The Armstrong Lie, the documentary which chronicles the astonishing Lance Armstrong drug cheat story, has just been released. It comes from expert doc filmmaker Alex Gibney who tends to visit contemporary issues in fascinating ways, which previous works including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side and last year’s big-hitter We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.
Interestingly the documentary was filmed both before and after the revelations of Armstrong’s ongoing deception (initially focusing on his comebacks from cancer), and so the film itself is a look at something broader, as well as being creative in its formation. Given this – alongside the nominees for the Academy Awards being recently announced (The Square, Cutie and the Boxer, The Act of Killing, 20 Feet from Stardom and Dirty Wars are the five in contention) – let’s take a look at some of the best and brightest docs from years gone by…
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
Apocalypse Now is one of the greatest movies of all time – a surreal, nightmarish and authentic look into the horrors of the Vietnam war. The movie is infamous for its troubled production – one of the most turbulent in cinema history, and one documented in 1991’s Hearts of Darkness.
The movie, which takes its title from the Conrad novel which inspired Coppola’s film, is a must for fans of cinema and anyone interested in movie production. Put together from production footage and secretly recorded conversations between Coppola and his wife Eleanor, the film documents the absolute hell the cast and crew went through making the movie; from Martin Sheen’s very-real on screen breakdown and subsequent heart attack, to Brando’s refusal to learn his lines, Hopper’s drug daze, set destroying monsoons and enormous cost overruns.
But the film is interesting for its depiction of Coppola himself – as it’s arguable the director never really came back from this tormented production – as he certainly never made anything as powerful again. Watching Hearts of Darkness provides a real insight into the tortured artist at work; this is a man grappling with a vision he can’t quite realise and being driven almost insane by it, a man completely lost to his craft.
Coppola famously once said of Apocalypse Now – ‘My film is not about Vietnam. My film is Vietnam’ and watching Heart of Darkness you really start to understand what he meant by that. It’s a fascinating insight into production, creativity and insanity, and remains a must for cinema fans.
Stories we Tell
This film takes “meta” to a whole new level. What starts off as a film about the life of Sarah Polley – an actor best known for her roles in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and Mr. Nobody – soon turns into a documentary about the very documentary that you’re actually watching.
This is a film that embraces the power of storytelling. As the circumstances of the tale change so too does the direction in which the documentary is going. Polley initially wanted to make a film about her life, her family and what is was like to grow up in a politically-motivated household, yet when a huge secret is unearthed she is forced to change tack completely.
Though Stories we Tell is a very personal documentary – indeed, in many ways it plays out like a form of self-therapy for Polley – it is a vital piece of filmmaking. It demonstrates far better than most films the importance and joy of storytelling. It gets right to the heart of what makes a great yarn by delving into the most intimate corners of the Polley family history. It says that yes, we all have “stories to tell” and plays with the old adage that truth is stranger – and infinitely more fascinating – than fiction.
I chose Stories we Tell not for its informative or persuasive qualities, but because it is so unique. It’s one of last year’s best documentaries and deserves all the recognition it can get.
I’ll try and focus on documentaries which I haven’t talked about in any depth (as far as I can remember) before now. There are a whole host of fascinating subjects and styles to choose from, but here are a few suggestions to get you started…
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
A fascinating look into the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the ratings board across the pond, which reminds us of the dark ages of our own BBFC.
Director Kirby Dick continually pushes the boundaries with his docs, looking at the prevalence of rape within the US military in The Invisible War and discussing gay, repressed, closeted right-wing politicians (and their voting patterns) in the controversial Outrage.
But before both came TFINYR; it attempts to find transparency where there is none, allowing for a mini-detective-narrative alongside the debating process, which features well-known industry faces such as Matt Stone, Darren Aronofsky, John Waters and Kevin Smith.
They debate not only the secrecy and lack of diversity on this board, but the rippling effect that has on their movies, ratings and audiences. It particularly comes down to a fascinating debate of violence (a-okay) versus sex (a big no-no), with homosexual acts, women and independent films and filmmakers facing seemingly insurmountable odds compared to their counterparts.
Matt Damon narrates a film from 2010 which documents the financial collapse and resulting crisis, with in depth explanation from scholars, experts and other commentators as to how and why this was allowed to happen, with examples and parallels drawn from around the world.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Similar to James’ excellent choice of Stories We Tell above in the sense that it’s partly a meta-documentary about what it is to make such a film. The subject is product placement – with emphasis on the cinema (and some of the best examples are hilarious) – whilst the narrative focuses on Morgan Spurlock’s attempts to get this very movie made, with hilarious consequences (including the full title of the film itself). It also has some very interesting things to say about the process – e.g. a law in Sao Paolo prohibiting any advertising outdoors – and certainly doesn’t proclaim a black-or-white conclusion as you might expect.
I saw some outstanding documentaries last year and so all of my choices are films I first saw in 2013.
How to Survive a Plague
HTSAP chronicles the fight by HIV and AIDS activists in the US to secure effective drugs, treatment and healthcare. The film proves activists can effect change and direct action does work. It is uplifting and inspiring because it shows how activists managed to take on their own Government (one of the world’s superpowers) and win.
Call Me Kuchu
This is the story of a group of Ugandan Kuchu (LGBT) activists, led by David Kato, as they fight for LGBT equality in a hostile society, where homophobia is fuelled by politicians, tabloid journalists and fundamentalist Christian pastors. The film celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity.
The Kill Team
Finally, The Kill Team highlights the case of a US soldier, Adam Winfield, who becomes a whistleblower and exposes US war crimes in Afghanistan. Winfield is a soldier with a conscience who tries to do the right thing by speaking the truth and standing up for what is right. The film reveals the huge personal cost, and the courage required, to become a whistleblower and expose war crimes.