No one is going to argue that this has been an extraordinary year for nonfiction film.
Film blogger Scott Feinberg has even gone so far as to declare 2010 "The Year of the Documentary" - "the strongest - or, at the very least, the deepest - year yet in the history of documentary filmmaking".
The other week I had a conversation with someone who I frequently discuss the various politics and maneauverings of the Oscar race for Best Documentary and we agreed that this year it was entirely possible to come up with three completely different lists of five nominees - and that each list would be not just acceptable but pretty sterling.
But let's take Oscar (and Cinema Eye and IDA and Spirits and Gothams and critics prizes) out of the equation for a little while...
I actually meant to write this post back in June, when I'd already seen so many tremendous films - by newcomers and veterans alike. But I put it off because I had so many other films that I hadn't seen yet - and I still have not seen a number of the year's most talked about films (INSIDE JOB, CATFISH, TILLMAN STORY, CLIENT 9, LAST TRAIN HOME and ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE).
But - as evidenced by this intro - talking about these films as we go into October changes the conversation from the stuff I loved in early 2010 to the stuff that should be considered going into awards season. There's little to do about that other than to plunge forward.
A final caveat - just picking these seven films from the list of great and near-great stuff I saw in 2010 was a challenge in itself. I could easily include RESTREPO, BUDRUS, MY PERESTROIKA, SPACE TOURISTS and a handful of others.
But thus far, these are the films that have settled in with me for the long haul and these are the films that have made my documentary viewing in 2010 so exceptional:
Perhaps my favorite film of 2010 thus far is Banksy’s EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP – a skillful, note-perfect dissection of art world hype and the often thorny creative process.
It’s been something of a parlor game in the documentary world (and beyond) to attempt to determine how much of EXIT is real. Particularly in light of the unsurprising Casey Affleck admissions last month re: I'M NOT THERE and the raised eyebrows that circle around CATFISH, well, let’s just say that you only need three examples to write a trend piece.
Nevermind that there’s visual evidence in EXIT that plants Thierry’s meeting with Shepard Fairey around the turn of the century (that’s an awful long con in the making) and there’s the LA Weekly cover story that heralded Thierry’s huge show that anchors EXIT’s chickens-come-home-to-roost third act, speculation of funny business remains.
I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t really matter whether EXIT is completely true or not – after all, our own definition of nonfiction filmmaking is the art of taking real people and real events and transforming them into a creative narrative – save for the fact that we had the pleasure of sitting down with the editor of EXIT, Chris King, a few weeks ago and, well folks, we can only conclude that it’s the real deal. (For more on the making of EXIT, see producer Jaimie D'Cruz' diaries at Movie City News.)
If EXIT showcased the best of the pop culture documentary, another film took on nonfiction's more traditional, more serious leanings and produced some of the most subtle and surprising filmmaking I’ve seen this year - THE OATH by Laura Poitras, who was previously Oscar and Spirit Award nominated for her MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY. [Full disclosure: Laura is a friend and colleague – we collaborated on the ensemble doc CONVENTION.]
THE OATH is a potent examination of America’s often botched response to the terrorism threat in the years after 9/11 as it tells the story of two former members of Al Qaeda – one, a former driver for Bin Laden who languishes in Guantanamo (Salim Hamdan) and one, Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard for OBL, who lives free, driving a taxi in Yemen.
Never didactic or strident, Poitras makes her points quietly as she unravels the enigma surrounding her conflicted, is-he-or-isn’t-a-terrorist lead subject, cutting between her character study in the Middle East to the unfolding Hamdan trial (the latter man never appears in film – heard only through his prison diaries). By the time she gets to her big reveal, she knows just when to deliver the information – it’s exquisite timing in an issue doc of rare artistry.
For sheer experience, perhaps the best time I had in a theater this year came when I witnessed the live performance of Sam Green and Dave Cerf’s UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS, a marvel of construction and craft that needs to embark of a multi-month US tour as soon as possible.
Set to Green’s live, wry, onstage narration and a score by Brooklyn-based The Quavers that's alternately loose and composed, the event (which I saw at the RedCat Theater in Los Angeles during the LA Film Festival) takes a mix of filmed footage and photographs and builds a thoughtful, funny, electric look at utopian movements and man’s desire to create perfection on Earth.
When UTOPIA was finished, I turned to my fellow audience members and said, “we’ve just seen the future of what’s possible in nonfiction”. It’s a visionary work.
While Poitras and Green are seasoned veterans, two more of my favorite works of 2010 have come from newcomers. Actually, Josh Fox is not a first-timer (he previously helmed a fiction feature called MEMORIAL DAY), but GASLAND marks his debut documentary and it announces him as a creative force to be reckoned with.
Some have had creative issues with the start of GASLAND, but I loved it. The quick cuts, grainy footage, Johnny Depp-as-Hunter S. Thompson-like narration felt like an impressive and somewhat new cinematic language to me. But the power of GASLAND comes when the film settles in and Fox hits the road, uncovering the dangers of hydraulic fracking. While there have been comparisons to Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock (muckraker in full muckrake mode), I find the comparison inadequate.
Fox eschews the broader humor that Moore and Spurlock sometimes employ to great effect (although, don’t get us wrong, this is not a self-serious picture – Fox plays the banjo for goodness sakes) and what results is a film that feels like a natural outgrowth: letter arrives offering to buy Fox’s land, Fox starts investigating and the more he learns, the more concerned and ultimately outraged he becomes.
If there is correlation between what Fox did and what other first-person docu stars excel at, it’s found in Fox’s interaction with ordinary Americans in telling his story. Fox comes off as the inquisitive college boy next door, conversing naturally with the reddest of red staters and bluest of blue. Although GASLAND initially lays its burden at the foot of Democratic boogeyman Dick Cheney, Fox proves that there’s plenty of blame – particularly at the state level – to go around. An essential film that upends our preconceived notions.
Equally impressive and the heralding of an important new voice in nonfiction film is MARWENCOL from first time filmmaker Jeff Malmberg. A dazzling, character-driven study of a brain-damaged New York man who creates his own, circa WWII world out of G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, MARWENCOL recalls Terry Zwigoff’s CRUMB and early work by Errol Morris and is a documentary that is sure to have a long, long life.
Malmberg, who was previously a full-time editor, displays his excellent cutting skills here, knowing just how to let his story (with one unbelievable story turn after another) unfold. It’s also one of the most humanistic films of the year – Malmberg doesn’t portray his subject Mark Hogancamp as a saint (some kind of magical, brain-damaged white man), in fact, Malmberg nopenly displays about every one of his character’s excentricities and foibles, and in revealing all, Malmberg creates an loving and empathetic portrait of a man just trying to make his way in the world.
By the time the story comes to its quick conclusion (it’s one of the fastest-moving docs you’ll see this year), it’s clear that MARWENCOL announces the arrival of not one major artistic talent, but two.
There is a moment in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s new film, 12TH AND DELAWARE, where their protagonist – a staunchly pro-life woman who counsels pregnant women in hopes that they will decide to keep their babies – drops her cover. In most of the conversations that Ewing and Grady capture, the woman proves masterful at masking her true intent – she seems almost motherly in offering the possibility that there are options other than abortion. Their subject knows that if she reveals her true feelings, she risks alienating the very women she hopes to convince. Her effort is all about the soft sell.
But one particular case proves stubborn. And in trying to sway her, Ewing and Grady’s subject slips. She pushes too hard, too dogmatically. And in that moment, she loses her case – and, she fears, an innocent fetus will be sacrificed for her failure.
This moment - conjured up by an ace production team working with the veteran, Oscar nominated filmmakers (JESUS CAMP) proves that the power of nonfiction film remains as potent and as vital in 2010 as it has ever been.
Finally, who knew that Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who had previously mastered harrowing drama in both THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK and THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT, could produce one of the intelligent and hilarious bio-pics in recent years by tackling the life of comedian in JOAN RIVERS: PIECE OF WORK?
Because of its subject matter, PIECE OF WORK is exactly the kind of film people forget about come awards season - "well, of course it was entertaining, it's about Joan Rivers!" But that would be ignoring the exceptional editing and craft involved in Stern and Sundberg's work - in lesser hands the movie would have played like an informercial on QVC. By relying on their own verite footage (and a sprinkling of interviews), the filmmaking team (led, in this case, by Stern) eschews a greatest hits compendium of archival footage. We get just enough to root ourselves as viewers (and remind of Rivers' groundbreaking legacy) but the real hits come from seeing the modern day hustle - show dates in the midwest, late night flights, scrambling for gigs, the fear of the empty date planner.
PIECE OF WORK affirms, much the same as ANVIL did, that the creative life never ends - even when the laurels and harsh glare of the spotlight is somewhat of a memory. In documentary, where the masters work into their 80s and 90s, this is a particularly resonant point.
[UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS runs this weekend (starting Thursday) at New York's The Kitchen Theater, with additional events scheduled for later this year/early 2011.
MARWENCOL opens this week at New York's IFC Center.
GASLAND is doing a series of screenings this fall/winter.
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP and JOAN RIVERS are wrapping their theatrical runs in North America.
MARWENCOL, 12TH AND DELAWARE, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, THE OATH and JOAN RIVERS: PIECE OF WORK will screen in the UK at Sheffield Doc/Fest next month. PIECE OF WORK is the opening night film.
GASLAND and 12TH AND DELAWARE aired this summer on HBO. THE OATH, which had a theatrical run in May, aired last month on POV.]