This is a great prompt from WordPress –
I love documentaries, both humorous and tragic. I think a documentarian has a difficult job of presenting fact and truth in a way that’s engaging and interesting. There have been some amazing documentaries in the past 30 years, that I think people should see –
For the conservative folks who read my blog – it’s because my readership is so large, that the diversity is inspiring – these choices will probably offend you (unless you have an open mind, but then you wouldn’t be conservatives).
Feel free to include your own choice:
Paris Is Burning (1990) – a fantastic doc about the competing houses in the New York drag scene. Filmmaker Jennie Livingston shows a flamboyant, beautiful and yet often-tragic world as her subjects must contend with homophobia, racism, poverty and AIDS. The dance scenes are inspiring and the talent that Livingston is filming is awe-inspiring. Not only do we see drag as a work of performance art, but we’re also invited by the performers (most who are compelling and articulate interview subjects) to question our notions of gender, race and class. There is the understandable controversy surrounding the nature of Livingston’s invovlement with the community she’s presenting: is she exploiting it? Possibly, as Livingston moved onto a successful career while the people she filmed still had to contend with their difficult lives. Still, moving past these thoughtful issues, Paris Is Burning is a wonderful and fantastic documentary – highly recommended.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) – This Oscar-winning doc about the life and work of gay rights hero, Harvey Milk is more compelling than the Sean Penn biopic that came out a couple years ago (though that was a good movie). This film benefits from some raw and heart-wrenching interviews from Milk’s contemporaries and friends.
Farenheit 911 (2004) – Michael Moore isn’t perfect, but his films are often bruising, thought-provoking and disturbing. This documentary will at turns, enrage you, amuse you and make you second-guess everything you feel is “true” about the U.S. government, especially during its involvmenet in the war in Iraq. Moore’s not a journalist and so those who want to see a “fair and balanced” look should turn to Fox News (just kidding:). Still despite his debits as a storyteller, his passion for his subject and his patriotism make Farenheit 911 one of my favorite films.
Sicko (2007) – Moore’s film about the healthcare industry is an important idictment on our values as a country – it posits the question: do we believe that good quality healthcare is a right or a luxury? As with Farenheit 911, some of his story-telling tactics poke holes into his thesis (he paints a rather-rosy picture of healthcare in Cuba and in the UK without looking at those respective country’s struggles with delivering health as well). Still the main argument for his film stands: in America, there are too many people without health insurance and those insured will find that they will often be stiffed by companies made to earn a profit. His criticism isn’t just a right-wing Republican rant – Hillary Clinton gets served rather mightily in Sicko.
Anne Frank Remembered (1995) – the story of Anne Frank is famous because of her diary, but the story is given some context and fleshing out with this documentary, which won an Academy Award (at the ceremony Frank’s friend/rescuer, Miep Gies received a standing ovation). What’s interesting about the film is that alongside footage of Frank, we also get interviews with surivivors and friends (including her father, Otto – the only person from the famed attic to survive). Though the film centers around Frank and her family, Gies comes across powerfully – modest, ordinary and heroic.
The Last Days (1998) – a brilliant drama about survivors of the Holocaust – including the late Tom Lantos, congressman from California. This is a great film, again because the voice of the narrative belongs to the subjects – because they survived (though many of them lost loved ones and friends) they are able to shape the rhetoric. The film, while handling a very difficult subject, has an uplifting ending.
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000) – this is a rather little-known aspect of WWII and the Holocaust: the story of kindertransport a movement by the resistance during WWII that ultimately saved the lives of 10,000 Jewish children by transporting them to England. This isn’t an easy story to tell, because the survivors express ambivalence about their situation and it’s not simply a story with a happy ending: many of the children lost their parents, and those whose parents survived often reunited with children that no longer remembered them. Dame Judi Dench provides great narraration.
Unzipped (1995) – Isaac Mizrahi is followed by cameras as he’s trying to mount a successful collection to offset a series of professional setbacks. Mizrahi’s a personable, gregarious presence and he’s really funny (he’s great with one-liners and quips). The subject matter can get a bit light and fluffly, but the filmmaker, Douglas Reeves (Mizrahi’s boyfriend at the time), does present a compelling film about the stresses and pressure that the fashion designer has put on himself and how much importance he’s saddled his collection with. This is a very dated film, though – it screams mid 1990’s, but it’s a fun look back at that time.
Marlene (1984) – Marlene Dietrich is the subject of this fascinating documentary done by her Judgement at Nuremberg co-star, Maxmilian Schell. Dietrich’s demands of not being filmed were met and instead we’re treated to a shadow-shrouded diva with her unmistakable German lisp. The film takes a look not only at Dietrich’s storied career, but her interesting life and the various players that came in and out; Dietrich, though advanced in years, manages to come across as imperious, sharp and very shrewd (if at times, short-tempered). Schell tries to do some interesting cuts and edits that make this a visually interesting film, as well.