Tom RostonAh, the flush feeling of having a documentary that receives high accolades and big box office returns! As I mentioned last week, not many doc filmmakers have felt that way this year, which puts Charles Ferguson among the elite few. I was at a fancy screening and reception this week for his film No End in Sight, a great doc about how the U.S. got into such a quagmire in Iraq. The movie was shown at Scandinavia House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The audience included former jailed New York Times journalist Judith Miller, who took copious notes. Afterwards we were whisked away in cars to be wined and dined at a private room in the Hotel Plaza Athenee. No End in Sight is deservedly winning plenty of critics’ awards, has mustered $1.4 million at the box office, and there’s buzz that it could be the movie to beat at the Oscars.

Ferguson was in a good mood, as well he should be. I talked to him about all the other movies this year that have not been as well received as his. For Ferguson, the two most tragically under-loved and underseen movies this year were Manda Bala by Jason Kohn, the multi-dimensional story of Brazilian culture by way of frog farming and the kidnapping epidemic there, and Hot House by Shimon Dotan, which takes a close look at Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli prison.

I haven’t seen Hot House, but I had to agree with Ferguson about Manda Bala: it is one of my favorite unseen docs from this year, along with My Kid Could Paint That by Amir Bar-Lev and War/Dance by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix.

A film still from Manda Bala

A film still from Manda Bala

At first viewing, I wasn’t really taken with Manda Bala, mainly because of the poor image quality. I wasn’t sure whether to blame the Angelika Theater’s projector (and not just the F train rumbling underneath) for throwing off the image, or blame the poor image quality on the film itself. Ferguson, however, assured me that the film looks gorgeous when it’s screened properly; director Jason Kohn used the same camera lens Stanley Kubrick developed for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even with my frustrations with the film quality, though, I was still swept away by Kohn’s complex tale. The director once worked under Errol Morris and the film owes much to Morris’ affectionate way with both victims of injustice and the plain bizarreness of humanity.

My Kid Could Paint That is the story of a little girl who was thrust into the spotlight because of her seemingly miraculous talents as a painting prodigy. It’s interesting to note that 60 Minutes did a report on the girl, and My Kid Could Paint That is a great example in how much more nuanced docs can be over network news shows. Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev captures the subtlety and complexity of an extraordinary family. I was at the edge of my seat over the intense dramatic tension of watching the girl’s mother and father slowly being revealed for who they really are. Are these parents really so calculating?! They seem so good, so earnest — how could they be committing such a scam? Unfortunately, not very many people seemed to care about those questions, as evidenced by My Kid Could Paint That‘s lame theatrical run.

And then there’s War/Dance, the beautifully shot, fluidly told story of an internal displacement camp in Uganda, and how children of the camp enter a music and dance contest. I know, I know, I know: social-issue docs don’t do well at the box office if they don’t have a star like Al Gore or Michael Moore to support them. But about Born into Brothels, the Academy Award-winning film from 2005 about the children of prostitutes in India? That film grossed over 3.4 million dollars. Compared to Brothels, why did War/Dance sink like stone at the box office? And then there’s this silly talk I’ve heard that War/Dance just looked too good to be taken seriously. What’s wrong with great cinematography? Believing that it hinders a documentary is just the sort of defeatist attitude that maintains the documentary genre’s reputation as being cinematic spinach.

Try the Soup: What are your favorite unseen gems from 2007?

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen