With the rise and rise of digital TV – programming available 24/7, feeding each and every type of ‘essential viewing’ habit – coupled with the world finding itself in a messy state of fact versus fiction, documentary filmmakers have never had it so good; likewise their fans. Pushing boundaries and becoming ever more introspective with their attempts to capture the world around them, the long term trend continues to bring into question the role of said filmmakers: is it journalism, is it entertainment, is it art? Following the recent (long awaited) release of I Am Heath Ledger and with several other notable film and podcast projects having captivated huge unexpected audiences over the last year, we thought it only right to explore those that really test the genre’s limits.
7 WONDERS: DOCUMENTARY SEASON
Is it true, is it staged, is anything real?
I Am Heath Ledger
Where there is a biography of a person who has passed away, there is always a question of how that person can be autonomous in the telling of their story. An intimate look into a tragic story, I Am Heath Ledger offers a retrospective on the late great through his own lens; compiling home videos shot by the actor himself, a budding director before his untimely death in 2008, and interviews with family and friends to create a picture of the actor that has become a symbol for the futile exasperation of talent cut short for unfathomable reasons. The movie spans his Hollywood career from teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You to his role in The Dark Knight that many people point to as the beginning of his demise. It shows Ledger as a desperately committed and hardworking artist, making the loss all the more tragic.
A Hard Day’s Night
The original mock-rock-documentary paving the way for Spinal Tap and to a much lesser extent, David Brent: Life on the Road, The Beatles’ first film is a delightfully irreverent mix of documentary and script, the fab four blending seamlessly in and out of their “character” selves, with of course, a killer soundtrack. The whole film is a rebellion against conventions, both in film and in 1964 England, then still a few years away from the hippy movement, and found the boys so-called long hair to be a declaration of war against tradition. It is fascinating to see these four, now iconic men in their very clean suit and ties, just having a laugh and being goofy.
My Scientology Movie
Louis Theroux is a documentarian that knows how to work with his own failure. In the 2003 BBC special where he set out to get an interview with Michael Jackson, his struggles to get close to the superstar make for a fascinating hour long study of isolation, obsession, reputation and celebrity. In his latest feature length documentary he thrives under the impressive weight of the Church of Scientology trying their utmost to shut him out and get him to abandon his project. Scientology is as infamous for its privacy as it is for its aggression, and the documentary shifts into a meta introspection on Theroux navigating the obstacles they throw at him with an arched eyebrow and long confused pauses. As he casts actors to recreate the alleged practices that go on in Scientology’s upper echelon, the “Sea Org”, the blending of fiction and reality raises a moral dilemma – what is the difference between the Church inflicting these brainwashing methods on willing members and Theroux’s paid actors re-enacting them?
Netflix’s new documentary about the 1996 murder of Jonbenet Ramsay in Boulder Colorado, Casting Jonbenet invites you to disappear down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory and wild accusation with them as they interview prospective actors auditioning for the roles of various members of the Ramsay family and other key players in the story. All the actors auditioning are local to Boulder and some offer unique perspectives on living through the investigation, although whether that adds any veracity to their own theories is up for debate. Director Kitty Greene doesn’t attempt to posit any theory of her own, allowing the film to build to a cacophony of different suspects and ideas. The unsolved case has been covered over and over in documentaries previously and there is so much information out there about it, but by auditioning actors as characters in a reconstruction Green shines a light on the emotional side of the case, as the actors try to empathise with their roles and get inside the heads of these people experiencing a tragedy.
The $76,000 dollar film that coerced California state legislation – and the resignation of a CEO – and an edit to a Pixar movie, Blackfish became the shovel for which Seaworld began to dig its own grave. The tragic story of Dawn Brancheau’s death at the hands of Tilikum the whale expands into a condemnation of the practice of keeping orca whales in captivity. It’s been almost five years since the film premiered at Sundance, but it was its viewership from spots on CNN and Netflix that got it to a wide enough public to start a revolution in marine life activism. Since then, Tilikum has passed away, Seaworld shares have halved in value (they have lost almost a fifth of their visitor attendance), and under massive pressure from public and and celebrity alike, they have announced their phasing out of orca shows and the captive breeding programme, a huge win for the film’s director Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
Interior. Leather Bar.
James Franco confuses all in the art-house docudrama, premised around reimagining the lost footage of 1983 Al Pacino film Cruising. Controversial amongst straight and gay communities alike, this pre-AIDS-epidemic thriller supposedly had 40 minutes of S&M scenes taken out in order to avoid an X rating. Franco often plays fictionalised versions of himself and in Interior. Leather Bar. his performance plays into the speculation of his own sexuality that has plagued him, as well as questioning the perceptions of gay culture, of fetish, of heteronormativity and sexual exploration, likewise as how far to push yourself in the pursuit of art, or truth. Reality is blurred as the film follows their straight actor cast as Al Pacino’s character, and in doing so examines Pacino’s theoretical journey as an actor in order to make this explicit movie. But no, Franco does not participate in any of the sex scenes, so stop asking.
This podcast broke download records previously set by it’s predecessor Serial, but this is no true-crime investigation. What starts as an investigation into a potential murder rapidly turns into a deeply intimate portrait of an eccentric man in “Shit-town, Alabama”. Critics cannot seem to agree on whether it was a beautiful artistic tribute to a little known area of the world or invasive voyeuristic tourism for liberals to patronise the Bible Belt of America, and as the seven part series progresses the question that becomes more and more prominent is; is this exploitative? However you feel about it by the end, S-Town has stranger-than-fiction characters and enough plot twists to keep you spinning right until its heartfelt epilogue, and you get the sense that regardless of the public reception, Brian Reed genuinely felt he was doing the right thing as he was making it, his narration is sincere and heartbreaking.