The documentary field has never been stronger, with digital technologies putting the means of production into the hands of more people, and streaming services (Netflix, Amazon and others) putting significant sums into creating content and making it available across expanding online platforms. At the same time the field is increasingly crowded. I watched several hundred in 2017 and almost every day brought news of yet another title of interest. That said, some clearly stood out as reflected in the following choices.
Recipient of numerous awards, including the “golden eye” at Cannes, this delightful collaboration between octogenarian master filmmaker Agnès Varda and gonzo photographer “JR” captures images of ordinary French people and their life, then celebrates these through large-format black-and-white prints put on striking display, the process enlivened by the impromptu banter between Varda, JR, and their subjects.
Another multiple award winner, notably the Sundance grand jury prize for world cinema documentary, directors Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen provide an extraordinary window on the death-defying work of Syrian “white helmets” — unarmed civilian first responders — trying to save lives in the besieged areas of the city of Aleppo (which was Syria’s largest) during bombardment from regime and Russian forces. It’s the most devastatingly affecting of the recent films on the Syrian civil war, inter alia: The White Helmets (Oscar-winning short film); Cries from Syria; City of Ghosts; Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.
Digging up remains of Armenian victims in Der Zor in 1938. In the documentary Intent to Destroy master documentarian Joe Berlinger presents a multi-layered perspective on these terrible events and the subsequent denials by the Turkish state and its apologists. ©Armenian Genocide Museum Institute
The first great genocide of the 20th century was that of Armenians in the crumbling Ottoman Empire, beginning 1915 during the First World War. Through both observing the filming of Terry George’s dramatic narrative The Promise and conducting a searching probe of the disputed historical record, master documentarian Joe Berlinger presents a multi-layered perspective on these terrible events and the subsequent denials by the Turkish state and its apologists.
Co-directed by Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, this enlightening and empowering 2015 film about meeting global environmental and socio-economic challenges through innovative locally based solutions was only released in North America in 2017 after winning the French “César” award in 2016 for best documentary feature. As the filmmakers explore practical examples in a number of countries, anyone looking for positive alternatives will be inspired.
The deepening climate crisis continues to be an important subject as in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power which tempered its critique with optimism about a renewable energy revolution. (See also the James Redford’s HBO film Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution: https://happeningthemovie.com/). Another selection of the 2017 Sundance festival’s inaugural “New Climate” program, recipient of the documentary audience award, was this extraordinary exploration of the damaging effects of ocean temperature rise and acidification on coral reefs around the world. Using time-lapse photography, director Jeff Orlowski and his team (Chasing Ice) capture some of the most stunning undersea images ever put on the screen, and the scientific implications for the planet are equally compelling. It’s available on Netflix, which is also streaming all episodes of the awesome BBC series Planet Earth II narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
Director Emmanuel Gras was awarded the Cannes festival’s critics’ week grand prize for this close-up observation of the arduous life of a young man in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We watch his labours as he makes charcoal, then travels on foot with a huge load to the city where he hopes to earn enough to buy medicine for a sick child. Every step is an immersion in the kind of hard realities still faced by many of the world’s poor.
Co-directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana present a revealing and enlightening portrait of renowned musicians with indigenous roots who shaped the history of North American popular music. That includes seminal guitarists like Link Wray and rock stars like Jimi Hendrix. Often their indigenous ancestry was little known or ignored. This film, which received a special jury award at Sundance and an audience award at HotDocs, is the most engaging of several recent films acknowledging, exploring and celebrating indigenous artistic expression.
A number of recent films, both narrative and documentary, have addressed police and racial violence in America past and present (e.g., Detroit, The Blood is at the Doorstep, Strong Island, Whose Streets?, Do Not Resist, Baltimore Rising). Several (Gook, LA 92) are about the devastating riots that afflicted parts of Los Angeles in the summer of 1992, triggered by an all-white jury’s acquittal of five police officers despite the graphic video evidence of their savage beating of a young black man. In this Netflix production writer-director John Ridley presents the most comprehensive account of those events, the decade that led up to it, and the aftermath that is of continuing relevance in a racially divided country.
Renowned Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei’s stirring 26-country exploration of the human face of the global refugee crisis received five awards at the Venice film festival. In going to the frontlines to meet and talk to the people involved, the desperate migrants seeking safety and those trying to help, Ai shines a spotlight on the challenge to our common humanity at a time when more barriers and walls are being erected.
“Kedi” is the Turkish word for cat and this quite amazing tribute to the free-ranging cats of Istanbul will not only appeal to feline lovers but provide a unique perspective of their social and cultural contribution to one of the world’s great cities. There is far more to appreciate in the cats followed by director Ceyda Torun — truly a cat’s-eye view of that world — than you will ever find in all of the innumerable silly cat videos on YouTube or other social media sites.
500 Years (U.S.): Veteran documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates tells the story of the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala and their resistance to systematic oppression, with a focus on courageous women leaders and their fight to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Canada/U.S.): In the hands of writer-director Bill Morrison, the amazing discovery of a frozen archive of old nitrate film reels and stills brings back to the screen the brief but fascinating drama of how the Klondike gold rush briefly transformed this Yukon outpost.
Bombshell: The Hedi Lamarr Story (U.S.): Writer-director Alexandra Dean vividly recalls the incredible life story of the Austrian actress of part-Jewish ancestry who left Nazi Europe before the war, became a glamourous Hollywood star, invented a “frequency hopping” communications technique (her scientific curiosity supported by billionaire Howard Hughes), but died a forgotten recluse.
The Work (U.S.): Co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous received the South By Southwest festival’s grand jury award for this remarkable emotionally raw account of a four-day group therapy session inside Folsom prison in which inmates interact with members of the community.
A Better Man (Canada): Co-directors Lawrence Jackman and Attiya Khan tackle the issues of gender violence through an intimate personal lens as Attiya confronts an abusive former boyfriend and challenges him to acknowledge and work through the consequences of his actions. In these as in other human relationships accepting the truth of what happened, however painful, is necessary before healing and reconciliation can begin.