In the news
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.
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?
Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s salacious private life is making headlines again. The man seems to believe that he is the innocent victim of senseless attacks from the Italian and international media, an astonishing claim when you consider the extent of his media empire. But, his iron grip on the Berlusconi brand seems to be slipping with each week bringing some new revelation about the man behind the tan.
Meanwhile, his critics appear to be gaining ground. A trailer for a new documentary criticising Berlusconi and the Italian media culture has been banned by Italian state broadcaster RAI and Mediaset - only to provoke a massive surge in interest for the film. There could hardly be a better proof of the filmmakers’ thesis.
The depression might seem less depressing when Michael Moore gets stuck into it. His new film Capitalism: a love story takes on the financial industry and the ethos behind the system in his trademark in-yer-face style. It’s been winning applause at the Venice Film Festival and getting favourable reviews in the press.
No doubt Moore’s film will do well at the box office and draw public attention to some of the flaws with the current incarnation of American capitalist ideology. Nevertheless, one can’t help thinking that the horse has already bolted on this one. In fact, when it comes to documentaries about debt culture and the financial crisis, Moore’s is a late arrival.
In spite of the claims of numerous ‘financial professionals’ that no one could have seen the crisis coming, Danny Schecter’s film In Debt We Trust was released in 2006 with a prescient warning about the economic disaster which then proceeded to unfold.
Patrick Creadon’s award winning film I.O.U.S.A. came in 2008, right on the brink of the global financial meltdown.
The real issue appears not to be ‘how did this happen?’ but ‘why did we let this happen?’. In this regard, Moore’s film could be a timely examination of our society and how the the root of all evil has invaded its heart.
If there is anything good about cancer, it is that victims and families more often than not get the opportunity to say their goodbyes and prepare for the inevitability of death. Two prominent Americans died from this horrible disease this week, Senator Edward Kennedy, the elder statesman of US politics and Dominick Dunne, the senior correspondent from Vanity Fair. Both came from rich Catholic East Coast families, both lived in the shadows of more successful elder siblings, both suffered from addictions which shaped their demise and their re-invention, both were committed to fighting wrongs in society and both shared a mutual distrust of each other.
The Dominick I spent time with was a generous, giving and utterly humane individual. We spent 90 minutes together one autumnal day plotting the distribution of his film, his death and how he wanted me to promise I would show it to anyone I thought would get a kick out of it. Dominick Dunne: After The Party is his film – the title chosen because he knew it wouldn’t be seen by millions until after his coffin was laid to rest. We were sitting in a cosy public room in a hotel which was hosting The Hamptons International Film Festival conspiring and joking – instant friends with limited time to achieve certain goals. He had travelled from New York City through excruciating pain to be there, to host the film’s first public screening and to meet me, the films distributor – his representative on earth after his passing. The man I met was the epitome of easy going charm. He immediately put me at ease by offering (and failing) to make me a coffee using a nespresso machine despite having various people around him happy to help. He told me how much he wanted people to learn from his story – that to be flawed was to be human and that failure was nature’s way of telling you to try something different. I was struck by his humility, his mental strength despite his physical discomfort, his cheeky grin and sparkling wit and his sense of mission which embodies his last years on earth. After The Party is his story - contemporary, gritty, effervescent, moving and utterly coruscating of those who believe that their riches mean that common law doesn’t apply to them. A modern day morality tale, which tells it’s audience more about our world today, than any hagiographic eulogy from the American President can hope to.
I commend it to JTD viewers, thank Kirsty and Tim for making it for humanity to appreciate and salute Dominick for giving us access to his wonderful life through this thoroughly moving and uplifting work of power and brilliance. Teddy Kennedy might have been a big beast, with a fawning fan base, but Dominick was surely the elusive fox and by far the consummate story teller of our time. Enjoy the afterlife, gentlemen, and do put earthly enmity to one side as you queue at the pearly gates. Dona Eis Domine.
Search this Site
- September 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- December 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- August 2008
- July 2008
- June 2008
- May 2008
- April 2008
- June 2004