Greg Lance – Watkins
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Since the pandemic hit and social life became severely constrained, I’ve been obsessing even more than usual about documentaries. Their very essence is to provide virtual connections to people in far-off times and places—and to experiences that would otherwise remain unshared, even among people close by. Craving such virtual connections, I’ve been watching far more documentaries than I usually do—especially given the dearth of new releases—and more of them than I can squeeze into the regular round of reviews.
This has been no sharp break but only an intensification of the last few years of my movie-watching, which have offered a plethora of rediscoveries (thanks to the ardent connoisseurship of repertory programmers) and have given a new urgency to my viewing of documentaries (thanks to changes in the field). Nonfiction filmmaking has been undergoing an aesthetic revolution over the past decade or so, one that parallels the major change in fiction filmmaking, namely, a shift toward personalization. The main expression and key movement in that change is mumblecore, which has exerted a wide-ranging influence through its luminaries, its aesthetic, and its ideas. Mumblecore’s documentary counterpart is creative nonfiction, an idea that’s rooted in the filmmaker’s presence, be it physical or virtual, and in the conspicuous display of process.
The artistic preoccupations of the new generation of documentary filmmakers don’t break with those of earlier generations; rather, they have their roots in decades-old films, in which the same ideas and practices sometimes turn up in forms—embodying the filmmakers’ relationship to their subjects—that seem daringly original even now. The most artistically advanced documentaries are those in which the participants are engaging conspicuously with the filmmakers; in their most radical forms, they show the influences, inspirations, or perturbations that the people onscreen experience from the filmmakers’ presence. Which is another way of saying that, although documentaries follow real people, their crucial material and subject is nonetheless performance.
Throughout its history, the very idea of documentary filmmaking has shifted according to what was—and was not—possible at any given time, owing to the nature of movie equipment. Because cameras in the silent-film era were cumbersome, it was hard for filmmakers to be present at events as they unfolded, which is why much early documentary filmmaking involves reënactment, or what might now be called docudrama. Many of the earlier films on my list, such as “The Forgotten Frontier” and “Farrebique,” fall into this category: they show events replayed by the very people who had experienced them in real life. The arrival of synch sound did not instantly revolutionize documentaries, as it did fiction films, because early sound-recording equipment was extremely difficult to bring on location and because filmmakers were slow to make significant use of it in the studio. Instead, the first great revolution in documentaries came only in 1960, after lightweight synch-sound equipment was developed, to go with lightweight cameras. The result was cinéma vérité, or direct cinema, as exemplified by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s “Chronicle of a Summer” and Robert Drew’s “Primary.” Yet this revolution quickly led to a paradox. On the one hand, it allowed filmmakers to thrust themselves into the action, evoking a sense of involvement, of being implicated, and fostering a far more intensely personal mode of documentary filmmaking. On the other hand, the power of lightweight synch-sound equipment and the relative ease of its use fostered a countervailing type of cinema, one that, in ostensibly observing and recording events objectively, rendered filmmakers even less visible and audible than before—the so-called fly-on-the-wall approach to documentary filmmaking.
That soon became the new convention, even the new orthodoxy, but it coincided with a revolution in subject matter and perspective—the liberations of the sixties—that had its own dramatic effect on the art form. The first great period of documentary filmmaking ran from 1960 to about 1980, when, relying on new equipment, filmmakers responded to—and advanced—social progress by fusing the personal and the political in their art (as in “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm” and “Joyce at 34”). New video technology helped: it enabled filmmakers to record for longer periods without interruption and with even smaller crews.
When lightweight digital video—on cameras and cell phones—became available, it sparked the recent and ongoing second revolution in documentary filmmaking, making the camera a virtual extension of the filmmaker’s body and integrating filmmaking with daily and private life. The outpouring of astoundingly creative and personal documentaries in recent years is the result of those technical advances and of a renewed and deepened sense of the inseparability of the political and the personal, the breaking down of the barriers between the public and private realms. Documentary filmmakers are creating new forms that pursue political progress through (and even despite) the morass of new media. Note that this list does not distinguish between short and feature films, either on artistic or practical grounds. Shorts have been a major source of cinematic ideas outside the mainstream, and they have also been relatively accessible to many great filmmakers—notably, women and Black directors—who, having been kept out of even the art-house mainstream, have struggled to find the resources to make features.
The presence of documentary filmmakers in their films isn’t itself an aesthetic idea; neither is the prominence of interviews. (There are some famous films that rely on both which I haven’t included on this list; there has also been a trend in recent decades toward personality-based documentaries, which exploit leading aesthetic currents rather than advancing or deepening them.) There’s no empirical criterion to define a movie’s artistic dimension, which is, instead, a matter of composition, style, experience, and of imaginative confrontation with the times. There’s no aesthetic pleasure, obviously, in contemplating horrors such as the Holocaust, racism, poverty, or cruelty, in the private or public sphere. Beauty is found, rather, in the acts of determination, engagement, and revelation, which, in turn, serve as a mode of transmission. The forms and styles with which filmmakers embody experience and ideas lock into a viewer’s receptors, effecting not merely a transfer of information but an emotional, even an unconscious, transformation of the viewer—and, so, of the future.
“Salt for Svanetia”
It’s about the most ordinary of subjects—table salt—but what it depicts is at the very limits of the representable. The villagers of Svanetia, an isolated mountainous region in then-Soviet Georgia, are dying from lack of salt, and Kalatozov shows their agonies in terrifying detail, before Soviet workers arrive to build the roads that will open the region to shipments (including of salt) from other parts of the country. The film is a work of overt political propaganda, yet Kalatozov gives the impression of filming in a state of horror and shock.
“The Forgotten Frontier”
The only film directed by Marvin Breckinridge, a.k.a. Mary Marvin Breckinridge, is an early work of extraordinary documentary portraiture—and adventure. It consists of a series of dramatic reconstructions, filmed on location in rural Kentucky, involving the Frontier Nursing Service, which was founded by Breckinridge’s cousin, also named Mary. The documentary shows Mary’s cousin and other actual nurses as they bring medical care to remote areas of Appalachia. Along with tense and poignant medical and familial dramas, the director evokes her own self-aware participation in the story by way of her cousin’s ceremonious public interactions.
Vertov’s first sound film is a story of Soviet industrialization that overcomes the hostility of—or, rather, lays waste to—organized religion. It’s a story of forced enlightenment that takes as its very premise the rise of mass media, by way of radio. Vertov’s use of sound is as ecstatic as his cinematography: contrapuntal, impressionistic. The film’s sense of form is as thrilling and hectic as the revolutionary ardor that motivates it.
A film of advocacy on behalf of planned communities, based on the work of the urbanist Catherine Bauer, this documentary expresses philosophy and social analysis with a passion that’s embodied in the content and editing of its images and in its ardently declaimed commentary. Its historical reënactments and newsreel footage give rise to a wall-to-wall monologue that looks ahead to latter-day essay-films.
“Let There Be Light”
While working with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the Second World War, Huston films veterans at a Long Island mental hospital who endured mental trauma as a result of combat in that war. The inclusion of doctors’ extended and engaged interviews with patients gives voice to stifled memories of the war’s horrors, away from official celebrations of victory. (In all likelihood, that is why the Army banned the film until 1981.)
This is a documentary that’s centered on the power of language, whether in legal wranglings or in the transmission of family history from grandparents to grandchildren. Filming at his own family’s farm in the South of France, Rouquier recruits his relatives to play roles closely resembling their real lives, reconstructing their activities and conflicts over the course of a year.
A documentary as first-person essay from Hurwitz (who soon after was blacklisted under McCarthyite inquisitions), this film looks closely and furiously at a bitter paradox: Black veterans return from fighting against Nazism in the Second World War only to face Jim Crow laws and unchallenged racism at home.
Made at a mere ten years’ remove from the Second World War—as official France was ignoring the Holocaust and the deportations of Jews from France—Resnais’s short documentary fuses present-tense scenes of the vestiges of Auschwitz and Majdanek and archival images, evoking the Holocaust, and the politics that led to it, in terms of the struggle to recover stifled memories and presenting the clarity of memory as essential to political progress.
The founding work of cinéma vérité (the term was invented by Morin to describe the film), this film is also a crucial work of reflexive cinema, showing the filmmakers preparing to approach people in the streets of Paris and ask them whether they’re happy, and proceed to their on-camera and interview-centered investigations of French colonialism, the Algerian War, and the Nazi Occupation—along with their own self-critical depictions of watching, showing, and discussing their work.
Anderson was among the first Black female documentary filmmakers, and here she presents American racial conflicts, in both North and South, with a jolting sense of immediacy, and conveys the newly liberated discourse of civil-rights advocates—along with the performative concern-trolling of white counter-protesters.
Robert Drew, whose film “Primary,” from 1960, launched the documentary form of direct cinema in the United States, here immersively films the effort to desegregate public schools in New Orleans, encompassing both the violent opposition of white residents and the experiences of Black families who are the targets of violence.
Lopes’s film is a collaborative docu-drama, in which the aging Portuguese boxer Belarmino Fragoso plays himself, as his career is ending. Belarmino speaks at length in interview scenes that are as revelatory—of himself and his times—as his reënactments of his daily routine, which Lopes films with a keen eye to Belarmino’s many modes of self-conscious self-presentation.
Moore, who was white, films James Baldwin on a tour of San Francisco’s predominantly Black neighborhoods that’s led by the community activist Orville Luster. While recording Baldwin’s illuminating discussions with Luster, Moore also observes Baldwin as a virtual reporter, interviewing Black residents of the city and eliciting comment from voices rarely heard in American cinema.
Pasolini brings intimate experiences into public light in this documentary, in which Italians talk on-camera about sex, freely, candidly, comedically, confrontationally. In recording their commentary, Pasolini manages to reveal the private prejudices behind rigid societal exclusions and oppressions.
The New York-based filmmaker William Jersey, who’d been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family and was still practicing at the time, was hired by the Evangelical Lutheran Church to make a film about racial tension within their ranks. The remarkable film he made follows parishioners of an all-white church in Omaha as they come into conflict over their minister’s plans for voluntary outreach to Black congregations. Jersey elicits extraordinary candor from the film’s white participants, and also meets members of the city’s Black community who speak openly to him of the deep-rooted bigotry that they endure—and of Jersey’s own inevitable participation in it.
Filmed in a single night in Clarke’s rooms in the Chelsea Hotel, this film consists entirely of an on-camera interview of her friend Jason Holliday, a gay Black man and a self-described hustler. Pinpointing the agonizing pressures of history in the self-revealing and self-flaying confessions of a single soul, Clarke, one of America’s most original independent filmmakers, seems to invent a new genre of personal filmmaking—a cinematic address in the second person singular.
The point was simply being there; the camera rolls and Bruce performs, in what turned out to be his penultimate public appearance, from 1965. Amid the hilarity, the profundity, and the audacity, hypocrisies and orthodoxies shatter. The film’s minimal, spartan approach provides a better cinematic showcase for onstage performance than succeeding generations’ more elaborate presentations have ever done.
More than two decades before “Paris Is Burning,” Simon went behind the scenes of a drag pageant in New York. The film features extraordinarily candid and intimate discussions among gay men—at a time when homosexual behavior and drag itself were illegal—along with scenes of drag queens’ physical transformations that break the boundaries between performance and private life.
William Greaves’s multilayered metafiction—based on a scripted scene of a couple in crisis—is a documentary about the very nature of fictional films, and the authority of a director trying to make them. Greaves films himself, his actors, and his crew at work in Central Park, interacting with one another and with whomever happens to be there, and also includes the crew’s own critique of his methods and even his character.
In this documentary of the making of a studio recording, Pennebaker captures performances of a historic greatness (especially by Elaine Stritch), filming with a sensitive synergy in long and probing takes that shiver with his own excitement and sense of collaborative energy..
Eustache’s film consists almost entirely of an extended interview with his grandmother Odette Robert. He elicits her intimate horror stories, which seem to fuse with the modern history of France as well as with the substance of his far more celebrated fiction films (such as “The Mother and the Whore”) and with his own sense of identity.
Through a series of interviews with a multigenerational and multiethnic group of women living near her home town, in Ohio, Reichert explores the gender-centered pressures tacit in her environment and reveals the indoctrinations that she and other women experience from media controlled mainly by men. Though the film runs only forty-nine minutes long, it encompasses a vast historical scope.
Another pioneer of first-person filmmaking, Chopra begins by documenting the birth of her daughter and goes on to examine the connection between her work as a filmmaker and her family life—and also, through interviews with her own mother, a retired schoolteacher, confronts and contextualizes her own efforts at balancing work and home.
In this film, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature before disappearing from circulation (it was restored and reissued in 2005), Marjoe Gortner, who had been a child-star preacher, returns to the pulpit as an adult for a farewell tour, which he uses to repudiate the world of organized religion. His riveting stage persona fills the screen with the ecstasy and the skepticism of the age of rock; he collaborates with the filmmakers to reveal the tricks of his trade and, in on-camera discussions, discloses the painful story of his exploitation.
Taking off from investigations of an art forger and a literary fraudster, Welles’s wide-ranging, richly ironic, and loftily speculative personal-essay film puts the very distinctions between documentary and fiction, and between first-person declaration and journalistic exploration, under kaleidoscopic scrutiny.
The very existence of this movie—a clandestine gathering of former political prisoners of the Franco regime, filmed while it was still in power—is a miracle, and Portabella, a director of highly stylized dramas, finds simple forms that give physical presence to the reports from the depths of political horror.
Frederick Wiseman, the great documentarian of bureaucracy in action, here also spotlights the contrast between dispassionate functionaries and the anguish of their put-upon and desperate supplicants. It’s a film about the gap between the letter and the spirit of the law—and about the modes of behavior, or performance, that result.
The implicit performances of documentary subjects are at the center of all of the Maysles brothers’ major films, but never more emphatically than in this one. Their view of the chaotic decline of the two Edith Beales, mother and daughter—and the desperately antic theatre of shattered dreams that they present—is inseparable from the Maysles’ own tensely compassionate implication in their subjects’ lives.
Coolidge’s effort to dramatize her experience of being raped, when she was a teen-ager, is the anguished and profound core of this documentary, in which she collaborates with an actress who was also a victim of rape and considers the implications, even the very possibility, of dramatizing such an experience.
Guzman’s documentary in three parts, filmed in 1972 and 1973, anticipated, with a sense of prophetic foreboding, the violent opposition to the government of Chile’s President Salvador Allende. Guzman filmed the end times of the regime, under rightist and American pressure, from within.
This three-hour documentary is a vast intellectual history, putting the momentous events of 1968, in France and elsewhere, under Marker’s political microscope. (Spoiler alert: he instead locates the era’s key political events in 1967.) Aided by furious archival explorations and his expansively trenchant voice-over analysis, Marker filters a period of global upheaval through his editing table.
Considered the first documentary about gay people by openly gay people, this film features twenty-six individuals talking about their lives, at length, in detail, and with a complicit candor. In revealing their lifelong oppressions, they enact a liberation of their own voices and of society over all.
Taking advantage of a relatively new technology, portable video equipment, the Raymonds embed with police officers at work in the South Bronx, which at the time had the city’s highest crime rate. They film the officers making rounds—at night—and talk with the visionary borough commander, Tony Bouza, whose progressive philosophy of policing embraces drastic social change.
Learning of a pair of San Diego twin girls who spoke a private language, the French director Jean-Pierre Gorin (who had moved to California) visited them and their family; his explorations of their linguistic issues revealed the family’s distinctive emotional world and cultural dynamic, while also evoking crucial aspects of American life over all—and Gorin’s own place in it.
The documentary that should have been made in the nineteen-thirties, about women who played crucial roles in strikes at General Motors factories in 1936-37, was instead made in the nineteen-seventies; as directed by Gray (and produced by Gray, Lyn Goldfarb, and Anne Bohlen), it virtually revives those events by connecting interviews with the women, forty years after the fact, to an astounding selection of archival footage.
Fronza Woods’s short documentary brings to the screen a figure who was, at the time, virtually invisible in American movies: a sixty-five-year-old Black custodial worker. Blending interviews and observation, and using a soundtrack of Fannie telling her life story, Woods—an overlooked figure in American independent filmmaking, who has never had the opportunity to make a feature film—leaps ahead of documentary conventions, and reveals Fannie’s domestic and professional stories to be tales of epic heroism.
There is a before and an after: the agonizing twelve-year experience that went into the making of the nine-hour film, in which Lanzmann interviews survivors of the Holocaust, former concentration-camp guards, people who lived near the death camps, and historians—is clear onscreen, and the incommensurable events that the film details with an unprecedented, horrific specificity are evoked with a power beyond representation, thanks to Lanzmann’s arduously developed artistry.
As a soldier in the Japanese Army during the Second World War, Kenzo Okuzaki survived a virtually suicidal mission. Years later, after years of violent opposition to the regime, he travels throughout Japan to confront his former officers, and Hara collaborates with him to film these furious, even violent confrontations. The result is a clear-eyed record of a country’s ongoing, official indifference.
After making several documentaries about his home town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Buba filmed his own efforts to make a fictional film there, starring one of his former documentary subjects. What he ended up filming is a multilayered account of his failure to make it, one that unfolds the town’s local and large-scale political conflicts and a grimly comical account of his own life.
In one of the most original of all essay-films, Rappaport brilliantly and empathetically connects Rock Hudson’s private life as a gay man and his public one as a movie star. A keen-eyed, clip-centered film, it is as much about the actor’s performances as about the act of movie viewing.
Oxenberg seems to burst beyond the boundaries of the genre in this film about her grandmother, who was terminally ill at the time (and who died in the course of the filming). Using fantasy sequences, dioramas, a faux quiz show, and other imaginative devices, Oxenberg delves deep into family history, and into the cosmic mysteries of death. (The film should have launched her career; instead it was the last feature film she has directed to date.)
“The Devil Never Sleeps”
Portillo revisits her home town of Chihuahua, Mexico, to investigate the unexplained death of her uncle, a local politician. She discovers her family’s story to be a lurid melodrama of conflicting interests and political corruption, and she films it—and her childhood memories—with a labyrinthine style to match.
“A Plate of Sardines”
In this short film, Amiralay, a Syrian filmmaker (and one of the main interview subjects in Lawrence Wright’s piece in The New Yorker, from 2006, on Syrian cinema) considers Israel and the Nakba from the perspective of his childhood memories and family lore (including the titular dish), and considers the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and the destruction of the city of Quneitra from the perspective of moviemaking and moviegoing.
No filmmaker has identified so closely with the history of cinema than Godard, and no filmmaker has looked as deeply into it. This eight-part series, totalling four hours and made in the course of more than a decade, makes use of clips in a manner—involving his own hands-on video effects—no less daring or imaginative or exquisite than his creation of dramatic images. Nearly every other filmmaker’s approach to archival images seems bland and timid by comparison.
One of the great fiction filmmakers, Burnett here deploys his dramatic artistry along with a historian’s ardor and a journalist’s probing interviews. The film is a work of cinematic historiography, examining how Turner’s life, and the rebellion he led, have been depicted and deformed over time. Burnett dramatizes historical events through a multiplicity of performances, and offers a glimpse at his own effort to film them.
This clandestinely made three-hour film, featuring extended takes running up to an hour, is composed almost entirely of an in-depth interview of a woman who, with her late husband, was a victim of China’s political repression in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. It’s an exemplary work of the embodiment of history in language and the recovery of history in real time.
This great cinematic autobiography fuses memory and imagination in scenes that expose the artistry and the lifetime of experience that went into making them. Of all of Varda’s freely imaginative documentaries, it’s the one in which she was at her most personal, her most confessional, her most intimate, and her most inventive.
A virtual novel of a personal documentary, in which Kleine tells the story of her parents’ apparently happy marriage, and her own discovery of her mother’s extraordinary lifetime of secrets—of which Kleine remains, throughout the film, the uneasy guardian.
Panh, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, relies on small figurines and archival footage, as well as new interviews and his recollections, to evoke its depravities and his own family’s sufferings.
Under house arrest, facing imprisonment, and banned from filmmaking, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi nonetheless made a film without, strictly speaking, doing so—using a planted camera and a cell phone to record his own life in isolation and to act out one of his own unfilmed scripts with a vital urgency that surpasses acting.
Greene, the crucial theoretician-in-action of the recent wave of self-implicating and self-questioning documentaries, here films his neighbor—the actress Brandy Burre (best known for her role on “The Wire”)—and finds her private life to be a grand and poignant melodrama.
Allah, filming and recording sound by himself, brings new energy to the observational documentary in this movie presenting his encounters with people he meets on 125th Street. With stylistic ingenuity and clarity of purpose, he reveals the practical pressures that they confront as well as the monumental intimacy of their lives.
The solitude implicit in Akerman’s do-it-yourself filmmaking is also a story of family. Here she turns the camera on her relationship with her aging mother—their emotional closeness and physical distance—her own virtual exile from home as a result of her international career, and her experience of an existential solitude of tragic, horrific power.
Living in Damascus with her mother and grandmother when the city was under siege from the Syrian regime, Fattahi reveals family history and political anguish with a cinematographic eye and bold juxtapositions that seem wrenched physically from the catastrophe and subjectively from deep within.
Starting from his own smartphone video recording of a rat in a garbage pail, the Baltimore-based filmmaker travels through town to probe the city’s ongoing problem of rodent infestation and finds, through passionate research and engaging interviews, long-hidden historical outrages appearing before his eyes.
Mbakam’s film takes a classic premise—the return-home story—and expands it by way of extraordinary compositional skill and a keen sense of the connections between personal and societal events. Born in Cameroon and living in Belgium, she returns to her homeland to visit her mother and other relatives and, during her travels and discussions, discovers the forms of independence that Cameroonian women have asserted in the face of a patriarchal culture.
A film that exemplifies the inseparability of the personal and the political, Wilkerson’s documentary investigates a racist killing perpetrated by one of his own ancestors in Alabama, in 1946. In looking into the crime, Wilkerson uncovers the area’s grim history, its legacy of civil-rights activism, its current-day political pathologies, and their inextricable connection to his family life today.
Tan’s extraordinary act of personal and cinematic reclamation—or resurrection—is centered on footage recovered from a lost feature film that she and friends had made as teen-agers in Singapore, in 1992. Her elaborate detective work reveals vast currents of hidden history and fulfills a journey of self-liberation—plus, the original film she made or what she’s able to recover, proves to be a hidden masterwork.
The Romanian director, whose wry fictional films are centered on language and epistemology, turns the camera on his own extended discussions with a longtime acquaintance, a low-level bureaucrat with idiosyncratic ideas about the rules of soccer. With no effects or voice-over or archival footage, and focussing mainly on the low-stakes practicalities of boundary lines and offside definitions, Porumboiu reveals his subject to be a secret utopian visionary.
Wang, who was born in China and lives in the United States, returns to the village in Jiangxi province where she grew up and examines China’s former one-child policy from the perspective of her own family and neighbors. The result is an investigative film told from a intimate perspective, as Wang recounts her own childhood, discovers the stifled anguish of horror stories within her community (including ones that she lived through unawares), and exposes an international web of corruption that profited from compulsorily abandoned children.
Anger’s first feature film, “Gray,” which she worked on from 2010 to 2012, was never released; this is her record of its making and shelving, along with the story of her life as it was altered by that protracted process. Anger delivers this story as a performance that she has given in a variety of theatre venues, projecting the screen of her laptop computer onto the movie screen as she manipulates images in real time, along with her live spoken commentary. Despite the spontaneity and singularity of those events, the result is a virtual movie (that only awaits recording and distribution).
Johnson, a cinematographer whose previous film, “Cameraperson,” was a different kind of cinematic self-portrait, here focusses on her changing relationship with her father. He is facing dementia and can no longer live alone, so she invites him to move in with her and documents their time together. In imaginative fantasy sequences (and depictions of her own filming of them), she also confronts, with gruesome good humor and a metaphysical twist, the eventuality of his death. It’s a documentary about the transformation of family life and love through the filming of it.
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