Themed Playlist: Complicating the Real- An Idiosyncratic Look at 21st Century Documentary
About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
Rohan Crickmar is the documentary programmer for the currently postponed Edinburgh Internation Film Festival. When it’s back, be sure to check out whatever documentary programme he’s lined up because he has some excellent taste and sensibilities. This is his list (giving you links and/or a heads up about what’s to come):
Having worked on documentary film programming for multiple UK and International film festivals over the past decade I have had to watch a lot of documentary cinema. On the festival circuit you become aware of certain trends that emerging, whether it be in terms of content, aesthetic or geography. Over time you also begin to develop a pretty clear idea of the kinds of documentary film that particularly excite and engage you.
In general, when it comes to film, I like things that are messy. Films that embrace not entirely working, aren’t fully coherent and do not look toward some perfect idea of aesthetic purity. A filmmaker who isn’t scared to let their work fall apart is precisely the kind of filmmaker I want to see more from. When it comes to documentary I find the greatest satisfaction in those works that look to challenge orthodox narratives and limiting gazes. For me the best documentaries veer away from a strict adherence to cliched narrative forms and push to the very limit the unnecessary dividing line between an idea of ‘truth-telling’ (that underpins so many commonplace notions of documentary film) and the laziest depictions of ‘reality’.
Like so much in life, documentary is complicated – as it should be. So what follows is a little embrace of those 21st century documentary films and filmmakers that prove a challenge to the textbook categories and definitions that tend to be forced on the medium. It is an idiosyncratic list, as it is shaped primarily from those films that have shocked these eyes and ears into a new way of seeing the world. It should not be read as some definitive attempt at canon-formation – I actively dread such deathly approaches to any art form. More than anything I hope it will bring some recent documentary films that I genuinely believe have been overlooked to a wider audience. As a result, where possible I have included links to viewing sources for most of the titles.
On an Unknown Beach (Adam Luxton and Summer Agnew, 2016) This film didn’t go nearly far enough on the festival circuit back in 2016. Formed around the explorations of three very different people (coral scientist Di Tracey, sound artist Bruce Russell and poet / actor David Hornblow), the film is a deep dive into ideas of ruin, from the ecological to deeply personal and psychic. In our current moment of low-level catastrophe Luxton & Agnew’s meditations on destruction seem all the more relevant. You can find the trailer here. It should also be available in full with a subscription to GuideDoc.
Tranny Fag [Bixa Travesty] (Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla, 2018) A brilliant Brazilian documentary film that serves as a provocative slap in the face to still dominant ideas of heteronormativity and binary gender identities. It looks at the world of self-proclaimed “tranny fag” Linn da Quebrada, a black trans woman, activist and performer. Largely showcasing her musical performances, the film also passionately engages with the politics that eddy and flow around contemporary ideas of gender. You can find the trailer here. The film is available to rent from £2.49 at Amazon Prime.
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, 2012) I am an absolute fiend for what I describe as process docs, i.e. films that simply show a job of work, industry, craft. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film loosely falls into this bracket, as it is looking at the harsh life onboard an Atlantic trawling ship. Yet it is also so much more than that, partly an exercise in visually immersive, sensorially rich ethnography, it also works as an extended artist film, in keeping with the likes of Tacita Dean. In short, it has to be seen to be believed. The film is actually available in full on Youtube (questionably), but can also be rented for £3.49 at Google Play and Amazon Prime.
For Sama (Waad al-Kateab, 2019) You know that a film is particularly special when you hear nothing but high praise among fellow documentary filmmakers. This has been a rightly heralded documentary intervention on the Syrian conflict, but I think it generates a degree of radical intensity from the intimacy of form and content. This is a life documented in which so much of our current global politics can be unbearably felt. Best of all it is available for free on All 4.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine [S21: La machine de mort Khmère Rouge] (Rithy Panh, 2003) A beautifully understated and emotionally impacting testimony documentary that chronicles the history of the S-21 prison run by the Khmer Rouge, during the Cambodian genocide. Focusing almost exclusively on those prisoners who survived and those party workers who manned the prison the film starkly gets to something like the dark heart of a historical moment. Panh’s 2013 work The Missing Picture is also well worth a look, particularly as it comes up with an inventive form to get at a deeply personal account of a similar history. S21 is available on Youtube in full (again questionably). You can find the trailer and further info at Fandor. Leshu Torchin has also written about The Missing Picture here.
The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010) This is a film I have a strong affinity for, having spent time living in Bradford, and having first come into contact with the potential of theatre through a production of Dunbar’s debut play The Arbor. Clio Barnard effectively turns the Buttershaw Estate, where Dunbar grew up, into a living stage, then populates it with actors ventriloquising excerpts of interview material Barnard has amassed from the friends and family who knew Andrea. It makes for an unsettling and uncanny form of biography, quite unlike anything else in recent British documentary. The film is available on the BFI Player here.
FREM (Viera Cákanyová, 2019) Probably the most revelatory film of the last few months, it premiered at Ji.hlava IDFF last October and has since played at this year’s Berlinale. As a debut feature doc this is an extraordinary work of technical sophistication and radical post-humanist thinking. Shot in Antarctica using camera tech and A.I. specifically built to capture what would otherwise be humanly ‘unthinkable’, this recasts the world in an entirely unanthropocentric manner. It makes for one of the most infuriating and audacious documentaries I can remember. Absolutely must be experienced. You can find a short clip here. The film will likely be playing UK festivals later in the year.
Children are Not Afraid of Death, Children are Afraid of Ghosts (Guangrong Rong, 2017) A truly troubling documentary that asks so many questions of both form and ethics. Guangrong Rong’s debut is a documentary about the failure of making a documentary. As an artist and social activist Rong had become aware of the shocking group suicide of unrelated children in a small village in the mountainous Guizhou region in 2015. Travelling to the village to document why this may have happened Rong is met with what appears to be a government cover-up. Unable to shoot the film he had set out to shoot, Rong then put together a documentary that reflects on the filmmaking process, his own experiences of fatherhood and the way in which poverty and wider societal ills operate like phantoms within the official state discourse. A trailer can be found here. Alas, this is a film that still doesn’t appear to be available in the UK.
Night and Fog in Zona (Sung-il Jung, 2015) It would seem more than a little contrarian to select not a single Wang Bing title in this playlist, but rather to go for a four-hour long documentary about the filmmaker and his filmmaking practice. However, bear with me. This is a South Korean documentary about Chinese documentarian Wang Bing, as he worked on his 2013 films about institutional and societal neglect ‘Til Madness Do Us Part and Alone. Yet what makes this film by critic and filmmaker Sung-il Jung so intriguing is the degree of access Bing allows, and the manner in which his film’s aesthetic so completely merges with Bing’s own. The trailer can be found here. The film premiered in Busan and went to IFFR in 2016, but hasn’t made it’s way to UK streaming sites.
Obscuro Barroco (Evangelina Kranioti, 2018) In just two feature docs Greek filmmaker Evangelina Kranioti has marked herself out as one of the very best documentary image-makers and experimenters on the contemporary festival circuit. Undoubtedly, her central concern is with documenting the radically expressive eroticism of certain communities around the globe. Here she partners with the transgender sex worker and activist Luana Muniz, to explore the intensely sensual nocturnal world of Brazil’s queer subcultures, as they weave in and out of the carnival atmosphere of Rio. Much like Untitled, below, it was my film of the year for its year. Alas, this is another film that is too new to be available online. You can find info about it at the IDFA website here. The trailer and reviews can be found here.
The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000) So much of Varda’s rich filmography showcases the inventive power of documentary. It is almost as if the filmmaker just doesn’t know what conventional is. In this film she turns her attention to the traditional agricultural practice of gleaning, carried out by those people who follow the harvests and scavenge what the farmsteads throwaway. Varda shows how this rural practice has been brought into the urban environmental by ecological activists, anarchists and those seeking to get by on the margins of public life. What is entirely enthralling about this doc is the way Varda so completely integrates a self-reflexivity in her approach. As a documentarian she is herself a gleaner, and her image-making is, perhaps, making sense of what has been cast off by her subjects. You can rent the film for £2.49 at Amazon Prime here.
Untitled (Michael Glawogger & Monika Willi, 2017) Glawogger tragically passed away while making this film, something which his filmmaking collaborator Monika Willi, incorporates within the film itself. A genuinely unclassifiable and utterly restless filmmaker, his wish for this final film was to allow ‘”a view of the world to emerge by not pursuing any particular theme, by refraining from passing judgement, proceeding without aim”. What emerges is the start of what would have been a truly transglobal undertaking entirely formed from the filmmaker’s own obsessions with dynamic kineticism. Willi has to be commended for bringing to the screen this brilliant distillation of their project, one which despite being so utterly defined by its headlong embrace of life, ultimately ends aborted. This unique work can now be found to rent for £2.49 on Amazon Prime here. Info about the film can be found here.
Planet Kirsan [Planeta Kirsan] (Magdalena Pieta, 2011) A delightfully dreamy documentary about the seemingly fantastical reality of Chess City, in the Russian steppes. Billionaire President of the impoverished Republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, agreed to allow a Polish film crew to film his ambitious / foolhardy plans for turning his country into the world’s foremost chess superpower. What marks this out as a special documentary is Magdalena Pieta’s decision to document Chess City as some kind of fever dream in the imagination of Kirsan himself. An absurd folly almost entirely divorced from the realities of everyday life for most people in Kalmykia. Focusing upon two young brothers who dream of someday becoming World Chess Champion, the film is a brilliant tightrope walk between the kind of aspirational sports doc we are all too used to in the Anglocentric film universe, and an absurdist comic doc something like you’d expert from Werner Herzog. It is extraordinary to me that the clearly talented Pieta has yet to follow this up. It is available for free on Amazon Prime.
Homemad(e) (Ruth Beckermann, 2001) With a passing nod to Agnes Varda’s masterly Daguerréotypes (1976), Ruth Beckermann delivered this bracing account of her home street in Vienna, Marc-Aurel-Straße, in the former Jewish textile district. Carefully documenting the neighbourhood over the course of a year at the turn of the millennium, the director gives us a deeply political window into a rapidly shifting cultural context, a receding history and the first significant mainstream emergence of a new aggressively right-wing politics in post-WWII Austria. As is my perennial gripe with Beckermann’s work, it is poorly serviced by streaming sites in the UK. You can see it on the dafilms.com platform for a 6 Euro subscription here. You can also find a primer to her essential work here.
Raw Material [Matière première] (Jean-François Reverdy, 2016) This short documentary blew me away with the simplicity of its execution, in spite of the near panoramic complexity of its political view. Filmmaker Reverdy uses a pinhole camera device to document the capitalist conversion flow from iron ore mining in the Western Sahara through to the desperate attempts of migrants to travel from Saharan Africa to Europe. Each short section of the film begins with one of the documented figures breaking the paper lens of a pinhole camera. Not only is Reverdy’s film a visual feast, unlike anything else you will have seen, but the chain of events the film documents is as succinct a summation of the brutal human costs of capitalism that I have seen. The film trailer is here. The full film can be found on subscription service Labocine.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (Shola Lynch, 2004) Probably the most conventional, talking heads historical documentary on this list. Yet what makes this an important film is the way in which Lynch refracts recent US history through the lens of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. Lynch though focusing on Chisholm’s doomed bid for the 1972 US Presidency, gives her subject the space to reveal a warts and all political history, that runs counter to much of what is normally presented of the early 1970s US political scene. Taking on her canny brand of political populism and her withering no-holds barred assessments of her political contemporaries, Lynch delivers a smart political biography, that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you have a University ID then you should be able to access the film via Kanopy here. A trailer can be found here.
You Have No Idea How Much I Love You [Nawet nie wiesz, jak bardzo Cię kocham] (Paweł Łoziński, 2016) Marcel Łoziński is considered to be one of the great Polish documentary filmmakers, but remarkably his own son is rivalling him as one of the most talented documentarians in Europe. This deceptively simple yet entirely unique documentary looks at a mother-daughter relationship in near forensic emotional detail. Bogdan de Barbaro, a family therapist, walks an adult daughter and her mother through a series of sessions in which more and more layers of their awkward relationship are revealed. Shot almost entirely around the faces of this core trio, the film works something like the Israeli / US TV Series Be Tipul / In Treatment. It also has echoes of the filmmaker’s own 2013 film Father and Son [Ojciec i syn], that explored his relationship with his father. The film is available to watch on IDFA’s screening platform for a small fee here. You can read my interview with the filmmaker here.
All the Cities of the North [Svi severni gradovi] (Dane Komljen, 2016) On the surface Bosnian-born Dane Komljen’s debut feature is part architectural documentary and part utopian elegy. However, it is in the way he wends these two disparate elements together that this engrossing film shows its real ambitions. The strictly doc elements of the film are archive histories and present-day accounts of the architectural designs of Zoran Bojović and the Yugoslav construction company Energoprojekt. However, these are placed within a loose drama of loss and nostalgia, as two men attempt to live a utopian life in an abandoned Yugoslav holiday complex. You can find the film at Kanopy here. I wrote a review article on the title here. And finally you can find the catchy bit of Yugoslav new-wave that features at the close of the film here.