Home 2017-09-18T19:45:59+00:00



The Hardships of Making a Feature Film

Whether beaten by outside forces in the heat of production, or abandoned long before cameras would ever start rolling, many movies never got to be made, reminding us just how arduous the process of making a feature film can be. From Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon’, David Lynch’s ‘Ronnie Rocket’, Orson Welles ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s never-completed ‘Inferno’, the list of movies that could have been but never were seems endless.
What if those films had been made? Would they have radically changed cinematic history, or better yet, transform the ways in which we produce and experience filmmaking? Or would the mere fact of having been made compromise the projects themselves, reducing the films to what they are, stripped of the wondrous fantasy of the impossible cinematic dream? Watching this week’s documentaries, one thing is certain: the movies did not fail from a lack of dedication.


The Architecture of War

Just as the black-and-white photograph of a young naked girl, screaming for help while fleeing a napalm attack with her arms outstretched, achieved iconic status during the Vietnam War, the picture of a hooded prisoner standing frailly on a cardboard box with electric wires attached to his limbs has reached a similar status in the case of the war in Iraq. Most representations of war are designed to produce Manichean emotional responses—mystifying reality and entrenching political positions—and as such limit the space for critical thinking. Wars are in many ways too abhorrent, too sickening, and too brutal to be comprehended anyways. Alarming realities are repressed, pushed away so not to disturb the order of things. This week’s documentaries break this cycle by delving deep into the architecture of war, through two portraits of warmongering politicians by director Errol Morris and a striking essay on the mass-production of terror by artist filmmaker Harun Farocki.


The Quest for Power under Public Scrutiny

For amateur political junkies, campaign documentaries that invite viewers to take a privileged seat behind the scene are not only fun but also remarkably suspenseful, mixing real life drama with a sense of voyeurism that is clearly addictive. Although we always know the outcome of the election in advance, tension invariably builds as we watch heavily caffeinated staffers and consultants putting out the first fires of a campaign that will count many more before a winner is declared. Surprisingly, some documentary filmmakers have managed to get incredible access over the years to candidates as they run for office, making us wonder how anyone in the midst of such pressure would agree to be filmed continuously.


Isolation and Intimacy

With the media landscape dominated by scripted reality content, there is a refreshing honesty to the spontaneity found in this week’s documentaries, made all the more touching and haunting because it’s grounded in the real. For therein lies the beauty of the documentary form…the unpredictability of what will happen in front of the lens, culminating at times in a level of intimacy with the subjects that we are not quite accustomed to in our daily lives. This fleeting instant when characters fully reveal their truest selves is not easily obtained, and made even more difficult—though maybe ultimately more rewarding—when filming people who, for one reason or another, have isolated themselves from the world creating a reality of their own.


Self-deception, vanity, and thoughtlessness: a dissection of the human mind

The greatest mystery of man often lies in the choices he makes, and the characters present in this weekly documentary selection created perhaps some of the most ambitious riddles one could possibly imagine. Here, the documentaries are not about the Truth, absolute and unambiguous, but rather about personal stories and memories of a reality deformed by the lies and rationalisations we create to protect ourselves and legitimize our actions. Investigating the complexity of the human psyche, and ultimately focusing on the slippery nature of the narratives the characters produce, the films engage viewers in a critical reflection on the meaning and limits of knowledge in documentary filmmaking, and the illusiveness of truth.


Stories we tell — the fine line between truth and storytelling

Unlike other journalistic forms, no guideline or rules of ethics have ever been agreed upon by documentary practitioners, leading to various ethical interpretations of the genre, and a continuous debate over what really counts as a documentary film.
For many, documentaries represent an idealized space for the discovery of truth, and as such, they require the self-effacement of the director whose role is only to capture what happens before him. Because of this perceived indexical truth-value of documentaries—with claims of authenticity and objectivity always associated with the genre—such films may be criticized on an ethical basis for their manipulation and sometimes misrepresentation of the material to suit the narratives’ ends. Of course, many documentary directors have now moved away from this rather limited view of non-fiction filmmaking, especially considering that the mere presence of a camera will undoubtedly alter reality.
Though strict factual accuracy should be maintained, the material presented on film is inherently shaped and constructed—to varying degrees—by the director’s editing and stylistic engagement. Indeed, the documentary filmmaker, like any other communicator, makes endless choices, selecting topics, lens, angles, sounds, words that will ultimately be an expression of his/her point of view, whether he/she acknowledges it or not. Though eclectic in the themes they approach, the films selected this week all showcase the director’s storytelling and craftsmanship, and the ethical questions that go with it.


The war on drugs: from narco cultura to mass-incarceration

From the production and transportation of drugs across borders, to the effects drug use has had on the mass-incarceration of entire segments of the population—with the African-American community clearly targeted by the draconian punitive laws— documentaries offer audiences an antidote to the sensational fables rooted in paranoia and propaganda that have proliferated since the Reagan era.
For their technical excellence but also their potential to provoke thoughtful debates on a subject of mind-boggling complexity and reach, here is a selection of noteworthy documentaries to better understand what really is at stake when we talk about the war on drugs.


‘White trash’ America, between poverty and hope

To address poverty, much less wage war on it, you first have to show it. The struggles of the urban poor are readily apparent to journalists and politicians alike, yet, poor white families in rural America regretfully do not get much media attention. Or when they do, it is during the ephemeral hype of election season and through grotesque reality-TV treatment like the now defunct TLC show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The documentaries selected here aim to expand the current narratives surrounding rural poverty in America, giving a dignified voice to people with dreams and aspirations despite the heavy odds stacked against them.


True (?) Crime: forensic aesthetics and the quest for justice in America

Since the 1988 landmark film The Thin Blue Line, by director Errol Morris, non-fiction films and television series contesting the official narrative of the courtroom have become staples of the modern true crime genre. And with recent entries like the HBO production The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, or the Netflix series Making a Murderer enthralling millions of viewers throughout the world, it would appear that this expanding trend is here to stay.

When the American criminal justice system cannot be relied upon to correct its own wrongdoings, true crime documentaries appear as the only way to find proper and fair justice, thereby rectifying—at least in the court of public opinion—the errors made in trials. Through their multi-layered narrative and cinematic structure, which mimic in form and content the forensic aesthetics of the American adversarial courtroom, they enhance their viewers ‘judgmental nature’, indoctrinating them into legalism, while subtly leading them to arrive at the ‘legal’ conclusion most desired by the director. But if such documentaries are intended to police the justice system, it remains unclear whether the truth claims made on film are ultimately any more reliable than the court’s proceedings. This is troubling when viewers-turned-detectives-turned-jurors rely solely on the documentaries to form their own legal judgments—especially when the documentaries are as flawed and as biased as the courtroom narratives they are trying to discredit. With many recent true crime documentaries preferring sensationalism to contextualization, here are a few films that stand out in the genre:


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