Documentary Playlist: Evolve To Resolve

Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge,
aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Humans are prone to conflict. Just look at any history text and you’ll quickly find a laundry list of clashes between clans and countries, personalities and militaries, family members and brethren. But if we’ve learned anything from the past it’s that perpetual warfare does no one any favors. It is with an empathetic eye, careful consideration of concessions and a committance down the long hard road toward reparations and forgiveness that mankind may move forward.

But first, conflicts must be resolved. In some cases communities can transform through the dedication of courageous individuals willing to take a radical approach such as the streetwise Chicago group at the center Steve James’ THE INTERRUPTERS who employ their former involvement in violence and crime to dissuade others. Or Grace Lee Boggs whose story is told in AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY: THE EVOLUTION OF GRACE LEE BOGGS, a pioneering first generation Chinese-American political activist and champion of the Black Power movement who continued to blaze a transformative path until she reached 100 years old.

Sometimes things become so intolerable for both sides of a conflict, that to continue fighting would be irreparably detrimental. Thus, pride must be swallowed and a truce must be sought in salvageable compromise. The ordinary Liberian women who populate Gini Reticker’s PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL become so fed up with the ongoing civil war in their country that they reach out to one another to bring an end to the conflicts and a new, peaceful start for their people, while in Lisa Fruchtman and Rob Fruchtman’s SWEET DREAMS a remarkable group of Rwandan women emerge from the devastation of the 1994 genocide to forge a new future for themselves through the therapeutic nature of drumming and the soul-soothing virtues of ice cream entrepreneurship. Compromises are made and the long process of reconciliation begins.

For some, that process can painfully linger for decades. Joshua Oppenheimer’s unflinching THE LOOK OF SILENCE deals explicitly with the inability of the people who lived through the Indonesian mass killings of ‘65-’66 to reconcile with the horrific events that tore communities apart and left victims to live amongst the murderers that took the lives of their kin. And while not as emotionally charged, Fredrik Gertten’s BIKES VS CARS attempts to reconcile a world in which the car industry is wreaking havoc on our environment while bikes remain overlooked as an obvious solution for clean and sustainable daily transportation.

Conflict resolution may not be easy, but it is of utmost necessity if we wish to see peace for the generations to come in our wake. These six films form a framework of empathy and reconciliation to strive for by example.

The Interrupters
THE INTERRUPTERS tells the moving and surprising story of three brave people who aim to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. This film is an intimate view of violence, its causes, and its interrupters.

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
By plunging us into writer, activist, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs’s lifetime of vital thinking and action, and traversing the major U.S. social movements of the last century, AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY: THE EVOLUTION OF GRACE LEE BOGGS takes us on a journey into the power of ideas and the necessity of expansive, imaginative thinking to propel societal change.

Sweet Dreams
SWEET DREAMS follows a remarkable group of Rwandan women as they emerge from the devastation of the 1994 genocide to create a new future for themselves through drumming and ice cream. In the words of Kiki Katese, the founding member, “Because of our history, people know how to fight against, but not for. We want to change that equation.”

Pray the Devil Back to Hell
PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL chronicles the story of the Liberian women who came together to end war and bring peace to their country. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters demanded a resolution to the country’s civil war.

The Look of Silence
Through its footage of perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide in THE ACT OF KILLING, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered and the identities of the killers. THE LOOK OF SILENCE serves as a powerful companion piece that initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

Bikes vs. Cars
BIKES VS CARS investigates the daily global drama in traffic around the world, meeting with bike activists in Sao Paulo and Los Angeles who struggle to be granted space, and surveying cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where cycling is an integral part of city life, all while contemplating the revolutionary changes possible if more cities moved away from car-centric models.



Documentary Playlist: Am I a Good Person?

“Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?”
― David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

When is it ok to lie? Is it ever? What about those seemingly harmless little fibs we’ve all passed off as the truth once in blue moon as not to make a bad impression, to avoid insulting someone, or to shield a loved one from unnecessary grief? Are those ok? If so, where does the line begin to blur between good intentions and plain deception?

There could be a whole sub-genre of documentaries devoted to this question. Most of Errol Morris’ oeuvre is devoted to the notion of self-deception and its explication across the ripples of personal and political catastrophe, while countless other filmmakers peel back the falsehoods and fabrications of those looking to leverage their way up social ladders the world over, such as in Alex Gibney’s THE ARMSTRONG LIE, where former biking world golden boy Lance Armstrong’s long denial of using performance enhancing drugs to become the biggest name in the history of the sport is stunningly shattered. Or on a smaller scale, the ruthless door-to-door bible salesman of the Maysles Brothers’ vérité classic SALESMAN exploit low-income families by bending the truth to make that all important extra buck.

Somewhere in between is ART AND CRAFT’s art forger Mark Landis, who duplicates masterworks and donates them to museums for the sheer satisfaction of duping the pros into believing they are authentic. There is certain fear induced adrenaline rush one experiences when attempting to pull the wool over one’s eyes, as there are no guarantees and success only comes with skill. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s CATFISH plays with this notion of thrill seeking through baiting potential lovers via the digital divide. In the age of the internet, one’s identity can be almost wholly invented, while the truth is merely an option to dole out only if completely necessary. Is this entertainment or self preservation?

Some films, such as Vikram Gandhi’s Indian guru hoaxing KUMARÉ, employ deception as a means to greater, altruistic enlightenment. But lying, even with good intentions, is inherently malicious. When the truth finally comes to the fore, feelings will be hurt and trust, no matter how intimate, will be shattered. No films deal with this idea more intimately than Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL, in which the filmmaker’s own mother purposefully obscured her bloodline for the sake of protecting the immediate family unit.

Were these people right in attempting to pass off untruths as gospel? Does this make them a bad people or do their intentions exonerate them? These six films play with the idea of lying and the trick balance between decency and deceitful. Are you a good person?

KUMARÉ is a documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples to unveil his greatest teaching of all.

The Armstrong Lie
Sports legend Lance Armstrong’s improbable rise and ultimate fall from grace. Using interview footage from before and after Armstrong’s doping admission, THE ARMSTRONG LIE explores one of the biggest lies in sports history.

Stories We Tell
STORIES WE TELL is a highly original documentary that explores how we construct our own reality through stories. Sarah Polley’s family and friends weave different narratives into a complex portrait of her mother who died when Sarah was eleven.

Art and Craft
Beginning as a cat-and-mouse art caper concerning one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, ART AND CRAFT is rooted in questions of authorship and authenticity, eventually giving way to an intimate story of mental health and the universal need for community, appreciation, and purpose.

SALESMAN follows four door-to-door salesmen that walk the line between hype and despair as they ply across the American Northeast and Miami trying to sell expensive Bibles to low-income families.

In this tale of electronic attraction, love, deceit and forgiveness, the dark reality of how far one woman was willing to go to soothe her emotional aches and pains is unearthed, and CATFISH asks the question: what exactly can we trust in this age of virtual connections?


Documentary Playlist: Run Along the Edge of Madness…

“You’ve got to burn straight up and down and then maybe sideways for a while and have your guts scrambled by a bully and the demonic ladies, you’ve got to run along the edge of madness teetering, you’ve got to starve like a winter alleycat, you’ve go to live with the imbecility of at least a dozen cities, then maybe maybe maybe you might know where you are for a tiny blinking moment.” – Charles Bukowski

Much like Bukowski himself, who spent much of his 73 years in the crazed haze of an alcohol infused fervor, enduring the whoas and joys of a starving artist with the emotional and creative extremes that come with such a provocative lifestyle, artists throughout history have often embraced all forms of madness in hopes of harnessing wild eyed authenticity in the name of art and purpose. For many, suffering and beauty are two sides of the same coin.

Non-fiction cinema is packed to the gills with such characters, from the men and women behind the cameras to those who’ve submitted themselves freely to be taken in by our watchful gaze. Like the wildly empathetic, grizzly obsessed nature-boy whom lost his life to the jaws of those he so loved in GRIZZLY MAN, the manic-depressive emotionally raw singer/songwriter at the heart of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, or the OCD-afflicted world travelling freedom fighter of POINT AND SHOOT, many are propelled to document their own unstable existences, unknowingly reaching out on their own to the anonymous unknown as if the visual documentation of one’s life itself might bring some form of lucidity to an otherwise mad caper. As we see, autobiography doesn’t seem to make their journey through life any easier, yet they continue nonetheless.

Others merely embrace their lunacy, knowing all along that their life’s endeavors are those of idealistic moonstruck dreams. The tightrope walker of MAN ON WIRE damns all logic, personal safety, and even legality in an act of singularly spectacular physical performance, while the abiding filmmaker of AMERICAN MOVIE, eyes deep in debt and personal crises, obsessively crusades in the name of his perfect picture. And much like Bukowski himself, the starving outsider artist at the center of ALMOST THERE has lived a life fueled and haunted by mental volatility in the pursuit of artistic revelation. Sometimes one must let go of reason and stability to reach out for something greater.

The following six films bring us closer to that “edge of madness” that Bukowski so lovingly speaks of, allowing us a view of the world detached from logic through the eyes of dreamers and madmen.

Man on Wire
MAN ON WIRE explores tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in what some consider “the artistic crime of the century”.

Grizzly Man
In GRIZZLY MAN Werner Herzog explores the life and death of Timothy Treadwell who lived among the grizzly bears of Alaska for 13 consecutive summers until being attacked and eaten by a bear in 2003.

Almost There
For filmmakers Rybicky and Wickenden, Peter Anton’s home is a treasure trove, a startling collection of unseen and fascinating paintings, drawings, and notebooks, not to mention Anton himself. ALMOST THERE is a remarkable journey following a gifted artist through startling twists and turns.

American Movie
The story of filmmaker Mark Borchardt, his mission, and his dream. Spanning over two years of intense struggle with making a movie, family issues, financial decline, and personal crisis, AMERICAN MOVIE is a portrait of ambition, obsession, excess, and one man’s formidable quest for the American Dream.

Point and Shoot
With a gun in one hand and a camera in the other, 28-year-old OCD-afflicted Matthew VanDyke set off on a 35,000-mile motorcycle trip through Northern Africa and the Middle East, where he undergoes a self-described “crash-course in manhood.”

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON follows the long and winding road traversed by Daniel Johnston – manic-depressive singer/songwriter/artist – on his way from childhood to manhood in this portrait of madness, creativity and unrequited love. 

styles of documentary

Documentary Playlist: Documentary is Not a Genre

“The documentary form is one of the freest in cinema, while also being gloriously beholden to the ineffable weight of the real world and the delicate needs of real lives. This tension between limitless formal possibility and necessary moral constraint gives nonfiction a rare power…” – Robert Greene

People often forget that documentary is not a film genre, but the formal result of entrusting truth with enough structure to tell a story cinematically. Within non-fiction filmmaking there are documentaries that span the spectrum of genre, from war film (see Restrepo) to sports thriller (Hoop Dreams) through absurdist comedy (Gates of Heaven) and beyond, but when compared to these films’ fictional counterparts, there are a series of formal styles that documentaries most often embrace as the result of filmmaker intention and situational circumstance that are strictly inherent of the form, most notably the talking head, cinéma vérité and the archival compendium.

In academia these formal styles are broken down further into six types of cinematic non-fiction – poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive and performative. While it’s true that some films may ride the line between the various types of documentaries, most can be categorized quite easily.

Poetic docs can be identified by their lack of characterial focus and narrative structure, often relying instead upon a lyrically associative form, impressionistic and essayistic. Godfrey Reggio’s monumental, environmentally minded KOYAANISQATSI is a perfect example. Riffing on the aesthetics of the traditional city symphony, the film comments on the impact of modernization on our planet through poetics rather than exposition. Its formal counterpoint then would be the expository smash hit MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, which documents the life of penguins with the god-like guidance of its narrator Morgan Freeman.

As one might expect, observational docs are typified by their hands off approach to filming their subjects, taking pains to remain non-interventional and typically remain free of any narrative commentary or the like. Philip Gröning’s INTO GREAT SILENCE is a wonderfully austere example of this style, simply documenting the routines of the devout monks who live within the Grande Chartreuse. The opposite of this approach might be exemplified by the participatory FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, in which John Maloof, the film’s co-director, places himself within the detective narrative of the posthumous discovery of the street photographer Vivian Maier. As in all participatory films, the filmmaker’s presence within the narrative is essential to the telling of the story.

Harder to discern is the reflexive and performative doc. While the Maysles brothers made a name for themselves as pioneers of direct cinema, their singular film GREY GARDENS reminds audiences to remember to question what they are seeing on screen. By drawing attention to the fact that what one is watching is in fact a film of questionable representation via performance and construction, they pushed the reflexive doc forward. Comparatively, Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking depiction of the lingering cultural effects of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66, THE ACT OF KILLING is the quintessential performative doc. Pushing the limits of subjective experience by having his subjects, each former death-squad leaders, literally perform reenactments of their previous acts of murder, the film uses formal experimentation and personal accounts to simultaneously conjure visceral emotional responses while commenting on the horrific political situation that remains in Indonesia.

Though just a divisional taste of the forms that documentary films may take, these six films give you a glimpse of academia. As you take in more non-fiction films, try to discern which of these categories films fit in – poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive or performative?

Created between 1975 and 1982, KOYAANISQATSI (“life out of balance”) is an apocalyptic vision of the collision of two different worlds — urban life and technology versus the environment – complete with musical score by Philip Glass.

March of the Penguins
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS documents the emperor penguins annual journey taking them hundreds of miles across the brutal Antarctic landscape through the harshest weather conditions on earth – risking starvation and attack by dangerous predators in the quest for love and life.

Into Great Silence
INTO GREAT SILENCE is an intimate portrayal and examination of the life of the devout monks who live within the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order situated in the French Alps.

Finding Vivian Maier
The discovery of over 100,000 photographs hidden away in various storage lockers unveiled the story of Vivian Maier, a mysterious nanny, who is now considered one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers.

Grey Gardens
In GREY GARDENS we meet Big and Little Edie Beale—mother and daughter, high-society dropouts, reclusive cousins of Jackie O.—thriving together amid the decay and disorder of their ramshackle East Hampton mansion.

The Act of Killing
THE ACT OF KILLING follows former Indonesian death squad leaders as they are challenged to re-enact the real-life mass killings in the cinematic genres of their choice, from classic Hollywood crime scenarios to lavish musical numbers.

Cozy Documentaries

Documentary Playlist: Cozy Parlor Firesides

“When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlor firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”  ― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

We love docs, and therefore we would not necessarily like to be lumped together with a certain non-fiction phenomena that centers around things such as games and thrones. However, we all have to face one fact: winter is coming! The days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping, there will be rain and wind and eventually there will also be snow. In addition, there will be the same complaints about the same issues just as last year and every other year before. And while all that combined sounds less than inviting, there is a lot to get out of this time of the year. Mostly: endless coziness. It is the feeling that Kenneth Grahame captured so very successfully, the feeling that gives us this tingle, pleasantly spreading from the back of our heads, comforting us, warming us, calming us.

So, while we watch the weather doing whatever it wants to do, we can have the best of times at home. If it’s too dark, light a candle. In case of shivering, put on some comfy, heavy knit. Is it raining? Perfect – cuddle up on the couch with a cup of tea and, yes, watch a doc!

Luckily, we might be able to help you cozy up on your winter days even more. Whether it’s the beautiful story of a horse touching the lives of many, the wonder of finding out the musician you’ve always admired is still alive, not knowing he’s so loved, or a heartwarming tale of  a journey hundreds of miles across the brutal Antarctic landscape, undertaken to continue the circle of life – the following six films will make you feel the unique spirit of the season.

Dark Horse
DARK HORSE is the inspirational true story of a group of friends from a former mining village in the Welsh countryside who decide to take on the elite “sport of kings” and breed themselves a racehorse.

Searching for Sugar Man
This Academy Award-winning documentary takes viewers on a surprising journey from one side of the world to another to remind us that, sometimes, the greatest heroes are the unlikely people living right next door.

March of the Penguins
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS documents the emperor penguins annual journey through the harshest weather conditions on earth – risking starvation and attack by dangerous predators in the quest for love and life.

Alive Inside
ALIVE INSIDE follows social worker Dan Cohen as he fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.

BABIES joyfully captures the earliest stages of the journey of humanity that are at once unique and universal to us all.

In the Shadow of the Moon
Captivating scenes include hauntingly lovely moonscapes, thrilling launches, exploration of the Moon’s surface, engineers and astronauts designing a space aircraft with tools and technology that seem quaint today, and the reactions of people around the world who came together to see for the first time—a man walking on the Moon.


Documentary Playlist: He Who Devotes Himself

“Do not worry in the least about yourself, leave all worry to God,’ – this appears to be the commandment in all religions. This need not frighten anyone. He who devotes himself to service with a clear conscience, will day by day grasp the necessity for it in greater measure, and will continually grow richer in faith. The path of service can hardly be trodden by one who is not prepared to renounce self-interest, and to recognize the conditions of his birth. Consciously or unconsciously, every one of us does render some service or other. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and will make not only for our own happiness but that of the world at large.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Since the dawn of man, humanity has sought to improve upon themselves as moral beings through the belief and worship of a higher power. Religions, no matter what the creed, have always required their devotees to make personal sacrifices in the name of righteousness and holy veneration. Some of these acts are relatively simple, such as giving up meat for the Catholic Lent, or they can be more demanding like fasting from dawn until sunset during the Islamic month of Ramadan. At the extreme end of this spectrum, as tribute, the Mayans actually sacrificed their own people to the gods, throwing them into cavernous cenotes believed to be portals to the underworld. Or simply look to the Pantheon, St Peter’s Basilica, the Mahabodhi Temple, Masjid al-Haram or any number of awe-inspiring religious structures the world over, erected specifically to honor the divine and encourage prayer. Human devotion can take shape in extraordinary feats of grandeur or merely modest efforts of self improvement.

As Mahatma Gandhi phrased it, these personal sacrifices are, at their core, a service whose ultimate ends are to better one’s self and the world around them. Often, the unfortunate result of this mindset can be catastrophic, either personally, by ignoring one’s own general well being in service of their religion, or culturally, as we see in the repetition of wars throughout human history in which one sect claims to be of higher verity than another. In these situations, morals seem to become as slippery as presumed truths. Yet, people continue to worship. They continue to pray, to meditate, to donate, to sacrifice, to make pilgrimages and devote their lives in hopes of bringing meaning to their existence and good into a world that often looks quite grim.

The following six films chronicle the holy being humanized by various forms of sacrifice and devotion of people young and old. Some subjects find themselves abstaining from pleasure for the purpose of purity, while others seek forgiveness for sins past, wholly believing that moral transgressions are spiritually reconcilable. Each of these documentaries, varying in style from meditative observation to hysterical satire, celebrates the devout by simply bearing witness.

KUMARÉ is a documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples to unveil his greatest teaching of all.

Koran By Heart
Following a global contest reading of the Koran by young Muslim children that takes place in Cairo, Egypt annually during Ramadan KORAN BY HEART is a coming of age story about Muslim kids in modern times.

Exploring our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience, SAMSARA is neither a traditional documentary nor a travelogue, instead taking the form of a nonverbal, guided meditation.

High above a jungle in Nepal, pilgrims make an ancient journey by cable car to worship the legendary temple of the Hindu goddess Durga: MANAKAMANA.

The Overnighters
THE OVERNIGHTERS is the story of the broken, desperate men chasing their dreams and running from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields and the local Pastor who risks everything to help them.

Into Great Silence
INTO GREAT SILENCE is an intimate portrayal and examination of the life of the devout monks who live within the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order situated in the French Alps.



Documentary Playlist: I Can’t Breathe

“I Can’t Breathe” – Eric Garner

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American New Yorker, was harassed by two police officers under the pretence that Garner was illegally selling single cigarettes. After a series of comments expressing his frustration with their unwarranted persecution Garner was forced into a chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, a tactic banned by the New York City Police Department. He managed to choke out the phrase, “I can’t breathe!” eleven times before he was pronounced dead by the city medical examiners an hour later.

Garner’s murder has been but one of several recent high profile cases in which police took the lives of unarmed black men – the shootings of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri and Oscar Grant III by Officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California remain burning examples of democratic injustice. Not only does each case observe a distinct failure to do one’s civic duty to protect and serve while keeping in mind one’s need for probable cause to take action, but more dishearteningly each highlights the fact that racism continues to haunt America and that the judicial systems in place, meant to yield justice for those who’ve been wronged, have been corrupted by this lingering racism. In response, nation wide protests have broken out, masses of people staging “die-ins” while wielding the phrases “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” as calls to action.

What’s important to remember is that these demonstrations are not just enraged responses to specific injustices, but public reminders that democracy is constructed around social action and that America should be a place where one’s race should not make them a target for suspicion and fear. Black lives do matter, and filmmakers around the world have contributed to this conversation with their varying films that dare to ask how these prejudices have come about, how as a culture we’ve tried to overcome them, and why we need to look to the future for reasons to continue to seek equality and justice for people of all colors.

These six films shine a light on racial injustice and those who stand against it.

The Central Park Five

Examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a woman in Central Park. After having spent between 6 and 13 years each in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime, exonerating the convicted innocent men.

The Black Power Mixtape

Essential viewing to anyone concerned with contemporary U.S. history, this film is a compilation of footage shot by a group of Swedish journalists following the American Black Power Movement between 1967 and 1975.

The House I Live In

For 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and damaged poor communities globally. Hear the stories of people from all levels of America’s drug war.

The Interrupters

The moving and surprising story of three brave people who aim to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. This film is an intimate view of violence, its causes, and its interrupters.

American Promise

A 13-year documentary journey following two black American boys from kindergarten through high school graduation at one of the most prestigious private schools in the U.S.

Fire in Babylon

The fast-bowling, fired-up West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 80s – one of the most gifted teams in sports history – triumphs over its colonial masters, rewriting the rulebook in the sport originally handed down from master to slave.

Thank you for sharing your image: The All-Nite Images

Documentary Playlist: Often a Woman

“Any society that is silencing its women has no future.” – Hafsat Abiola

“Media images contribute greatly to how we think about ourselves in relation to others. When marginalized groups in society are absent from the stories a nation tells about itself, or when the media images are rooted primarily in stereotype, inequality is normalized and is more likely to be reinforced over time through our prejudices and practices.” – Dawn Porter, director of Gideon’s Army

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, more than 40% of the documentaries screened were directed or produced by women, though this is not the industry norm. These numbers dwindle when the catalog is expanded beyond the mountains of Park City. Unlike the absence of women from the lineage other art forms that Virginia Woolf implies in A Room of One’s Own, the voices of female filmmakers are rightfully an essential part of film history and have been heralded all the way back to Leni Riefenstahl through Agnès Varda, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Kopple, Naomi Kawase and a lengthy list of other incredible artists who’ve embraced their femininity as an asset to challenge the world around them and push cinematic and cultural boundaries by obliterating expectations of effeminate chastity.

Carrying on the documentary traditions of their directorial foremothers, female filmmakers today are forging their own paths to cinematic truth by excavating issues ranging from family and child development to nature preservation, aging, and the list goes on, all with sharp intellectual engagement and a natural maternalism, yet this natural affection for their subjects does not define them as artists. Rather, they wield it as an additional dimension of expression that enriches their creative vision with something uniquely female – something cinemas everywhere could always use a little more of.

These six films, each politically poignant and deeply emotional works, were directed by female filmmakers currently working today.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
A highly original documentary that explores how we construct our own reality through stories. Sarah Polley’s family and friends weave different narratives into a complex portrait of her mother who died when Sarah was eleven.

The Crash Reel (Lucy Walker)
U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce takes a near-fatal crash. This is the story of his recovery, which exposes the irresistible but potentially fatal appeal of extreme sports.

Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore)
Tells the stories of five members of the chess team from an inner city junior high school that has won more national championships than any other in the country, and follows the challenges these kids face in their personal lives as well as on the chessboard.

Advanced Style (Lina Plioplyte)
Based on Ari Seth Cohen’s famed blog of the same name, this documentary paints intimate and colorful portraits of seven independent, stylish New York women aged 62 to 95 who are challenging conventional ideas about beauty, aging, and Western’s culture’s increasing obsession with youth.

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
The story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. The film shows just how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits.

Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal)
An unconventional film told through the spectacular, large-scale photos by Edward Burtynsky as he visits ‘manufactured landscapes’ – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines, dams – in China and beyond


Documentary Playlist: We Ought to Read

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
― Franz Kafka
Like the bulk of Franz Kafka’s monumental body of work, documentaries often aim to challenge one’s views, shake up one’s beliefs, or as Kafka himself puts it, affect us like a disaster that pains us so that we adjust our behavior, correct our wrongdoings or suffer the consequences. In his view, entertainment for entertainment’s sake has no value in relation to self-improvement and cultural progress. Thankfully, countless writers and filmmakers the world over have resolved the borders between enjoyment and enlightenment, allowing artistry and amusement to fuse into work that feeds our minds and enriches our souls.
As the documentary form continues to grow, the stories that are told are often condensed versions of extensive narrative trials that have been reduced down to something cinematically heartrending, morally challenging, and artistically edifying – all within a commercially palatable 90 minute running time. So, while the resulting films often prevail as poetically political achievements in and of themselves, there are sometimes literary counterparts that either serve as the inspiration for, or the narrative expansion of the stories held within.

Of the many documentaries whose authorship stems from or extends into the literary world, these six films will, as Kafka suggests they should, wake you up, move you, and still thoroughly entertain. May these excellent documentaries, varying vastly in theme and topic, serve as cinematic extensions of their esteemed written counterparts, which have also been listed below.

Project Nim
The story of a chimpanzee who was the focus of a 1970′s experiment to show that apes could learn to communicate through sign language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Corresponding Book: “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human” by Elizabeth Hess

The Devil Came on Horseback
Follows former US Marine Captain Brian Steidle as he documents the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Upon his return to the US Steidle campaigns for international intervention and becomes frustrated by the inaction of politicians back home. Corresponding Book: “The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur” by Gretchen Steidle Wallace and Brian Steidle

Chronicles the 15-month deployment of a U.S. soldier platoon sent into the deadliest valley of Afghanistan. Corresponding Book: “War” by Sebastian Junger

The Kid Stays in the Picture
Based on Robert Evans’ autobiography, the film traces the rise and fall of one of Hollywood’s most legendary and admired producers with humour, honesty and an enormous amount of style. Corresponding Book: “The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life” by Robert Evans

American Promise
A 13-year documentary journey following two black American boys from kindergarten through high school graduation at one of the most prestigious private schools in the U.S. Corresponding Book: “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life” by Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster

Life Itself
Explores Roger Ebert’s legacy, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as his his eruptive relationship with Gene Siskel, both of which culminated in his ascension as one of the most influential cultural voices in America. Corresponding Book: “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert


Documentary Playlist: Nothing to See Here

“He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” ― Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

“Nothing to see here, move along!” – Lt. Frank Drebin, The Naked Gun

Governments the world over have long tried to keep their less than valiant activities on the down low. These atrocities can be as massive and horrifying as the Nazi orchestration of the Holocaust, or as sickeningly insular as the abhorrent treatment US military forces imposed on Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Obviously, neither the German or US governments wanted these heinous actions to find their way into the public light. Somewhere in their being, they knew what they were doing was wrong, fearing both the legal and moral repercussions of their wrongdoing. Yet, the truth leaked out, slowly but surely.

Even today, systemic injustices continue to wreak havoc on communities around the globe – greed-filled wars are waged under the guise of democracy, poverty is implemented as a means to manage the have-nots, discrimination based on gender and sexual preference continue to hinder cultural progress, and the natural world is being ravaged by humans taking more than their fair share of what has been given to them. In each of these cases, misdirection and media convolution is being used to obscure the disheartening truth.

Yet, if you take a closer look, listen, and ask the right questions, the facts can be exhumed. What are we not being told? Who is responsible? What can we do to right the wrong?

This powerful set of films sees a variety of hushed systematic atrocities unveiled with a profound sense of political and moral urgency.

The House I Live In
For 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and damaged poor communities globally. Hear the stories of people from all levels of America’s drug war.

The Invisible War
A searing investigation into the cover-up of rape and sexual assault within the U.S. military, this film has helped change military policy.

Dirty Wars
Investigative reporter, Jeremy Scahill, delves into the heart of America’s covert wars, from Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond.

The Act of Killing
Former Indonesian death squad leaders are challenged to re-enact the real-life mass killings in the cinematic genres of their choice, from classic Hollywood crime scenarios to lavish musical numbers.

The Cove
A group of activists, led by renowned dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry, infiltrate a hidden cove near Taiji, Japan to expose a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.

Inside Job
A comprehensive analysis of the 2008 global financial crisis. Through exhaustive research and interviews with key insiders, this film traces the rise of a rogue industry which has corrupted politics, regulation, and academia.


Documentary Playlist: A Multitude of Drops

“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean! Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”     

David Mitchell’s mind-bending book, Cloud Atlas, weaves through six different time periods, from the mid-19th century to the year 2321. No matter the era similar characters emerge: there are those who prey upon others and those who are preyed upon. And then there are the few who stand up against oppression despite the consequences they suffer for exposing abuses of power.

The book evokes Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence which says that we live our lives again and again. An injustice tackled in one age returns in the next but in a slightly different form. Slaughter and enslavement, class differences, corporatocracy, truth and representation, environmental devastation, exploitation after exploitation. As time moves forward the human race becomes more endangered. Can humanity preserve itself by overcoming the animal instinct to boundlessly thrive and profit?

The 6 films in this playlist feature some of the people who have stood up against oppression and the unrestrained powers of our time. They are drops in the ocean and together a multitude of drops.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei is a renowned Chinese artist and activist who continually champions the values of democracy and human rights, and thus works in opposition to China’s authoritarian government.

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
What is a big corporation capable of in order to protect its brand? Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and his partners refuse to be bullied and silenced by the fruit giant, Dole Food Company.

Burma VJ
Witness the incredible bravery of Burmese video journalists (VJs) who risked torture and prison to document events on the streets as they were happening during the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

The Case Against 8
Offers an incredibly personal behind-the-scenes look inside the historic case to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The film follows the unlikely legal team and the two same-sex couples who act as plaintiffs in the story of how they took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pussy Riot
A feminist art collective performs a 40-second “punk prayer” against Putin’s government in Russia’s main orthodox church, decrying the corrupt entanglements of church and state. Three members are charged with hooliganism and put on trial in a post-Glasnost Russia that is becoming increasingly restrictive and regressive.

The Square
A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience. This is the real story of the the Egyptian Revolution told through the eyes of six different protesters.


Documentary Playlist: Go All the Way

“If you’re not gonna go all the way, why go at all?”    — Joe Namath

The image above is from the 1896 Summer Olympics. Held in Athens, Greece, it was the first international Olympic Games held in the modern era. The image depicts some of the runners competing in the marathon race, a long-distance running event of 42 kilometers (26 miles). Though the fastest runner wins, marathon running requires months and months of training that doesn’t necessarily build one’s speed – but one’s endurance.

Mastery in any endeavor requires endurance. According to reputable author/curator Sarah Lewis, mastery is a word we don’t use often and is not the same as perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Nor is it the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. As Lewis said, “Mastery is not merely commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.”

Whether it’s weight-lifting or motor-racing, pastry-making or magazine publishing, here are 6 films about people who are going all the way, who are striving everyday to be better than they were yesterday.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
As Jiro Ono’s son faces the pressure of stepping into his father’s shoes and taking over the legendary restaurant, Jiro relentlessly pursues his lifelong quest to create the perfect piece of sushi.

Kings of Pastry
Every 4 years, France’s top pastry chefs gather in Lyon for the World Cup of pastry – the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. This film follows 3 long days of chocolate sculptures, cream puffs that look like crown jewels, and grown men crying over cracked sugar.

Pumping Iron
Arnold Schwarzenegger reveals both the physicality and psychology of bodybuilding. He attributes his bodybuilding success not to his muscles, but to his mind.  

An account of the vibrant life and sudden death of Brazilian racing driver, Ayrton Senna. Meet this spiritual and very competitive man who believed in pushing the limits further and further.

The Armstrong Lie
Biking legend and 7-time Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong went to extremely great lengths to win. Not only did he exercise every day, but he doped illegally and secretly, building a myth around himself that turned out to be one of the biggest lies in sports history.

The September Issue
Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her team of editors set out to create the most important issue of the year. Though Vogue magazine is unrivalled in the fashion industry, there’s always room for improvement. The stakes are high, and Wintour’s standards are even higher.