Seventh Row’s editors pick the best documentaries of the 21st century, from Pina to The Look of Silence to Grizzly Man.
Our ebook on creative nonfiction, Subjective realities, is out now. Click here to get your copy.
This article is in celebration of our ebook Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film. Click here to find out more about the ebook and get your copy.
Documentary cinema has changed a lot over the past twenty-one years. For one, creative approaches to the medium have become more widely accepted and celebrated, rather than just a fringe interest. We live in a world now where a major production company like Netflix will fund and distribute a documentary as personal and unconventional as Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead (2020). In the 20th century, filmmakers Errol Morris and Naomi Kawase were both told that their nonfiction films weren’t documentaries: Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) because it featured staged scenes, and Kawase’s docs because they were too personal. Robert Greene (Kate Plate Plays Christine, 2016; Bisbee ‘17, 2018) told us, “No one says to me anymore that I can’t call my films documentaries, which they did,” even though Greene only made his first feature just over ten years ago.
On the advent of the release of our new ebook, Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film, we’ve put together a list of the best documentaries of the 21st century. These aren’t necessarily all ‘creative nonfiction’ (aka hybrid documentaries, or films that challenge the standard doc formula), but there’s a heavy lean toward films that diverge from convention in order to tell their story. It’s also not a list of the films that have been most influential on how we think about documentary; for that list, check out our recent critic and filmmaker survey. They’re simply fifty films of outstanding quality, hand selected by Seventh Row editors Alex Heeney, Orla Smith, Brett Pardy, and Lindsay Pugh.
Note that this list has a heavy bias toward films from the 2010s. That’s partly because the last ten years has been a particularly vibrant time for nonfiction cinema. It’s also partly because the past decade was our area of study when writing Subjective realities, and it’s the time in which our editors have been working as professional film critics.
13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)
From our essay: “It’s not until nine minutes into Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, charting the history of slavery and mass incarceration in the U.S., that the first chyron flashes on the screen. Up until then, DuVernay has presented us with a handful of unidentified, mostly black voices. They’re explaining how the American economy was built on the exploitation of black bodies. Without flashing their credentials at us, we must evaluate what they say for ourselves, without the help of the academy — the mostly white establishment — to validate what we’re hearing. Their refined accents, clear diction, and sharp suits may suggest authority and education. But DuVernay wants us to actively think about how we decide whom to listen to and why.” Read the full essay.
63 Up (Michael Apted, 2019)
From our review: “63 Up is the latest in Michael Apted’s documentary project which checks in on the lives of 12 Britons every seven years; the first film, 7 Up, was made when they were seven years old in 1964. Because the participants were selected in1964, well before diversity was on most white people’s radar, they are overwhelmingly white and male. The project now is more about a few people’s specific lives than a representative cross-section of British society. 63 Up is very friendly to new viewers of the series and utilizes clips from older editions to compare and contrast with the present day subjects in a way that makes watching prior instalments almost pointless.” Read the full review.
Actress (Robert Greene, 2014)
As I worked on Subjective realities, I was watching and discussing a lot of documentaries that are radically up front about the process of their own making. I was excited by this idea of total transparency with the audience, e.g. through showing the crew on camera or discussing the origin of the film within the film itself (Dick Johnson is Dead is a good example). Actress was eye-opening because it purposefully doesn’t do that. In the film, Greene follows Brandy Burre, a former actress turned full-time mother who is considering returning to acting. Greene keeps the purpose of the project and his own intentions ambiguous, which is both frustrating and engrossing, as it causes you to ask fascinating questions about authorship. It helped me to realise that, in the right context, ambiguity can be just as fruitful as transparency. Orla Smith
Angry Inuk (Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, 2016)
From our review: “‘I had to give the audience a chance to fall in love with the Inuit culture and the people,’ said Inuk writer-director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. She does this and more in her passionate, thought-provoking documentary, Angry Inuk. The film is an insider’s look at seal hunting: how integral it is to Inuit culture, how it’s the best source of sustainable nutrition in the Arctic, and how international seal hunting bans are having devastating consequences for the Inuit economy and the environment. After winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 HotDocs Film Festival, Angry Inuk was selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten Films of 2016. ‘I’m really excited,’ said Arnaquq-Baril, ‘that out of the Top Ten, two of the features are directed by Inuit.’” Read the full review.
Antarctica: Ice & Sky (Luc Jacquet, 2015)
Luc Jacquet’s Antarctica: Ice & Sky is the rare climate change documentary that is as much a character portrait as a call to action, as much a film that takes you into a different world as one that explains how it’s not so different after all. The film is a portrait of French glaciologist Claude Lorius, whose research in Antarctica gave us the first clear evidence of anthropogenic climate change. After making a research trip to Antarctica as an undergraduate in 1955, he fell in love with the icy terrain, seemingly untouched by humans. He recalls how they came up with the idea of carbon dating ice cores thousands of meters deep, and how shocked he was to discover that there was evidence of major world events in the ice so far away.
Through archival footage and interviews, Jacquet takes us on Lorius’s exciting adventure as a young man discovering climate change, and grounds us in the present with Lorius, now an old man devastated at the lack of action on climate change. After making twenty-two scientific expeditions to Antarctica throughout his long academic career, Lorius returns once more with Jacquet to see the ice melting, revisit the gorgeous landscape and his time there, and sound the warning bell that climate change is here and dangerous. With the release of the latest IPCC report just a few weeks ago noting the urgency of climate change action, there could be no better time than now to catch up with this moving, fascinating film about how the journey to what we know now began — and how small this seemingly vast planet really is. Alex Heeney
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier, 2018)
From the introduction to our interview: “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch takes its title from the term proposed to denote the current geological age, in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Taking us around the world, the film gives us a glimpse of the extent of the human impact on the natural environment — from the effects of mining and industry, to animal extinction, to climate change. A carefully curated voice-over by Alicia Vikander provides important context for the images we’re seeing. It piques our curiosity to learn more and gives us space to contemplate the significance of the images we’re seeing.” Read the full interview.
The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010)
Clio Barnard’s relentlessly bleak feature debut tracks the legacy of working class Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died aged twenty nine. While Barnard conducted audio interviews with Dunbar’s friends and family, she presents these interviews by having actors lip sync to the interviews in film sets. The effect is uncanny. It brings us closer to the stories being told by having an actor emote as if they’re experiencing these emotions in the moment. At the same time, the knowledge that what we’re seeing isn’t ‘real’ keeps us on our toes and questioning what we’re hearing and seeing. Barnard also has actors play out scenes from Dunbar’s play The Arbor. But beyond its fascinating techniques, The Arbor is a stark, unrelenting, but accurate portrait of how cycles of poverty, trauma, and addiction are perpetuated from generation to generation. It’s only partly a film about Dunbar, as Barnard focuses just as much on her daughters, and how they struggled in the wake of their mother’s tragic life and death. OS
At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, 2013)
It’s hard to pick just one Frederick Wiseman film to include on this list, but we went with At Berkeley in part because we’ve had the most time to think about it and stay in love with it, among his recent trilogy of films about institutions of learning (National Gallery and Ex Libris). This four-hour film flies by, but you can feel the gears in you brain turning as you watch, processing what makes up an insititution of learning, the challenges of the administration compared with the discrimination faced by the students, and all of the accomplishments in between. It’s a film so packed full of insights, in which every scene makes you rethink the previous one, that it rewards endless rewatches. At ninety one, Wiseman is still one of our finest filmmakers. AH
At Sea (Peter B. Hutton, 2007)
Instead of trying to amuse or delight, Peter Hutton provides space for the viewer to simply contemplate. Over forty years, Hutton filmed colossal container ships from the moment they were built to the conclusion of their journey. In an interview with Gwarlingo, Hutton says, “Cinema tends to be this additive thing, it gets more complicated technologically…It’s very expensive and complicated logistically. I wanted to do it alone, keep it personal and private. Almost like making sketchbooks. The more I kept it simple the more I could work…It’s not about the pyrotechnics, it’s about something else—being inventive with limitations.” For anyone trying to make films on a miniscule budget and without much help, Hutton’s work is worth analyzing. Through the use of painterly composition, careful lighting, and deafening silence, Hutton communicates point of view without ever explicitly providing it. Lindsay Pugh
A Better Man (Lawrence Jackman, Attiya Khan, 2017)
In A Better Man, co-director Attiya Khan confronts her ex-partner, Steve, about the physical and psychological abuse she endured from him twenty-two years ago. The film follows them as they meet, offering Steve an opportunity to take responsibility for his actions so that they can both heal. Along the way, Steve goes to counseling specifically to learn about how to proceed on his journey toward nonviolence, which raises questions about what he is and is not willing to admit to himself. Shot primarily as a verité documentary depicting the encounters between Attiya and Steve, with occasional comments from experts in nonviolence, A Better Man asks whether nonfiction filmmaking has the power to heal. The film is an emotional knockout that will force you to think both about the power of honest conversation and reflection and its limits. AH
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
After almost two decades of working as a documentary cinematographer, shooting films across the world, sometimes in dangerous environments like war zones, Kirsten Johnson decided to direct her own memoir. Cameraperson is made up entirely of outtakes from all the films Johnson has worked on as a cinematographer. They’re the moments that weren’t used because Johnson sneezed and shook the camera, or simply because there wasn’t room for them in the final cut. They’re the moments when Johnson filmed whatever took her fancy while she waited to shoot the main ‘action’. Presented without voiceover, these snippets slowly build up a portrait of who Johnson is as a person and a filmmaker, based on what and how she chooses to film. It’s also a fascinating study on documentary ethics: when should we keep the camera off, and how should we shoot people in danger or suffering trauma? OS
The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chris Marker, 2004)
The Case of the Grinning Cat is not the best place to start with Chris Marker, but it is a good summation of his filmic interests: cats, leftist politics, and layered allusions that reward careful viewers of his work. Aside from the ending, which I found ignorant at best, and some camera work that felt especially male gaze-y, this film made me remember how much I love a good cine-essay. Marker stays detached from the narrative but uses intertitles, editing, and visual metaphor to convey his opinions. He mixes fiction and nonfiction in a way that forces the viewer to consider the efficacy of performative collective action. It’s a film that made me think deeply about technique and intention. Each time I watch it, I discover something new. LP
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams was one of the first feature-length documentaries to really make the most of 3D technology. The film takes us inside the Chauvet Cave in France, which houses some of the best-preserved cave paintings in the world. The Cave is no longer open to the public because the excessive moisture from tourists was beginning to deteriorate the paintings. Now, through Herzog’s camera and guidance, you can enter the cave from anywhere in the world, and feel like you’re really getting a tour of the 3D space and how the paintings are laid out. It’s a remarkable way of truly dropping you into a different world. In typical Herzog fashion, he finds a cast of bizarre characters to interview for the film, including an acrobat-turned-academic who studies caves and a man who literally sniffs around in search of cave paintings. Why does the film end on an albino alligator? Your guess is as good as mine. AH
ALSO READ: What is it like to work with Werner Herzog?
Chain (Jem Cohen, 2004)
This is a really depressing documentary/narrative film about the various ways that capitalism destroys connection and creates false hierarchies. The characters and plot at the center of the story are fictional, but much of the footage is documentary. Although it is technically a ‘hybrid’ film, it feels truer to life than most other documentaries I’ve seen. When I first watched it, I was still a teenager who hoped to someday find a ‘dream career’. I thought that if I worked hard and made money, happiness would soon follow. Now that I’ve spent almost a decade of my life getting my ass kicked by corporate America, I suspect Chain would hit even harder. LP
Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2011)
Director Carol Morley heard a story in the news in 2006 that fascinated her: a young woman, Joyce Vincent, was found dead in her North London bedsit. She was so socially isolated that she’d been there three years before anyone discovered her body. Morley interviews people who knew Joyce, and actress Zawe Ashton recreates imagined moments in Joyce’s life. It’s a film that causes you to reflect on your own life. If I died, how long would it take for me to be found? Who would come looking for me first? But it’s also a reflection on the unknowability of other people. Morley is aware that, while she and Joyce’s friends can guess what was going on in Joyce’s head, they will never really know, and it would be disrespectful to suggest that they could. OS
Elena (Petra Costa, 2012)
Have you ever lost something and spent ages desperately trying to find it? This film perfectly evokes that feeling. When Petra Costa was a child, her much older sister, Elena, moved from Brazil to New York to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. After Elena’s eventual suicide, Petra becomes desperate to reconcile what happened with her own memories and impulses. The result is a dreamy, hypnotic film that melds the past with the present in a meditation on depression and familial relationships. It’s often described as a lesser version of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), but I find it quieter and more impressionistic. Costa seems more concerned with the visual representation of pain than uncovering any major revelations. LP
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
The people who work in and around the McMurdo Station in Antarctica are up to the challenge of equalling Herzog’s eccentricity (or as his editor Joe Bini describes it, the character of Werner Herzog). Herzog and his subjects discuss everything from the sex lives of penguins, to languages dying out at the very moment Herzog and a linguist are speaking, to who services the ATM machine at the station. Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger contrast this with epic scope natural footage in the Ross Sea and on Mt. Erebus, creating an invigoratingly strange experience. Brett Pardy
ALSO READ: What is it like to work with Werner Herzog?
First Stripes (Jean-François Caissy, 2018)
From our review: “First Stripes begins and ends with the same military graduation parade. A Steadicam shot marches along the ceremonial procession of solemn-looking army recruits, their movements stiff, their faces expressionless. But once the young men and women pass beyond the curtain separating them from their family and friends, their bodies take on a whole new shape. Plasticity returns to their limbs and emotion to their faces. This is where Jean-François Caissy’s verité documentary takes us: behind the curtain, behind external appearances, to follow a group of Québécois recruits to the Canadian armed forces through the 12-week basic training boot camp. The film reveals how training designed to equalize recruits is yet another machine that reproduces a conservative set of norms.” Read the full review.
Flee (Jonas Poher Ramussen, 2021)
From our ebook Subjective Realities: “Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s beautiful, heartrending animated documentary, Flee, opens with silhouettes in gray and blue, an image of legs running, and the sound of heavy breathing. In voiceover, Rasmussen asks his dear friend, Amin, “What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?” It’s a strong distillation of the story the film will explore, of a man who has been constantly on the run, unable to find somewhere comfortable to call home, not just physically but emotionally, because he’s never told his story of fleeing as a refugee in full to the people who are closest to him. It’s also an introduction to the more abstract animation style that will characterise the moments of trauma that Amin recalls, more by evoking feelings than by faithfully depicting the facts of events.” Read the full ebook.
Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, 2018)
From the introduction to our interview with free soloist Alex Honnold: “It’s a cloudless day in Yosemite National Park. A camera hovers thousands of feet above the tree line, scanning the lip of a massive cliff. The granite face below is vertical and exposed without holds or ledges. A bird’s song echoes in the distance; otherwise, the world at this altitude is still and quiet — until, inexplicably, a red t-shirt materializes. We hear Alex Honnold’s laboured breath. On June 3rd, 2017, Alex Honnold scaled El Capitan, a 3,000-foot rock face, without a rope or safety gear — an accomplishment the New York Times dubbed “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever.” Free Solo directs our attention to Alex’s process, chronicling his mental and physical preparation in advance of the Herculean climb.” Read the full interview.
ALSO LISTEN: A podcast episode on Free Solo >>
Gerhard Richter Painting (Corinna Belz, 2012)
As a film in which Corinna Belz literally shoots paint drying, you may be surprised by how much I still think about Gerhard Richter Painting almost a decade after I saw it in a cinema — especially as I took a little nap in the middle. But it’s actually one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen about the artistic process. Belz takes us into Richter’s studio where we watch him create large-scale abstract paintings in oil and use a squeegee both to apply and scrape off layer after layer of paint. Because oil takes so long to dry, these paintings are made over days. He may set aside one canvas, and you’ll think it’s done and looks great, and a few days later, he’ll take a squeegee to it to transform it. Belz largely sits back and watches Richter think, apply or remove paint, think, and repeat. These studio scenes are complemented by interviews with critics and collaborators, as well as archival material. Richter never narrates or explains what he’s doing, but it’s fascinating to watch it all nonetheless — even if its meditative pace may occasionally lull you into a short nap. AH
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
When I interviewed Werner Herzog’s longtime editor Joe Bini for Subjective Realities, I asked him why, of all the twenty-seven films he worked on with Herzog, Grizzly Man has had such staying power. He answered: “He [the film’s subjective Timothy Treadwell] was a very modern character to me. The old joke with Timothy was, ‘Here I am, in the most beautiful place in the world with these fabulous animals behind me. Let’s talk about me.’ Then where did the world go after that? It went into selfies, all of that stuff.” Treadwell is a fascinating subject if ever there was one. The film is made up mostly of footage that Treadwell shot over the twelve summers he spent in Alaska living amongst grizzly bears. The rest is interviews Herzog shot after Treadwell’s death in 2003, when he was mauled to death by, you guessed it, a grizzly bear. The eccentric Treadwell is a subject so well matched with the equally eccentric Herzog, who provides musings in voiceover. As Bini, says Treadwell is an extremely modern character, one so endlessly fascinating that we’re still talking about Grizzly Man today. OS
ALSO READ: What is it like to work with Werner Herzog?
Hale County, This Morning This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018)
One of my favourite essays on cinema is Italian post-World War II neorealism screenwriter Cesare Zavattini’s ‘Some ideas on the cinema’. He wrote that showing everyday actions on screen “means it will become worthy of attention, it will even become ‘spectacular.’ But it will become spectacular not through its exceptional, but through its normal qualities; it will astonish us by showing so many things that happen every day under our eyes, things we have never noticed before.” I can think of no better example of this than Ross’ Hale County, The Morning This Evening. Both elliptical and deeply empathetic, Ross weaves together snippets of the everyday life, filmed over five years, of an African-American community in rural Alabama. The result is a fully realized emotional portrait of a type of community traditionally excluded from cinematic representation. BP
In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, 2013)
From the introduction to our interview: “In Jackson Heights represents Wiseman’s largest and most expansive subject to date: an entire New York City neighbourhood. Jackson Heights is the most multicultural neighbourhood in the United States, full of different groups of people from different walks of life. One of Wiseman’s biggest challenges was figuring out where to shoot and who to talk to in order to find the most interesting and diverse material. The film touches on a panoply of topics, from dance to race to inequality, that Wiseman has explored in past films. In Jackson Heights is his most ambitious project and a culmination of his work to date.” Read the full interview.
John Ware Reclaimed (Cheryl Foggo, 2020)
From the introduction to our interview: “It’s one of Canada’s best kept secrets that there’s a rich history of the Black diaspora in the Alberta prairies dating back over a century ago. What little is known about that history has been condensed in the popular consciousness to the story of cowboy John Ware, an enslaved American who moved to Canada and became a successful rancher. But even the historical accounts of him are limited to a single book, John Ware’s Cow Country by Grant MacEwan, published in 1960, written by a white man, and full of racist stereotypes about Black masculinity. Cheryl Foggo’s moving, enlightening, and appropriately infuriating new documentary, John Ware Reclaimed, attempts to reclaim not just John Ware’s story from the biased history books but the history of Black Canadians in the prairies.” Read the full interview.
Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, 2021)
From the introduction to our interview: “Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens on a herd of buffalo grazing against the gorgeous landscape of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta. As we watch a mother and child buffalo nuzzle against each other, the soundtrack mingles a gentle score with the sounds of a woman speaking to a newborn baby. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s Kímmapiiyipitssini is a documentary about the opioid crisis ravaging Tailfeathers’s own community of the Kainai First Nation. It’s fitting that a film that approaches that topic with such empathy and humanism doesn’t begin with sensationalised imagery of harm, but images and sounds of parental love and caring.” Read the full interview.
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
From the introduction to our interview: “Director Joshua Oppenheimer follows Adi, a forty-year-old Indonesian optometrist whose brother was murdered in the 1965 genocide, as he confronts with great empathy and composure the men behind his brother’s slaughter. Perhaps confronts is the wrong word, for his goal is to generate a dialogue, to make peace, to get at the truth, and to forgive, if given the opportunity. Adi was born two years after his brother, Ramli, was killed. He may not have been alive at the time, but the trauma of the coup is still fresh and present to Adi: the perpetrators are still in power and he is surrounded by neighbours who took part in the killings and were rewarded richly for their service.” Read the full interview.
Los (James Benning, 2001)
As a Virgo, I’m predisposed to love a film that adheres strictly to form. Los is comprised entirely of thirty-five two and a half minute stationary shots. It’s the type of film that would make my mom scream, “But anyone could make this!” It initially looks very simple, but the shot composition and editing create a distinct sense of place. It perfectly captures the unsettling strangeness of Los Angeles, a city where brutality and artifice butt up against breathtakingly beautiful natural elements. Using only ambient sound, Benning creates a city symphony not unlike a piece of syncopated jazz music. Each element seems effortless but has been meticulously crafted by someone who has spent decades learning how to observe. LP
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)
Los Angeles Plays Itself is a dizzying exploration of the city most associated with American filmmaking. The nearly three hour film is composed entirely from L.A. scenes in over 200 films. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a brilliant use of the film archive to ponder how cinematic space affects the understanding of real space, in this case Los Angeles, but it’s an easy jump for the viewer to think about how places we know have been depicted on screen. Treating the large amount of fictional material as an archive depicting the changing cityscape over the last century, Andersen creates a passionate essay about his home city. The film argues that, unlike New York, where films go to famous locations, many L.A. landmarks are recognized precisely because they were in films. Running with this theme, Andersen’s narrative over dozens of clips illustrates how Hollywood usually portrays L.A. as the city government wants it to be seen, which is often a far cry from the multifaceted reality and hides racial and economic inequalities. BP
My First Film (Zia Anger, 2018-present)
From our ebook Subjective Realities: “At the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, Zia Anger adapted a series of live performances she’d presented throughout 2018 and 2019, in the US and internationally, into the My First Film livestream. ‘I still don’t have great language to talk about what it is,’ Anger admitted to me, although her term ‘live cinema performance’ is a workable definition. At the start of a performance, viewers enter a private YouTube livestream link and are greeted by the image of a desktop and the sound of ethereal, mood-setting music. Anger (who is never audible and rarely visible during the show) narrates by typing commentary onto a notes app on her desktop.” Read the full ebook.
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
If David Lynch, Su Friedrich, and Jonas Mekas teamed up to make a documentary, it might look something like My Winnipeg. I guess it could be described as a film about Maddin’s hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, but it’s more concerned with recreating the feeling of what it was like for him to grow up there than an objectively accurate portrayal. By combining animation, archival footage, and reenactments of (alleged) historical events, Winnipeg becomes mythical and otherworldly, haunted by the director’s own experience. LP
National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)
From the introduction to our interview: “National Gallery takes a look at the inner-workings of London’s renowned art museum. We meet the staff of the National Gallery, the tour guides, the restoration department, the communications department, and the research department. We gaze at numerous paintings, often illuminated by a tour guide’s lecture, and we see the special exhibitions change throughout the year: we start with a Leonardo da Vinci showcase, then a J.M.W. Turner and Monet exhibit, and finally a Titian exhibit.” Read the full interview.
Ninth Floor (Mina Shum, 2015)
From the introduction to our interview: “By focusing Ninth Floor on the crucial but under-discussed Ninth Floor protest against racial discrimination, Shum aims to shine a light on race relations not just in the past but today. In February 1969, students at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) held a peaceful protest against racial discrimination at the university on the ninth floor of the school. The protest was in response to the university’s inaction regarding a complaint against biology professor Perry Anderson of racial discrimination ten months before. ‘If you’re talking about peaceful,’ Shum noted, ‘when the original charges were laid, there was no protest at that point. There was just sort of a trust that due process would occur. When that didn’t happen, they upped it by having a peaceful protest — very Canadian. We will try to make peace before we make war,’ said Shum.” Read the full interview.
No Crying at the Dinner Table (Carol Nguyen, 2019)
From the introduction to our interview: “No Crying at the Dinner Table, from Canadian filmmaker Carol Nguyen, is not just one of the best Canadian shorts at TIFF19, but one of the very best films I’ve seen at the festival. In the film, Nguyen separately interviews her sister and her parents — both Vietnamese immigrants — about family secrets and traumas: her mother discusses the lack of physical intimacy she shared with her mother; her sister shares how, growing up, she felt closer to her grandparents than parents; and her father tells a traumatic story from his past in Vietnam.” Read the full interview.
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015)
From our review: “Two minutes into the first Skype conversation between Chantal Akerman and her mother ‘Maman’ in No Home Movie, I was a goner. Maman lights up at the sight of her daughter’s face and the sound of her daughter’s voice. It’s clear from every smile, every gesture, that there’s great love and warmth between them. I’ve never seen love expressed so purely on camera. The scene is a change of pace from the film’s opening, which is alienating and even trying: four nonstop minutes of watching a fragile tree blowing in the wind. It may be a bit overkill as a symbol for resilience, but Akerman is teaching us patience. Most of the film’s images take time to find resonance. Eventually, they devastate.” Read the full review.
No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt, 2020)
From the introduction to our interview: “The story No Ordinary Man tells is one of lost transgender history that’s finally being reclaimed. The film’s subject is Billy Tipton, an influential jazz musician who worked between the 1930s and 1970s. It wasn’t until 1989, when Tipton died in the arms of his son, Billy Jr., that Tipton’s family and the public discovered that he was assigned female at birth. After his death, Tipton’s story was twisted: Tipton was unequivocally a trans man, but the cis-dominated media presented him as a woman who dressed as a man in order to get a foot in the door in the music industry. Even the most cited text about Tipton’s life, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton by Dianne Middlebrook, framed his story around this harmful narrative.” Read the full interview.
Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016)
From the introduction to our interview: “Penny Lane’s marvelous documentary NUTS! picked up the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing with her co-writer Thom Stylinski. The film chronicles the life and work of Dr. John Brinkley, who made his name by transplanting goat testicles into infertile men, making liberal use of animated re-enactments. During the festival, Penny Lane talked to us about the importance of pacing in the film, why they used animated re-enactments, and how to think about documentary film.” Read the full interview.
ALSO READ: An essay on Nuts! and foreveryone.net >>
Our People Will Be Healed (Alanis Obomsawin, 2017)
From the introduction to our interview: “In Our People Will Be Healed, Alanis Obomsawin interviews students, teachers, parents, and elders of the Cree community of Norway House, about the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre, a Nursery to Grade 12 school for over 1300 students in Manitoba. Obomsawin’s focus is on how the local school is lifting up the entire community. Unlike many schools in northern reserves, this one has a similar budget as the province’s others schools, which has enabled the school to invest in programs to make it more culturally relevant to the community. The school’s success, the film suggests, demonstrates that if only given an equitable chance, indigenous communities can heal from decades of abuse and neglect. This message rebuts common conservative arguments in Canadian media that government funding in indigenous communities perpetuates social problems by feeding a cycle of dependence.” Read the full interview.
The People of the Kattawapiskak River (Alanis Obomsawin, 2012)
Attawapiskat First Nation is a remote reserve in what is now claimed as Ontario. While it has not had clean drinking water since 1992, the living conditions in the community received national news coverage in 2011. That was the year when the Attawapiskat First Nations leadership declared a state of emergency due to many residents living in only temporary housing because of several natural and corporate disasters on the land. Appallingly, adjacent to this crisis is Ontario’s first diamond mine, owned by De Beers. One of Obomsawin’s great strengths is gaining trust and truly listening to people’s stories. By doing so in Attawapiskat, she gives platforms to people’s stories which resoundly answer the settler question of “why don’t people leave?” by showing a deep connection to the lands where the Nation has lived for thousands of years. The question the film poses instead is, how can Canada continue to get away with dispossessing Indigenous people of their lands? BP
Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011)
Though Pina premiered after Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, by a fluke of release dates, I actually saw Pina first, and it was the first time I got excited about not just 3D technology, but its use for both documentary and in capturing dance. At the time, most 3D films placed the 3D elements in front of the screen; Wenders, by contrast, placed the 3D behind the screen, so it felt like the screen was the front of a three-dimensional space, like a stage. It felt like the closest thing you could get to watching a live performance on film. Though sure to dissatisfy the true devotees of choreographer Pina Bausch, because it’s more about an overview of her work than looking at any particular piece in full, Pina nevertheless serves as a gorgeous, inspiring introduction to her work. Working with dancers who had worked with Bausch, Wenders takes her dances off the stage and into the streets, the Berlin subway, and the forest. When we do see fragments of the pieces on stage, Wenders’s camera takes us onto the stage, pivoting around the dancers, so we can see them from angles that simply wouldn’t be possible as an audience member for a dance performance. AH
The Road Forward (Marie Clements, 2017)
From our ebook Subjective Realities: “A logline for Métis/Dene filmmaker Marie Clements’ vital and highly entertaining The Road Forward could be deceiving: a film about eighty years of Indigenous civil rights activism in British Columbia might sound like eating your cultural vegetables. While Clements aims to illuminate a part of Indigenous history not known to many Indigenous people outside of BC, she also wants to make a film that will continue to inspire the movement. So she does something I’ve never heard of being done before in documentary: she makes a musical, with soaring songs composed and performed by a variety of Indigenous artists. That’s not just a neat gimmick, but a way to connect the film’s story to both the Indigenous Oral Tradition and the kind of testimony that was published by The Native Voice, the newspaper of the Native Brotherhood that connected Nations across British Columbia. In so doing, Clements brings the history of the newspaper and the organisation to vivid life.” Read the full ebook.
Seymour: An Introduction (Ethan Hawke, 2014)
From our review: “Ethan Hawke’s remarkable debut as a documentary filmmaker, Seymour: An Introduction, is a portrait of one of the greatest concert pianists of the twentieth century, Seymour Bernstein, filtered through the lens of a man of film and theater. The result is an inside look at the process of making art, its rewards and struggles, and an ode to a great teacher. We get a sense of the enormous impact music has had on Bernstein’s life, and in turn, the amazing and touching impact he’s had, through music, on the lives of his students. But the film is as much about the power of music as it is the power of art and of throwing yourself into something you love: your passion and talent, Bernstein muses, is what defines you and sustains you. It is the one constant in a world where social interactions can be unpredictable, where friendships can dissolve almost unexpectedly.” Read the full review.
Sherpa (Jennifer Peedom, 2015)
From the introduction to our interview: “was just amazed at the extent to which the Sherpas do everything and the amount to which that is edited all out of so many Everest films,” said Jennifer Peedom, director of the terrific climbing documentary Sherpa. Although there have been numerous films about climbing Everest — from Leanne Pooley’s 2011 documentary retelling of Edmund Hillary’s ascent, Beyond the Edge, to Baltasar Kormákur’s recent fictional thriller Everest — they tend to be told from the perspective of the foreigners who have travelled to Nepal to climb the world’s tallest mountain. Yet all of these trailblazers required the help of Sherpas to get supplies up the mountains. “No-one had ever told the Sherpas’ side of the story before,” Peedom noted.” Read the full interview.
ALSO READ: A review of Sherpa >>
Sketches of Frank Gehry (Sydney Pollack, 2005)
Shooting on digital at a time when Steven Soderbergh (Bubble, 2005, which also screened at TIFF that year) was one of the only ‘serious’ film directors doing it, and working in nonfiction for the first time, Sydney Pollack’s film about the great architect and his dear friend Frank Gehry is a look inside the artistic process. Unlike Gerhard Richter Painting, we can feel Pollack’s presence throughout via his handheld camera, watching with as much wonder as we might at how buildings like Toronto’s new AGO wing or Los Angeles’s Disney Hall start out as a sculpture made of poster board. If Richter will take a squeegee to his work seemingly without a second of thought, Gehry will alter his designs by mercilessly making cuts with scissors. At a time when one of the most popular documentaries would be An Inconvenient Truth, Pollack tears up the rule book, following Gehry around to chart his process, his home life, and talk to Gehry’s other friends. The filmmaking is as nimble and playful as Gehry’s buildings feel. AH
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
Sarah Polley’s film is more creative nonfiction than documentary: a film about uncovering and unpacking her family’s history that is itself designed to draw our attention to the art of storytelling on film. Reenactments that feel like home videos can be mistaken for fact, and interviews with multiple people in the family reveal often conflicting perspectives. Polley lets us see herself in the frame with a camera or in direct dialogue with her subjects, as a reminder that not only is she choosing the questions and directing the conversations, but also curating the footage and how it’s presented. Many people tell their stories in this film; Polley gets the final say in the cutting room. AH
Stray Dog (Debra Granik, 2014)
From our essay on Debra Granik’s films: “Stray Dog is a portrait of a man let down by the social system, but one who has actually managed to find some peace and order in his life through an unexpected support system — bikers who are fellow veterans. The documentary follows Ron Hall, a trailer park manager in a rural Missouri town, whom Granik met when he auditioned for a small role in Winter’s Bone (2010). Ron is a large, imposing biker, clad in a heavily-patched leather vest; Granik was fascinated with the kindness she saw beneath his rough exterior and approached him to be the subject of her first documentary. In the film, Ron explains that his newfound compassion is an attempt to atone for a dark past during the Vietnam War; he is deeply troubled by the atrocities he participated in. In a haunting scene, he tells his therapist, ‘Am I somebody who is going to go out and mutilate a human body? I guess I am.’” Read the full essay.
Taxi (Jafar Panahi, 2015)
From our review: “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (AKA Tehran Taxi) opens with an utterly absorbing nine-minute uncut take. The first image is a view through the dashboard window of a yellow car wandering the streets of Tehran. A man and then a woman hail the car, which stops for them to get in, signaling that this is a taxi. Once the man and woman are inside, we hear a hand turning the dashboard camera around to film the car’s passengers. Their conversation turns to criminal punishment and whether the death penalty is a righteous option. The man is ignorant, rude, and loud, refusing to accept anything the woman says as reasonable. The woman is polite and patient, even as she gets increasingly exasperated. Only then do we cut, almost imperceptibly, to a shot of the driver: Panahi, a non-actor playing himself (we’ll call his character Jafar).” Read the full review.
Watching the Pain of Others (Chloé Galibert-Laîné, 2018)
From the introduction to our interview: “Watching the Pain of Others is a response to The Pain of Others (Penny Lane, 2018) — itself concerned with the idea of the spectator, as it is entirely composed of public YouTube videos from three different women who believe they all suffer from the same skin condition. In a video diary, Galibert-Laîné takes on the role of a young researcher who attempts to make sense of her fascination for this film. Throughout the project, she comes to discover her own symptoms that are similar to that of the women in Lane’s documentary. Watching the Pain of Others takes place entirely on a carefully curated desktop, which allows us to see segments of the original documentary, as well as the researcher’s notes, emails, and browser windows. We also get to see the researcher’s face and hear her voice, through a web camera app, as she contemplates both Penny Lane’s film and the skin condition she now thinks she might also have.” Read the full interview in Subjective Realities.
We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper, 2014)
From the introduction to our interview: “About a year before the 2010 South Sudanese general election, documentary filmmaker Hubert Sauper boarded a lightweight plane that he’d built in France himself and headed to rural South Sudan to make a movie. He was interested in investigating what traces of colonialism still existed in Africa and what its present-day effects are. As we watch Sauper swoop in on his plane at the beginning of his new documentary, We Come as Friends, he likens himself to an alien from outer space, visiting a foreign land to try to understand it. He films through the window of his plane, a bird’s eye view that acknowledges no borders, as Sauper notes in his voice-over that artificially imposed borders by European colonialists have spawned war across the continent. The nature of his chosen mode of transportation makes him both like other white people, landing uninvited on foreign land, and different from them, because he comes in open-minded, willing to engage.” Read the full interview.
Women He’s Undressed (Gillian Armstrong, 2015)
From the introduction to our interview: “Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly could transform actresses’ bodies, even notoriously ‘difficult’ figures, with his clothes. Bette Davis’s large, droopy breasts posed a particular challenge, since she refused to wear underwire bras — believing they caused cancer. Though Orry-Kelly won three Oscars and designed for countless classic films, including Jezebel, Casablanca, Gypsy, and An American in Paris, he had remained a virtual unknown outside the circles of professionals in his field. Gillian Armstrong’s highly entertaining documentary Women He’s Undressed, which had its international premiere at TIFF, brings Orry-Kelly’s story to the masses, while also illuminating the art and magic of costume design.” Read the full interview.
ALSO READ: A review of Women He’s Undressed >>
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Explore the spectrum between fiction and nonfiction
Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction is a tour through contemporary creative nonfiction, aka hybrid or experimental documentaries. Discover films that push the boundaries of the documentary form.