Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A Decade of Documentary Excellence

Writing my latest article for Media Magazine about the documentaries that have criticised America for so many reasons over the last decade got me thinking about how great these non-fiction films are. The likes of Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock and Charles Ferguson are giving docs a reputable name with many cinema-goers.

Box-office records have been broken, awards have been won (including Cannes' Palme D'Or), critics have drooled and audiences have cued up like never before to see docs on the big screen.

And it's not just muckraking. Yes, many docs have laid into America's foreign policy, illegal and immoral war-mongering, inhumane treatment of prisoners, obesity problems, economic crisis and alleged covering up of the truth of what happened on 9/11, but there have been so many other docs that also deserve a mention for raising issues, confronting the powerful and sometimes just being bloody entertaining.

Michael Moore may have brought non-fiction film to the masses with Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 9/11, but other filmmakers are working hard to catch some of that box office appeal. Morgan Spurlock with his gimmicky, silly docs for one.

But most interesting is the direction of Kevin Macdonald. With Touching the Void using vivid reconstructions of a mountain top disaster accompanied by interviews with the real-life stars of the story, a documentary became a gripping thriller in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. Following this with a couple of less interesting and significantly less thrilling fiction films (The Last King of Scotland and State of Play), he then returned with this year's brilliant doc Life in a Day. Taking thousands of hours of footage uploaded by ordinary people to You Tube and turning it into something beautiful, mesmerising, depressing, uplifting and life-affirming is one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. (See my review on this blog back in June 2011)

In the Media Magazine article I look at a range of documentaries that have attacked America from Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007) to Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010) but a couple of other docs not mentioned due to their subject matter are Collapse (Chris Smith, 2009) and Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001).

Collapse is a terrifying must-see, particularly for anyone who enjoys conspiracy theories or just thinks that civilisation is always on the brink of collapsing. It might be just one guy sitting in a chair but by the end I was quaking in my boots and could not stop thinking about this doc for weeks after.

Waking Life is not generally considered a documentary but, and I quote, 'Waking Life is more a documentary than a work of fiction, because most of the speakers play themselves and talk about their real views' ( This amazing film's use of animation (or more specifically rotoscoping) and its ideas about 'identity, dreams, consciousness, and free will' are mind-boggling and great fun to watch.

So if you don't like documentaries or you think they're boring, next time you start mindlessly watching a piece of reality TV crapola, try finding a classic doc to watch instead. Here's my top 10 in chronological order:

  1. Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, 1970)
  2. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
  3. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
  4. Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
  5. Farenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)
  6. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (Robert Greenwald, 2004)
  7. Glastonbury (Julien Temple, 2006)
  8. Taxi to the Darkside (Alex Gibney, 2007)
  9. Collapse (Chris Smith, 2009)
  10. Life in a Day (Kevin Macdonald, 2011)
Seek them out, engage your brain, laugh, cry, be outraged and never forget! What have I missed? Is there any doc missing from this list that I need to see or include? If you read this, don't be scared to let me know....