William Kunster: Disturbing the Universe This week, POV’s 2010 season kicks off with the great documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (Check local listings). I think it’s just perfect that the season begins with a grainy home video of two young girls, Kunstler’s daughters Emily and Sarah, who are also the directors of the film, as they interview their famous lawyer father. Immediately, we are transported to the personal, to memory, and to the intimate power of non-fiction filmmaking. I guess they call it “point-of-view” for a reason.

I’m a sucker for home videos shot from the 1970s and early 1980s, so this film had me from the start. As the film progresses, we get a close look at Kunstler’s history, including his famous cases, from the Civil Rights movement through the Vietnam War to, of course, the Democratic National Convention of 1968, and on to Attica, the occupation of Wounded Knee and his less honorable clients in the latter years of his career. It’s a very intimate and frank depiction of an important man, and the directors revel in their father’s fame as well as reveal their qualms about some of work.

It got me thinking about the number of documentaries released in the last few years in which the filmmaker(s) turns the camera onto a famous family member, usually a father. These films vary in subject matter and in quality, but in case William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe has you hungry for similar fare, here are a few to get you started.

My Architect (2003)

Director Nathaniel Kahn looks at his famous architect father, Louis Kahn, in a film that, I must admit, I fell asleep watching. The elder Kahn was found dead in a men’s room in Penn Station, and his son traveled the world to interview his father’s peers and look at his buildings. Sounds great, right? Well, all I can say is that it starts off slowly.

My Father, Pablo Escobar (2009)

Pablo Escobar, the criminal boss of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, had a son, Sebastian, who has lived to tell the tale of his unusual childhood, living in the shadow a feared and wealthy father. Sebastian does more than try to give us a new view on Escobar, he uses his film to seek reconciliation with the children of his father’s victims.

Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech (2009)

OK, this isn’t a bio of Martin Garbus, but director Liz Garbus uses her dad as a sounding board to cover the very subject that made her father famous: defending free speech. (Personal aside: the elder Garbus once helped advise Doc Soup Man and a gaggle of fellow wide-eyed college students in a freedom of speech case. Thanks, Marty!)

Toots (2006)

Toots Shor was the New York City nightclub to be at in the ’40s and ’50s, and its owner, Toots Shor, was the man who made it all happen. Shor’s granddaughter, director Kristi Jacobson, takes a look at her gramps’ famous bar and her gramps himself, a man who was “bigger than life.”

Wild Blue Yonder (2007)

This one should be of particular interest to documentary lovers: it’s a portrait of the late documentarian David Maysles by his daughter, Celia. David and his brother Albert are considered the grandfathers of documentary film, so this is particularly loaded film to watch, and the fact that Celia has a confrontational relationship with her uncle makes the film all the more compelling.

Published by

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