Documentaries to Get You Thinking

Think again about documentaries.

Once, the older, plainer sister to the more glamorous younger feature film, the genre has been quietly developing into something compellingly attractive. Only recently, films such as The Act of Killing, Finding Vivian Maier and The Drop Box have revealed yet again the depth and breadth of the best of such films, and, in stark contrast to the seemingly endless dross coming from a suburb of Los Angeles, how globally relevant and artistically vibrant they continue to be.

So for any documentary refuseniks still out there, here are some films to get you re-thinking.

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We begin with a classic, one with a star name at his most fiendishly charming. F for Fake (1973) is all about forgers and the art of forgery. The only thing is, the film is just as much a fake as the subject matter. It could be argued it’s really about its director: Mr. Orson Welles. To say the film is a case of “smoke and mirrors” would be an understatement, as one gets the impression that Welles savored making this almost as much as he relished the prospective audience’s puzzlement at it. Ostensibly concerned with forgery, but really about illusions and our willingness to believe—in the hands of this master magician one may as well give up trying to work out what is real and what isn’t and be entertained by the spell being cast.

It was Welles’ last film of note and could have been an epitaph of sorts, especially as it reveals a man in love with his craft but who, for all his auteur status, still had a mischievous sense of perspective about it. And yet, amongst this cavalcade of con men and their deceptions, there is one of the most sublime moments in cinema. Quite unexpectedly the movie jumps to Chartres Cathedral where Welles meditates on the exquisiteness of its creation, its structure, and, “as must all upon this earth,” its eventual falling to dust. It is as surprising as it is moving, given an added poignancy, as in this his final “role,” Welles could have been, and may well have been, summing up his own career with its few highs and many lows. Try this film: you may just find yourself being fooled enough to enjoy it as much as Welles appeared to—or was that an illusion too?

Still on the subject of crime, we move a decade or so later to a very American documentary: The Thin Blue Line (1988). This was the film that established Errol Morris as one of the world’s foremost documentary filmmakers. The reason was that not only did he have a story to tell—and what a story—but it was the drama he injected into its telling that changed things. The recreations and the narrative style were all strikingly new and, for once, were noticed and applauded—and later much imitated. The shooting of a Texas police officer, its aftermath with the suspects, and later the convicted, slowly emerge into something as taut as any thriller. Then, as with all the best documentaries, you pinch yourself and remember this is not a drama but an all too real slice of life. How it unfolds and the “plot” twists and turns will have to be left to the viewer to discover—no spoilers here—but if you stick with it, you will have an ending that shall remain with you long after you have switched off whatever device you have just watched it on. Haunting, yes, moving, yes, forgettable, never.

Staying with the theme of crime, the next film is about one perpetrated on all of us. As the last century ended, The Century of Self (2002) was being made by one of the BBC’s foremost and most idiosyncratic filmmakers, Adam Curtis. It tells the tale of that century from the perspective of the “hidden persuaders” that sought to control the masses of the Western World using the insights of group psychology to manipulate them for commercial ends. If this sounds all a bit far-fetched then the name Edward Bernays should set the alarm bells ringing. This father of modern advertising techniques was to make a fortune helping corporate America “get inside the head” of the average man and woman. They were to be transformed from citizens with rights to consumers with needs. The methodology deployed was to be that taken from the writings of Bernays’ uncle: Sigmund Freud. Devoid of any spiritual or moral angle, human weakness was to be identified and then ruthlessly exploited to satisfy someone else’s greed. Regimes came and went, wars were fought and won; but, in the end, it was to make little difference, someone else had already triumphed, and the prize was the mind of the masses.

In the third penultimate episode, having reached the 1960s, the series looks at the end product of this process in wider society. Surprisingly, to demonstrate its point it has footage not of a hippy commune, or a leftist collective, but of a California convent, one of the largest of its kind in the United States. The young novices are shown going shopping for “civilian attire” having decided to no longer wear religious garb. To camera they talk of how they have been out of step with their feelings and need to “connect” with each other and move beyond the structures they had entered into. In hindsight, it’s heartbreaking. At the time, it was madness. Removing their habits for some momentary fashion—and all that that represented; they were no longer Brides of Christ, but chose instead to embrace the zeitgeist. And, in so doing, they had unwittingly opened a Pandora’s Box, one that was to lead within just a few years to the closing of the convent amid scandalous recrimination, with, by then, over 300 of its former religious having discarded their vows as easily as they had their habits.

A film about another type of “crime,” Bloodmoney (2010) is about the abortion industry. There have been many such documentaries so what makes this different? Its told from the “inside,” by those in the “know,” or to be more precise those who were in the know and somehow exited with only guilt and recrimination to show for their bloody labors. It’s gruesome. A film you will find hard to watch, uncomfortable and unnerving, upsetting and disturbing—I could go on, but you get the point. Maddening and sickening in equal measure—the slowly rising anger that one experiences is due no doubt in part at least to that fact that these “crimes” were all legal and perpetrated under the guise of a smiling “double speak” about “women’s health,” otherwise known as lies. Watch it and weep.

After this you might start to think that documentaries are only gloomy affairs. Not at all, and to prove it something to lift the spirits—Searching for Sugar Man (2012). This film was rightly lauded upon release. It received universal critical acclaim and was a hit at the box office. It involves the search for a little known and quickly forgotten 1970s Detroit singer songwriter, Rodriguez. There was little to go on—the musician was last heard of setting fire to himself on stage—but, nevertheless, one fan was on the trail. All the more bizarre as that fan was from South Africa where in the Apartheid era Rodriguez had become a musical phenomena, if more by fluke than design. Put simply, it would be impossible to make up such an opening premise and hope to get away with it in a feature film. Yet, here it was and all for real, before, as the film unfolds, leading the viewer into something of the surreal. Thereafter, with a major twist, turning itself into one of the most heart-warming movies in ages. I don’t want to give too much away, but think It’s a Wonderful Life with music as the “little guy” triumphs in the end.

So, there you have it. Take a look at these and then tell me that life is not as interesting as anything that fiction can produce—no, forget that; life is far more outrageous than we could ever imagine.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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