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The 00s: Film (Documentary) – 5-1

5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

Nothing can really prepare you for Dear Zachary, short of reading and digesting the entire plot summary before diving in.  For those easily upset, I would recommend doing this, or perhaps steering clear completely.  It is director Kuenne’s version of the events surrounding the death of his close childhood friend Dr. Andrew Bagby at the hands of a woman named Dr. Shirley Turner, and his effort to record as much of Bagby’s life as possible for his yet-to-be-born son, Zachary.  As such, the film is a completely subjective account, following Kuenne’s race around North America and England trying to capture people’s memories on tape, following his own emotions and mood through a variety of notable editing choices.  This was the most impassioned film I saw in the 00s.  Again, be warned: you’ll never be the same afterwards, especially if you have kids of your own.

4. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)

Singer, an untrained filmmaker who hasn’t directed since, was drawn by the plight of the homeless living in a New York City Amtrak subway tunnel, and decided to help them by making a film with them that would get them out.  What resulted was a fascinating ethnographic document, superbly shot on black and white and scored by DJ Shadow, depicting real lives as lived and proving that in a lot of ways, these guys are just like us.  While it’s surprising to see how well some of these guys can live, you’re aware that every single day is another struggle, wracked with uncertainty.  This is a film which helps the viewer to see an oft-maligned section of society with fresh eyes.  Watch the first 10 minutes here.

3. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)

Spelling bees seem to me a very American institution, so it isn’t too surprising that a film following eight teenagers in their quest to win the National Spelling Bee would play like such a chronicle of the American Dream.  There are the immigrants – the Indians (so many) and Mexicans; there is the white bread girl from Connecticut; there is the loner from Missouri; there is the ADHD wunderkind from New Jersey; there is the inner-city black girl from DC.  All have their own, fascinating stories, with widely varying ideas of what the word ‘success’ means, and as we grow to know and love them, the tension of the finals becomes almost unbearable.  I remember feeling bathed in a sweet glow of hopes and dreams afterwards, and in a way, I hoped that these kids would never grow up.

2. Anything by Adam Curtis (Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap)

Some films are ‘important’; Adam Curtis’ films, on the other hand, are absolutely essential.  Cutting deep into the building blocks of society and finding patterns everywhere, Curtis tackles subjects as monumental as the transition of Western thought from community-based to individual-based, or the political shift from promoting positive freedom to promoting negative freedom.  Curtis’ approach is fact-based, backed up by archive footage found after months of trawling the BBC’s archives, and the results are surprisingly entertaining once you get used to the format.  More than that, though, his films are eye-openers in every sense of the word, and I would personally say that they have changed the way I see the world.  If I had to single one out for higher praise, the four-hour Century of the Self is probably the one that impressed me most.  All are available for free online here.  Do yourself a favour and check them out.

1. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

With his majestic Grizzly Man, Herzog’s soothing Bavarian voice pretty much sums up life, the universe and everything.  Timothy Treadwell is his subject, a man who rejected society and turned to bears, and like many of the films on this list, the fascinations of Herzog’s work are largely psychological: what led Treadwell to this fate?  What does he truly believe?  How much of his reality is a delusion?  Herzog confronts the abyss as he so often does – with a grave but knowing outlook – and explains to us what we see.  You’ll laugh, and you may cry; you’ll surely be riveted by an incredible subject, and truly great filmmaking.  This is a film that would place at or near the top of any decade list.  Part 1 is here.

To go back to the previous part, the intro & #10-6, click here.

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The 00s: Film (Documentary) – Intro and 10-6

When it comes to the line between fiction and documentary film, I agree with Werner Herzog: such a line is unnecessary, and essentially imaginary.  Separating them as fabrication and fact takes something away from both: the truth that can be captured in a story written and performed well, and the art exercised by a director presenting the beauty of real events.  A far more worthwhile approach is to consider both simply as films.  You can learn as much about yourself watching a film from a Charlie Kaufman script as you can be entertained by Michael Moore polemic, right?  And anyway, when you have people like Herzog mixing truth and untruth in all of his films – documentary or otherwise – to quite magical effect, it is sometimes impossible to choose which category the film you’re watching belongs in.

Nevertheless, bookstores need sections to separate one genre from another, and blogs do too.  So here we are.

The 00s brought much wider recognition and appreciation for documentary cinema, and I would suggest two chief factors in this.  The first is called Bowling for Columbine, and I’ll talk more about that further down the page.  The second is called the Internet, opening up a massive global audience for all kinds of films and an ideal platform for docs – the proliferation of other media and information online makes it quick and easy to obtain as much or as little information about something as you would care to.  Added to that, making a film is much simpler nowadays with digital video and cheap and powerful editing software, so legions of budding filmmakers are able to produce something for nothing and then put it online for the world to see.

I’m one of those budding filmmakers.  Here are ten documentary films produced in the 00s which eventually inspired me to get started on my own movie (coming soon, watch this space…)

10. Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)

Weren’t expecting that, were you?  The Wikipedia page states, “Jackass Number Two is a compilation of various stunts, pranks and skits, and essentially has no plot.”  A remarkable document of extreme behaviour, voyeurism and (arguably) Dadaism, it is also one of the most entertaining films of the 00s – but only if you have the stomach to watch Steve-O attach a leech to his eyeball, or Chris Pontius insert his penis into a snake’s cage.

9. Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004)

Perhaps the 00s’ most depressing film; certainly the one which made me feel most sick and sad at the state of the world and the human race.  Lake Victoria used to be a typical African lake, basically as it would have been millennia ago, until Europeans introduced the Nile perch – a particularly large and tasty fish – into its waters.  Within years the ecological balance became completely unhinged, and as this film shows, the ripples reach out from the water and into the lives of every person living in the area.  While I sometimes pine for those innocent days of ignorance before I saw Darwin’s Nightmare, this is a desperately important film that everyone who professes to care about their fellow man owes it to themselves to see.

8. Waves (Li Tao, 2005)

Read my full review for a closer look, but where sweeping statements are concerned, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this effort from first-time director Li Tao was the most enlightening and inspiring film to come out of New Zealand in the 00s.  If nothing else, it was certainly the most moving, and offered a restrained yet deeply intimate portrait of the life of teenaged Chinese going to school abroad.  This is something that happens everywhere from Wellington to Washington, and Tao has made the film about the experience.  After seeing it, I prayed that it would reach as wide an audience as possible so the greatest number of eyes could be opened, and minds broadened.  The DVD can be ordered here.

7. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

Bowling for Columbine was the film that brought documentaries (back?) into the mainstream.  Grossing millions and garnering an Oscar, it cut a swathe through the film market and brought the masses to see that they could be entertained as they were being informed.  In many cases, it showed people such as myself that there are alternatives to mainstream media.  Its biggest impact, however, was probably to promote Moore’s personality to the point where his next film would gross over US$100 million – staggering for a ‘documentary’ – and his movements and polemic became worldwide current events.  In the wake of its cultural relevance, it might be easy to forget how good Columbine is; while Moore occasionally messes with the truth in order to keep the viewer hooked, he crafts a superb viewing experience that keeps you amused, shocked and riveted for the duration.  The best moment comes when Marilyn Manson has his turn to speak and, with no pomp whatsoever, quietly sums up the entire movie.

6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)

Truly demonstrating the benefit of hard work and dedication, Timoner spent seven years following The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and managed to edit weeks of footage into DiG!, one of the best films about music.  It has at its centre the towering talents and ego of Anton Newcombe, who would surely be a bigger star than the Dandies’ chiselled frontman, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, if he followed his rival’s music business motto: “if it’s good, it’s fun; if it’s bad, it’s funny”.  The film follows as the two bands start off as close friends, living and jamming together, then steadily drift apart under the gaze of Newcombe’s increasingly unhinged wild grin.  Tambourine player Joel Gion’s perpetually amused attitude is a joy for every moment that he’s on screen.

For the second half of the list, click here.

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Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) (E)

IMDB / Ebert / Schulte
Directed by Werner Herzog

Here I am trying to write about a Herzog film again, despite the knowledge that the written word cannot do his films justice. I’ll take something of a different approach. The story: Dieter Dengler migrated to the United States from Germany, 18 and penniless, hoping for the chance to fulfil his dream of flying. He ended up going to Vietnam and getting shot down on one of his earliest missions; he then suffered torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and bore witness to some truly horrific incidents. He eventually escaped and, after several days hallucinating in the jungle, was rescued by an American pilot.

It’s an extraordinary tale, and as always in a Herzog film, it works on both levels: while we never lose sight of the man’s story and his incredible feat, wider truths are revealed about humans, nature and the universe. Much of the film is simply Dengler telling his story in (roughly) the locations where it happened, and as such is totally mesmerizing – in my opinion even more than if it was re-enacted in full. I love cinema more than anything else, but it has nothing on imagination, and Herzog exploits that exceptionally well, yet he does it in a way that is wonderfully cinematic and beautiful: there are re-enactments of a sort, but they are explicitly ‘just for the movie’ and only involve Dengler being put in similar positions to what he was back then.

There’s one particular scene, akin to the bear attack audio scene in Grizzly Man, where we follow Dengler (with his hands bound) and a collection of Vietnamese running through the jungle. Dengler’s voiceover tells us that if we could see his face, we’d see that he was uncomfortable with the memories the experience was bringing back. But we can’t see his face, so we have to just believe it; fortunately, trust is something you are happy to offer to Werner Herzog, so it isn’t a problem. Scenes like this really does break through being merely a film, they touch the most deeply inherent feelings we have within us. I find it impossible to explain, just as I thought I would, but maybe if you see the film you’ll understand me a little bit.

As always, there are moments of rare beauty, the likes of which can only be found in a Herzog film. One is where they are walking through the forest, and the sunlight streams through the trees above in discrete rays. Another is the final shot, from a helicopter, of Dieter surrounded by hundreds of planes at a massive airfield. My favourite, though, was just after Dieter told the story of the North Vietnamese getting his finger chopped off, he put his arm around the Vietnamese gentleman standing next to him and said gently “Don’t worry, it’s just for a movie.” As he says this, the man looks down and then up at Herzog behind the camera, and half smiles. Herzog’s camera lingers, closing in on the man, then moves past him to another man cooking rice in another part of the hut. It is just fucking beautiful. It filled my heart with warmth, sent several shivers down my spine, and left me totally speechless. There is so much in that one shot, so much ‘ecstatic truth’ as Herzog calls it – I’d go as far as to say it’s one of my favourite moments in movies.

As I suspected, I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about rather a little. Doesn’t matter. If it makes you see it, I’m glad. Herzog is currently making it into a feature film with Christian Bale as Dengler, and while I have no doubt that it will be an excellent film, I question why it is necessary – how could it be any better than (or add something more to) Little Dieter Needs to Fly? Because it is Herzog, I’m more excited than apprehensive about finding out. Oh, and the last paragraph of Ebert’s review is infinitely better than anything I wrote here – it’s truly illuminating.

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