Holiday season tends to put me in a sentimental mood, so I was feeling a general sense of gratitude for the world of documentary film. I got to thinking about the many things that I am thankful for. Not sure I’ll mention them at the table on Thursday, but I’ll share them here.
The Slippery Truth Era. There’s a conventional, uninformed understanding of documentary that it tries to capture objective truth. How liberating it is to be aware that we humans are all storytellers and that it’s the documentary director’s responsibility to depict truth as he or she sees it and, hopefully, to make a connection with the viewer. It is what Werner Herzog calls the “ecstatic truth,” and this truth is not based in the factual. Today, doc filmmakers seem to have this understanding fused into their DNA, and are producing all sorts of great work. I look to them to help cut away the false truthiness that Donald Trump et al. peddle.
Werner Herzog. Speaking of Herzog, I just give thanks that he exists. It’s not just his documentaries that are so great — Grizzly Man and My Best Fiend are two of my favorites — he also directs fantastic feature films (Rescue Dawn, Fitzcarraldo). But it’s, of course, his whole persona that matters; his vision (see above), his voice filled with gravitas, his heavy lidded looks into the abyss, and yet all done with that undercurrent of wry humor.
An incredible, jaw-dropping 2015 moment: Cartel Land. I’m still shaking after seeing this film at DOC NYC. It’s filled with incredible moments but none more so than when the putative hero of the film, Dr. Jose Mireles, orders a man’s execution on a dusty, dark road. It reminded me of that gun-toting thug in Harlan County, USA, when a filmmaker captures a moment without equivocation.
Documentary film festivals. This time of year, all eyes are on Sundance and what it will be premiering, but my vision tends to look past that pinnacle to the fantastic doc-only festivals, True/False, Full Frame and Hot Docs, which provide an all-you-can-eat buffet of documentary delights. These gatherings have become regular ventures for me, and I wouldn’t be able to absorb the year’s doc output without them.
An incredible, jaw-dropping 2015 moment: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Brett Morgen’s film about Cobain is an immersive, explosion of the senses and as much as I was transfixed by the footage of Cobain on stage or at his worst at home, it was the animating of Cobain’s art, doodles and writing that blew me away — in particular, a series toward the end of the film that depicts the very simple, stick drawings that Cobain drew of his various emotional states.
Money, Money, Money. I know it’s hard as hell to raise money to make a documentary, but as an outside party, I just want to give thanks to the providers — whether it’s the Sundance or Tribeca institutes, platforms like POV and Netflix, and the deep pockets at Impact Partners, Jeff Skoll of Participant, or Pierre Omidyar of The Intercept — who have fueled the nonfiction film boom that I get to cover.
An incredible, jaw-dropping 2015 moment: The Look of Silence. What I appreciate more than anything in a given year are these moments when a filmmaker and reality seem to conspire to blow me away. Joshua Oppenheimer did plenty to knock our socks off with The Act of Killing, but in this follow-up film, he is able to transcend the medium in a more subtle way. In this story of the Indonesian genocide, when a perpetrator’s daughter turns to one of the victims and says that she recognizes him, it struck me to the core, recalling a moment in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. It was, for me, a moment of ecstatic truth.