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Life Can Only Be Understood Backwards

Documentary Playlist: Life Understood Backwards

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Søren Kierkegaard

In today’s digitized world of constant connectivity, we’re always in anticipation, searching for the next new thing, scrolling for the latest updates, anxious for the next notification. Most of us hurtle through our lives at what often feels like breakneck speed, rarely slowing down, taking stock and simply reflecting. As the famed Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard astutely noted, reflecting is crucial to understanding our lives and the world around us.

Even from cinema’s simple beginnings, documentaries have served as a mirror to the world. With the Lumière brothers’ EMPLOYEES LEAVING THE LUMIÈRE FACTORY, people could—for the very first time—see themselves on screen moving in time and space, allowing them to think about and reflect on what these images could mean to them individually, as well as socially.

This sense of reflection is one of the great joys that documentary cinema has enabled, but since cinema’s inception back in 1885, filmmakers have made great strides in utilizing reflection as a formal instrument to delve deeper into all sorts of topics.

Most recently, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson repurposed footage she shot as a cinematographer on other people’s films to function as a wholly original kind of collagic memoir in CAMERAPERSON. While at the same time, Raoul Peck utilized unpublished works of James Baldwin and archival interview clips from the man himself to powerfully reflect on the current state of racial injustice in the United States with I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO.

Most of Errol Morris’s career centers on his ability to use direct interviews with his subjects to reflect on pivotal events in their lives. This tactic proves transcendent in his masterpiece THE FOG OF WAR: ELEVEN LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ROBERT S. McNAMARA, in which McNamara attempts to open up about his military career. Men learn the art of meditation in both Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura, and Anne Marie Stein’s THE DHAMMA BROTHERS and Philip Gröning’s INTO GREAT SILENCE. In the former, men meditate in order to cope with being in prison, while in the later, monks spend nearly their entire lives in states of silent reflection in observance of their religious tenets.

And in what might be the ultimate act of documentary reflection, every seven years since 1964, the subjects of Michael Apted and Paul Almond’s 56 UP reconvene on screen for a cinematic update on their lives, revealing heartrending relatability and unfathomable events that turn up as life unceasingly marches on.

If you’ll allow them to, these six films will act as a mirror. Embracing their formal complexities, they thoroughly explore how the medium of documentary cinema can be used to reflect on the world we move through day in and day out with stunning clarity.

I Am Not Your Negro
James Baldwin’s book Remember This House was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished.

The Dhamma Brothers
A maximum-security prison in Alabama is dramatically changed by the influence of an ancient meditation program. THE DHAMMA BROTHERS tells a tale of human potential as it documents the stories of the Donaldson Correctional Facility inmates who set out on an arduous and intensive path towards emotional freedom.

As a visually radical memoir, CAMERAPERSON draws on the remarkable footage that filmmaker Kirsten Johnson has shot for other filmmakers and reframes it in ways that illuminate moments and situations that have personally affected her.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life of Robert S. McNamara
THE FOG OF WAR is a 20th-century fable, the story of an idealist who saw his dreams and ideals challenged by the role he played in history, as he both witnessed and participated in many history-altering events.

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.

56 Up
Initially pitched as a documentary delving into the British class system, 56 UP revisits the same group of people every 7 years, from age 7 to 56, interviewing each to discover just what the passing of time reveals and exposing their hopes and disappointments to a vast public.


This playlist is inspired by our friends at Holstee and their December theme of Reflection.