Sunday, August 21, 2011

10 Reasons to shut off your cable and rent a documentary

What have they done to Reality? 
10 reasons to turn off your cable and rent a documentary

For several years I taught Documentary Studies at a southern college.  It was an elective course and for awhile the only course in documentary studies.  Therefore, I felt compelled to include some classic films that I might not have otherwise used in the syllabus.  If a student was only taking one documentary course and would probably never study the subject again, I could not allow them out of my classroom without ever hearing the names Frederick Wiseman, Robert Flaherty, Errol Morris or D.A. Pennebaker. 

Fact or fiction?
On the first day of class, I’d try to get a sense of what my students had seen as well as their preferences and bias, so I could find gauge their level of film literacy and also find common ground. For example, if they listed Schindler’s List as a favorite "documentary," I knew that I had my work cut out for me and needed to include Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog in my discussions and clips. When some of my students told me that global warming was just another theory to be accepted or rejected based on their personal political and religious beliefs, we all watched parts of Inconvenient Truth. Yes, I think it is an overrated, grandiose PowerPoint presentation, but it was incredibly successful for very good reasons and I want them to think about those reasons. They don’t have to like a film or its point of view to appreciate why it works.

Bizarre but true!
For too many young people, reality is a fuzzy blend of truth, belief, personal projections and whether the messenger can be liked and therefore trusted.  Too many have been brought up on a steady diet of reality TV shows and have come to accept carefully selected archetypal cast members as their actual peers and the contrived, conflict-heavy situations as normal life. 

Lord knows that I can binge on HGTV every now and again without remorse and for a brief period I would arrange my social life around a British show called Faking It.  Still, I hold this to be true: there are much better things to watch than House Hunters reruns and I have several suggestions that might turn you into a doc lover.  All of them are readily available rentals.  

I have 10 films. Here are the first 3!

Reason 10.  Born Into Brothels (2004)
Directors/Producers/Cinematographers: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman

Watch it to witness the power of art to rescue and transform lives. Your heart might break, but it is beautiful and redemptive.
Most Memorable Quotes: "The men who come in our building are not good. They are drunk. They come inside and shout and swear." "The women ask when are you going to join the line. They said it won't be long" Kochi, 10 year-old girl

Reason 9. Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
Source Material: Timothy Treadwell
Grizzly Man - Obsessive, delusional animal activist, Timothy Treadwell documented his life spent among grizzly bears. His own tapes show a man increasingly unable to make sound judgments as he identified more and more with his beloved bears. As he deliberately moved towards self-prophesied tragedy, Treadwell worked tirelessly to produce his educational grizzly bear films for school children. His life and death is treated truthfully and without sentimentality, but with utmost respect by German director, Werner Herzog who edits Treadwell's films along with additional interviews and an insightful narration. Herzog though clearly fascinated with madness and genius never sensationalizes his tragic subject.

Most Memorable Quotes: "I can smell death." "I will die for these animals." Timothy Treadwell, Grizzly Bear activist.

Reason 8. Man on Wire (2008)
Director: James Marsh
Source material: Phillipe Petit

Most memorable quote: "It's impossible, that's sure.  So let's start working."- Philippe Petit

In 1974, I watched with physical revulsion and amazement as Philippe Petit walked a wire suspended between the two World Trade Center Towers. He looked like a small, insignificant pencil scratch against a gray sky. At times he did not walk at all, but just stood with one foot in front of the other, an unwieldy looking pole in his hands. I wordlessly watched a bewildering spectacle unfold. As I remember it now, all lower Manhattan seemed weirdly silent, as if collectively deciding not to spook him as he jeopardized his life for all of us to see. We jaded New Yorkers were captive to this Impossible Madness. I certainly didn't want to see the film. But, it is an amazing film - full of its own inventive stunts, and filmmaking magic. 
Will I grow to hate it should I later discover the filmmaker crisscrossed fiction and highly-stylized fact to create what purports to be authentic? What was creatively reenacted? What was sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors?  I am not entirely sure. Watch this film.

If you enjoyed this blog, please comment or follow.  If you disagree, please comment too.  Please recommend your favorite documentary film to me.