Doc Talk: Is Sequelitis Spreading to Documentaries?

Doc Talk: Is Sequelitis Spreading to Documentaries?

Aug 10, 2011

How often do you leave a fiction movie wondering where those characters are now? It’s a far more common question asked with nonfiction film, especially during filmmaker Q&As, yet we get far fewer sequels to documentaries than we do narrative features. The practice of producing doc follow-ups is increasing, however. Not anywhere close to the level Hollywood is outputting (at the start of this year, Box Office Mojo counted a record 27, which didn’t even include docs), but in 2011 we’ll have seen the following new nonfiction sequels:

  • Revenge of the Electric Car, Chris Paine’s much-improved follow-up to his 2006 auto industry investigation, Who Killed the Electric Car? The sequel, which focuses on carmakers this time rather than owners, premiered at Tribeca in April and will open theatrically October 21.
  • Position Among the Stars, Leonard Retel Helmrich’s final installment in a trilogy about an Indonesian family, previously documented in 2001’s The Eye of the Day and 2004’s Shape of the Moon. The latest won big at both IDFA and Sundance (and has picked up many other fest awards), a repeat of Shape’s accolades. A fall release date is to be announced.
  • Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, Pamela Yates' return, more than 25 years later, to the subject of her first doc, When the Mountains Tremble. Raw footage from that film, about the 1982 Guatemalan genocide, is being used as evidence today, so Yates decided to reflectively and reflexively follow the latest proceedings. It premiered at Sundance.


  • Walk Away Renee, Jonathan Couette’s continued mix of self-portrait and a profile of his mentally-ill mother, begun with 2003’s low-budget smash hit Tarnation. The new film premiered at Cannes in May but is being completely reworked for a late 2011 release via Sundance Selects.
  • Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s return to the case of the “West Memphis 3,” whose trial for murder and sexual molestation was first followed in the 1996 original, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The second installment, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, was released in 2000. This third will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.
  • Samsara, another meditative, narrative-less 70mm doc from Ron Fricke (cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi, itself a sequel-spawner) and Mark Magidson. It is being labeled a sequel to their 1992 doc, Baraka, because it expands on that film’s themes. This will also premiere at Toronto.
  • Urbanized, which finishes out Gary Hustwit's design trilogy by following Helvetica and Objectified with an expectantly fascinating look at the art of urban design. Perhaps not technically a sequel in the conventional sense, anymore than, say, Kieslowski's Red is exactly a sequel to White and Blue, but it's worth including for the intended conception of a franchise package deal. This will also premiere at Toronto.

Despite its title, Morgan Spurlock and Joss Whedon’s fellow Toronto premiere, Comic-Con: Episode IV -- A Fan’s Hope, is not in fact a sequel. But plenty others are on the way, including follow-ups to recent Oscar-winner GasLand, Sundance ’11 vet Becoming Chaz and ESPN’s 2010 Ricky Williams doc, Run Ricky Run, which will be titled The Truth Cabin. Eventually we might get that long-promised dramatic follow-up to The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, now reportedly to be a mockumentary-style sequel rather than a remake. Next year, UK viewers at least should expect the anticipated arrival of 56 Up, the latest installment in Michael Apted’s classic septennial Up series.

That series, along with its franchise of international spin-offs/remakes, is perhaps the most commonly known instance of documentary sequels. The next one, which is set to shoot this fall and air in May, will be the seventh sequel (putting the series at Harry Potter length) to 1964’s Seven Up!, originally intended as a one-shot look the future generation of England in its youth. Apted, a researcher and assistant on the first, decided to continually revisit the fourteen kids as they age. This series alone has certainly encouraged curiosity with other doc subjects’ lives beyond their own films. At some point, though, the Up series will have to end, because eventually the subjects will die.

I don’t mean to be morbid about it. Just something I realized in looking at doc sequels is how many films can’t really have a follow-up due to their focal person’s demise, either during (I won’t spoil many of those titles) or long before production. We probably can’t have a sequel to The Times of Harvey Milk or a second sequel to Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (the first was Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer), unless their respective filmmakers find new footage or interview people with new retrospective insights. They then might be like the sorts of overlapping, appendical follow-ups seen with The Beales of Grey Gardens and 65 Revisited (which is really Don’t Look Back revisited). Not everyone would count these, however.

And what about docu-series sequels? The Fox network and Seth MacFarlane are working on a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 mini-series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, described as a “successor,” which will similarly consist of 13 episodes. The late scientist will not be able to participate, of course, but the new series, titled Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey and set for a 2013 premiere, at least involves original writer/producer Ann Druyan. We can count this, perhaps, only because it’s been 30 years since the first series. If it had aired this year, a follow-up would qualify more like a second season of a reality show.

Speaking of reality series, could their popularity over the past decade have influenced this growing desire, particularly from audiences, for documentary feature follow-ups? While nonfiction film sequels have technically existed since cinema’s beginnings, it seems like people today might be more eager to get the next episode of a real person’s life story, in theaters just as they would on TV. Yet at the same time, current technologies may also curb necessity for doc sequels if subjects’ lives are easily followed in real time on Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, as was witnessed with Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest this year.

When else does a sequel not make sense for documentary? When the story is larger than a life or two, and when it pertains to history, to which every subsequent history is a follow-up anyway (in a kind of logic, both of Ken Burns’ next mini-series, this fall’s Prohibition and 2016’s Vietnam, are sequels to his Civil War). Recall that Michael Moore had once intended on making a sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11, but that evolved into Capitalism: A Love Story. Still a subsequent and connected narrative, but not exactly a Part 2. He could still return to 9/11, which would make sense since it’s still the highest-grossing non-IMAX doc of all time -- interestingly enough, second-highest is actually a sequel: Jackass 3-D -- and just as with fiction films, nonfiction successes are not to be left alone.

Moore's style also raises the question about other, less broadly focused first-person filmmakers. Are the autobiographical films of Ross McElwee (Sherman's March; Bright Leaves), Doug Block (51 Birch Street; The Kids Grow Up), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me; POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold) and Jonathan Couette (see above) basically sequels after their initial features? Are they like real-life Indiana Joneses and John McClanes, minus the action?

What other documentary sequels could one day be produced? If we look at financial interests, probably a follow-up to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, though that might only be as much a ‘sequel’ as any Rolling Stone doc is a follow-up to an earlier one. It’s been too long for a second March of the Penguins and any need for "Another Inconvenient Truthwould be too sad, for differing potential reasons (or, angry, like this recent Jimmy Kimmel trailer parody). Do you have a favorite doc subject/character you’d like revisited? Or, do you believe that, in spite of the unending quality of real life, doc features should be accepted as finite stories? 


New Releases
Not to spoil anything, but Senna probably won't get a sequel, even if the U.S. release of Asif Kapadia's exceptional F1 racing doc is as record-breaking as the (ongoing) UK run. Over there the film has taken in more than $5 million, which is more than half Green Lantern's British gross. Opening here this Friday (8/12), the biographical doc tells of the life and career of driver Ayrton Senna, and while I don't expect it to be huge, I do implore those unfamiliar let alone fans of Formula 1 to give it a chance. Maybe read up a bit on the sport first, though, as it doesn't pander (I'm surely not the only American who doesn't know what Pole Position means, even if we did have that arcade game here). One the best things about the doc is its editing, which compiles archive footage more excitingly than anything you've seen. I'd love to see it become the first doc nominated for the Best Editing Oscar since Hoop Dreams, as unlikely as this would be. 

As for other theatrical openings, I've not seen Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (out 8/10), The Missing Piece (8/19) or Programming the Nation? (8/19) by the time of this writing. More exciting, though, for doc fans in NYC and LA is this year's DocuWeeks showcase, which kicks off Friday in the Big Apple, primarily to give certain titles Oscar-qualifying runs. Again, I haven't seen all titles in time for this writing, but definite recommendations include Hell and Back Again and To Be Heard. I'd add Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, but at least New Yorkers should wait a month and try for the Museum of the Moving Image's screening, part of their current Jim Henson exhibit
Only one significant home video release in the next two weeks, and that's Spurlock's POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which bombed terribly in its theatrical run following mixed receptions at Sundance and SXSW. I initially found it to be a tremendous disappointment, but others, including many of my brethren were in stitches. I'm looking forward to revisiting it, if only to see what additional meta shenanigans have been added for the DVD and Blu-ray versions. That's out August 23. 
See you next time (8/24) for another edition of Doc Talk. Until then you can find me on Twitter as @thefilmcynic.

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