On Tuesday night, you’re going to get to see a very compelling doc called The Last Conquistador, about sculptor John Houser‘s building of the largest bronze equestrian statue in El Paso. The good people at POV gave me a DVD screener of the film, so I got to see it and I have a lot to say about it, but I don’t want to influence your experience too much. So I’m going to follow up this entry on Wednesday with a couple of thoughts/questions. But I don’t think I’m going too far now by introducing a question that is relevant to The Last Conquistador, as it is with pretty much all documentaries: when is a doc art and when is it activism? Of course, that’s a trick question, because those descriptions are not necessarily exclusive, as I believe is very evident in The Last Conquistador. In fact, I think the film shines a light directly on the issue.

When I think of my favorite docs, I have to say, I like the ones that lean toward the artistic, or maybe the better word for it is “cinematic” experience, rather than one that is a piece of activism or advocacy. Movies like Grizzly Man, Spellbound, In the Realms of the Unreal, Capturing the Friedmans, or an oldie like Salesman just move me more.

Ah, but then what about a film like Hoop Dreams? It is such a masterpiece in storytelling, and it also happens to be one of the most insightful portraits of the young African-American male experience. It’s one of the best that bridges both the cinematic and issue-related aspects of documentary. Of more recent films, albeit on a lesser level, there have also been Errol MorrisStandard Operating Procedure and The Unforeseen, both of which I’ve already written about here.

In The Last Conquistador, John Houser suggests it’s not the artist’s role to engage in politics, but to create something that transcends them, and creates something that touches the human heart. Well, maybe that’s why documentaries are so great at their best: they manage to achieve both. I really did enjoy The Last Conquistador — it’s very well told, and it exposed me to a subject I knew nothing about. I do have some questions, however, that I’ll bring up on Wednesday.

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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