One of my guest speakers pointed out the other day that we average 23 minutes a day searching for something to watch. That adds up to seven years of our lives. Gulp. To make it easier on you, assuming you’re reading this cause you love documentaries, here are some films well worth your time:
In the last few years I’ve guest lectured for the Grierson Trust’s DocLab, where participants as part of the mentoring programme develop doc ideas. One of the best ideas last year was from Ryan Gregory, who went on to win a new Sheffield Doc/Fest pitch. The film is now up on BBC Three. Below is a short version, with the full film available on the IPlayer:
Lots of good docs on All 4 and Netflix as well, but those will have to wait for another post.
If you live in London and want to dip more into great docs, please sign up for the course I will be teaching at the Crouch End Picturehouse. We’ll be talking about British docs for six Wednesday evenings from mid June.
It’s a sign of the times that two of the winning docs from this year’s Grierson Awards, which I attended on Monday night, came from the heart of the migrant crisis. As it shows no sign of abating, filmmakers and broadcasters alike are struggling with how to tell the narratives emerging from the crisis in fresh ways. In the BBC’s Goodbye Aleppo which won Best Current Affairs Documentary, four citizen journalists film themselves under siege as the East Aleppo in December 2016. Against some stiff competition, the Best Documentary Series went to Keo Films’Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which tells a range of astonishing stories, tracking refugees from the shores of Turkey, through harrowing sea crossings, to their unstable lives in Europe. Coupling refugees’ own escape footage with interviews, it makes for very powerful frontline testimony. To get a taste of it, check out this BBC extract from Exodus, which tells Hassan’s story:
Another notable award on the night was the Best Constructed Documentary, which went to Love Productions’ Muslims Like Us, for Channel 4. The two part series placed ten Muslim men and women in a house together for ten days, including a convicted extremist. The program not surprisingly generated a lot of debate about what Islam means to modern Muslims.
Although it’s a strange category to win – Best Entertaining Documentary – I was delighted to see the Channel 4 series 999: What’s Your Emergency? win a Grierson. Made by Blast! Films, it’s always a superb watch, taking viewers into the heart of the emergency response system, and tracking calls from origin through treatment, often via some compelling ambulance cab footage.
999: What’s Your Emergency? is one of a plethora of top quality public services series on British TV this year. They cumulatively demonstrate both the utter professionalism and quality of the National Health System and emergency services while at the same time showing how ever dwindling resources and escalating demand have left both at breaking point. Other outstanding series include Label One’s BBC series Hospital, which in its second series found itself at the epicentre of a response to a terrorism attack. Check out this astonishing clip:
And this one, as two of the victims – French school friends – reunite in hospital:
Some months ago I was taking notes on a student film about the impact of a high speed motorway on a community in the British countryside. A woman appeared briefly in it, telling how her husband had killed himself, leaving her raising seven children, most of whom were on the autistic spectrum. I made a note that she clearly needed a documentary all of her own. Fast forward to the closing night of the BFI London Film Festival last month, and the winner of the Grierson Award for Best Documentary goes to Kingdom of Us – taking us deep into the lives of this very same family. Shot over three years by director Lucy Cohen, the feature film focuses not so much on the children’s autism but on the ongoing impact of the suicide of their father some years ago. It’s a very moving gem of a story, with luminous filming, abundant family archive and creative editing – no wonder it was snapped up during production by Netflix, where it can now be found.
Finally, I much enjoyed helping shape the Best Student Documentary list this year. The winning film, the National Film and Television School’s Acta Non Verba is really remarkable, as director Yvann Yagchi undertakes a creative personal journey investigating his father’s infidelity and suicide. You can request access from the NFTS to see the film.
See here for a full list of Grierson Winners. And to listen to another story from the frontline of the refugee crisis, check out this newly released episode I produced: Rajwana’s Diary, in SE15 Productions’ A New Normal podcast.
During the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, one of the most acclaimed dramatic features was British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a coming-of-age story acclaimed by critics for its “visually fascinating aesthetic.” But far away from the buzz surrounding such Oscar hopefuls, in the relative quiet of the Documentary Competition, I found a clutch of coming-of-age films that equally shone. Together, they employ a battery of storytelling techniques to bring their young protagonists’ lives to the big screen.
All This Panic, a feature debut by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jenny Gage (director) and Tom Betterton (DP), follows a handful of private school-educated teenage girls in Brooklyn over three years of their late teens. Ginger is “terrified of getting old,” clashes with everyone in her family, and finds herself adrift as her friends begin university without her. Her father tells her she can stay in the house, musing that they used to be best friends but have spent the last six years fighting (a haunting line that brings chills to those of us with young daughters with whom we are still on good terms). The other main subject, Lena, is self-possessed and articulate, and at the film’s outset, preoccupied with having her first stab at love. But Lena also has bigger issues on her mind: Her brother has significant behavioral problems, and both her parents—now separated—are living turbulent lives. Indeed, despite their privileged education, most of the girls here are dealing with significant issues, from broken families to self-harm and emerging sexuality. Photographers-turned-filmmakers Gage and Betterton manage, without formal interview or narration, to capture the complexity of teenage lives with the film’s striking visual style.All This Panic is beautifully shot, very close up, and in a dreamy-yet-pacey style that mirrors the girls’ inner lives, consumed with whom they are and whom they might become. The film is very effective at evoking the storminess of the high school years, as well as the fleetingness of this period.
Covering similar territory, in at times a strikingly similar visual style, is Alma Har’el’s Lovetrue. She interweaves the stories of three young subjects spread out across the US: a young erotic dancer in Alaska, a surfer-turned-single dad in Hawaii, and a teenage girl in a New York City family of singers whose parents have dramatically split. Each is navigating difficult relationships and trying to make sense of a world that often seems cruel. Har’el’s 2011 debut feature, Bombay Beach, was an innovative hybrid, with her rural Californian characters often breaking out in dance. She continues to break new ground inLovetrue, which features enacted scenes (filmed in a home-movie style reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell) that include both flashbacks and flashforwards, often with the subjects interacting with their dramatic counterparts (see featured photo above). While I admired the beauty and innovation of the film, the stories of the three protagonists were strong enough that in the end I felt the dramatic elements were sometimes more of a distraction than a service.
Less innovative in style, but no less compelling, were two additional coming-of-age films in the documentary competition. Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams takes us inside a detention center for 18-year-old Iranian girls. Their crimes sound shocking—they range from larceny to murder—but their back stories, revealed matter-of-factly to a sympathetic Oskouei, are even more disturbing. Together they paint a portrait of the most dysfunctional rung of Iranian society, where drug addiction rules and families violently turn on each other. But inside the center, the girls act much as any other high-spirited teenage girls living together, and the film says more about what we have in common than our differences. The press notes say that Oskouei worked for seven years to gain access to the institution, an effort that more than pays off for a film that has already garnered both an Amnesty International Award and a True Vision Award and went on to take the LFF’s Grierson Documentary Competition Award.
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum are the French students who are the focus of Claire Simon’s observational documentary The Graduation. They have come from all over France to take an astonishing entrance exam to the country’s most prestigious film school, La Femis. Over three months the wanna-be auteurs undergo a host of tasks, mulled over by the film’s real stars – the industry figures who serve as the selection committee, offering up withering critiques once the candidates have left the room. I emerged in awe of the articulacy of the candidates, and in wonder at the complete Frenchness of the whole scene, which comes with more than its share of chain-smoking and Gallic shrugs.
Not surprisingly, many of the festival’s fare across the genres reflected the turbulent times in which we live, with a host of films focused on stories of migration and war. Among these was the winner of the short film category, the documentary 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo. Finding his apartment smack-dab on the frontline when war breaks out in Syria’s largest city in August 2012, photographer Issa Touma begins filming from his window; this compelling short is an intriguing insight into the opening days of the ongoing destruction of Aleppo.
While nonfiction media is never going to dominate at the BFI London Film Festival, where the focus remains firmly on the dramas and the red carpet, it can be said that there has never been a better time for cinema documentaries in London. There has been a boom in arthouse cinemas opening up in the last few years (my North London neighborhood, Crouch End, which formerly had none now has three within a mile). And in order to differentiate from the temptation to remain at home in front of the television, cinemas are featuring many documentaries with Q&As or panel discussions afterwards. During the LFF I took a side trip half a mile away to the Bertha Dochouse, which has been exclusively showing documentaries for more than a year. There I hosted a panel following the screening of yet another coming-of-age documentary, Driving with Selvi. Directed by Canadian Elisa Paloschi, it’s an inspiring tale of how a child bride in India escaped her life to become a taxi driver. Having spent ten years filming Selvi, Paloschi eschews dwelling on the abuse that she suffered as a child bride, focusing instead on the confidence she gained as a taxi driver and through a second marriage, this time for love. This week I’ll be returning to moderate another panel, following Rokhsareh Ghaem Magham’s multi award-winning Sonita, yet another tale of an inspiring young woman whose story continues to put “bums on seats,” as they say here.
The Unorthodocs season at Somerset House features acclaimed documentaries never seen on British TV. Are UK broadcasters denying audiences access to a golden age of independent film-making?
At first glance, they don’t really have much in common. The Closer We Get is a first person documentary, where filmmaker Karen Guthrie uses a period of caring for her ailing mother to prod into her family’s painful past. In 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, director Marc Silver masterfully investigates one of the US’s all too commonplace racially motivated killings. And in The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his groundbreaking multi-award winning The Act of Killing with a further journey through Indonesian killing fields, this time through the lens of a single traumatized family. But what these three disparate films do share is the fact that despite widespread acclaim, they have not found a place on British television. Instead they are all running as part of the Unorthodocs strand at Somerset House this winter. Curated by Dartmouth Film’s Christopher Hird, a champion of independent feature docs, the films in the series collectively serve as an admonishment to UK broadcasters to up their game.
Much has been written about how we are in a golden age of documentary. Indeed, with many more potential avenues of distribution – along with the technological advances which give us all the opportunity to become filmmakers – the future looks bright for those determined to persevere in this difficult art form. But what is less “golden” about this age, is the fact that British broadcasters – still powerful and still in control of the best way to reach the masses -have largely turned their backs on commissioning single feature length documentaries.
I recently sat on the Grierson judging committee for Best Documentary on a Contemporary Theme – International. It was striking that very few of the outstanding films on our longlist were given television money up front. All too often broadcasters hedge their bets, forcing independent filmmakers down the difficult path of self-financing, and only deciding whether or not to pick up a film once it’s been made.
The long-running BBC Storyville is often cited as an exception, showing some of the best documentaries in every given year, either through acquisition or commission. But Storyville’s commissions are modest, and usually require filmmakers to find substantial funds elsewhere (a process which took a film I produced, Secrets of the Tribe, eight years to finish). Channel 4’s equivalent strand, True Stories, seems to be defunct, and while Channel 4 claims to be open to pitches for single films, it can’t be seen to be championing them in a way we should expect of our public service broadcasters.
Yes, there are a number of outstanding films in any given year on the BBC and Channel 4. Recent examples to name but two include last year’s The Paedophile Hunter on Channel 4, and the BBC’s The Age of Loneliness. But in my mind, with both the BBC and Channel 4 battling for their future in a nightmarishly hostile political climate, these few standouts should be magnified by a factor of ten. Imagine a world where the same budget put into producing twenty-four episodes of Masterchef is plowed into a new strand featuring fifteen documentary features, all by different directors. Yes, they are more difficult to make, and yes some might fail to attract large numbers of viewers. But aren’t two of the most important tenets of public service broadcasting that it supports risk-taking and programming not driven by the marketplace?
Many filmmakers these days persist in making their passion project, broadcast commission be damned. It can be a long and lonely, but ultimately gratifying route. Franny Armstrong makes it look easy. Her 2008 climate change doc The Age of Stupid was funded entirely through crowd-funding, raising an impressive £430,000. But Armstrong, in addition to being a consummate filmmaker and networker, benefited from another factor: she was the first to fund a documentary through crowdfunding. Many more have followed. Today it is a much more difficult, careworn option which involves a lot of targeting, attention to detail and maintenance. Crowdfunding can work for issue driven films that have a built-in following, but it’s certainly not easy.
Amir Amirani struck out trying to get broadcast interest in his film We Are Many – a forensic examination of the global anti war protest of February 2003. A film that would have taken him roughly a year had it been fully commissioned, instead took him eight. Along the way he maxed out his credit card, and remortgaged his house three times, before a Kickstarter campaignand the endorsement of high profile supporters like Stephen Fry and Omid Djalili began bringing in substantial funding. But the end result has been worth it for Amirani: We Are Many has played to rapturous audiences globally, and continues to screen frequently. But there are still no plans for a UK broadcast.
Mark Craig also went his own way having not initially succeeded with securing British interest in his film The Last Man on the Moon, about astronaut Gene Cernan. But as he told me when I interviewed him about the making of it, he eventually relished producing it with Mark Stewart Productions, without broadcaster input: “In TV there is a lot of guiding and steering and mentoring from the channel, from the execs, to make it fit the remit of that channel. You’re always serving the requirements of that channel, of that slot, the ad sales, etc., ” he said. “So it was very liberating to be free of that and just be faithful to the story, and the character and tell that story in the most interesting and engaging way that one could.” He’s enjoyed an extended festival run with the film, which is soon to be on limited release in the US.
Whilst still very modest compared to the US, there are a small number of funds that British filmmakers can tap into, particularly from foundations with explicit interests in the subject matter. The Wellcome Trust supports films with a biomedical theme, such as the outstanding The Man Whose Mind Exploded. On a larger scale, BRITDOC operates as an energetic documentary enabler, supporting films in a number of ways, including partnering up filmmakers and NGOs, as well as helping fund more than 200 films in the ten years since its founding.
When I first moved to the UK from the US twenty years ago, the difference between how docs were made in each country was striking. The UK, with its fully funded commissioning system was seen as a utopia by envious American doc makers who usually had to spend years piecing together the budgets for each film. Now, with British television factual programming dominated by formats and presenter-led series, and with so many film-makers chasing so few slots, that gulf no longer seems so vast.
I’m just coming up for air after a bout of intensive lecturing. I teach a few different classes for American university students in London, but my favourite, semester after semester, is my documentaries class. It is here, in a deliberately darkened classroom near Holborn, that I share the highlights of twenty years immersed in the world of British documentary. We cover the whole factual spectrum, from independent feature documentaries to heavily formatted reality, and everything in between.
Usually, my students arrive having been exposed to roughly two kinds of factual fare: worthy subject based documentaries, like Ken Burns’ marathon series that their parents watch, or the far-from-real world of the Real Housewives or Kardashians. If I’m lucky these days, and frequently I am thanks to Netflix, they will have streamed a few American documentary features like Blackfish or Girl Model. They know Sherlock, and Doctor Who but have never heard of Louis Theroux or the term “fixed rig“. They are a blank slate when it comes to British factual, and I have fifteen weeks to make my mark.
I have to begin by introducing them to something else they have never heard of: Public Service Broadcasting. For while the BBC is in a perilous state at the moment, with no reprieve in sight, the PSB tradition it stems from is crucial to understanding just how the Brits got so great at making documentaries. I wrote my entire MA thesis on the topic. It’s important.
In class, after we look at the notion of public service broadcasting, and how it was extended with the creation of Channel 4 in the 80s (also, sadly, under threat), we turn to John Grierson, who coined the term documentary, defining it as the “creative of treatment of actuality”. We have a look at Grierson’s most famous sequence in his seminal film Night Mail, which shows the postal train rhythmically chugging north to Scotland, to words by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten:
We learn just how Grierson came to make propaganda films for the British government, by dipping into Britain Through A Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, made by the excellent Lambent Productions. It includes a clip from Grierson’s box office hit Drifters (1929), about the British herring trade. While I recognize I need to tread softly and not show Drifters in its entire, silent, black and white glory, my students were gratifyingly engrossed when I showed a modern take on deep sea fishing, Channel 4’s recent The Catch, a fixed rig series which was mesmerizing from start to finish.
After our crash course in PSB and Grierson, we look more in depth at contemporary examples of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality, in its many guises. We explore the topic with the help of a specially curated Flipboard Magazine; I often ask students to use articles in it as a starting point for further research. We also hear from a number of leading filmmakers – Kim Longinotto, Brian Hill and Christopher Hird have all been recent guest lecturers.
As students gear up to make their own three minute film for a final project, it’s critical for them to see how a simple construct can make a powerful film. Marc Isaac’s beautifully made first film Lift – shot entirely in the elevator of a tower block in East London – is a great example.
While it would be a joy to spend our entire time looking at the work of talented British independent documentary makers, my charges are about to enter the real world and many are hoping for a career in television. So a large chunk of our time is spent looking at the world of formats, with the occasional help of the always entertaining Gogglebox and Charlie Brooker. My students are surprised to learn just how many of the American shows they watch are British formats made by British production companies. But our focus is not so much on this crossover as on those reality formats in the UK that traditionally haven’t had a hope in hell of appearing on mainstream US television. In the hopes of fostering transatlantic fertilisation, I spend a lot of time exploring the intersection of public service and reality, looking at how some UK production companies are doing both, in really interesting ways. For more on that, stay tuned…
So I’ve heard from a fair number of people that they’d like more blogs about films they can actually watch *now* rather than new docs which could take an eternity to come to a small screen near your sofa. So, obligingly, here’s a few films that you can watch now (if you’re in the UK, that is…will follow up soon with a US Netlix post).
Channel 4’s factual archive hosts more than a few outstanding documentaries and is altogether more satisfying in its scope and range than the BBC online archive, including films from a number of the UK’s leading documentary makers. Here are a couple of my favorites:
A classic from Kim Longinotto, this is a great introduction to her work. Here’ s my write-up on it for Sheffield Doc/Fest 2002:
Nine year old Fouzia stands in her finest white dress to recite her poem called “The Day I Will Never Forget.” But instead of a tale of a cherished holiday memory, she talks about her forced circumcision at her mother’s insistence. Kim Longinotto’s latest film demystifies the practice of female genital mutilation through engrossing stories of Kenyan women. As young girls like Fouzia cope with the painful aftermath of their trauma – and in the film’s most difficult scene we witness it firsthand – older women demonstrate how entrenched cultural beliefs can override the maternal instinct to protect. But times are changing. Nurse Fardhosa teaches hygiene to circumcisers in Nairobi, while quietly encouraging them to stop. And a group of runaway girls are seeking court action against their parents…Gripping devastating, but ultimately hopeful.
Nick Broomfield’s dogged following of the South African white supremicist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche comes to a climax in one the most famous scenes from Broomfield’s impressive body of work. Deliberately showing up late for a long-requested interview, the tongue lashing Broomfield receives sheds more insight on Terre’Blanche than a tradtitional interview ever could. Funny and riveting in turns, this is Broomfield at his best.
Finally, be sure to check out From Russia with Cash (top picture above), which will be available on Channel 4 for a couple more weeks. Director Dan Reed sheds a long overdue light on just how easy it is to launder money through London’s property market. Secretly filming throughout, Reed sends actors posing as Russian government minister “Boris” and his trophy girlfriend to five top end properties, where estate agents eager to earn their hefty commissions prove all too willing to provide advice on how Boris can buy the property with what he clearly states is dodgy money. In the aftermath of the film’s broadcast last week, two investigations have been launched, as well as parliamentary questions. Reed is one of the most talented documentary makers working today – you can see several of his films on the Channel 4 archive including the multi award-winning The Paedophile Hunter and Terror in Moscow.
Docs on Screens is taking a summer hiatus – and a lengthy trip to the US. See you in the autumn, and thanks for reading if you have got this far!
The Yes Men are Revolting opened the London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival last night – the third feature outing for activists Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, who have forged a career of elaborate stunts targeted squarely at corporate behemoths, perhaps most famously posing as Dow executives pledging to make reparations to Bhopal victims. This time around, the pair engage with a wide range of other activists in taking on bigwigs ranging from the U.S Chamber of Commerce to leaders attending the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Along the way they join thousands of other activists during the Occupy movement and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Twenty years into their career, Andy and Mike are clearly older and wiser and a bit world weary. The Yes Men are Revolting for the first time focuses on them as human beings with families, boyfriends and plenty of lashings of modern stress. Appropriately enough, the film shows the frustrations and tensions which inevitably emerge when trying to save the world, one hoax at a time.
At a post screening Q&A with co-director Laura Nix, here’s what the three film-makers had to say about activism, and their latest cinematic outing:
Laura Nix: (Mike and Andy) are always doing actions – there is always a ton of stuff going on. So it’s a question of how does any particular action serve the narrative of the film? And this film is more complicated than the others because it involves them as humans. In the other two films they were like cardboard cut-out characters, like cartoons, and this time they were real people. And I felt that was really important because I’ve known them a long time and I am very impressed at what it takes to do this work for decades. It’s one thing to get involved in activism when you are in your twenties, and it’s another thing when you are starting to hit the other ages that we are all facing!
Mike Bonanno (on dodging a law suit threat): One of the things that we’ve come to realise from years of doing this is that we’re not in any danger physically or legally for what we’re doing. Everything we’re doing as far as we can tell is totally legal and totally safe. We have some people to thank who have fought against companies like McDonald’s, for example – the McLibel case here in the UK – which has made a lot of corporations scared to threaten activists legally.
Andy Bichlbaum: For me the personal story is really important as a way of showing the importance of social movements. We despair, we wonder why we are doing things? What did this achieve? And we get the answer with Occupy, when we realise that we’ve been part of this and it’s exploding and it’s huge. That’s a lesson that activists often don’t realise – if you do something with your heart really in it, it matters. Even if you might not see how – it might take a long time for you to see how it works.
The Human Rights Watch Festival runs until March 27. Stay tuned for a future blog about the rapidly growing subgenre of activism on film…
On a Sunday morning last June, the second day of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, a few dozen festival delegates showed up to watch two short films from Poland. With most of the rest of the festival either still in bed, or attending one of the many other offerings going on elsewhere, the large cinema had more empty seats than full. They don’t know what they were missing.
I was excited to be there to see the films and moderate the Q&A after the screening, and looking forward to meeting Aneta Kopacz, the director of Joanna, at 40 minutes, the longer of the two films. I had seen Joanna in my batch of films I watch as one of Doc/Fest’s previewers. In eight or so years of previewing, it was the film that has probably stood out the most. I had watched it on my IPad in bed, knowing nothing about it other than its title, and found myself gripped – and very moved. It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of a young woman dying of cancer, and trying to enjoy her last days with her husband and son. Although I learned later that the subject was a well-known blogger, that information to me was not important to the story which unfolded on screen, and I left it out of my write-up for the festival. It was simply a universal story of love and life, wondrously filmed by Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal. When I met Aneta she was lovely and articulate about the film, but torn about the fact that she was missing her own young daughter’s birthday to discuss a film all about making the most of the short, precious time you have with your children.
The second film screening that morning, Our Curse, was a total unknown to me. Having met the director, Tomasz Śliwiński, briefly before the screening, I settled in only to find myself watching Tomasz and his wife on screen struggling through the shock of their infant son Leo being diagnosed with a serious incurable disorder. Any parent who has been launched into the horrifying world of a sick child will marvel at how Tomasz had the wherewithal to make it. It very much evokes the exhaustion and shock that dominate those early months, as they bring their son home and learn how to live together as a family very different than the one they had expected. It’s also a wonder of a film, beautifully made, and humbling to watch.
Although they were made very differently – one purely observational, the second autobiographical – both films reflect profound, universal themes – and are crafted with artistry and sensitivity. They are my favourite kind of films. During the Q&A afterwards, both filmmakers spoke movingly about their films, and the difficulties of filming in such emotional settings. I emerged from the session, as I’m sure others did, feeling I had experienced something really quite profound in this double bill of films probing at life, and wishing that more people could see them.
All these months later, I seem to have got my wish. To my amazement, both films have received Oscar nominations for short documentary. I was staggered when I heard – two Polish docs? This isn’t the foreign language category after all. But I’m delighted – and particularly pleased to see that the New York Times has made Our Curse available as part of its Op-Docs strand. Please watch it, and share. Films like these, which humanely honour life in all its messy wonder, deserve to be seen.
I‘m delighted that Boyhood is getting some awards love. It’s one of my favourite films of the decade – watching it a second time on a transatlantic flight it again held me spellbound for nearly three hours. Like most people, its appeal lies mostly in watching its subjects age over twelve years – in this case actor Ellar Coltrane’s wondrous journey from a six year-old boy to a young man.
This on screen time-lapse is a pleasure I first encountered twenty some years ago, discovering Michael Apted’s Up series, which famously has been following the same documentary subjects since they were seven years old. They are now nearly 60. If you haven’t seen any of it, get thee to youtube for a sample (you might then want to binge watch the box set). It’s funny, and sad, and thought-provoking, and shows how film can make even the most ordinary of lives compelling. No wonder it topped a Channel 4 list of the greatest documentaries ever made – and led Roger Ebert to call the films “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium”.
In thirteen years of watching and writing about films for Sheffield Doc/Fest, I’ve seen scores of documentaries that travel back and forth in time in memorable ways. As most of us now have the potential to cut one together, thanks to the smartphone archive in our pocket, it’s worth paying attention to how footage shot over many years can be crafted into a work of art. Here’s a few of the best of the Doc/Fest films I’ve seen, together with my original write-up:
112 Weddings (Doug Block, 2014)
Despite being one of the U.S.’s most acclaimed documentary makers, Doug Block still needs his bread and butter work. For him, it’s weddings – in fact he’s filmed 112 of them over the last 20 years. In this engrossing doc he revisits some of the couples he has made wedding videos for, asking how they stay married – or didn’t, as the case may be. His long-standing relationship with his subjects fosters an easy intimacy and his follow-up interviews take on the veneer of a counselling session. The passage of time shines a torch on the many issues that can derail the happiest of couples, from mental illness to crying babies and infidelity, whilst Block’s wedding archive allows us to look back on their most optimistic of days. The film is funny, moving and often tragic – much like marriage itself.
We Went to War (Michael Grigsby, 2012)
In 1970, in the midst of a drawn out Vietnam War, a young British director Michael Grigsby made a film about three young veterans returning home. I Was a Soldier is an acclaimed classic – the first to depict the ravages of the war on soldiers considered to be home safe and sound. Forty years later, Grigsby and his co author Rebekah Tolley have made an equally powerful follow up, returning to Texas to see what has become of his three characters. In a visually arresting, contemplative style that suits the dusty small town locales, and creatively merges past and present, we learn just how much their war experience shaped their lives. Still unable to understand what they were fighting for, the scars run deep. Dennis has tried not to be defined by his experience, but is unable to form lasting attachments. It took 38 years for David to receive counselling, while Lamar’s journey back to normality, would prove to be one of the hardest battles of all.
Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee, 2011)
One of the masters of autobiographical filmmaking, American legend Ross McElwee returns to Doc/Fest with another film very close to his heart. Having long filmed his children, McElwee is dismayed to observe that his once sunny young son Adrian has grown into a grumpy and sullen young adult. He uses his many hours of footage to remember and mourn Adrian’s lost childhood, his ruminative voiceover reflecting the universal realities of parenting: “The young child – the one you loved so much – is still contained in the obnoxious teenager…Teenagers have no idea of how they’re protected from a smaller version of themselves that rises up to defend them.” McElwee decides to go in search of his own younger self, and heads to Brittany, where he once served as a wedding photographer’s assistant. Flitting back and forth between his past and his present, McElwee offers up another moving and memorable exploration of the human condition.
Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death Story of Patty Schemel (P. David Ebersole, 2011)
Aware that her rock and roll lifestyle was yielding some crazy episodes, Patty Schemel picked up a video camera in the early 1990s. A rising star in the flourishing music scene of America’s Pacific Northwest, Schemel’s pals included Kurt Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, who hired her as the drummer for her band Hole. Capturing some extraordinary scenes, including Cobain and Love at home with their baby daughter, Schemel also recorded her own descent from playing sell-out world tours to destitute heroin addict, and her ultimate rehabilitation. The footage is interwoven with entertaining interviews with Schemel and Hole’s surviving members (their base player Kristen Pfaff died of an overdose just two months after Cobain’s suicide) and Schemel’s own family. “I couldn’t get over that she gave up a good job at Microsoft,” says her mom. With a pace as fast moving as the music, director P. David Ebersole’s film is destined to become a classic music doc on the joys and perils of life in the fast lane.
A Man’s Story (Varon Bonicos, 2010)
He’s neither white nor gay but somehow Ozwald Boateng has risen to the dizzying heights of British fashion. He was the first black tailor to have a business on Savile Row and the youngest to boot. A long line of A-list celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Paul Bettany sing his praises, while sporting his colourful suits. Director Varon Bonicos began filming Boateng in 1998, when his life was in tatters. A nasty divorce and the collapse of his business had left Boateng at a low ebb – not helped when his entire collection was stolen. Bonicos went on to follow the charismatic stylist over twelve years, as he was appointed Givenchy creative director, starred in his own American reality series and married a Russian model, a union made difficult by Boateng’s peripatetic, workaholic lifestyle. As stylish as the man himself, A Man’s Story is an enjoyable foray into the fashion industry through one of its most vibrant stars.
Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich, 2010)
Twelve years after setting off to explore his mother’s homeland, Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich completes his trilogy on three generations of Jakarta’s Shamsuddin family with the masterful ‘Position Among the Stars’. Family matriarch Rumidjah has returned from the countryside to rein in her granddaughter Tari – the entire family’s hopes are pinned on the girl to lift them out of the slums. Tari’s Uncle Bakti is finding her difficult to control and would rather be cultivating his fighting fish business, much to the annoyance of his wife. As always, the family’s everyday tribulations reflect the wider, rapidly changing Indonesian society. Far from ‘fly on the wall’ Helmrich’s constantly roving camera is always in the middle of the drama, often at ground level in scenes of astonishing intimacy. Well deserving of its major prizes, including the Special Grand Jury prize at Sundance, this is not to be missed.
The Kids Grow Up (Doug Block, 2009)
Director Doug Block has suffered from Empty Nest Syndrome for some time, and has been talking to friends and family about the traumas of having your children leave home. The thing is, his only child Lucy hasn’t gone yet, and she’s getting quite sick of Dad’s moping around after her with a camera. Anyone lucky enough to have caught Block’s last Doc/Fest outing, 51 Birch Street, will recognise his accomplished style of personal film making, with great use of family archive, and probing , funny conversations with those nearest and dearest to him. Block and his friends are the first of the new breed of dads totally involved in their children’s lives, rather than the detached providers that their own fathers were. Surrounded by images of his many filmed conversations with Lucy over the years, Block finds it difficult to be at peace with the rapid passage of time and can’t contemplate life without her at home, much to the annoyance of his sanguine wife Marjorie. A moving, intimate exploration of family life.
René (Helena Třeštíková, 2008)
A petty crime as a teenager earned Rene a prison sentence, and set him off on a life of crime. Misanthropic, intelligent and introspective, he spends his life in and out of prison, struggling to fit in anywhere in the quickly changing Czech Republic. Veteran film maker Helena Trestikova began filming Rene in 1989, and kept up with him over the next two decades, even after he robbed her flat. Their collaboration, and his brief fame as a documentary star, spur him to writing, and he becomes a published author. Yet the demons driving him remain. This engrossing film takes us on a journey of a life lived outside of society. As his rap sheet lengthens, his body tattoos multiply, a visual testimony to the anger fueling his blighted life. His letters to Trestikova and access to the many cells which he calls home enhance this must-see film.
I couldn’t possibly have been more primed to become a Serial podcast fan. Hailing from a family of lawyers, in my early twenties I was obsessed with true crime writing – my favorite book was Fatal Vision, not least for the very messy relationship between author Joe McGinnis and convicted murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. With the launch of Court TV in the early 90s I turned to TV for my true crime fix, enjoying even the most mundane of trials for their revelations about real lives. Having been raised in Cleveland, Ohio, in a truly barren television era, the only factual offerings being the news, 60 Minutes and Candid Camera, I was desperate for real life stories. No wonder then, since moving to London in 1996 I have become obsessed with documentaries and all of the messy truths they unearth, and made them the focus of my working life.
A latecomer to This American Life, I’ve spent the last 18 months listening to all of its 500+ archive, while walking the parks of North London. When This American Life announced recently they were launching a second podcast, Serial, its episodic unfolding of a long-ago Baltimore murder seemed tailor made for me.
What I didn’t expect was that five million people would feel the same way. Having devoured its first episode within hours of launching, I didn’t have long to be a smug early adopter before it became the most successful podcast in history. This week, before the end of its first season, it has won an DocLab award at IDFA, for Digital Storytelling.
As a Serial fan, I find myself a mid-level obsessive – not at the level of pouring through the sprawling Reddit site, where amateur sleuths strut their stuff. But I have begun listening to Slate’s Serial Spoiler podcast, and read a score of articles dissecting its success. For me, and many of its fans, what’s mesmerizing about the storytelling is the way that producer Sarah Koenig takes listeners through a journey that is meant to mimic her own, and all the twists and turns she has undergone trying to figure out whether Adnan Syed murdered his ex-girlfriend in 1999.
More than anything, this masterful manipulation of the journey of discovery reminds me of the equally brilliant The Imposter documentary. In telling how a 20-something Frenchman impersonated a missing Texan teenager – and was accepted into the family home – the talented British production crew steers the audience through the same journey they undertook, when exploring the long ago story. The Imposter is worth buying the DVD, as it contains a thoroughly engrossing making of extra.
Both stories investigate old crimes in astonishingly innovative storytelling. As Serial approaches its first season finale, I’m looking forward to its phenomenal success kicking off a new wave of true crime investigative journalism.