Documentaries don’t tend to give me nightmares, though I’ll add the caveat that I’ve never seen the one about sleep paralysis that’s supposedly the most terrifying film of the 21st century. Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy lingered in my subconscious for a long time, to the point where I was having stress dreams about vicious mobs of burly men in yellow and green. Costa blends her own familial background with a propulsive story of 21st century Brazilian politics, spinning a yarn that considers centuries of history against recent events. It’s a story of collapse and retrenchment, of political icons tarnished and humiliated by their repulsive enemies, of the elevation of those who have a diametrically oppositional worldview to basic humanity. Thankfully, Americans have no way to relate to anything depicted here.
The second of Joshua Oppenheimer’s landmark documentary duo on the 1965 Indonesia leftist purge, The Look of Silence flips the perspective from those who did the killing to the relatives of those who were killed. In Oppenheimer’s earlier Act of Killing, he gets some of the perpetrators, responsible for the deaths of somewhere between 500,000 to a million Indonesians and presently celebrated as national heroes, to recreate their deeds under the guise of a mythic film. Bragging to a foreigner about what they did in that very strange and chilling film is one thing. There’s a level of distance that Oppenheimer creates that allows the killers to be completely free in what they say. With Look of Silence, Oppenheimer brings along a man whose brother was killed and lets him do the talking. These two films, each inseparable from the other, are required viewing for any thinking citizen. Darkly compelling and deeply human, Look of Silence is the antithesis to the hellish upside-down world of Act of Killing, a world that dominates Indonesia but festers with barely-contained rot and resentment.
For Sama stands alongside documentaries like Citizenfour in depicting the first draft of history. The best of breed of the several Syrian Civil War docs that have chronicled a brutal and bloody period of the 21st century, Waad al-Kateab’s first-person film tracks the initial ecstatic hopes of revolutionary optimism through its fatalistic destruction in the bombed-out husk of Aleppo. For an extra dose of you-are-there urgency, al-Kateab’s husband is a doctor drowning in emergency triage and surgery at one of Aleppo’s last working hospitals, providing plenty of opportunities for all the air to be sucked out of the screening room as he holds the life of one small child after another in his hands. Al-Kateab narrates throughout, and the grief that undergirds her every sentence is less for her neighbors, because with so many of the randomly killed surrounding her, she would be unable to function if she mourned each loss. Rather, the grief is for the lost opportunity of the Arab Spring which kicked off when she was a college student and an active participant when it spread to Syria. Where once she planted gardens and laid down roots for a hopeful future, now she tunes out the constant thrum of Russian fighter jets and wonders where the next barrel bomb is going to indiscriminately land.
For anyone who’s watched a lot of documentaries, the smell of an artificial narrative can creep up at any moment. If the director captured hundreds of hours of footage, how do they decide what gets kept in a 90-minute final package? Is the easiest way to make cuts to find some throughline and include anything that supports it? Did perhaps their best scenes or interviews or shots have to be left out because they didn’t adhere to that throughline? As the person behind the camera on many documentaries, Kirsten Johnson is there to capture moments, but absent from the decision on what to include and what to omit. Her nonfiction masterpiece Cameraperson is assembled from those bits that were omitted, for whatever reason, from documentaries directed by the likes of Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirby Dick, among many others. Johnson doesn’t find a narrative link between scenes taking place in locations as different as a packed boxing match and a Bosnian family farm, but she locates a thematic thread in her life’s work and presents it to the viewer in empathic and affecting fashion as she simultaneously finds beauty and ugliness in the same images over and over again.
Documentaries are rarely served by the documentarians themselves appearing in front of the camera. Overheated navel-gazing ensues, or less irritatingly, they fail by being less interesting than the subject they’re filming. The exception to this is Agnes Varda, a distinctive and unique presence who is welcome to talk about herself onscreen for as long as she wants. In her beautiful Faces Places, the iconic French director teams up with youthful photographer JR for a trip through a lesser-seen France, far away from the streets of Paris. The unlikely duo bring joy wherever they go, both to the blue-collar inhabitants of the countryside and to the viewer.
Skateboarding experienced a cinematic moment in 2018, as three movies that heavily featured the sport and the ‘wayward’ teens who engage in it were released within months of each other. The nonfiction one, Minding the Gap, was universally recognized as the best of the three, the other two being Mid90’s and Skate Kitchen. Bing Liu’s debut documentary, sprung from his compulsion to shoot skate videos of himself and his friends from his teenage years, starts as a carefree exploration of several young men as they tear around Rockford, IL, but as Liu identifies the unspoken similarities in his and fellow principals Keire’s and Zack’s lives, the film escapes the gravity of their degraded post-industrial town and turns into something profound.
As far as physical human accomplishments go, the climbing of El Capitan, Yosemite Park’s 3000-foot monolith, without the aid of ropes or hooks or anything beyond calloused fingers is considerable. The act signifies a kind of schoolyard one-upmanship when the peak of Everest is clogged with tourists who risk death, not so much from climbing the mountain but from freezing in long lines as they wait to take their picture at the top. Climber Alex Honnold literally takes his life into his own hands as he thumbs his nose at these poseur-adventurers, and, in an incredible feat of filmmaking, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are right there with him as claws his way to the top. Free Solo chronicles the how of this outlandish feat in spectacular, vertigo-inducing fashion, but it also captures the why. The camera is not only in Honnold’s face during his climb, but it also interrogates the specific kind of person who would do something like this, refusing to be satisfied with stock ‘because it’s there’ shorthand.
Some stories are so gripping and dramatic that a newly-graduated film student could capably shape them into a watchable documentary. Three Identical Strangers is one of these stories. Directed by Tim Wardle, this retelling of an 80’s afternoon talk show staple is fascinating enough on its surface. The joy and charisma of the subjects further elevates it, and where the story ultimately goes elevates it further still. Wardle gets the maximum amount of access, but he doesn’t fully trust the story, spiking it with needle drops and unnecessary flashbacks to scenes that occurred shortly before, as if any of this was forgettable.
Documentarian Eugene Jarecki, having previously tackled bite-sized topics like the military-industrial complex and the war on drugs, widens his scope to include decades of modern American history as mapped onto the life of one of the country’s most quintessential sons, Elvis Presley. The King flits between vignettes from Elvis’ life and commentators reflecting on broad social trends of the last 40 years, mostly from the backseat of Elvis’ Rolls Royce as it travels between the major locations of his life. The OJ: Made in America miniseries needed eight hours to produce a macro and micro picture of 1990’s Los Angeles, and Jarecki has made a similar, nationwide reckoning into an impossibility at 107 minutes.
Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney has the misfortune of arriving in theaters years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy. Both documentaries track the rise and fall of generational musical talents, the former about Whitney Houston and the latter about Amy Winehouse. Their lives were elevated by what made them unique entertainers and artists and brought low by drug use, manipulative fathers, and bad relationships. Kapadia avoided nonfiction biopic clutter and sameness by piecing together much of his film from paparazzi footage of Winehouse, a formal statement that matched the path that his subject’s life was taking. Macdonald doesn’t use that kind of formal invention, and instead relies on the power of his talking heads and of Houston’s own dominating charisma. Whitney proves to be a capable documentary thanks to those aforementioned strengths, as well as some aggressive editing from Sam Rice-Edwards. Houston is revealed to be the kind of multi-faceted personality that no one could make a bad documentary about.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.