Tag Archives: observational documentaries

Stream Now: Award Winning Docs

If you’re not fortunate enough to be attending Sheffield Doc/Fest this week, but are in the market for some great docs, here is a list of films that have played at the festival that you can now stream on Netflix or BBC IPlayer. Descriptions are from the copy I originally wrote for Doc/Fest.

NETFLIX FILMS 

The Hunting Ground

 

Excited at having landed a place at the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark’s elation evaporated when she was raped before classes began. She is far from alone: studies show that 20% of women will suffer a sexual attack at university. In a masterful, wide-ranging investigation, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering present dozens of testimonials detailing how universities of every shape and size collude to cover up sexual crimes on their campuses, creating an ideal “hunting ground” for serial offenders. Fear of damaging their reputation – and enrolment – drives shocking behaviour throughout the universities, with the fraternity and athletic communities covering up the most grievous assaults. For many victims, the institutional denial proves even more painful than the crime itself. But hope is in sight as Annie and other victims begin to fight back through the courts, hitting universities where it hurts – by threatening their revenue streams.

3 1/2 Minutes

It became known in America as the “loud music trial”. In an encounter which lasted a scant three and a half minutes, a middle aged white man named Mike Dunn repeatedly fired into a car of unarmed black teenagers, after they refused to turn down their rap music, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis. Now the case has come to trial, and the nation is watching. Dunn’s attorney is using Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law to argue self defence. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, in which a white man walked free in Florida after gunning down an unarmed teenager, tensions are running high. Director Marc Silver skilfully weaves a compelling narrative through beautifully shot courtroom scenes, interviews with the victim’s parents and friends, and shocking telephone conversations between incarcerated Dunn and his distraught fiancee. A riveting look at a flawed legal system in a country where race relations are balanced on a knife’s edge.

Cartel Land

In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman (main pic above) takes us deep into the world of Mexican drug cartels by embedding himself with two vigilante groups on either side of the US-Mexico border. Camouflaged to help spy on drug runners, veteran Tim Foley is a man who wears his hard past on his face. Meanwhile, across the Rio Grande, surgeon Dr. Jose Mireles looks straight out of central casting, with chiselled features and a prominent moustache. As head of the Autodefansas, he is leading a group of men determined to obliterate the region’s most dangerous drug cartel, the Knights Templar. Heineman repeatedly places himself in harm’s way, filming the chaos as the group begin taking over towns – in so doing adapting many of the violent tactics of the drug lords they’re trying to overpower. A visceral journey into North America’s heart of darkness, Cartel Land will be talked about for years to come.

Searching for Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez was discovered by two music producers, whilst living on the streets of Detroit in the late 60s. They quickly recognised him as an inner city poet, his poignant lyrics about working class lives reminiscent of Bob Dylan. They made two albums with Rodriguez, and never understood why they were total flops. Unbeknownst to them, in a pre-Internet, apartheid age, a bootleg copy of a Rodriguez album made him an inspiration to a generation of South Africans just beginning to test the ties that bind. Yet all that his South African fans knew about Rodriguez, was that he had spectacularly killed himself on stage. After years of wondering, two of his biggest devotees set out to learn more, and eventually discover the shocking truth behind the legend. This beautifully crafted film scooped two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and shows in its edge-of-the-seat storytelling, just how powerfully a documentary narrative can grip.

We Are Legion

Few people cite Scientology as a force for good in their lives – outside of Scientologists themselves, of course. But it was communal hatred of the creepy cult – and their bullying, litigious online presence – that forced the hacktivist group Anonymous from a culture of pranksters to an influential cyber-army. As a number of the group’s most prominent activists face over-the-top prison sentences, director Brian Knappenberger explores the history of the radical collective, and how it rose from a patchwork of bloggers, to become an influential change-agent in the Arab spring. Inevitably with such an amorphous, all embracing group, schisms endure. Most want to use their numbers to promote civil disobedience and curb some of the world’s excesses. But others simply want to continue to cause anarchic mischief online, or as one of this doc’s many entertaining commentators puts it: “If you’re not out there making epileptics have seizures, then you’re a moral fag”.

National Bird

Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.

BBC Storyville on IPlayer

Client 9

At some point you would have thought New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was an aggressive prosecutor of prostitution rings, might have written a note to self: Do Not Buy Hookers (no matter how high class). But no, alas, an FBI sting of a pricey escort service led to Spitzer’s fall and resignation after barely a year in the guv’s chair. Unfortunately for us small people, Spitzer was one of the good guys: he had built a career tackling excesses in the banking industry (before anyone else did), as well as going after environmental polluters and other baddies. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney pieces together the rise and fall of Spitzer, and the long line of powerful enemies he left in his testosterone-fuelled wake. Accompanied by a breezy soundtrack, a range of entertaining interviews – including his chief nemeses, favourite call girl, and Spitzer himself – fill us in on one spectacular fall from grace.

Unlocking the Cage

Unlocking the Cage

In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus , we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.

Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds (formerly An Honest Liar)

An Honest Liar

As a magician “The Amazing Randi” spent decades wowing audiences with astonishing feats. But as Randi’s fanbase grew, he became uneasy at how conmen and faith healers used the tricks of his trade to deceive the masses for profit. Randi made it his life mission to expose psychics, even using the bullhorn of the Johnny Carson show to do so. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom take us through a hugely enjoyable series of Randi’s exposes, from the spoon bending of Uri Geller, to a televisual faith healer aided by an earpiece and a compliant wife. As he continuously worked to debunk the psychics, Randi met angry denial at all levels – even from the gullible scientists he did his best to aid and abet. As he eases into his twilight years still fighting deceit, Randi finds that a deception at the heart of his personal life might prove the costliest trick of all.

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer

They knew how to make an impact: Pussy Riot’s performance inside a Russian cathedral might have lasted just a few seconds, but its repercussions continue to rock the Russian state. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s absorbing documentary brings us straight into the centre of the ensuing trial, where three members stand accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The filmmakers obtain astonishing access to the legal system, including the courtroom, where the girls murmur from within the confines of a glass cage at the sometimes farcical mayhem around them. Reviled by much of the Russian public, with even their closest family struggling to defend their actions, they stand firm by their convictions – and hatred of Putin. A truly compelling immersion into the clash between a generation determined to challenge an oppressive status quo, with those who are equally determined to maintain it.

Advertisements

Five of the best @SheffDocFest 2017

For the fifteenth year running I’ve had the good fortune to watch a good chunk of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s programme to help write the film catalogue. Of the 35 features that I’ve seen, here are five of my favourite:

The Cage Fighter

This powerful vérité documentary (pictured above) tells the story of American Joe Carman. The 40-year-old blue collar worker gave up cage fighting years ago, but claims it’s the only arena where he feels confident. When he returns to fighting without the blessing of his wife and four daughters, his dangerous hobby soon threatens to tear the family apart.

Dina

A groundbreaking observational documentary with the feel of an indie drama. Dina and her fiancé Scott, both neurodivergent, have moved in together to ready for their upcoming wedding, and have set about the messy business of forging lives. In increasingly intimate scenes, Dina is determined to let Scott know that her difficult past doesn’t stop her wanting a passionate future.

Trophy

Trophy

Facing a catastrophic decline in wild animals, big game hunters and conservationists often make uneasy bedfellows, as highlighted in this gripping documentary. South African rhino breeder John is convinced that legalising the sale of rhino horns will save the species from extinction. Meanwhile, American hunter Philip ventures to the remote wilderness of Nambia and Zimbabwe in his personal quest to hunt the “big five” in their natural environment.

The Road Movie

The Road Movie

In Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s mesmerising compilation of dash cam footage, we are spectators to a series of extraordinary moments. From reckless drivers and hammer wielding thugs, to extreme acts of nature and the occasional wild bear, this film is an eccentric portrait of contemporary Russia, as seen, all too briefly, through the front windscreen.

The Rise and Fall of Geoffrey Matthews 

The Rise and Fall of Geoffrey Matthews

A profoundly personal film from one of Britain’s most talented documentary directors. To establish a better rapport, Morgan Matthews begins filming his dad, and carries on for a decade. Once a high flyer, Geoffrey lives precariously with his eccentric partner Anna. As revealed in very intimate scenes, Geoffrey has more than a few regrets, not least his emotional distance from his six children.

Doc/Fest ’16: Six to Watch

For quite a few years I’ve had the good fortune to preview large chunks of the Sheffield Doc/Fest programme, in order to help write the film catalogue. Of the thirty-five films I watched for this year’s festival, which opens on Friday, here are a few of my favourite:

Presenting Princess Shaw

Talented but isolated, New Orleans care worker Samantha spends her spare time uploading acapella videos of her original songs to YouTube, to a smattering of viewers. Unknown to her, in a far away kibbutz, Israeli mash up artist Kutiman is composing his next viral sensation – with Samantha as the star. Following them both, director Ido Haar brings us a gratifyingly heartwarming fairy tale from the digital age.

 

Weiner

Two years after resigning from Congress for tweeting a picture of his bulging yfront, Anthony Weiner is running for Mayor of New York. His loyal wife Huma is at his side, and the tenacious politician has even invited a documentary crew along for the ride. The trouble is, he’s neglected to curb his digital dalliances, giving us jaw-dropping access to a campaign that is soon in total meltdown.

Mr Gaga

Immerse yourself us in the world of modern dance through the vision of Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Through extensive archive, observational footage and beautifully filmed dance sequences, Doc/Fest returnee Tomer Heymann focuses on the fascinating stories underpinning Naharin’s creative process, and how an untrained veteran spurned the tutelage of the dance world’s maestros to become one of the most talented choreographers working today.

Unlocking the Cage

In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus ,we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.

Life, Animated

After years of silence as a child, Owen Suskind amazed his family by beginning to communicate through his biggest passion: Disney films. Now leaving home, Owen is learning that not every step in life has a Disney guru. Director Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda) returns to Doc/Fest with a masterful film about how one close-knit family navigates life with autism.

 

 

National Bird

Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.

————–

Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from 10-15 June. I’ll be moderating a discussion about the power of drones, and the themes stemming from National Bird on Tuesday afternoon.

Addicted to Sheep: Interview with Magali Pettier

One of the surprise hits of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it had its world premiere, Addicted to Sheep is that increasingly rare specimen: an observational documentary, largely made in the cinéma vérité tradition. On the big screen it’s a treat for the senses, immersing you in the lives of a family of tenant sheep farmers in the north of England. Currently screening in UK cinemas, it’s been getting rave critical reviews.  I recently did a post-screening Q&A with the director Magali Pettier at Bertha Dochouse. Here’s a brief excerpt:

There were quite a few scenes in there when they clearly could use another hand. Did they ever say, ‘Magali, could you help me with this’?

Yes, and I do feel it sometimes, especially with the scene with the gate [where the farmer struggles at some length to fix a gate].  But my role as a filmmaker is to observe and see what is happening.  If he had fallen and broken his leg of course I would go and help. But you shouldn’t intervene, and my aim is to film what is happening, and if I hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t be anyone to help him. He wasn’t in any danger. I think sometimes, having been brought  up on a farm, I knew when  to be there to help, and when to be quiet, because there are some very tense moments and you have to make yourself very small.

Magali-Pettier-Director-Producer-of-Addicted-to-Sheep1
Magali Pettier

They certainly didn’t expect you to be spending Christmas Day with them!

They certainly didn’t. It didn’t take too much convincing and they said yes you can come while we open presents but after that we’d like to have the day to ourselves. They did make me feel like part of the family, and I stayed in the house with them when I was filming them.

It’s quite impressive, and in some ways these days slightly old-fashioned to have such an observational style. You had some interviews on the go, to give context to their lives. Otherwise it’s very minimalist. Have you been surprised how well the film has been received by audiences?

So far we’ve had a really good response. People appreciate they are not being told something all the time. It is filmed in a way that allows them to experience that environment and they feel like they’ve been there and that they know the family. For me that was the aim. I wanted the film to touch on social issues but I didn’t want it to be about social issues. I wanted people to think about it, and open up a conversation, but I wasn’t going to make a campaigning film. I wanted it to be about real people.

Caption-Still-of-Esme-Hutchinson-on-filming-location-in-Upper-Teesdale-for-Addicted-to-Sheep-addictedtosheep-440x350

How do you know, in a film like this, that it’s time to stop filming?

I spent about 45 days over 18 months there. I could tell they wanted to get on with their lives! And going to those places and having me always behind or in front of them, or sometimes with a radio mic on them,  I could really feel it when there was stress on the farm, that it was time.  I had asked enough of the family, and we had to make the film with what we had.

And the family is happy with the film?

They liked it. But they said at first that they were not sure what the community would think. But we had a preview in the community with feedback forms and everyone agreed it was a good representation of the area. So that gave them confidence that it was okay – the community liked it so it was fine.

Check out this link for upcoming screenings of Addicted to Sheep.

Addicted-to-Sheep-Jack-talking-2-440x350

BBC Exec Fergus O’Brien on the Making of The Met

In September 2013, veteran doc maker Fergus O’Brien took up a new post as Executive Producer at the BBC, working with head of documentaries Ayesha Rafaele. On his first day, he was handed a very big project: “Literally I was walking in the door and I bumped into Ayesha and she said ‘Do you fancy exec-ing the Met?’ I’m not sure I knew exactly what that would mean but I said yes.”

O’Brien soon found himself immersed in steering one of the biggest access-driven documentary series in the BBC’s recent history. Airing on BBC One, The Met: Policing London is the first time a broadcaster has been given comprehensive access to London’s police force.

fergus head shot
Fergus O’Brien

For O’Brien, it has been rather a bumpy ride: “Inevitably with stuff that’s dealing with the law and criminality and so on, the phone never stopped. You’re often managing people’s worries, and people’s concerns, and keeping an eye on the legalities of things and keeping a steady line of contact open with our editorial policy team and our legal team.”

Initially a six part series, the team had to drop one of the episodes, when legal restrictions prevented them from airing a major storyline about domestic abuse: “That was very difficult – it’s hard to say goodbye,” says O’Brien. “It would have been a really strong story and often those stories, where the victim is willing to be on camera, aren’t told. Unfortunately through the peculiarities of the legal system we couldn’t show it.”

As director of such films as Channel 4’s Seven Days and the acclaimed, and very funny, The Armstrongs (BBC One) O’Brien is used to following a variety of strong characters across numerous settings. But helping the four shooting teams negotiate their way through the labyrinthine Met was a job like no other: “Each of the teams was assigned to a response team in a different borough of London, and a cross-section of boroughs which would reflect the diversity of the city,” he says. “And each team also took on one or two specialist units, whether it was homicide or Trident. The idea being that the bigger units would hopefully provide us with a spine for each film and something we could come back to, and then we could pepper it with a mixture of different response stories to flesh things out and give a sense of variety in each programme.”

Whilst access had been given from the top, it continued to have to be negotiated throughout: “We had to get consent from everyone, even if they were in the background,” says O’Brien. “It’s the usual thing, from our point of view: unless people want to do it there isn’t a point. If they feel they are being forced into it, it just isn’t that great.”

The production ended up with 2,000 hours of footage, shot over the year, and edited over many months. Even now, as the series is airing, O’Brien is still putting out fires: “It’s not the same as covering a story and when it is done and dusted in the courts you put it out. It is just ongoing; it’s daily. Every day now we have to check every single case across the series to make sure people haven’t re-offended and we’re not in contempt of court. It’s a huge part of it.”

The Met: Policing London is airing on Mondays on BBC One at 9pm until early July. Read about a very different way to film police docs here.