The Bertha DocHouse screen, the UK’s first cinema dedicated solely to documentary films and events, opens in London tomorrow. What better time for us all to bone up on some killer docs? Hannah Dunleavy has some suggestions.
The truth is always stranger than fiction and often more poetic, yet documentaries always get the shitty end of the cinema viewing stick.
For me, a great documentary has to teach me something I didn’t already know, make me care about something I didn’t believe I ever could or reveal something about the human condition.
So, with that in mind, here are some 21st-century classics to feast your eyes on.
Filmed over seven years, Dig! charts the contrasting fortunes and souring relationship of two bands: The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Like any great rockumentary (most particularly Some Kind of Monster), it veers dangerously close to parody, and includes some truly squirm-inducing scenes. As a result, it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
But, underneath all that, it’s actually a long musing on the nature of success: how you quantify it, who deserves it and what you have to sacrifice to achieve it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in an astonishing scene where the Dandy Warhols do a photoshoot in the filth and detritus of a Brian Jonestown Massacre party they didn’t attend. If anything comes closer to virtually seeing someone’s soul leave their body, I don’t know what it is.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
It says everything about the quality of Alex Gibney’s film, that it takes the prolonged and complicated fraud perpetuated by the bosses of Enron and makes it completely digestible. And then it makes you angry. So very, very angry. In fact, if you can get through the scene where they intercut footage from the original Milgram experiment with footage from the Enron-created California energy crisis without swearing violently at your TV, maybe check your pulse.
But The Smartest Guys in the Room also looks at the wider business culture which enabled the scam to go unchecked for so long, before one journalist – Bethany McLean, who co-wrote this film – asked enough questions to start to bring the house of cards down. (Enough questions, it transpires, was one.)
Ultimately, it’s a parable about greed and while it never understates the epic nature of the deceit and the toll it took on the money markets, the film also reminds us of the personal toll on the company’s thousands of blameless employees.
Capturing the Friedmans
Andrew Jarecki has a knack for getting more than he bargained for when he sets out to make a documentary (see the current drama unfolding in the US regarding The Jinx). Here, while attempting to craft a film about clowns, he pushed children’s entertainer David Friedman for more details about his childhood. What he slowly revealed was an extraordinary story of how panic, fear and paranoia swept a Long Island town when Friedman’s father, a computer studies teacher, was arrested for buying child pornography.
In essence, Capturing the Friedmans is the evidence for a trial which never took place, with the viewer left to make their own decision about who was really guilty of what. But, in making use of extensive footage of the Friedmans’ home videos, it’s also a compelling portrait of a family coming apart at the seams.
One Day in September
Even if you’re relatively well-versed in the events of September 1972, when a Palestinian terrorist group took members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage during the Munich Games, this is still a gripping and eye-opening watch.
Made by Kevin Macdonald, also responsible for the excellent Touching the Void, it painstakingly and comprehensively builds an argument that the deaths of the 11 athletes might have been avoided were it not for some catastrophically bad decisions by the German authorities and the International Olympic Committee.
It’s a genuinely tense and ultimately heart-breaking tale, which, much like 2010’s Senna, proves that knowing how things end does nothing to mute the sadness when you get there.
Eight children, aged between 12 and 14, set out to win the 1999 America National Spelling Bee. Doesn’t sound exciting, right? Yet Spellbound does exactly what it does on the tin, as an often funny, sometimes moving and always engrossing slice of life.
Its subjects come from wildly different backgrounds, highlighting the wide disparity in education, opportunity and aspiration across the US. By the time our youngsters converge on the final, it’s near-impossible not to pick a few of them you’d love to see win; be it Angela, who was carried into the country across the Rio Grande as a baby; Ashley, the ray of sunshine from the poorest part of Washington, who describes her life as “like a movie, in that there’s trials and tribulations, which I will overcome in the end”; or Ted, whose enormous intellect both bemuses and isolates him from almost everyone in his small Missouri town. Spellbound indeed.
The Crash Reel
If any documentary shows the benefits of a tight-knit family unit it’s this. When 22-year-old snowboarder and Olympic hopeful Kevin Pearce has a horrific fall in training, he and his family set off on a long road to recovery. But the exceptionally likeable Pearces also face another uphill battle – dissuading Kevin from returning to the sport that almost killed him.
Lucy Walker’s brilliant film contains some fascinating insights into brain injuries, as well as the other physical and mental damage sustained in the pursuit of sporting excellence. It shines a light on what drives competitors in the face of such dangers – three skiers in the Pearce family’s orbit are killed during the two years it takes Kevin to recover – and asks whether sponsors, event organisers and fans also bear responsibility for what befalls extreme sports stars.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.