Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Documentaries of the Decade

What a remarkable decade this was for documentary filmmaking. I agonised over this selection, and while every film on this list is a truly extraordinary piece of work, I was left with plenty of contenders that are just as deserving of recognition. I would like give honourable mentions to the following: Bus 174; Spellbound; Capturing the Friedmans; The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters; Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer; Darwin's Nightmare; Murderball; No Direction Home; Born into Brothels; Dark Days. If you want to see some of the most exciting, illuminating and dramatic cinema of the decade, then you need to see every one of these films.

But first, you need to see these:

10 – Être et avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002)

By spending a year in the small rural classroom run by Georges Lopez, Nicolas Philibert captured so much about the joys and trials of childhood in this lovely film. Mr Lopez teaches children of from the ages of 4 to 11; some of them struggle with complicated maths problems, while others struggle to avoid sticking crayons up their nose. The behaviour of the children is wonderfully natural and unaffected; they seem to completely disregard Philibert's camera, and they allow him to capture numerous moments of spontaneous magic. As he guides his young pupils with unfailing dedication, love and patience, Mr Lopez emerges as an inspiring figure, and Être et avoir becomes one of the best and most moving cinematic portraits of the act of teaching that I have ever seen. It's a shame that Mr Lopez somewhat spoiled the mood after the film's release by attempting to sue the filmmakers for a cut of the profits, but that sidenote shouldn't harm a truly wonderful film experience.

9 – When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)

While his film output has been, let's say, inconsistent over the years, Spike Lee's record as a documentary filmmaker is hugely impressive. His 1997 film 4 Little Girls is one of his most accomplished works, and he eclipsed it in 2006 with this epic account of the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina, and the government's pitiful response to it. I think the key to his success as a documentarian is the righteous outrage he possesses, which can so often unbalance his narrative features, but which acts as a powerful motor behind his non-fiction work. Lee finds a number of vivid stories in the rubble of New Orleans, and along with a large amount of stock and amateur footage, he blends them into a powerful lament for a city that was destroyed and abandoned. He is assisted by Terence Blanchard's finest score in years, with the composer himself being the subject of a particularly moving scene, when he takes his mother to see what is left of the house he grew up in.

8 – Mugabe and the White African (Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, 2009)
This entry is perhaps a slight cheat, as Mugabe and the White African isn't officially released in the UK until January 2010, but I saw it in late 2009, and it is certainly one of the most powerful and vital pieces of documentary filmmaking produced in this decade. It follows the brave stance taken by 74 year-old Michael Campbell, his son-in-law Ben Freeth, and their family, who have resisted Robert Mugabe's land reform policy and fought valiantly to keep the farm they own and have lived on for decades. They have faced constant intimidation, threats and even acts of horrific violence, and they have lost everything during the course of this battle; yet they continue to fight on, with an inspiring courage and dignity. Enormous credit must also be paid to the film's co-directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, who risked their own lives by shooting this footage in a country where filming is illegal. The astonishing film they have made is a testament to their determination to let the world know the truth about what is happening in Zimbabwe, whatever the cost.

Read my interview with Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson here.

7 – The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)

This engrossing documentary gives us an audience with Robert McNamara, as he recalls key incidents from his extraordinary life and imparts the lessons he has learned from them. McNamara was involved in the firebombing of Japan and was one of the key figures behind the Vietnam war, and he speaks of these subjects with a guarded sense of regret. Morris utilises stock and archive footage skilfully, and is aided by a brooding score from Philip Glass, but much of the film simply consists of McNamara, filmed in a tight close-up, discussing the film's central theme – humankind's propensity for war, and our inability to learn from our mistakes. McNamara was 85 years old when these interviews were filmed, but his formidable intellect and thoroughly engaging manner of speaking ensures this is riveting – and still relevant – viewing.

6 – Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)

Part documentary and part recreation, Kevin McDonald's adaptation of Joe Simpson's book is a thrilling and wholly satisfying piece of cinema. Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates are on hand to recount their disastrous attempt to climb Siula Grande in 1985, and McDonald allows us to relive their experience through expertly staged sequences deploying some vertiginous camerawork. The film raises fascinating questions about the decisions we must make to survive, just as Yates did when he cut Simpson's rope, allowing him to fall 100ft into a deep crevasse, in order to prevent himself from being pulled off the mountain. But Touching the Void is also an unbeatable story of human endurance, with Simpson (who had a broken leg) dragging himself back to base camp, which he reached just hours before his companions were set to leave. The fact that we know both Simpson and Yates survived their ordeal and are here to tell the tale doesn't stop this imaginatively directed and incredibly taut film from exerting a powerful dramatic pull.

5 – Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007)

A shocking piece of cinema, Taxi to the Dark Side is a study of the horrific extremes ordinary men and women are capable of going to under the banner of "just following orders". As its starting point, Alex Gibney takes the story of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who was abducted and brutally interrogated at Bagram in 2002. He was innocent of any charges, and within days, he had died from the injuries inflicted upon him. From here, Gibney's film proceeds like a great piece of journalism; it uncovers the extent of the abuses at Bagram and Guantanamo; it details the links that prove these soldiers were acting on orders from the very top; it exposes the folly of basing decisions on information gained from torture; and it tries to contemplate how such a thing could have been allowed to happen. Taxi to the Dark Side is a work of astonishing clarity and integrity, put together in a sober and straightforward fashion, and refusing to sensationalise a subject that is already shameful enough.

4 – Deliver Us From Evil (Amy Berg, 2006)

This a horrible film to watch, but also a deeply necessary one. Amy Berg's remarkable Deliver Us From Evil tackles the subject of sexual abuses within the Catholic church, and it does so with an honesty and directness that is devastating. The chief villain of the piece is Oliver O’Grady, an Irish ex-priest who molested countless children in numerous parishes while working in America, and who shows little remorse as he remembers his antics with a smile. But the greater crime here is that which is perpetrated by the Catholic Church itself, which protected O'Grady, switching him from one parish to another when his behaviour was exposed, and quietly sweeping the controversy under the carpet. The true horror of what they are collectively responsible for is exposed by Berg's shattering interviews with Bob and Maria Jyono, devout Catholics who frequently had O'Grady stay as a guest in their home. While they slept, he abused their daughter in the next room, and their anguish at the violation of their child is compounded by the ultimate betrayal of their church, and the destruction of their faith.

3 – Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Where does Werner Herzog find these people? Throughout his career, the mercurial German director has been drawn to characters who live outside of society, and who follow their own rules, and Timothy Treadwell turned out to be one of his greatest subjects. After spending years living as a self-appointed protector to a group of grizzly bears in Alaska, Treadwell and his girlfriend were eventually (perhaps inevitably) eaten by one of the creatures he felt such a kinship with. He left behind hours and hours of video footage, documenting his experiences as he lived with the bears, and Herzog takes advantage of this material to build a film that is simultaneously a tribute to Treadwell's spirit, a compelling character study and – naturally, with Herzog at the helm – a meditation on man's relationship with the natural world. The director himself narrates over the often breathtaking footage in his own inimitable fashion, and by the end of the film you realise that the story of Timothy Treadwell could not have been told by any other filmmaker.

2 – Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

In 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit strung a piece of wire between the two towers of the World Trade Centre and walked across it. His amazing stunt is the subject of James Marsh's brilliant Man on Wire, which does full justice to the enormity of this achievement. Petit is a lively subject, who delights in recalling the preparation and execution of his "artistic crime", while Marsh builds his film around interviews, archive footage, still photographs and recreations, all of which are unified by the inspired use of Michael Nyman's music. Marsh captures the sense of adventure with which Petit and his collaborators embarked upon their journey, the trepidation as their plot was almost rumbled, and the sense of awe that Petit's successful wire-walk inspired in everyone who witnessed it. It is a brilliant entertainment, which unfolds with the pace and excitement of a thriller, but Man on Wire is also a deeply moving experience that shows us what human beings are capable of if they follow their dreams.

1 – Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, 2006)

Tony Kaye spent 17 years and millions of his own money (he was declared bankrupt in the late 90's) to make this enormously ambitious documentary on the subject of abortion, and the resulting film is a momentous achievement. In Lake of Fire, Kaye doesn't attempt to come down on either the pro-life or pro-choice side of the debate. Instead, he allows both parties to put forward their arguments, and the film becomes a genuinely thought-provoking experience, one that forces us to examine our deepest beliefs about the value of human life and our freedom to choose our own path. It is not an easy film to watch, shot in stark black-and-white and running for two and a half hours, and Kaye includes a number of graphic shots of aborted foetuses which are deeply upsetting. Equally moving is the section of the film that follows a woman as she goes through the process of having an abortion. Lake of Fire is both an intellectual and emotional experience, one that affected me deeply and left me with troubling thoughts for days afterwards. If you have particularly strong views on abortion, Kaye's film is unlikely to change them, but it may help you understand the issues – and the viewpoints of both sides – a little better, and for that reason alone it is a vital piece of filmmaking.