Far more good documentaries get made than ever find their way to a theatre screen. It’s too bad because they are often more dramatically compelling, and almost always more enlightening, than the usual multiplex fare. Some at least, notably those produced by the HBO and CNN networks, will benefit from television broadcast. Watch for these top choices among some 100 seen in the past year.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, an extraordinary examination of the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide, was my top documentary of 2012. This followup is if anything even more powerful, focusing on the victims’ families as they encounter the killers of their loved ones — seen through the eyes of an optician and his elderly parents whose older son was among the massacred. (The only reason it’s not on the Oscar list is that a North American theatrical release has been delayed till this summer.)
Topping almost every critic’s list of non-fiction features, Laura Poitras’ pointed exposé of the national security surveillance state has to be considered the Oscar frontrunner. Ironically she had to move to Germany to be able to tell this risky undercover story that includes whistleblower Edward Snowden’s sensational revelations about the secretive, and deceptive, U.S. National Security Agency’s massive snooping on citizens the world over.
Recipient of a special jury prize at Sundance and selected as best documentary by the Toronto film critics association, Jesse Moss’s intimate look at the dark human side of the shale energy boom in North Dakota focuses on the polarizing efforts of a local pastor to shelter troubled migrants, and packs a late punch that leaves one reeling.
In this multiple award winner (including the jury prize of the 25th Ottawa One World Film festival), writer-director-cinematographer Orlando von Einsiedel offers a penetrating and profoundly affecting exploration of the challenges facing the protectors of Africa’s famous national park that is home to an endangered population of mountain gorillas.
Filmed under high-risk circumstances during three years of Syria’s ongoing savage civil war, writer-director Talal Derki does an outstanding job (recognized by a Sundance grand jury prize) of portraying its effects through the different experiences of several young men — one is a pacifist citizen journalist; another a former soccer star and militia fighter — caught up in the maelstrom of revolution and escalating violence. Homs has been one of the worst affected cities under siege from repressive regime forces and in the crossfire of antagonistic rebel and Islamist factions.
From the team of writer-director-cinematographer John Fiege and co-producer/life partner Anita Grabowski comes this exceptional story of ordinary citizens’ resistance to the corporate steamroller of Big Energy, specifically the case of TransCanada’s legal-political machinations employing colluding state power and “eminent domain” expropriation to build the southern leg of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project over the concerns and objections of affected landowners in east Texas. The future exploitation and transportation of tarsands oil is obviously a major Canadian question going forward as crude prices crash while climate change accelerates. Democratic rights and accountability are as much at stake as the ethics of sustainable energy.
Chosen best documentary by the National Board of Review, this CNN film by Steve James brings to the screen some of the memorable highlights from the career of the late great movie critic Roger Ebert drawing on his eponymous 2012 autobiography. Ebert championed James’s work in acclaimed documentaries such as Hoop Dreams. James returns the favour posthumously without ever glossing over Ebert’s flaws or difficult moments. I have no doubt Roger would approve.
Director Rory Kennedy, youngest child of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy, was born after her father’s assassination during the 1968 presidential campaign in which he was a leading voice of opposition to the Vietnam War. An award-winning filmmaker, she has produced the most complete, revealing and agonizing account of the panicked chaotic final weeks of that war as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the besieged capital of Saigon. This is historical cinema verité at its best.
Bobby Kennedy also has a connection to this moving film, by Richard Ray Perez using some footage from the late Lorena Parlee, that provides revealing insights into the courageous, and at times contentious, leadership of Cesar Chavez whose California campaign for farm workers’ rights galvanized a movement for civil rights and social justice supported by activists and key political figures like Kennedy. The two men also shared a deep Catholic faith that was central to their witness, and in the case of Chavez the life-threatening fasts he undertook both as a form of protest and personal penance.
Approaching middle age, the irrepressible agit-prop duo of Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum are more reflective about how much their sometimes zany antics — fake news conferences impersonating corporate heavies are a favourite — can do to bring about a fairer world on issues from human rights to economic and climate justice. This latest salvo, co-directed with Laura Nix, has yet to be released theatrically. But you can find out more and “join the revolution” at the website: http://www.theyesmenarerevolting.com/.
There are many more excellent documentaries worth a look. Some honourable mentions include the following:
Finding Vivian Maier (U.S. 2013) tells the amazing story of this humble woman who worked as a housekeeper and died unknown and unheralded in 2009, leaving behind a prolific collection of some of the best street photography of the past century.
Food Chains (U.S.) is a compelling examination of the ongoing struggle for the rights of food and agricultural workers up against a corporate system that consigns many to the bottom of the economic food chain.
Next Goal Wins (U.K.) follows the improbable journey of the national soccer team of the tiny microstate of American Samoa and its culture of acceptance that includes a charismatic transgender player.
Point and Shoot, best documentary winner at Tribeca, follows the idiosyncratic journey of young American Matthew Vandyke who recorded his adventures across North Africa ending up in the throes of the Libyan revolution.
Rich Hill (U.S.) won a Sundance grand jury prize for its absorbing look at the troubled lives of three teenage boys growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in this ironically named town in rural Missouri.
Regarding Susan Sontag, an HBO film, received a Tribeca jury special mention for its investigation of the turbulent life and enduring influence of a renowned public intellectual, feminist writer and cultural critic.
Finally, I should draw attention to the following provocative environmental documentary, an international co-production (U.S./China/Hong Kong/Indonesia/Mexico/U.K.) directed by Oscar winner Louie Psihoyos (The Cove). Focused on the efforts of activists to save endangered species around the world, I saw it when screened as an already powerful work-in-progress at the Tribeca Film Festival last April. Then titled simply “6” — referring to the looming “sixth extinction” of the current Anthropocene era — the finished film will premiere as Racing Extinction at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival which starts tomorrow in Utah. Watch for highlights from the festival in next month’s columns.