If the 12 Days of Christmas occurred leading up to the holiday rather than following, today would be the start of the events. So I'm instead hereby inaugurating December 14 as the beginning of 12 Docs of Christmas, during which you watch a different documentary about or involving Christmas each night. Enough of It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard and whatever other fiction holiday movies you regularly watch. Just because Santa and much of the rest of the occasion is about fantasy, that doesn't mean you can't get real for the next two weeks with films about war, poverty, commercial greed, dysfunctional families and true-life cynical Santas. Here's a list of suggested titles to help you plan this new yearly tradition:
1. What Would Jesus Buy?
Since I ended a list of Thanksgiving-themed documentaries with this film, I might as well use it to kick off a Christmas-themed docs list. It's the perfect transition between holidays and is actually more fitting to view on Black Friday. But today is still prime time for gift shopping, so take a look at Rob VanAlkemade's doc on the commercialization of Christmas and the message of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir before you spend too much money on too much junk. Sure, this year we should help the economy by throwing the cash around, but maybe that money would be better off going to a charity or for some toys for tots.
2. Prodigal Sons
Another event that occurs closer to Thanksgiving is your high school reunion. At the beginning of this film, director Kimberly Reed returns to her small Montana hometown for the first time since her sex reassignment surgery. She ends up staying through Christmas, the eve of which is the setting for a climactic explosion of family conflicts stemming from her mentally disturbed adopted brother, Marc, who just may be the orphaned descendant of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. It's one of those docs that will put your own supposedly dysfunctional family into perspective. But it's also quite sweet at times and Reed is a very likeable first-person character.
3. Becoming Santa
I've written plenty on this wonderful new film, which is about the history of Santa Claus mixed in with a tale of a cynical guy who transforms into the role of the Christmas icon for one holiday season (read my full review here). So I'll devote this space to recommending that you see it on the third night of Docmas (or whatever we're calling these 12 days), which is this Friday. If you're in NYC you can do so on the big screen at Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Cinema. The screening is free if you bring at least one toy for the "Volunteers of America" toy drive. See info here.
4. Rent a Santa Claus (Schau mich nicht so bose an)
I haven't seen this German documentary, or even a clip from it, but I'm very curious. All I've seen is this image of a Santa riding a bicycle. It's about the annual gathering of hundreds of Father Christmases (and female angels) who go around the Berlin area on Christmas eve delivering gifts to 5000 families. According to the translated synopsis at Docufilms.com, the Santas also test children's knowledge of poems and act very strict. I'm not sure what the last bit means, but I'm intrigued: "sometimes you just have to laugh because there´s something to be discover that everyone knows."
5. Christmas Under Fire
Want to know what Christmas was like for the British during World War II? Watch this ten-minute documentary that was nominated for an Oscar in 1942 (the first year for the Best Documentary category). Most families in England had to make do with food rations for Christmas dinner and a father away from home. And many shopkeepers didn't make it to the gift-buying season before their businesses and inventory were destroyed by bombs (and yes, some of their customers have died). I find it kind of disturbing what the kids want from Santa this year. The full film can be viewed below:
6. A Diary for Timothy
Another look at Christmas in England during the war, this time nearer to its end. One of the great works from producer Basil Wright and director Humphrey Jennings, the doc features a narration scripted by novelist E.M. Forster and spoken by actor Michael Redgrave. The structure of the film is in address to a baby named Timothy and chronicles the war through his first six months. The Christmas scenes here are more festive and hopeful and show families celebrating together in their own homes now rather than in shelters. You can watch the full 37-minute film on YouTube.
7. Tunisian Victory
One more World War II documentary, this one from the Americans, specifically co-directors Frank Capra and John Huston. In the film we get to see what Christmas is like for the U.S. and British soldiers fighting the campaign in Tunisia instead of their families back home. Well, the families are visually alluded to, at least, in the montage of various Christmas masses intercut with stuff the soldiers are thinking about, such as kids having a snowball fight back in New York and other celebrations around the world. Watch this one in full on Hulu.
8. Autism: The Musical
By now Hanukkah has begun (this year anyway), so here is a documentary that features a lot of Christmas decorations and partying before showing some of its subjects lighting a menorah, dancing and talking about how tough it is for a single parent of an autistic child during the holidays. I know of only two other docs that deal with Hanukkah, and both are about adopted children. Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy features a Jewish family from Long Island that adopts an 8-year-old Chinese girl, while Off and Running is about Jewish lesbians and their adopted kids. As far as I recall, both at least mention the holiday.
I don't really love this documentary about the life and films of Bob Clark, as it's cheaply made and ultimately becomes just a feature-length PSA against drunk driving (Clark and his son were killed by a drunk driver in 2007). But if you get sick of watching his two Christmas classics, A Chistmas Story and Black Christmas, this might be a quick alternative. I'm not sure, though I believe you get to see the Christmas Story scene in the Chinese restaurant more in this doc than you would by watching the 24-hour marathon of the film on TV.
10. Roger & Me
One of the most memorable sections of Michael Moore's feature debut is the trip around Flint at the end to see all the foreclosure signs on the eve of Christmas while the Singing Dogs version of "Jingle Bells" plays on the soundtrack. And who can forget the intercutting between GM CEO Roger Smith giving his Christmas message to his employees and the poor family being evicted and thrown out into the street, Christmas tree included? As the dogs sing, it's "rough rough rough, rough rough rough, rough rough rough rough rough."
11. Recipes for Disaster
In this Finnish film, which feels like a remake of No Impact Man (they were made around the same time), the director and his family go on a carbon-free diet, which means not using anything made from or with oil. Except a video camera, that is. But what this does include are toys and other plastic objects at Christmastime. See if you can get by this holiday without a carbon footprint. That fake tree might be worse than the live ones cut down each year.
12. Xmas Without China
I have to close with a film that you can't actually watch this year, unfortunately, because it's not finished. But it has been successfully funded and I hope that maybe filmmakers Alicia Dwyer (a producer on Into the Arms of Strangers) and Tom Xia can have it ready for next Christmas. The doc is about the dependancy on China for the gifts that we recieve, as well as much of the rest of our consumer goods. Kind of like the family in Recipes for Disaster, a household agrees to give up everything made in China during Christmas, including the lights around the tree. It looks to be even more interesting than that (Xia has said it's "like The Joy Luck Club on its head"), but we'll have to see. Until then, take a look around to see what all in your home you'd have to give up.
This week’s recommended theatrical release is the decent film history/biography doc Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, which is about the life and work of Roger Corman. Fresh insight is spare for anyone with even a slight awareness of his career and influence, but the cast of interviewees, including Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller and Corman himself (some of which is on location for Dinoshark), is appealing to any cinephile. Sadly, some of those who appear, such as George Hickenlooper, David Carradine and Irvin Kershner, are no longer with us. Also, many interviews appear more on the fly, under strictly budgeted time, which is quite fitting for the subject matter. Thank you to Bruce Dern for being able to discuss a filmmaking legend while he gets his hair done.
As for new DVDs, one of my favorite docs of the year (it will likely be on my top ten list, which you’ll find here in two weeks) hit home video yesterday: Goran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. I expect a lot more people unaware of the point of the film will now stumble upon it and be disappointed that it’s’ not more exhaustive and authoritative. But if you’re interested in the documentary form and are fascinated by the many perspectives involved in the compilation film genre, this is a must-see. Don’t look at just the content, look at what’s done with it. Some docs are really about how they’re about, and this is a brilliantly realized example.
I also recommend Alexandra Codina’s Monica & David, about the marriage of a couple with Down syndrome and the mother who looks after them, and Don Lewis and John Beck's Worst in Show, a competition doc about the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest. And now on VOD, be sure to check out two more of the year's best, the San Francisco AIDS story We Were Here and the Formula 1 biopic Senna.
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.