Five must-see documentaries for the summer season
As long as there’ve been fictional movies in the world, there have been documentaries. In fact, cinema began with non-fiction films. Early cinema, pre-1900, was dominated by the novelty of simply showing an event. These were usually simple static shots of normal life: a train pulling into a station, a boat arriving at a harbor, workers leaving a factory at closing time. So new was this art form that popular accounts of the first screening of “A Train Arriving” in Paris hold that the film sent the audience into a panic; they literally believed a train was going to crash into the theater and kill them all.
In the years since, both cinema and its audience have grown increasingly sophisticated. As fictional films of the early 1920s developed the style and techniques of cinema storytelling that we know today, documentaries changed as well. Starting with the 1922 film Nanook of the North, a romanticized view of life among a family of Eskimos, the documentary films began to look more like regular fictional films, as focus on character development, story arcs, and interesting visuals made real life look cinematic. The film was a financial smash and spawned the era of “slice of life” documentaries.
Over the next eighty-five years, documentaries would go through many more changes. On one hand, Hollywood produced a staggering number of factual films, especially during World War 2 when numerous docs about the war effort were produced to counter the propaganda films of the Nazi government. These big budget documentaries were made much like regular films with false lighting, dramatized situations, and often restaged events (even war footage was often faked for “better dramatic authenticity”). On the other hand, small documentary filmmakers in the 1960s embraced a more fly on the wall approach. Armed with cheaper, smaller, more efficient cameras, many directors moved away from staged events and manipulative editing in order to film a more truthful account of real life. Out of this approach, legendary docs such as Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Don’t Look Back took the world by storm.
Until recently though, documentaries were never big business. Since they are generally cheap to make, they didn’t have to be widely released to make a profit. So, they rarely reached a large audience. This first changed with the advent of cable television and videocassette in the 80s. But the most significant change came with the 2004 release of Michael Moore’s controversial, highly speculative “documentary” Fahrenheit 9/11, which cost $6 million to make and would go on to make over $200 million worldwide. Its astounding financial success, followed by the equally successful docs March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth, paved the way for the current documentary renaissance. In the last ten years, more docs than ever have been released.
With so many new releases, it’s difficult for people to find thegreat among the mediocre. And many great independent docs don’t have the funding to get a theater release, leaving hungry viewers to wade through endless reviews and online suggestions for possibilities. This is often a hit-or-miss affair. But summer is usually the time when the biggest documentaries of the previous year finally get released for rental, sale, or download, making this season the hot spot for interesting non-fiction fare. And although last year’s deeply moving and deadly serious docs Inside Job (about the 2008 financial crisis), Waiting for Superman (about America’s declining school system), and Restrepo (about soldiers in Afghanistan) are phenomenal required viewing, here’s a short list of five smaller, must-see documentaries that are equal amounts fascinating and fun, perfect for amusing summertime enlightenment. Watch and learn, friends.
CATFISH – Now follow me here… In late 2007, New York filmmaker Ariel Schulman sensed a strange story when his photographer brother, Nev, was contacted online by a 10-year-old Michigan girl named Abby who claimed to be a painter and wanted to paint some of Nev’s photos. Over the following months, Abby sent Nev dozens of her paintings, many of which were incredibly good. Nev began communicating with Abby’s mother and older sister Megan online, who thank him for his kindness and interest in the young girl’s work. Nev and Megan begin talking regularly. Soon, Nev feels he may be falling in love with Megan. At the spur of the moment, Nev and his brother decide to visit the family in Michigan and surprise them all with gifts and good wishes. What they find on their trip is a surprising, unsettling, exhilarating, occasionally shocking, and absolutely touching revelation about a rather unique family and the great divide between reality and fiction in the internet age. This is a true, captured on film, emotional thriller that will floor you. Are you a catfish?
BEST WORST MOVIE – Back in 1990, a badly made, laughably inept American horror movie called Troll 2 was released and almost instantly dismissed. But the movie just wouldn’t go away, living on in endless rotation on late night cable and bargain basement video for two decades, as if the film were just too bad to be forgotten. Twenty years later, the film has gained a worldwide following as one of the greatest bad movies ever made. In 2009, the film’s child star, now all grown up and dealing with multiple problems, decided to seek out the original cast and crew to see if their lives turned out any better. They didn’t. What follows is a hysterical study of artistic failure, unexpected fame, and second chances, as the onetime child star, a hapless Alabama dentist-turned-underground movie star and the original film’s pretentious Italian director try to come to terms with going from creators of the worst film of all time to a cherished cult classic.
WINNEBAGO MAN – Type in “Angriest Man in the World” on youTube and you’ll instantly meet Jack Rebney, the Winnebago man. And you won’t be able to stop laughing at another person’s mental collapse. It seems that in 1989, Jack Rebney, while working in the RV business, set out to a state park to film a promotional video for Winnebago. Under a blistering summer heat, Rebney and crew grew increasingly disturbed and furious, as every manner of problem, setback, and mistake endlessly drew out the shoot for weeks. At the center of this growing madness were Rebney’s own curse-filled, bug-eyed, on-camera rants, freak-outs, and meltdowns as he explodes on everyone, including himself. The crew saved the footage, and soon after a random VHS or two of the incident surfaced and was traded among collectors of bizarre underground video. Its legend never died, and at the dawn of the internet, it became one of the first viral videos. Today, it’s had millions of hits on youTube. But whatever happened to Jack Rebney? In 2009, one man set out to find him. Tracked down to a remote cabin in the Northern California woods, Rebney has become a hermit, for whom fame was just another annoyance that he abandoned society to avoid. Now 80-years-old, stricken by growing blindness, and unsure of his future, Rebney decides to use the documentary for his last great rant. A stunning, hilarious, and beautiful look at accidental comedy, unplanned infamy, and the tiny moments of our lives that wind up defining us.
THE WILD & WONDERFUL WHITES OF WEST VIRGINIA – Come spend some time with America’s last outlaw family – the Whites of Boone County, West Virginia! Shoot-outs, drug dealing, pill-popping, robberies, family infighting, and…well, dancing are just another day for the White clan who have become legendary for their crazy, often dangerous, out-of-control lifestyle, as well as their expertise at the unique, dying art form of mountain dancing, a rarely seen form of tap dancing. From Johnny Knoxville, creator of Jackass, comes an exploration of the comedic and tragic turns of a dizzying, drugged-out, mentally unstable year in the life of the Whites and the poverty-ridden, corrupt, environmentally destroyed coal mining culture that created them. You’ll howl with laughter between shivers.
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP – The head-scratching, constantly puzzling, endlessly entertaining “is-it-real-or-not?” documentary of the year. Thierry Guetta is an eccentric, French shop keeper in Los Angeles who became obsessed with the growing artistic movement of guerrilla street graffiti artists. He decided to secretly track and film, at great personal risk, the artists as they work, hoping to make a documentary on graffiti art. His fixation leads him to the world’s most sought after street artist: the elusive and still unidentified British man who calls himself Banksy, whose various illegal art pieces from New Orleans to the Palestinian West Bank have earned him a global reputation. Although he insists on keeping his identity a secret (street graffiti, however artistic, is still illegal), Banksy agrees at first to be interviewed for the doc. Soon, Guetta begins to realize that Banksy may be highjacking his film and preparing to make a documentary on him! Is the street artist becoming a filmmaker, as the filmmaker becomes a street artist? Was Guetta ever actually making a documentary? Or is this all an elaborate con designed by Banksy? Dive into this Academy award nominated study of art world insanity, renegade artists, and delusional dreams that still come true, and find out how the greatest street art movie was never made.
Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.