Reality is shaped by the documentarian – a perception of a certain reality exposed to an audience through a patchwork of events and people throughout time. Real stories coming alive, here are a few must sees:
Capitalism: A Love Story | Michael Moore (2009)
It’s true that Michael Moore’s voice echoes after every viewing of his proactive, activist documentaries. The resonance in Capitalism: A Love Story will leave you distressed yet compelled to make change. Moore uncovers the insidious and demonic motives behind capitalism. This film makes a confronting statement about the negative effects of our capitalist culture including sucking mortgagers dry, making millions from ‘dead peasant insurance’, Wall Street gamblers, the rich getting richer and the poor getting irreversibly and devastatingly poorer. Another aspect to his documentary work, particularly evident in Capitalism: A Love Story, is Moore’s strident screen presence. The self-taught artist in his baggy jeans and cap makes him relatable – it feels as though he is uncovering these conspiracies for us, as one of us.
Spellbound | Jeffrey Blitz (2002)
Raking in awards such as Best Documentary Feature at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Best Film at the Cleveland International Film Festival, this endearing and touching picture explores the world of smart kids who spell well. Eight students between ages 10 – 14 enter the annual Washington spelling bee. Our heroes and heroines are a nerdy, studious and dedicated bunch of competitors, a multicultural mix of demographics. We’re invited into their homes and lives as they anticipate the contest of language and linguistics, we learn about the pressure and burdensome amount of preparation each contestant endures. Your heart will drop as loveable kooky kids miss a letter, the pain on their faces, showing to the audience, the sweetness and intellect of the underdog.
Bastardy | Amiel Courtin-Wilson (2008)
“I justified myself as a hunter-gatherer, going onto prime Aboriginal land,” Jack Charles says on stealing in Melbourne’s rich suburb. A man who is a member of the Stolen Generation, a founder of the first Aboriginal theatre company, co-star to Geoffrey Rush, a homeless drug addict and career criminal – meet Jack Charles as he injects heroin into his arm at curtains up. Cheers to Amiel Courtin-Wilson, an Australian filmmaker who presents to us, a rich and affecting documentary about the life of this eccentric personality. Courtin-Wilson has stated that at times, following Charles during acts of crime and substance use, he was unsure if his involvement was at all legal. A portrait of a damaged and lively man, a painting of a Nation’s abuse on a culture, Courtin-Wilson captures a real life human inside the confines of an 83-minute work of art.
West of Memphis | Amy Berg (2012)
Where to begin? A summary of the events that occurred from 1993-2011 involving a triple murder of children and a triple lock up for outcast adolescents. ThE film begins where it all ended for three little boys, on a summer afternoon in West Memphis, their bodies found the day after death and deemed the result of satanic ritualistic behaviour. The state pointed the finger at three outsiders whose alibis and motivations don’t correlate with the murder. Eighteen years behind bars, the teenagers accused now men; the film becomes the story of Arkansas government’s manipulation and power verses the silenced and guiltless. The wider community and family members protest for the wrongly accused, joining the influential likes of Lord of The Rings director Peter Jackson and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder in the fight for freedom. The documentary follows the case through unexpected twists and sadistic turns for the hunt to regain innocence for the lost and the locked away.
Supersize Me | Morgan Spurlock (2004)
McDonald’s, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, Pizza Hut – the chant of primary school kids sticks in you head, sweet childish voices begin to haunt waking moments in confrontation of drastic health problems in our western culture. Morgan Spurlock signs himself up for one month of all meals McDonald’s and he must supersize. The deal is, if offered the ‘fries with that’ sales technique, he must accept, adding fat, sugar and salts to the order. Before the experiment, doctors conclude Spurlock in good health, yet a check up throughout the McDonalds menu and our subject and director is suffering side effects akin to a binge drinker with symptoms of toxic-shock to his liver, poor skin, low energy, chest pain and high cholesterol. Let’s get real, let’s get healthy, Supersize Me not only astonished Sundance but also was a main factor in McDonald’s removing their supersize option.
Grey Gardens | Albert Maysles and David Maysles (1976)
An archaic house sits in the middle of the Hamptons. Rich and preserved surrounding dwellings snarl and snicker in their pompousness and prettiness. Grey Gardens rots away, a family of cats running wild spreading disease, paint curls, plants wilt and a sea of green grass encompasses the property, suffocating the inhabitants. Yes, inhabitants. Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale were known in their younger days as women of style, vivaciousness and entertainment. Now in this warped existence of a crumbling house that once was, they reflect on their lives and the present existence. The sadness of the decaying abode is challenged with their peculiarity and colour, constantly moving between sympathy and happiness for these characters. The house becomes a character itself, the women depend on their home as much as they do each other. Their life at the now sordid Grey Gardens and their refusal to leave symbolises their clutching at the exquisiteness of the past in desires to remain there and by denying the outcome of their life decisions, hope for the opportunity of success. Yet we watch as Edie gleefully performs various memorised routines with a shirt on her head to cover her baldness and Edith, from her bed, underneath a shall, sings for the camera without being asked.
Teenage | Matt Wolf (2013)
“The teenager was an American invention, it was what we wanted to be.” In a patchwork of archival footage, this film essay recalls the emergence of the subculture known as ‘Teenage’, deriving from the works of music journalist Jon Savage. Focusing on the history of youth until abruptly arriving and ending at 1945, the suggested year the ‘Teenager’ was officially present. Journeying through child labour, the roaring 20s, adolescent armies, It girls, the depression, (including hints of the future), we understand alternative concepts of youth and young people. This film offers various perceptions to the creation of this subculture, leaning heavily towards the idea of savouring and relishing the idea of youth experience. However, a deeper glance suggests that The Teenager was invented as a capitalist opportunity to appeal, seal and attack a new genre. Here, we can analyse the psychology of capitalism, how and why subcultures are designed and on a deeper level. This documentary showcases the idea of how our civilisation has evolved and modern culture operates.
Paper Heart | Nicholas Jasenovec (2009)
What an exquisite look at all things love! Comedian and stand up girl Charlene Yi has never been in love and believes she is not capable of expressing or bestowing such a feeling. Touring America with Director Nicholas Jasenovec (played by Jake Johnson) meeting with people far and wide to try and capture the essence of love. Even though a drama-doco, all interviews are with actual subjects elucidating actual experiences – married couples, divorcees, a gay couple, newly weds, young kids, a psychic, romance novelist and a lawyer, including her friend Seth Rogen – people from diverse walks of life all bound by a common experience of the emotion. Yi meets Michael Cera (as himself) and through their dorky connection of video games and music, Cera grows annoyed at the film crew crowd that comes with dating this comedian. A beautiful concept to understand the notions of what it means to be in love. This quasi-documentary explores the profound and powerful word ‘love’.
I Am Eleven | Genevieve Bailey (2014)
An Australian filmmaker travels the world meeting with twenty-five youngsters to craft the poetic I Am Eleven. Landing in countries , including France, England, Sweden, India, as well as returning home to Australia, this documentary depicts the universality between various subjects from diverse backgrounds. Meet Billy from London who loves Dirty Dancing for the ‘great dance moves and plus the nice romance’, Remi from France who states he isn’t French but a citizen of the world and Take from Australia who shares her mixed race and admiration for Bieber – we grow to understand that these advanced and interesting kids alike, share the essence of curiosity, creativity and individuality before the adulterated future – this is a celebration of young minds. Bailey worked as producer, writer, director, cinematographer and editor for this sweet and optimistic discovery of commonalities in childhood.
Grizzly Man | Werner Herzog (2005)
There’s over 900 hours of Timothy Tredwell’s personal footage of living in the wild with bears and yet still he remains an illusive character. Moving, at times abruptly, between insanity and flamboyancy, Tredwell sits in a paddock watching Chocolate the untamed bear as his (wild) pet forest foxes nudge against him for a pat. Tredwell dedicated his later years to protecting bears and who was eventually mauled, decapitated and torn apart along with his girlfriend by his beloved animals. But a deeper layer unfolds. Tredwell is a reformed alcoholic who admits he in fact was saved by these animals, which helped him to strip bare of his insalubrious past. Yet his first ambition to be a noteworthy actor in LA shines through in his ostentatious performances in the wild and makes an audience wonder, was his time in front of the camera and as an infamous grizzly person in fact an attempt at this acting goal once again? Was he valiant or foolish, caring or naïve?
Capturing the Friedmans | Andrew Jarecki (2003)
The winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, Capturing The Friedmans is a heck of a portrayal of the bizarrely abnormal Friedman family. In 1987, during thanksgiving, the family was torn apart following an accusation that would shake up the surrounding middle class society. Head of the family and local science teacher Arnold Friedman answers the door to policemen who search the house and find child pornography hidden away. Allegations begin as Arnold is charged with sexually abusing students. As the story continues, Jesse (the youngest Friedman) is then accused of having molested children alongside his father. Home footage grants us access to the disturbance and anger within this family. The Friedman boys defend their unsettlingly silent father as they bully and repress their insecure mother. At Sundance director Jarecki was asked if Friedman was guilty. His answer – “I don’t know.” The film objects the audience to both incriminating moments and opportunities of potential ill conviction; this becomes a piece where the moral decision is heavy in the hands of the viewer.
Food Inc. | Robert Kenner (2009)
It’s the corn. Mel Gibson knew it in Signs and Robert Kenner knows it in Food Inc. This documentary is an education about food manufacturing and greedy corporations compromising health for wallet size. It’s impressive that a documentary can persuade an audience without shock tactics or instilling fear. Instead it’s the sheer insight to perspicacious information that wins us over. This picture is literally food for thought as we look into over cruel and crowded chicken sheds and stare into cages where cows are forced to eat corn. These inhumane methods are adopted to keep production costs low and gain remarkable revenue. However, a lighter side to the shopping basket, we meet optimistic farmers who encourage the green embrace for a healthy lifestyle. Think before you shop, that makes all the difference. After all, if enough people opt for organic, we can change the very means to farming and production.
Cutie and the Boxer | Zachary Heinzerling (2013)
Ushio and Noriko Shinohara are Cutie and the Boxer. 1973 – both from Japan, she was a 19-year-old student and he was a 41, known as the bad boy action painter. That’s love, in a weird and wonderful sense. This documentary measures their exhilarating and volatile relationship, understanding feelings of compromise, resentment and unconditional support as we tour through their history of art and romance. This piece is a painting about an explosive marriage – two different beliefs and two very different artistic styles. Noriko creates in soft inks that delicately touch the page whereas Ushio dips a boxing glove into paint, punching into onto the canvas. Now, as they produce a husband and wife show together, we see the two working as one within the chaos of their overflowing tiny apartment and abundance of differing creative ideas. This is an exploration of over four decades, a colourful union, how above all else, the madness, the ager, the passion, there is and always will be collaboration.
Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? | Michel Gondry (2013)
An animated conversation between Noam Chomsky and director Michel Gondry. With the artistic mark of Gondry, we enter a whimsical world of animation and sketches that exude Chomsky’s teachings. Over many months, these two minds discuss linguistics and philosophy, evolving a narrative of theoretical understanding and the collaboration between the two. This is a visual adventure of one man’s embrace of another’s philosophy, a way of communicating the ideas of individual human perception and relation, the collaboration and growth of a single idea. In casual conversation, we learn about Chomsky as a person rather than the pretense of the political activist. In relation, Gondry connects to the philosopher and we grasp the headspace of the director too. The documentary allows the audience to enter underneath the skin of the two, hearing the words of Chomsky and seeing the visuals of Gondry, exploring beyond reality, the psyche of great minds.
Searching for Sugar Man | Malik Bendjelloul (2012)
Who is Sugar Man? Who is the musician who influenced political movements in South Africa? The enigmatic figure that never sold to Americans? The creator of evocative music that apparently died in a state of maniac? First time director and fan Malik Bendjelloul speaks to us, investigating the music and the artist that is Rodriguez. A girlfriend bringing over Sixto Rodriguez’s record to her partner in South Africa is the reason for the widespread listen and love of his music. A US based musician, who assumed failure in his artistic attempt, was unaware of the adoration and respect Cape Town expressed for his work. No mention of him on the Internet, zero impression in magazines or articles, hardly any photographic trails, earned royalties undelivered – this is the hunt for Sugar Man, the forgotten folk musician. This documentary reveals Rodriguez as a humble man of song, poetry, hardship, hard work, as a father, as a shadow and in fame.
Hoop Dreams | Steve James (1994)
This sports documentary, covering five years, with more than 200 hours of footage, surpasses the genre itself. Embodying drama and human spirit, this is a film about two kids who dreamt of a better life. Two Chicago teenagers, William Gates and Arthur Agee dream of playing for the NBA, raised on welfare, unable to pay school fees, adolescents with primary level linguistic skills, are given the opportunity to play ball. This is an ambition that doesn’t merely represent the athletic pursuit but embodies dreams of escape. Another layer exposes the exploitation of our character’s fantasy involving sport and a celebrity status as they are manipulated and betrayed. It’s a long way to rise for these players and even a harder fall – without financial support or encouragement, these teenagers must push themselves ferociously to ascend past the poverty and drug culture that surrounds them. Hoop Dreams doesn’t embellish the idea of a one in a million opportunity or about human talent and sporting feats; it’s about real life.
An Inconvenient Truth | Davis Guggenheim (2006)
Years of human pursuit have produced global warming, an inevitable result of the abuse on our planet. This is a stimulating look on what we’ve done wrong, the consequences and achieving a cleaner future if we act right now. Burning fossil fuels, gas, oil and coal depleting, natural resources shrinking, countries both anticipating and experiencing provoked unusual natural disasters – these are all Nature’s warning to treat her with respect. This is a powerful presentation from a great leader who states a concrete case to better civilisation and the world around us. An Inconvenient Truth isn’t a political strategy but a moral obligation, encouraging humanity to adopt an eco-friendly approach and refrain from exploitation of our habitat. “The world won’t ‘end’ overnight in 10 years, but a point will have been passed, and there will be an irreversible slide into destruction.”
The Up Series | Michael Apted & Paul Almond (1964–2005)
A sociological experiment across 41 years, analysing how class effected prospects and opportunity. The ‘Up Series’ is a chronicle of fourteen subjects, interviews beginning in 1964 when they were seven and ending as they turn 41. These dedicated filmmakers immersed themselves in production for 41 years, undergoing a social study every seven years reviewing the growth and experience of the subjects. This film not only intricately views the history of fourteen people but in fact also showcases the evolution of culture and the world. Spaced out every seven years, we grow and relate to these ordinary characters, empathising with their human experiences across life. A diverse cast originating from the UK, these people move around the world, some migrating to Australia, some lingering around their birthplace as well as ordeals of homelessness and success.
Lake of Fire | Tony Kaye (2006)
This is the aggressive debate of abortion in the US. We hear from doctors, philosophers, religious fundamentalists, academics and activists (yet perhaps this documentary would have taken on a deeper layer of sensitivity if it featured more women.) The interesting aspect of this documentary is that it is shot in black and white – a poetic visual explanation of the two contrasting belief systems within this argument. Furthermore, it is the idea that either side is unchanging, rigid in their stance. Utilising shockingly, ugly images of abortions and of religious extremists, this documentary doesn’t pick sides but rather shows the principles of both arguments. This is a clever approach (if it doesn’t break your heart) and a way of depicting the psychology behind both unchanging movements.
Triumph of the Will | Leni Riefenstahl (1935)
Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a historically important documentary that embodies the age of Nazi propaganda. Such films were designed to express Germany as progressive, showcasing ‘strength’ of a nation during war and the depression. This picture is a strong example of the power of imagery and influence of cinematic narrative – the ability to coheres an audience into certain states of belief. Yet this film has eeriness about it, the hundreds of thousands blindly marching orderly to a ludicrous appeal, visuals bereft of human touch and sense. Triumph of the Will is a film created to persuade the audience has become a modern day exploration of individuality and freedom.