RETHINKING THE PLACE OF DOCUMENTARY FILMS AND WONDERING ABOUT ACTING

I wrote my last post about a documentary film and I was not really thinking of continuing with the same topic but I came across a very interesting article by Carlos Lara, “¿Debería poder ganar un documental el Goya a Mejor Película?” (“Should a documentary film win the Goya to Best Film?”) so, here I go again. Lara is asking the question in relation to this year’s Goya winner for best documentary, El año del descubrimiento by Luis López Carrasco and to one of the nominees, My Mexican Bretzel by Nuria Giménez Lorang. In Lara’s view, these two films are much better (meaning far more daring) than those in the fiction film category, the winner Las niñas, and the nominees, Adú, Ane, Sentimental and La boda de Rosa. I cannot offer an informed opinion as I have only seen Iciar Bollaín’s La boda de Rosa, which I absolutely loved. I can say, however, that I have found myself not only watching more and more documentary films in the last year but also finding them far more satisfactory than fiction films. Incidentally, I must note that the Romanian documentary Collective is making history at this year’s Oscars, after being nominated in the best documentary and the best international feature film categories. I must also note that whereas 24 women have won Oscars for feature-length documentary films (Barbara Kopple has won twice) only 1 woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won an Oscar for best director. I would say, then, that it is also in women’s interests to make documentary films more prominent and visible.

What Carlos Lara is implicitly asking is why documentary films are less valued than fiction films. Please, note that the label ‘fiction film’ is only used when it is necessary to contrast what we usually just call ‘films’ with documentary films. That is, then, one of the problems: any film which carries an adjective in its label (documentary film, animated film, short film) appears to be in a separate category from the generic category ‘film’, which in fact corresponds specifically to the feature-length live-action fiction film. The supposition, I assume, is that the fiction film is better valued because it is supposedly harder to tell a story from scratch, through scenes performed by actors, than creating a film using animation, or involving scenes from real life, or told in less than 90 minutes. As you can see, the moment this is made explicit, it sounds quite absurd. Only prejudiced convention determines that the feature-length live-action fiction film is accepted as the main category for films. There is, in fact, no specific reason why the other kinds of films are undervalued, except a poor understanding of the effort it takes to make them and of their aesthetics.

Having mentioned the word ‘aesthetics’ I will now ask the question of whether this is all we take into consideration when choosing to watch a fiction film or a documentary. Believe me when I say that trying to define the fiction film and the documentary film for what they do is much harder than it seems, and perhaps aesthetics is the answer to what separates one from the other. Let me take an example on which I have written: the documentary by Rob Epstein, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Oscar Award winner) and the fiction film Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant). This was the winner of an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, which went to Sean Penn, and of an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, awarded to Dustin Lance Black. Here the problems begin, for although Milk is not based on a previous work, the connections between Black’s ‘original’ screenplay and Epstein’s documentary are more than obvious. Van Sant, besides, uses original footage also used by Epstein, recreating some of the scenes with his actors.

Anyway, my point is that both films tell in a very talented way the same story: how Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected for office (he was a member of San Francisco’s Town Council) was murdered in cold blood, by his fellow councillor Dan White, who also killed the mayor, George Moscone. Now ask yourself how you would like to know about this tragic event: through the documentary or through the fiction film? Just trust me when I say that both tell the story proficiently and in a moving, entertaining way. Advantages of the documentary? It is, obviously, far more informative and has plenty of footage of the real Harvey Milk, and other persons of his circle. Advantages of the fiction film? It recreates far more personal aspects of Milk’s private life into which the documentary does not go, and the acting is very good. I would say that both films are excellent and, in combination, a superb cinematic experience. Yet, we rarely find time for two films on the same topic. In fact, although I see the point in making a documentary once the fiction film has been made, I see little point in making the fiction film once the documentary is available, particularly if said documentary is a great film as Epstein’s is. Consider, if you want another example, why Robert Zemeckis’s fiction film The Walk (2015) exists, since James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008) tells wonderfully the story of how Frenchman Phillip Petite crossed on a wire the distance between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Is it a matter of availability? Of audiences not knowing that certain documentaries exist? Or is it, as I say, a question of aesthetics? Why do audiences prefer the fakery of fiction film to the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary?

I have written the word ‘authenticity’ in inverted comas because this is the issue that bedevils any understanding of the documentary. To put it simply, fiction films can lie as much as they want, even when they recreate real-life events, but documentary films are not supposed to lie, yet they do. In fact, it is quite possible that all boils down to a misunderstanding. Famously, the Scottish father of the documentary, John Grierson, commended in a review Moana (1926) –a film portraying the natives of the South Pacific made by the American father of the documentary Robert Flaherty– for its “documentary” value, which eventually lent this film genre its name. As happens, however, Flaherty’s film was full of staged scenes that he had invented on the basis of the local ‘traditions’ which he forced his native actors to perform; besides, Grierson wrote that Moana was perhaps more interesting for its poetic values. The idea that the documentary documents reality does not come simply from that review and that remark but it is certainly connected with it, and has made it almost impossible to define the genre with precision since not all documentaries ‘document’ reality (many re-create it) and what you may mean by ‘reality’ is also open to discussion. Take, for instance, Goya’s nominee My Mexican Bretzel. Apparently, director Nuria Giménez Lorang uses in it the home movies shot by her grandfather from the 1940s to the 1960s (footage which she found by chance), grafting onto these moving images the melodramatic story of her grandmother Vivian, a story which is, basically, invented. How is that a documentary?

Every time I try to think of some rule that fiction films and documentaries cannot break, there appears an exception perhaps because the two film languages have mixed in recent times. I had never noticed, for instance, that documentaries use music in ways very similar to fiction films, giving some scenes the tone of a thriller, or of melodrama, as the director wishes. Some scholars claim that, ultimately, the basis of the difference between a fiction film and a documentary is a matter of expectations: audiences expect to be told a story in fiction films, but to be enlightened about an aspect of reality they didn’t know in documentaries (as if they were lessons). It doesn’t work like this, either. Just think of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and how much one may learn from it about the Holocaust, even though it cannot be called at all a documentary film like, for instance, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). Actually, Spielberg’s film created a big scandal by having the cameras enter the showers at Auschwitz, a moment that no other film, fictional or documentary, had dared recreate. Lanzmann was among the American director’s most vocal critics. Yet, this is just a matter connected with historical taboos, not a matter of what films –fictional or documentary– can do.

You may recall that one year ago we were all fascinated by Netflix’s documentary mini-series Tiger King (directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode). There was a hilarious moment (I can’t recall whether it was in the series or in a bonus feature) in which Joe King fantasized about being played by Brad Pitt in a film about his life. That is hilarious not only because there are many obvious physical differences between King and Pitt, but because there is already a great film about King’s life: the mini-series. In a similar vein, let me repeat a curious anecdote I just heard actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrate: Philippe Petite, the man who did walk between the Twin Towers, remember?, taught the actor, who plays him in Ron Howard’s film, how to walk on a wire. This is bizarre, not only because just fancy the real-life man teaching the actor how to do what made him famous but also because, according to director James Marsh, Petite is a big narcissist that absolutely wanted to dominate the shooting of his documentary. Why Petite would feel interested in Gordon-Levitt’s performance is something I fail to grasp. Was he flattered in some way? Why not jealous?

All in all, I am going to argue that what ultimately makes the difference between choosing to see a fiction film or a documentary film has to do with a specific element of the aesthetics of the fictional film: acting. Moana, the film by Flaherty I have mentioned, inaugurated docufiction on the sly, by including staged scenes. Without going so far, many documentaries include recreations of scenes of real life for which there is no footage, usually employing actors in a rather anonymous way, frequently cast just because they look like the real-life person they play. On the other hand, the docudrama is supposed to bridge the gap between the fiction film and the documentary by sticking as closely as possible to the ‘truth’ of events while still being presented as a fiction film. Milk is a docudrama in that sense, and The Walk. I believe, however, that very few spectators think of films based on real-life events as docudramas, since the dramatic license many take is quite generous. I don’t think any spectator is now as naïve as to think that a film wholly based on staged scenes can be trusted. This is why I am claiming that ultimately what gives the feature-length, live-action fiction film its popularity over the documentary is the audience’s preference for acting, to the point that given the choice between seeing a documentary with the real-life person and a docudrama with an actor playing that person, the latter is preferred.

What I have been discovering –or rediscovering– in the last year is that actor-dominated films (= fiction films) are not necessarily more entertaining, or more fulfilling, than narrative or argumentative films in which acting is non-existent or just used at the basic level of re-creation (= documentaries). Despite marvelling at how Tom Hanks plays classic children’s TV star Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), this fiction film cannot compare to the far better documentary film by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), also on Fred Rogers. Indeed, when Hanks and Heller saw together Neville’s film, the actor asked the director why they were making their film at all… An obvious answer is that Hanks could attract viewers to the figure of Mr. Rogers in ways the far less known documentary by Neville could not, though this is not really a merit of fiction films (or of actors) but of their distribution channels. Now that we are used to finding so many documentaries on the streaming platforms the situation might change. My guess is that, if given the same visibility as fiction films, documentary films might grow to be just as popular and valued.

Here is, by the way, a very basic bibliography for documentaries in case you’re interested:
Aitken, Ian (ed.). The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge, 2013 (2006).
Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.
Bruzzi, Stella. New documentary: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2006 (2000).
Ellis, John. Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation. Routledge, 2012.
Grant, Barry Keith and Sloniowski, Jeannette (eds.). Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Wayne State UP, 2014 (1998).
McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film. Continuum, 2012.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana UP, 2017 (third edition).
Renov, Michael. The Subject of Documentary. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Enjoy! (And if you subscribe to Netflix, watch Father, Soldier, Son…).

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: MORE GREAT DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (2000-2020)

I woke up this morning thinking ‘ok, time to write a bit’. But, what about? I wanted originally to rant and rave about the absurd ideas that I have come across these days reading new bibliography on Wuthering Heights but it is hard to put one’s heart into academic stuff as if this mattered in the current circumstances. Then I told myself ‘maybe you need to write about the black mood you’re in, in case anyone shares the feeling’ but, though I might do that next week, I don’t feel rational enough today (add to this that it is raining quite hard). Besides, everyone is writing opinion pieces about the impact of Covid-19 and I don’t see what else can be added, except a huge scream (no good to fill a post). It’s a no-win situation: Covid-19 seems to be the only relevant matter and it is next to impossible to think of anything else, but at the same time thinking of the coronavirus is exhausting and one needs to focus on something else… or go mental.

So, for the time being, I’m going back to the elective course I’m teaching and offering another round of recommended documentaries. They are filling in my time beautifully and if you have problems, as I’m beginning to have, reading fiction for pleasure because it is hard to stay focused, then watching documentaries is a good alternative. The list that follows has a first section on gender/sexuality and a second miscellaneous list which I have called ‘Icons of America’.

2011 Miss Representation, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1784538/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro. Siebel is also the director of The Mask You Live In (see below), which is a sort of companion piece to this film. As the clever title indicates Miss Representation describes how the media misrepresent women’s image to keep us enslaved to a view of who we are which only favours the interests of corporations, which are the interests of patriarchy. It created quite a stir but then, typically, it has taken almost a decade for a variety of younger women’s movements to do something more or less effective about the same issues.

2012 How to Survive a Plague, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2124803/ by David France. The plague here is AIDS, for which, we must remember, there is not yet a vaccine even though the disease has been around for thirty years. France documents the efforts of ACT UP and TAG to transform the deathly plague into a chronic condition many persons live with through long years. Exactly what we need right now: a plan to stop the new plague based on people’s own activism and regardless of what the incompetent politicians in government do.

2012 The Invisible War, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2120152/ by Kirby Dick. You may recall how in G.I. Jane (1997, Ridley Scott) Demi Moore’s character, a Navy SEAL trainee, is raped to teach her the lesson of how to endure that kind of attack in combat. Dick’s film shows how rape is used in real-life to teach women in the military the lesson that they are not wanted. What the brave survivors who learned to fight together teach is another lesson: being raped by your own brothers in arms, men you trust, is much worse than anything that can happen in combat –and should never be covered up the military hierarchy.

2014 She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3319508/ by Mary Dore. This documentary should be mandatory viewing in all (secondary) schools and universities because it is a thrilling overview of how Second Wave feminism started and unfolded. With plenty of original footage and interviews with the women protagonists, it is indeed not just a documentary but a document of immense interest. Of course if you see next Miss Representation you also become aware of how much is done daily to repress women’s defence of our own personal freedom.

2015 The Mask You Live In, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3983674/ by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Another documentary that should be mandatory viewing, in this case for offering an exceptionally accurate and straightforward exposure of how patriarchy is damaging masculinity. The ‘mask’ refers here to the patriarchal demand to be tough, express no emotion and be in control, which is turning many men into unhappy persons and in the worst case scenario suicidal mental wrecks.

2019 At the Heart of Gold: Inside the US Gymnastic Scandal, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8299654/ by Erin Lee Car. Prepare to cry your heart out. Dr. Larry Nassar, posing as a lovely, trustworthy friend, managed to abuse sexually hundreds of American girl gymnasts, including those in the USA Olympic team. He told girls that his gross manipulation of their bodies was just medical treatment, which left his victims confused and feeling guilty for suspecting their ‘friend’ of a misdemeanour. Until a girl unconnected with the world of gymnastics sounded the alarm about Nassar’s methods… and the rest finally awoke to the reality of what had been done to them.

2001 War Photographer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309061/ by Christian Frei. The Swiss director documents here the amazing career of American war photographer James Nachtwey (who is not really retired yet). The film shows a selection of Nachtwey’s iconic works, interviews the man himself (who comes across as incredibly serene) and follows him into combat using ingenious photography technology. Wondering whether it is right to invade the intimacy of the victims of man-made disaster Nachtwey concludes that he is a necessary witness. He is also a most humane one.

2006 Finding Vivien Maier, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2714900/ by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof bought at an auction a box full of old negatives which, when developed, turned out be photos by an unknown master photographer. His search led eventually to the discovery of Vivien Maier, an anonymous woman who had worked as a nanny in New York and who, as her secret hobby, documented life as she saw it. This raises many questions: would all trace of Maier have disappeared without Maloof? How many geniuses we have never heard of have been lost?

2010 Bill Cunningham’s New York, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1621444/ by Richard Press. A delicious portrayal of a unique man. Cunningham was a New York Times photographer for many years, in charge of documenting street fashions and social events connected with this field. Humble, not at all in love with luxury but with a sharp eye for personality and innovation in fashion, Cunningham left an amazing legacy while keeping his personal life and identity protected from inquisitive eyes.

2003 My Architect, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0373175/ by Nathaniel Kahn. The architect in question is first-rank American architect Louis Kahn, here portrayed by his son, Nathaniel. Note that the title is not My Father, or My Father the Architect, because what Nathaniel explores here is the question of why workaholic geniuses like his father cannot really be good parents. Or husbands, for Nathaniel was Louis’s extramarital son. Nathaniel does admire his father, and gives a loving account of his main buildings, but he still wonders why those took precedence over family life.

2005 The Devil and Daniel Johnston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436231/ by Jeff Fuerzeig. This is a strange documentary a strange artist mainly because, as happens with the documentary on Cobain (see next), much of the material used here comes from the artist himself. Johnston suffered from mental disorders that went undiagnosed for a long time, and whose imagery closely connected with the religious beliefs of the family ha had tried to leave behind. The documentary focuses on the issue of whether Johnston’s musical and artistic genius came from his mental imbalance, implicitly suggesting it did.

2015 Cobain: Montage of Heck, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4229236/ by Brett Morgen. A terrific ‘montage’ of artwork, videos and handwritten texts by Cobain himself and his family, complemented with key interviews, Morgen’s film approaches Cobain from childhood to his suicide on a quite intimate basis. The image that emerges is that of a happy child for whom suddenly life turned badly after his parents’ divorce, and who was heading all the time towards disaster. Everyone loved Cobain for his music but he only loved drugs, because, quite clearly, he didn’t love himself.

2015 Janis: Little Girl Blue, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3707114/ by Amy Berg. A candid portrait of Janis Joplin, America’s most extraordinary (white) blues singer and a woman who taught herself how to be free. Unlike Cobain, Joplin comes across as a woman who loved her life but who, like him, could not control her addictions. In her case the tragedy was not caused by mental instability or lifelong depression but by a tragic accident in her chaotic life as an addict. John Lennon once said that people take drugs because society makes life unbearable but Berg’s film suggests that artists like Joplin just could not keep their distance from the deadliest fad of their times and circle.

2015 What Happened, Miss Simone?, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4284010/ by Liz Garbus. Nina Simone was rescued from oblivion by a 1987 commercial for a perfume featuring one of her songs. She had been a musical star, a powerful Civil Rights activist, and a singular example of female liberation in the 1960s but threw everything overboard to start a downwards spiral of her own making. Simone moved, of all places, to Liberia, stopped performing, resurfaced in France, drowned in loneliness and diverse substances… What happened, indeed?

2013 20 Feet from Stardom, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2396566/ by Morgan Neville. This is a bittersweet look at the mostly African American women who work as backup singers for top international stars. Talented and gifted with beautiful voices that illuminate many favourite songs, these women remain anonymous and, judging from what the film narrates, hardly ever succeed in walking those twenty feet. As happens with secondary actors, perhaps audiences simply should pay more attention to their contribution.

2017 Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5651050/ by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. An intimate portrait of classic Hollywood star Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga, produced by their son and brother Todd Fisher. News of Carrie’s sudden death were too much for her mother, and the film pays here posthumous homage to both. Bloom and Stevens explore not only their careers but also what it is like to be the child of Hollywood royalty.

2018 RBG, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7689964/, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Every time US Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) gets sick, the heart of progressive America flutters. When she goes the country will lose not only a beloved personality but also the person preventing the institution she works for from falling into the dark side of total conservatism. Cohen’s and West’s film is an undisguised hagiography, an in-your-face homage to a very special woman who does really deserve it. Mimi Leder’s recent On the Basis of Sex (2018), with Felicity Jones as RBG, also deals with her career.

2010 Marwencol, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1391092/ by Jeff Malmberg. I don’t see much point in making fiction films based on previous documentaries. In this case, I almost missed Marwencol because I didn’t like much Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen (2018). What is embarrassing in Zemeckis’s film is, however, fascinating in Malmberg’s. Mark Hogancamp was the victim of a brutal attack and, left to deal as well he could with the aftermath, he found comfort in building in his backyard a toy town, Marwencol, where he staged a WWII saga but also found healing. His photos are pure art of a personal, strange kind.

2016 Gleason, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4632316/ by Clay Tweel. Steve Gleason, a successful NFL football player, saw his life take a tragic turn when he was diagnosed with ALS. This film documents his making of a series of videos for the baby his wife expects, as both battle with the effects of this degenerative disease and become fund-raising activists. An admirable example of love for life against all odds.

Enjoy!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TIGER KING, WHAT ELSE?: THE VIEW INSIDE AND OUTSIDE AMERICA

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I’m currently teaching an elective third/fourth year course on Cultural Studies, taking as case study the representation of the United States in 21st century documentary films (see one of the volumes that has inspired me, Jeffrey Geiger’s American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation, Edinburgh UP (2013), here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/american-documentary-film/AA1BF73143D4FD1F33160FCA0CEDF3C9). I feel, therefore, bound to comment on Netflix’s current world-wide hit, the US documentary mini-series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (released March 2020), though I certainly do not feel bound to recommend it. I saw it on two consecutive evenings and I must say that while the first four episodes (out of seven) were thrilling ad hilarious, the last three were less enticing, mainly because the directors, Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, somehow lose sight of the chronology of events in them. Incidentally, this is the first credit as director for Goode, whereas Chaiklin had already directed Last Party 2000 (2001), Lockdown, USA (2006, with Michael Skolnik) and Another World (2014, with Fisher Stevens).

Since the phenomenon around Tiger King is so gigantic right now –no doubt because the covid-19 quarantine has made the lurid series a favourite with audiences desperate for entertainment– it is arguably necessary to watch it and join the conversation. I don’t intend here to comment on the plot in detail but to take the chance to consider a) what makes a good documentary and b) how judgement necessarily varies if passed inside or outside the society portrayed in the film. I have noticed in work written by my students a worrying tendency to assume an insider position, using ‘we’ when in fact they should use ‘Americans’. I would agree that many aspects of American society are now universal, mostly thanks to 1990s globalisation, but this does not mean that US narrative, including documentaries, is not rooted in specific local concerns. ‘We’ are not ‘they’ and anyone who approaches American texts, and for that matter any foreign text, must bear this fact in mind. Of course, human beings have the ability to understand texts across cultural divides bigger than the one separating my students from the American films we’re analysing but I just don’t see US college students writing about a Spanish documentary using ‘we’.

A while ago I started preparing for my students’ benefit a list of criteria about what makes a documentary valuable, collated from several sources. Here it is:

• clear storyline (the documentary film tells a story, and if it tells several, these are presented in ways the audience can follow)
• powerful story/character arc (a good documentary makes us care about its topic, which does not necessarily mean that you empathize with the persons portrayed: it means that you google for more information the moment you’re done watching)
• originality of topic (the topic must be interesting and if it is not at first glance, then it should be made attractive by the film)
• quality of research /depth (audiences can see that an effort has been made to sustain the ‘truth’ presented with adequate fact-finding that can be double-checked)
• clarity of presentation / good narrative flow (or quality direction)
• creativity of presentation (also quality direction, though many documentaries while not necessarily creative narrate relevant stories extremely well)
• strong interviews (or actors’ performances, in case some scenes are staged, or most if the film is a docudrama)
• exclusive access (the filmmakers go where no members of the audience could not go, and have their subjects trust them as no one else did before)
• trustworthiness (the documentary stays as close as possible to the ‘truth’ which the filmmakers endorse, though this might not be the truth for other persons)
• complicity with audiences (the filmmakers assume that their audience is intelligent and do not patronize them)
• quality audio, cinematography, editing and music, with editing possibly as the most salient aspect
• adequate runtime (the film does not overstay its welcome, nor is its narrative too limited)

Just then I came across a similar list by a man who knows a thing or two about documentaries: Michael Moore. Here are his thirteen rules, summarized from IndieWire, 10 September 2014; https://www.indiewire.com/feature/michael-moores-13-rules-for-making-documentary-films-22384/), check the complete article for his comments. Please, note that he is thinking exclusively of the United States and addressing American filmmakers:

1. Don’t make a documentary—make a MOVIE (call yourself a filmmaker, not a documentarian, and don’t be ashamed of being entertaining or non-artistically inclined)
2. Don’t tell me shit I already know [taken verbatim] (and focus on the majority of intelligent US audiences)
3. Avoid the college lecture mode of telling a story.
4. Don’t make your documentaries feel like medicine your audience must swallow.
5. Make your left-wing position fun, as it used to be.
6. Name the villains and be serious about the political things currently going on in the United States of America, even if people sue you.
7. Make your films personal, let them show your concern to the audience.
8. Point your cameras at the media cameras and expose the lies and manipulation.
9. Make audiences care for documentary films as much as they care for non-fiction books and TV.
10. As much as possible, try to film only the people who disagree with you [taken verbatim]; or, the people you disagree with.
11. Try to imagine what audiences will feel seeing each scene you have filmed, be emotional.
12. Less is more. Edit. Cut. Make it shorter. Say it with fewer words. Fewer scenes. [also verbatim]
13. Finally… Sound is more important than picture for Sound carries the story. It’s true in a fiction film, too. The image may suck, but never the sound.

Now, back to Tiger King. For me, the problem with this documentary is that it uses as bait its main issue –the exploitation of big cats for entertainment in American private zoos– but turns out to be far more interested in the exploiters. Not only the titular Tiger King, the bizarre Joe Exotic, but also other men in his circle (Bhagavan Antle of Myrtle Beach Safari, Tim Stark of Wildlife in Need, crooked businessman Jeff Lowe, and even a mafia boss whose name I cannot find). Whether straight or gay, like our friend Exotic, these men embody a sense of entitlement, over the poor big cats and over the persons they attract as lovers or as audiences with their zoos, that the documentary fails to question. They are all criminals but the only actions that are questioned by Goode and Chaiklin are those of the main female character, Carol Baskin of Big Cat Rescue. Willa Paskin complains in a Slate article that Tiger King chose the wrong villain to focus on, not just because Baskin is the only important woman among this circle of misogynistic men (that too), but most importantly because in this “sordid menagerie of human beings” she is the only one who cares for the big cats as a pro-animal activist (https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/tiger-king-netflix-carole-baskin-villain.html).

As I watched the documentary, I missed with growing concern this angle of the story. It is hard to believe in the filmmakers’ trustworthiness given that although their series avowedly intends to show disgust at animal exploitation, the abundant images of cute cubs will most likely result in more Americans visiting one of these awful zoos or trying to buy a big cat as pet. The documentary begins by noting that there are more big cats in captivity in America than in the wild in the rest of the world but, ultimately, only cares for the business and personal imbroglios of the men it portrays and to bash Carole Baskin, throwing as much dirt as possible on her. This is why, if I look at the two sets of rules I have offered above, I cannot say that Tiger King is a good documentary. If you ask me, I believe it is actually a very bad documentary, mere docutainment to fill in five and a half hours of harrowing covid-19 quarantine. There are much better documentary films and series on offer, even on Netflix, but in our times, I guess, audiences crave for this kind of trash.

Now for the insider/outsider view. Writing for The Guardian, American writer Jessa Crispin (editor-in-chief of litblog-webzine Bookslut, and author among others of Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017)), discusses Tiger King as “our world back to us –one run by megalomaniacs and amateurs”. ‘Us’, of course, means Americans, and she traces in her article a not-so-obvious comparison between the documentary and the current covid-19 reality, reading the mini-series as “the hidden realities of a society that can’t take care of its sick and poor” (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/tiger-king-reflects-our-world-back-to-us-one-run-by-megalomaniacs-and-amateurs). The point she makes is that Joe Exotic and Donald Trump are part of the same American socio-cultural landscape, despite the apparent class and occupation differences, which I grant. “We are the Tiger King. The Tiger King is us”, Crispin acknowledges in dismay, for “This bringing of the wild into our domestic spaces is, after all, what got us sick”. Please, notice that though the origin of covid-19 is not a big cat zoo in America, it turns out that the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 originated in a Kansas slaughterhouse. The disease documented in Tiger King, “the drive for power, the constant need for more, the willingness to remove any obstacle to what you desire, even by using violence”, or in short entitlement, is the reason why America “can’t pass regulations that would reduce real suffering” right now, in the middle of the coronavirus-related horrors.

As an American, Crispin has the right to criticize her own country, but do I? Do my students? One of them asked me how come that most of the documentaries in our list maintain a similarly critical position, and I replied that this is because I have cheated, selecting only those with left-wing credentials. Noticing that quite a few of these documentaries have right-wing counterparts I joked that next time I should teach a course on the Republican documentary –maybe I should, if only for balance. The question is that watching Tiger King as a Catalan/Spaniard/European I feel compelled to say that the United States, as represented in this mini-series, appear to be a very sick society. Whether I should or should not voice that opinion, it is hard to find anything positive in Tiger King, not only in the characters’ actions but in the filmmakers’ intentions. I assume that Goode and Chaikin were not thinking of international audiences, only of shocking US national audiences. Yet, they must have realized that their mini-series confirms a lingering suspicion: that the United States are past their prime as a world-leading society.

Even a far less sensationalist documentary, 2020 Oscar Award winner, American Factory (another Netflix-backed product) gives the same impression, despite dealing with a story of working-class heroic resilience against all odds. Why, in short, I’m wondering, do American texts oscillate between the simplistic patriotism of so many run-of-the-mill action films and the crudity of the true-crime flood coming out of Netflix? Can’t American filmmakers see how deeply eroded the image of the United States already is, nationally and internationally? Arguably, they do, and products like Tiger King should be read as a waking-up call, though the mini-series seems to be just another very American freak show.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT PRE-21ST CENTURY DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (1966- 1996)

Second week of confinement, already. The situation as a friend tells me, feels surreal. Here we are working a long day at home as we often do, which feels completely normal. Then we sign off our virtual world and the real world punches us in the face with enormous figures for casualties, reports on overcrowded emergency services in hospitals, elderly people dying in scores in underfunded homes, and an extended quarantine (if this means ‘forty days’, that’s what we should be ready for, if not longer). The novelty in relation to last week is that it seems now unlikely that schools, from kindergarten to universities, will reopen. And for the record, yes, I think it was absolutely wrong to allow the feminist demonstrations of last 8 March, and any other mass event. But, then, the world looked very different. Only the day before, I had lunch with my friends and though I avoided the demonstrations, I spent a cheerful Sunday morning enjoying an exhibition of William Klein’s photography. Those were happy times.

As announced, here is a second list of great documentaries, from 1966 to 1996. Again, most of these films can be found online one way or another. As you may imagine, the difficulty is that documentary films have proliferated in recent decades for the very simple reason that equipment has become cheaper and, thus, more generally available. Anyone can now make a documentary film with a smartphone and basic editing tools, though the real boom started in the 1980s when video was introduced. We tend to forget that in earlier periods image and sound were recorded separately, which required at least two persons carrying rather heavy equipment to shoot film. Of course, modern documentaries can be as sophisticated as the budget allows it (just think of David Attenborough’s astonishing nature series for the BBC, any of them!) but they are always on the whole much cheaper to make than fiction movies. Beyond this, documentary films seem to have taken a major leap in abundance and cinematic prestige in the 1990s, which is why my selection for that decade may seem quite poor. I also grant that international representation is here limited.

1967 Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061589/ This is the documentary where you see a young Dylan holding a series of cardboard notices which he drops one by one as the lyrics in song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” progress. Pennebaker followed the singer-composer during his first major tour in the UK to offer a candid portrait. If you’re a fan, this will make you happy; if you’re not, you will also feel happy: the film confirms that Dylan was, at least at that point, a pretentious egomaniac.

1967 Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062374/ Wiseman has 47 credits as director to his name and is a major institution in the field of American documentary. Funnily, he has won no Oscars except an honorary award (2017). Titicut Follies, his first film, is quite uncomfortable to watch: it asks you to consider what life is like inside a rather improvable mental health institution. Curiously, Wiseman made next High School (1968) perhaps because he found that institution another type of madhouse.

1969 Salesman, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064921/ The Maysles brothers, kings of the uncomfortable documentary above Wiseman, team up with Zwerin to follow four rather obnoxious luxury Bibles salesmen as they play all their tricks to convince poor Catholic families to buy their products. The filmmakers pass no judgement, but audiences squirm.

1969 Le chagrin et la pitié / The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophüls, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066904/ French ‘chagrin’ does mean sorrow or grief, but ‘chagrin’ also exists in English as a synonym for ‘mortification’. This is what French audiences were asked to endure for more than four hours, as Ophüls narrates the collaboration of the Vichy Regime with the Nazi occupiers in the extermination of the French Jews.

1970 Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066580/ A three-hour long documentary summarizing the three-day epic concert that defined the hippy era. This is a must-see for anyone interested in both aspects: the music and the youth culture of the time, at its happiest.

1970 Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065780/ The Rolling Stones missed Woodstock and they decided to offer instead a free concert on a California highway. What followed was major chaos, including the murder of a man right before the stage where the Stones were trying to restrain the anarchic crowd. The Maysles brothers and Zwerin were there to document the sorry mess.

1973-74 The World at War (mini-series), Jeremy Isaacs (producer), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071075/ I’m breaking my own rules here by including a series, but the 26 episodes of Isaacs’ production are simply astounding. I did see the whole series as a little girl on Spanish TV’s second channel, then called UHF, which says much for what public television used to be like.

1974 Hearts and Minds, Peter Davies, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/ This American documentaries tries hard to offer a balanced view of the Vietnam conflict, asking all sides for their view. Made in the later stages of the war, the film offers now in hindsight a very complete reflection on the reasons why the United States lost that war. General Westmoreland, head of the US forces, has the gall to say that Vietnamese people do not value life ‘as we do’.

1975 Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073076/ Talk about discomfort… The Maysles brothers and their co-directors document the life of elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter Little Edie in their derelict mansion. Mother and daughter seem a duo out of a Tennessee Williams play but they happened to be Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin. It’s hard to say which aspect of this documentary is more exploitative. Perhaps watch instead the perfect parody in the series Documentary Now!, Sandy Passage (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4943628/ )

1976 Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074605/ American Factory, 2020’s Oscar award winner, is heavily indebted to Kopple’s pro-union activism in this film. She documents the miners’ strike against the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, in June 1973, a conflict of remarkable virulence in which the bosses did not hesitate to use hired guns against the workers.

1978 The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077838/ The Band were a Canadian-American rock ensemble of great fame during their first period (1968-1977), though I confess that I only learned they existed because of Scorsese’s film. He documents, with taste and beautiful unaffectedness, what was supposed to be their last concert. They returned for a second period of lesser fame in 1983.

1982 Sans soleil, Chris Marker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084628/ Marker is known for his avant-garde short film La Jetée (1962), which inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995). In Sans soleil he follows a woman’s journey beginning in Japan, offering a sort of personal travelogue filmed in Marker’s unique poetical style.

1982 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085809/ Reggio’s film (followed in 1988 by Powaqqatsi) is a plotless documentary that asks the viewer to enjoy a collections of beautifully photographed scenes showing how everything in the world is interrelated. Others have followed a similar path but this was the pioneer. A real beauty.

1984 Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088178/ Demme won an Oscar in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs but he appears to have had a far more joyful time filming a concert of The Talking Heads, led by the volatile David Byrne, at a time when the band were at their best. The minimalist style works surprisingly well and it’s just great fun to watch.

1985 Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090015/ Even though it is nine and a half hours long, Lanzmann’s very personal account of the traces left by the Holocaust in Europe is not a series. It is an indispensable work but at the same time a problematic one. Lanzmann has too much visibility and his confrontational style is at points awkward. Enjoy, if you have the patience.

1988 Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, Barbet Schroeder, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095341/ In contrast to Shoah, the four and a half hours Schroeder takes to tell the story of Nazi executioner Barbie are fully justified. This is a tale of horror that shows not only, as Ophüls denounced, the connivance of the French authorities with the Nazis but also, as Schroeder adds, how easy it was for these criminals to escape the law for decades.

1989 Roger & Me, Michael Moore, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098213/ The Roger of the title is Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors who closed down the plant employing thousands of workers in Flint, Michigan –Moore’s hometown. Throughout the film Moore chases Smith, hoping to understand the massive downsizing but, as you may imagine, the executive does his best to avoid him.

1989 The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096257/ The thin red line were the soldiers that, according to Rudyard Kipling, saved the nation from disaster. Unformed in blue, not red, policemen fail to bring order and safety in Morris’s classic documentary about the miscarriages of justice. The gradual unveiling of the truth has been copied by countless true crime documentaries.

1990 Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100332/ This film is not at all about the fall of Paris to the Nazi invaders during WWII as one might assume, but about the non-white drag scene in 1980s New York. Livingston films the low-income men doing their best to enjoy themselves in this competitive culture, also closely associated with voguing (which Madonna vampirized for one of her hits).

1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper,
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102015/ Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, provided the footage on which Hearts of Darkness is based. The film documents the disastrous shooting of Apocalypse Now! in the Philippines (standing in for Vietnam). Coppola’s film was an uncredited adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hence the documentary’s title.

1993 The War Room, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108515/ This documentary connects with Primary (1960) and Street Fight (2005) as great examples of the behind-the-scenes non-fiction film about political campaigns. Here the focus falls on spin doctors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, organizers of Clinton’s first Presidential campaign (who is not at all the star here).

1994 Crumb, Terry Zwigoff, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109508/ American cartoonist Robert Crumb is presented here in all his glory (or lack of it) in the context of his disastrous family life. This the kind of film that justifies why an American male genius can also be an utterly unlikeable personality and that never gets made about a woman (who are not really geniuses, are we?)

1994 Hoop Dreams, Steve James, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110057/ James follows the lives of African-American teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, while they struggle to transform their passion for basketball into a ticket out of the Chicago ghettos where they live. The film documents with surprising intimacy the lives of the boys and of their families, offering a sad, stirring description of the difficulties they face. James’s portrait of American high school and university basketball as the key to the NBA’s American dream is not overtly critical but any spectator can see that the road ahead for William and Arthur is a very steep climb.

1995 The Celluloid Closet, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112651/ Based on Vitto Russo’s book, The Celluloid Closet proves what you suspected: even under the restrictive Hays Code, Hollywood managed to insert in their film plenty of allusions to male and female homosexuality. These become apparent if you only know where to look, which is what Russo did. Epstein and Friedman added interviews with actors who had played key parts in this hidden history.

1996, When We Were Kings, Leion Gast, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118147/ I don’t enjoy boxing at all but this is an excellent insight into the top level of this so-called sport. Gast’s film narrates ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ as the fight between young champion George Foreman and the quite old challenger Muhammad Ali (the former Cassius Clay) was known. This took place in 1974, not in the USA but in Zaire, under the auspices of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Enjoy!!! Stay home, keep safe.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT PRE-21ST CENTURY DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (1895-1965)

Colleagues and friends tell me that they have kept themselves extremely busy this first week in quarantine but this is because for most people in my circle working at home is hardly a novelty. I myself have really no spare time to fill in which means that I will most likely miss the exciting online offer that cultural institutions, professional artists and plain citizens are pouring onto their websites and their social networks. For those of you who still have a little corner to fill in, here is the announced list of great documentaries from 1895 to 1995 (first part!)–the, so to speak, canonical list that I have asked my students to learn about, and enjoy. Most of these 50 films can be found online one way or another (but check first their duration on IMDB, there are plenty of mutilated versions…). I’m discovering these days that the situation changes from day to day, and films impossible to find one week suddenly appear the next one, either legally or illegally. Others remain, sadly, in a limbo, which is a shame.

1895 Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Louis and Auguste Lumière. The Lumières didn’t know they were making a documentary because the word didn’t appear until 1926, when the British father of this film genre, John Grierson, reviewed Robert Flaherty’s Moana calling it a ‘documentary film’. The Lumières were just testing their camera and simply made a record of their workers leaving their premises, lasting under one minute. The film survives in three versions. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers_Leaving_the_Lumière_Factory

1922 Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013427/ . This is, properly speaking, the first documentary film and also a very controversial starting point. In this film and in Moana (set in the Pacific islands, like the 2016 animated Moana here known as Vaiana), Flaherty had the natives whose lives he was documenting perform scenes staging customs and uses long abandoned. Since then, documentary films are plagued by the question of how close they must stay to the truth.

1927 Berlin, Die Simphonie der Grosstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Great City Walter Ruttman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017668/ The idea has been copied countless times: take the camera and see what happens on one day in a big city. Has it ever been done with better insight and taste? I doubt it! The film is also a beautiful homage to Berlin before the rise of the Nazi regime, during the much happier times of the Weimar Republic.

1929 Cheloveks kino-apparatom / Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019760/ You might think that this is like the Berlin film but set in Moscow. Yes and no. Vertov’s film is a riot of images full of life with shows the Soviet capital as pure humanity, with a sensuality and a freedom that is certainly unexpected, and exhilarating. Don’t miss the birth scene…

1929 Regen / Rain, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020321/ A short documentary based on a very simple concept: recording one rainy day in Amsterdam. The film, as it turns out, took longer to make than that. It has a lovely, strangely melancholy air, very much like the rain… which is the whole point.

1929 Drifters, John Grierson, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019838/ North Sea herring fishing may not sound like a very exciting subject, particularly considering that this is a silent black and white film. Grierson, however, shows here in the only film he directed (he was mainly a producer) how little is needed to make a memorable record of life at sea. And show respect for the fishermen.

1930 À Propos de Nice, Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021576/ Another silent, black and white film, which offers a slice of life like no other. Vigo and Kaufman show street life in Nice, on the French Cote d’Azur, mocking its richer inhabitants but transmitting the enjoyment of popular celebrations with glee.

1935 Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025913/ Yes: I’m recommending that you watch Riefenstahl portrait of the 1934 massive Nuremberg Nazi rally. This was a winner for Best Foreign Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and a film that Frank Capra and other American directors studied very closely for its lessons in political propaganda, copied by the Allies during WWII. We must all understand Nazism for it not to reappear.

1936 Night Mail, Herbert Smith, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250616/ This is one of Grierson’s pro-Government, propaganda pieces –but who cares? The film manages to make the subject of how mail is gathered in one end of Britain and moved at night in trains to the other end a moving portrait of British efficiency, public service, and care. Like Drifters, it pays homage to the average working man, not a very common subject in our days.

1937 The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029594/ This is a pro-Republican propaganda film, made in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Ernest Hemingway (reading his own texts and others by John Dos Passos). It’s, I’m sorry to say, a truly misguided portrait of Spain in those times, good only for laughs, though it still enjoys great prestige. I was flabbergasted by hearing Catalan sardanas as the background music for village life in Madrid… But do watch it!

1938 Inside Nazi Germany, Jack Glenn, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0131471/ An amazingly brave, bold description of Nazi Germany released twenty months before the beginning of WWII, which shows in all detail and clarity what Hitler and company were doing. Glenn, an American director, did his best but the world was not listening… Or it was, but trying not to have a new world war.

1943 Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035881/ See how firefighters coped with the bombings and the fires in London during the Blitz. Technically this is a docudrama, since most scenes are staged, but the gimmick does not mean it is less valuable for that. An homage indeed to the heroes who endured all kinds of sacrifices for their neighbours.

1943 The Battle of Midway, John Ford, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034498/ Lt. Cmdr. John Ford U.S.N.R made this 18 minute colour documentary in the middle of the real Battle of Midway, with great danger to his life. The purpose was showing audiences back home what WWII aerial combat was like. The problem is that having seen re-enactments (like the 1976 Midway film) this looks less exciting –but remember that men are dying on screen for real.

1946 Let there be Light, John Huston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038687/ Huston was commissioned to document the progress of a group of traumatized veterans receiving psychiatric treatment back home once WWII was over but the US military could not stomach this heartfelt portrait of the suffering men. The film, which is a marvel to watch, was suppressed until 1980, when Vietnam had made PTSD a well-known concept. Please, please, please: do see it!

1948 Le Sang des bêtes/ The Blood of Beasts Georges Franju, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041842/ It’s only 22 minutes long but I had to stop watching after just a few minutes –Franju’s camera shows lovely Paris and then what is done to the animals in a local slaughterhouse with no frills. You can call this one the first pro-vegan film.

1955 Nuit et bruillard / Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048434/ This may be hard to believe but few people after WWII wanted to hear what survivors had to say about the Nazi extermination camps. Resnais’s short film, made ten years!! after the end of the war, was the first one to bring to light for the benefit of a general audiences what the Nazis did. It completely changed the way the suffering of the Jews and other victims was (mis)understood.

1959 Moi, un noir/ I, a Negro, Jean Rouch, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051942/ This one requires a very patient viewer, but if you can accept the amateurish footage and the poor sound (badly inserted afterwards), you might enjoy this singular pioneering portrait of a migrant’s life. The young Nigerian who interests Rouch survives as well he can in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, in an interesting case of intra-African migration.

1959 We are the Lambeth Boys, Karel Reisz, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052380/ This is one of the 1950s documentaries recording ordinary British life in the 1950s associated with the Free Cinema movement (Reisz would have a long career as fiction film director). The Lambeth Boys are not a gang, but a youth club –do marvel at how much the young have and have not changed since 1959. And at the local accent!

1960 Primary, Robert Drew, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054205/ Employing a cinéma vérité style Drew films presidential pre-candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey during the Democratic Wisconsin primary (1960). The film inaugurates a political sub-genre later imitated by many others, in, for instance, The War Room (about Clinton).

1961 Chronique d’un été / Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054745/. Authentic French cinéma vérité by the director of Moi, un noir (and Morin). They send their female assistants to ask Parisians randomly met on the street whether they are happy. Their replies lead to a reflection on what we mean by happiness in a quite existential vein.

1964- The Up Series, Paul Almond (as Seven Up!) then Michael Apted, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(film_series) The Up series is an ITV (later BBC) series, which has been documenting the lives of fourteen British citizens since 1964, when they were aged 7. It has now passed its ninth instalment (in 2019) and will presumably continue.

1964 Point of Order!, Emile de Antonio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058481/ De Antonio does here something marvelously clever: he edits down to 97 thrilling minutes the TV footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (Senator McCarthy was accused of seeking to obtain from the Army special privileges for a Private he was using as a spy). Along the film, which has no voiceover, we see the infamous McCarthy dig his own grave with increasing arrogance and cruelty. No need to add any comment…

1965 The War Game, Peter Watkins, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059894/ The BBC asked Watkins to make a docudrama showing the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on an average British city (Rochester in Kent). The result was so scary that the film was not shown until 1985 (though it did win an Oscar). Can a low-budget, black and white film be so frightening? I was absolutely terrified –please watch it!

Enough for today… the rest next week! Stay safe, keep well.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (I)

I found nothing relevant to say last week, overwhelmed as I felt by the realization that all would have to stop in Spain in a few days, as it has happened. I’m home, teaching online, for at least three weeks, which in practice means until after Easter –but that’s possibly your situation too, so nothing new on that front. My impression, hence my title, is that we’re dealing with an alien invasion, even though this comes from inner rather than outer space. I am very much scared, above all because of the general stupidity of many people who are out in the streets, the beaches, the countryside, instead of being home, but that’s (Spanish) Homo Sapiens for you… Perhaps Covid-19 is an envoy from poor planet Earth trying to shake us off, and with all reason.

As happens, I’m teaching our ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (third-fourth year) and my case study is the American documentary, or, to be more specific how the United States are represented in documentary films. I am planning to publish an e-book with my forty-five students, so I have chosen two films for each of them (yes, ninety films!). They need to do a class presentation (now moved online) and write a factsheet for the e-book. So far the presentations have been very good and I hope that we can still manage online, and eventually issue the e-book (see my other e-books with students here http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). The whole point of the course is persuading my students not only that documentary films are a type of cultural study but mainly that they are an undervalued but extremely exciting type of film to watch. So far, they have responded very well and what I’m going to do here is to extend these main theses to my (possible) readers. In this post, then, and in others that I will write I intend, therefore, to recommend the films that my students are in charge of, hoping that you also enjoy them. I will not include info on where to see them but most are available either legally on the streaming platforms or illegally on YouTube.

The course and the e-book are organized thematically, though I might eventually alter the order if the e-book requires it. In this first post, I deal with the sections on crime (personal and organized), economics (for capitalism is another form of organized crime), and environmental activism. There are other sections on gender, interesting personalities (what I have called ‘Icons of America’), politics, race, religion, other social issues, space exploration, and sports. I’ll post, then, other recommendations as the semester progresses. Next week I’ll post a list of recommended documentaries from the Lumière brother’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) to Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. The lesson I’m learning is that documentary films have provided audiences with amazing masterpieces in the past, and are providing us now with much better films than standard fiction cinema. They tell far more interesting stories in cinematic styles that are also more creative. Believe me!

These are the documentaries we have so far discussed in class:

Section CRIME. Personal crime

Bowling for Columbine (2002, Michael Moore). Oscar-award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0310793/. This is the documentary film that changed the way we perceive documentaries for good. Moore had made other indispensable films (such as Roger and Me, 1989) but with this one he proved that documentary films could be huge box-office successes and, above all, impact society in significant ways. In Bowling he very cleverly argues that the frequent school shootings in America are not isolated incidents perpetrated by confused young men but the product of the American love of weapons, at an individual and a national level. The pity is that they still continue for the weapons lobby is stronger than common sense.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0342172/. Jarecki was making a documentary on clown Silly Billy, a favourite at children’s parties, when he noticed something was amiss in the Friedman family. Their home movies and an investigation into their lifestyle eventually led to Mr. Friedman’s being unmasked as a child abuser, even though, for odds reasons, evidence was hard to come by. In a move that was certainly controversial and that makes watching the film very difficult today, Jarecki tried to stay neutral. His film, in any case, offers a startling, scary insight into ordinary American life.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1152758/. Be ready to cry your heart out… Kurt Kuenne’s childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was cruelly murdered by his possessive, mentally ill Canadian girlfriend Shirley Turner. As it turned out, she was pregnant with their child and Kuenne decided to interview everyone who knew the genial Andy for the benefit of baby Zachary. This story, however, took a sudden, unexpected turn because of the many errors committed by the Canadian prosecutors who should have put Shirley in prison for life. As I say, watch and cry, and sympathize with Zachary’s heroic grandparents.

Tower (2016, Keith Maitland). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5116410. Maitland’s truly amazing documentary connects with Bowling for Columbine as it narrates the first school shooting ever in America. This was perpetrated by a lone gunman (a Marine Sergeant) who on 1 August 1966 opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 16 people. The documentary focuses on the victims and the heroes, making a point of not glamourizing in any way the mass killer. Maitland uses interviews with the survivors, and original film and photography, but also animation using rotoscoping (mainly in the recreated interviews with the young participants in the horrific event).

Section CRIME. Organized crime

Cocaine Cowboys (2006, Billy Corben). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0380268 This hyperactive documentary film tells the story of how boring 1970s Miami was transformed by drug trafficking in the 1980s. The Medellín Colombia cartel, aided by the Cuban migrants, turned the city into the main gate through which cocaine flooded the USA. The corrupt authorities looked the other way until ‘Godmother’ Griselda Blanco went too far in her use of violent enforcers to get control of the whole turf. If you enjoyed Miami Vice (1984-1989) you will love seeing the actual traffickers that caused all the trouble the series portrayed. Brilliant, really.

Cartel Land (2015, Matthew Heineman). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4126304 A truly fascinating look at both sides of the border, dealing with the doomed fight against the Mexican cartels. Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, leader of the Arizona Border Recon militia, and Dr José Mireles, a Michoacán physician who leads the Autodefensas, are mirror images, men who know that there is really nothing to be done against the disinterest of Governments in fighting drug trafficking. As a narco tells Heineman, it’s really up to American consumers to stop taking drugs. Impressive!

ECONOMICS

American Factory (2019, Steve Bognar, Julia Reichert). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9351980 What happens when a Chinese billionaire, Chairman Cao, buys a closed GM plant to re-open it with a mix of American and imported Chinse workers? Cultural clash, and no wonder. This is a great comparative portrait of the United States and Chine, with an unusual focus on the working classes, and their rights.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009, Michael Moore). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232207/. Our second Moore documentary on the list, this time on the impact of corporate greed on ordinary Americans. It is in a way, a descendant of the next one on the list, and both complement each other beautifully.

Corporation, The (2003, Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379225 . This is the documentary that explains everything about the USA, and about our current world – perhaps you need to begin with this one. Corporations took the world over the moment USA legislation allowed them to exist as individual entities with rights above people, and develop their truly psychopathic behaviour. Be scared, be aware.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005, Alex Gibney). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1016268/ Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (2003), Gibney’s film narrates a major business scandal, showing how far corporations can go in their greed and, yes, stupidity.

Shock Doctrine, The (2009, Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1355640. Author Naomi Klein, of No Logo fame, hated the film, based on her own book, which, paradoxically, is a sort of rather accomplished book trailer for her work. The central concept is disaster capitalism, the idea that corporate business thrives on terror, taking advantage of moments of deep public distress, often caused by corporations in cahoots with corrupt governments.

Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1645089/ If you still can’t understand how and why the devastating 2008 crisis happened, this will solve all your doubts…

ENVIROMENTAL ACTIVISM: Animal rights, environmental destruction, food consumption
Please, note: The Cove (2009) and Earthlings (2005) are not here because I needed to focus mainly on America, and not on how American criticize the rest of the world…

Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2545118/ Ever been to SeaWorld or watched a dolphin show? See Blackfish and feel guilty… Tilikum, a young male orca, was captured to be a star but you cannot ill-treat an animal and expect him to respect humans, can you? See what happened

Project Nim (2011, James Marsh). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836. Intriguingly, this film mirrors to a great extent a fiction film released the same year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nim Chimpsky is stolen from his mother to be raised as a child in a human family, and test whether he can learn the basics of grammar. From this point onward, everything goes downhill for the poor ape.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006, David Guggenheim). Oscar-award winner 2006. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497116/ Former United States Vice President Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency by the Bush family, and he embarked next on a pioneering career as climate change activist. This is the documentary that started educating audiences about the planetary destruction emergency we now face.

Before the Flood (2016, Fisher Stevens). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5929776/ A sort of follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Stevens’s film follows UN good-will ambassador Leonardo di Caprio as he talks to the activists and authorities that might help to save the world, as he himself struggles to understand his own position as a privileged American consumer.

GasLand (2010, Josh Fox). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1558250/ Fox was offered $100000 by a company interested in exploiting the gas resources in his beautiful home in the woods, and suspecting foul play he started exploring the consequences of fracking. This was the film that first warned the world about the destructiveness of the process.

Trouble the Water (2008, Carl Dea and Tia Lessin). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1149405/ The US authorities made no effort to get the poorest, African-American inhabitants of New Orleans out of the city before hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke. Watch first-hand what it was like to survive the flood and the subsequent abandonment of the survivors to their fate.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014 Kip Andersen Keegan Kuhn). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3302820 Andersen tries to understand how he can be a better environmental activist by approaching the organizations supposedly in charge of offering advice. What he finds is silence, rejection, and a few horror stories enough to turn anyone into a vegan.

Food, Inc. (2009, Robert Kenner). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1286537/ Co-produced by Eric Schlosser, the journalist who first described the antics of McDonalds in Fast Food Nation, Kenner’s film examines how corporate farming in the hands of just five companies poisons Americans with unhealthy ultra-processed food, abusing animals and farmers.

Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0390521/ Spurlock wanted to know what happens if you only eat McDonald’d foot, as he did during a month in 2003. The results were so awful that it forced the restaurant chain to introduce important changes in the food it offers (but did they, really…?)

More next week! Stay safe, don’t leave home.

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