the infamous Jane Roe from the Roe v. Wade case (after working at an abortion clinic she ended up pro-life), and personal testimony. It’s filmed in black and white, but the content does not follow the color scheme–everything bleeds into nebulous grays. The film’s haunting imagery (think of the flashback sequences from Kaye’s previous film, American History X) shrouds the entire debate with the gravity it deserves.
Where it really stings is when Kaye shows you what an abortion looks like (during production he said he wanted to see what he supported) along with photos of women who died when receiving black market abortions when it was illegal. The film leaves the burden of a conclusion with the audience: “Which is worse? Women dying because they can’t have safe abortions, or seeing recognizably human baby parts after an abortion?”
Personally I’ve ridden the fence on the abortion issue and I now firmly believe that you can’t have a solid opinion until you’ve seen this film. It goes at great lengths to show the rational reasons for both sides’ beliefs, something the public discourse doesn’t offer readily.* I implore you: See. This. Movie.**
*It does get bogged down a bit when highlighting Christian fundamentalist terrorists killing abortion doctors, but given how they’re downplayed in the mainstream mediasphere (while constantly hyping Muslim terrorists), it’s forgivable.
**The New York Times has an interesting article on the power of the image, specifically used by Kaye in Lake of Fire, that’s good follow-up reading.
S&man (read cleverly as “S(and)man”) investigates a sub-culture of horror films featuring excessive gore and sexuality, research that eventually leads to alleged snuff films. Just as I’m Still Here kept you questioning the veracity of Phoenix’s antics, S&man will having you squirming as you decide if you’re really witnessing clips from snuff films. But filmmaker J.T. Petty isn’t into the prurience, he’s after an analysis of horror films, sexuality and voyeurism, and he gets there via a clever trick:
When interviewing academics discussing Beaudrillard’s concepts of “hyperreality” (in essence, that the real world gets re-defined by fictional portrayals), Petty puts the alleged snuff film with the argument, visually illustrating their points. For example: One academic postulates that those seeking snuff films would be disappointed by the banality of a filmed killing after watching so many gory, over-the-top special effect deaths. An alleged snuff film scene illustrates her description, as a single static shot of a man killing a woman plays over her narration. Combining the faux-documentary format with standard documentary procedure is a fascinating tactic to drive some of the more cerebral points home.
Petty asks a sex and violence fetish filmmaker what he thought when he saw the video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging? When the man replies, “I could have done it better,” you know it’s on to something good. Obviously not for the faint of heart, but if you can handle some gore, it’s an amazing, thought-provoking documentary on how we perceive our world.
Runner-Up: Last Train Home (2009) follows a Chinese migrant worker family as they make the annual migration from the city to their rural home. It’s the largest migration in the world (130 million people make the journey every year) and it’s stunningly photographed. At a taut 90 minutes, it offers a look at a family struggling to make ends meet and carve a better path for their children. As the U.S. continually frets about its place in the world as China continues to grow, this will provide a good cultural snapshot of our
loan shark competing superpower. (I happened to start watching a National Geographic info-doc on North Korea right after this and was stunned by how terrible it was, with overbearing narration and painful photography. It just underscored the gulf in quality between the documentaries we’re force-fed on TV and those by real artists).
Post any great documentaries you’ve seen in the comments.