In my last Doc Talk column, I celebrated a wave of hopeful documentaries, films that tackle issues and other real life topics optimistically rather than instilling fear in viewers that the world is going to hell in a handbasket if we don’t act immediately. While I’m fully for the idea of getting away from those doom and gloom docs, however, I do think there is a lot of room for other films that aren’t all bright and sunny. I just don’t always know how to recommend them to people.
How many out there have really been encouraged to see Dear Zachary, for instance, with the claim that it will rip you apart inside and pour your guts out through your tear ducts? I wonder if Kurt Kuenne’s doc, a cinematic letter to a baby boy about how his mother murdered his father, would have caught on at all without the additional selling point of a twisty narrative. Actually, it probably wouldn’t be quite as devastating without the manipulation of the plotting anyway.
Regardless, most heartbreaking documentaries aren’t so narratively engaging and instead depend on the appeal of their importance, their necessity. This is the case with films about the Holocaust and other genocides and tragedies. You have to sacrifice pleasure in order to pay your respects and accept these constant reminders of the horrors of man, with the idea that awareness will keep such things from happening again.
Calling a film “important” makes me think of Oscar bait, though, and not just of the dramatic Hollywood variety. There was something off-putting to me about Lucy Walker’s recently nominated short, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. It felt like the filmmaker excitedly rushed out to Japan at the first word of disaster in order to exploit the aftermath for an “important” look at the victims on their way back up from the downer of catastrophe.
Being an over-contemplative documentary fan can be tough when you consider that most docs are only able to exist because of there being tragedies and injustices to report on in the first place. This branch of cinema can be trying, and being a nonfiction enthusiast contributes to my perspective on the debate about there being a distinction between “best” and “favorite” films (see Todd Gilchrist’s take on the debate for Movies.com here).
There are so many exceptional documentaries that aren’t easily labeled “favorites” because they’re not exactly enjoyable. For example, Titicut Follies may be one of the best, most significant docs ever made, but it’s definitely not my favorite Wiseman film, if only because I never want to watch it again. It’s too upsetting for me. Other fascinating films I can’t rewatch include Kirby Dick’s Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Sadomasochist and the recent rest home doc The Patron Saints.
Great yet difficult films need only be seen once anyway. And the most powerful are those where you can’t shake those images that you don’t wish to see again or the feeling of sadness that you don’t want to experience all over again with a second viewing. Just thinking about last year’s death with dignity tearjerker How to Die in Oregon gets me down, but I’m glad I saw it (see my full review), both for the film craft and the emotionally presented information on assisted suicide.
The same goes for the tenderly memorial San Francisco AIDS chronicle We Were Here, which just hit DVD. How can I convince you to see a film in which five talking heads discuss such an incredibly heartbreaking history of loss, prejudice and guilt? Spin the focus in order to promote a story of survival? Or, perhaps be honest and address its remarkable ability to tell captivating stories without an overflow of illustrative footage? And celebrate the trust that filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber have in their onscreen storytellers to be engaging enough without the usual distractions that docs like this tend to throw your way? Okay, I’ll go with that.
For some, the promise of tears can actually be a selling point. A good cry is favorable every once in awhile, but of course tears can come from sunnier documentaries too. When a baby is born, a competition is won, justice is achieved, disease is overcome, etc. All those joyous moments may wash you over with emotion the same as an animal dying, a sporting event ending in tragedy, a human rights offense excused or condoned, a young woman succumbing to cancer, etc. Obviously it’s not the same exact feeling, but the physical reaction your body goes through is similar.
This is all to say, I’ve noticed that I tend to admit to welling up during docs in reviews and festival dispatches, and I wonder if this is not always a good thing for the docs. Never mind that I’m sure the tears come more commonly at film festivals because of exhaustion, homesickness (missing the family, mostly) and other strains that combine with the sorrow or joy experienced from the films themselves. Other viewers may not have the same response in their more comfortable circumstances. And would they even want that?
At least with sad dramas, the crying is kind of silly. Once the lights go up you can wipe your cheek as well as whatever made up or fictionalized misfortunes had affected you. With documentary those tragedies were real and always will be. That’s part of their point and their essentiality, but it’s also part of why docs are unfortunately often ignored.
You might get a little watery eyed with the ultimate joy of seeing independent game-makers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes achieve success with their labor of love Super Meat Boy in Indie Game: The Movie, my pick of the week for theatrical openings. This Sundance winner, which Hollywood producer Scott Rudin is adapting into a fictionalized series for HBO, presents familiar and universal stories of passionate dreamers that just happen to be involved with the creation of video games.
Making their directorial debut, the duo of Lisanne Pijot (admittedly not a gamer) and James Swirsky (a longtime fan of video games) achieve a great success of their own here. They deliver a terrific balance of access and appeal so that both gamers and non-gamers alike can enjoy and appreciate a film about a little understood art form. I still have no interest in playing the titles spotlighted in the doc, but I have more respect for both those who produce and play video games. Opens this Friday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix.
DVD and VOD:
I would name the aforementioned We Were Here as my latest home video pick, but this might be the toughest week to choose just one recommended title, or just two, or just three. In addition to the sad but necessary AIDS history hitting DVD yesterday, there’s also Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika, which looks at the lives of five Russians who came of age during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And then there’s Tristan Patterson’s gorgeous skater doc Dragonslayer, which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW last year, Mike Woolf’s intimate and endearing portrait of space tourist Richard Garriott, Man on a Mission, the sad but extremely interesting life and death of a housing project chronicled in Chad Freidrich’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth and finally the vital Windfall, in which Laura Israel examines the pros and (mostly) cons of wind energy through the eyes of a small town divided on the issue.
That’s not even including VOD exclusives like Robert Greene’s Fake It So Real, a film about indie wrestlers in North Carolina that is worth watching if you’re into the sport or not. I’m uncomfortable with some of its onscreen homophobia (see my full review), particularly now given the recent vote in that state it’s set in, but at the same time I think Greene shares an honest and candid view on masculinity and the falseness of both pro wrestling and macho men. Now available from iTunes and other digital platforms such as cable on demand.
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.