What ultimately makes the Academy Award-winning documentary film Citizen Four so refreshing and such a fascinating piece of cinema is that the film’s subject was essentially filmed in real time over the course of several days, when Edward Snowden was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room after leaking classified NSA documents to several journalists and news outlets. This element of being a fly on the wall provides a unique viewer experience, giving the audience unfiltered access to Snowden’s emotional state and personal motivations as he watches his entire life unravel. I’m not sure the film will induce viewers to reevaluate their views about whether or not Snowden should be considered a whistle-blowing hero or a national traitor but as a piece of cinema, it is an absorbing work with all of the elements of a tense John Le Carre thriller that perfectly captures a historical moment. Snowden certainly comes off as a sensible everyman who deeply cares about the public’s interest and right to know about the NSA spying program rather than as an angry ideologue or megalomaniac looking for notoriety. A not to be missed film for fans of documentaries and for those interested in the debate between individual privacy rights and national security.
We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Just in the last couple of years alone, I’ve seen several nonfiction works that have transcended what the medium has heretofore accomplished. I intend to highlight some of these films over my next several recommendations.
The first of the films I want to promote, The Act of Killing, was a contender* for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by two of the greatest documentarians of all time, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, Killing examines the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s through the eyes of several of the perpetrators. A handful of these mass murderers are invited by the filmmakers to recreate and film scenes about their experiences during the genocide. Disturbing and harrowing, Killing asks these decidedly evil humans—who have never faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity—to put themselves in the shoes of the hundreds of thousands of victims who suffered and died at their very hands. By the end, guilt will manifest itself in a very real, physiological way. The Act of Killing is not easy to watch, but it is an important and unique film—there has undoubtedly never been a film like it before**.
*Tragically, The Act of Killing did not win the Best Documentary Oscar that year; the winner instead was the very nice and not-at-all challenging film 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about back-up singers. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong.
**But now this unique film has a critically-acclaimed companion piece, The Look of Silence, which examines the Indonesian genocide from the perspective of the victims. As of this writing, Silence is now in theaters and is playing at our very own Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Please watch and support these very important movies.
Teenage is not a conventional documentary film that attempts to provide a historical summary of the development of the idea of the “teenager” and its formation as an in-between stage between childhood and adulthood. Rather, it’s a film based upon the book of the same title by punk enthusiast, author Jon Savage. Conceived as an expressionist tone poem that ruminates on various teen movements, fads and stylistic trends during the years 1875-1945, Teenage stitches together voiced over diary entries culled from the United States, England and Germany. Rare archival footage is combined with stylized reenactments to give the film a dreamy, high fashion gloss. From the dance hall floors covered with swinging Jitterbugs to cropped haired Flappers expressing their new found freedom to consume and rebel in equal amounts to the misguided Nazi Youth and their antithesis the doomed Swing Kids, adolescence is shown as a transitory moment of excess, innocence lost and exuberance before the reckoning of adult complexities and truths kick in.
Just kidding, some of you have likely seen a few of these little treasures buried deep within our movie collection.
Eternity and a Day--A work of mesmerizing poetry about a dying man's struggle to reconcile his past while befriending a young boy living precariously on the streets of Greece.
The Actuality Dramas of Allan King--A weirdly affecting assortment of "reality-based" documentaries that touch on subjects like marriage, end of life care and a 1970's counter-culture commune in Canada.
Like Father Like Son--A film that asks the question, what would you do if your biological son had been switched at birth with another child from a family with lesser means? Gut gripping stuff.
The American Friend--Most know of Wim Wenders through his classic film Wings of Desire but there's a lot to like about this German/English language adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story that stars Bruno Ganz and the always unhinged Dennis Hopper.
George Washington--A classic "indie" film set in the south that seems to be under-appreciated and unknown. It's a quirky coming of age drama that takes place in North Carolina over a single summer. A group of young kids are confronted with tough choices as they attempt to grapple with a secret.
It's another installment of Liked That, Try This, where we match movies with similar styles, themes, or intersecting approaches to movie-making. Here goes...
Liked The Royal Tenenbaums try Fanny and Alexander
Liked Late Spring try Yi Yi
Liked Savages try You Can Count on Me
Liked Summer with Monika try A Summer's Tale
Liked To Kill A Mocking Bird try The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Liked Double Indemnity try The Killers
Liked The Third Man try Odd Man Out
Coming of Age--
Liked Boyhood try King of the Hill
Liked Fish Tank try L'enfance Nue
Liked Ratcatcher try The Long Day Closes
Liked Interstellar try Solaris
Fans of soccer/football will definitely want to check out the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Soccer Stories, a fascinating collection of eight short films detailing the rich history of the sport. The most notable of the films is titled Hillsborough, an investigation behind the the tragic death of over 90 people during a match in a British stadium. Not only does the film shine a light on the likely causes of the disaster but it also exposes the callous cover-up and myth-making led by the local police, tabloid media and political elites, all of whom placed the blame for the catastrophe on the fans.
The Tour de France is off and running and if you’re a bicycling enthusiast you’ll you want to check out our collection of documentaries, including:
The Armstrong Lie
Slaying the Badger
Yell for Cadel
Hell on Wheels
Bicycle Dreams: The Race Across America
Vive le Tour
For book readers, check out these titles
How does the strongest boy in America transition from a Judo-loving war hero and murderer into a successful health food restaurateur only to become a cult-controlling mystic guru to rich Los Angeles hippies? The answer rests within the gripping tale of the Source Family, a bizarre cult that began in Los Angeles in 1970 and ended five years later in Hawaii. Led by Father Yod, aka Jim Baker, the Eastern religion-inspired group was comprised of mostly young, doped up kids from Los Angeles who were drawn to Baker’s charms and cosmic cool. Not as well-known as Charles Manson or Jim Jones, Baker’s journey from overseeing a popular vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip to leading an almost too good to be true cliché of a group of mentally controlled automatons is a fascinating and faaaaaaar out trip of a documentary that highlights the dangers of group-think.
Albert Maysles, the trailblazing documentary filmmaker passed away a few months ago but his unique cinematic and narrative vision, innovative editing practices and observational attentiveness are still available to enjoy through the viewing of some of his most important works, including: Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, Salesman, LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (coming soon!), and Primary.
This an electrifying documentary released in 2013 that avoids the stylistic structures and editing of many of today’s nonfiction features. In fact, the film is entirely culled from archival news footage and from videotaped meetings led by city leaders and officials in the wake of the tragic events that took place on May 13th, 1985. Let the Fire Burn is a gripping and tense work of filmmaking that addresses subjects like police brutality, political corruption, institutional racism, freedom of speech, the limits of ‘religious’ freedom, and the right of groups to live outside of established social norms and values. Nuanced and thoughtful, the director never leads viewers down a path toward rigid conclusions or moral judgments but rather presents the social and historical complexities as they played out on local television.