Begging Naked, 2007
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As anyone who has read my blog partner’s 25 Essential Films of the 2000s knows, Rod concentrated on feature films in compiling his list. It’s my turn as the self-assigned documentary maven at Ferdy on Films to choose a list of notable documentaries of the 2000s. This category of filmmaking is a particular favorite of mine and one that rarely receives the kind of attention that feature films do, unless, of course, it’s a piece of docusnark by some yo-yo from Michigan who is given to channeling Mike Wallace, Geraldo Rivera, and Ub Iwerks all at the same time. Nonetheless, documentaries were on the ascent in the 2000s as a way many people could get the information and education that corporatized, downsized, and increasingly partisan media would or could no longer deliver. Consider the success of the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s traveling show on global warming, as the official acknowledgment of the documentary as an alternative, legitimate, trusted source of news and analysis.
Yet, documentaries are also films, and the form has developed and changed over time, eschewing a strict talking-heads format for more interpretive methods of relating factual material, including the controversial reenactments that always seem to get Errol Morris in trouble but that caused no one a moment’s worry about James Marsh’s Man on Wire, though they were far more dubiously used. What once would have been considered merely “home movie” footage is now the raw material and finished product of such documentaries as Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, and one of my favorites listed below, Trouble the Water. This innovative use of primary-source—particularly self-referential—material has spilled into features such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, and strongly influenced the “queasicam” features that have become de rigueur.
There were many worthy documentaries in the 2000s—this list could have extended much further and included the entertaining and enlightening March of the Penguins, Murderball, My Architect, Grizzly Man, The Nomi Song, and Bright Leaves, not to mention those I didn’t have the chance or the stomach to catch up with, like Taxi to the Dark Side, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, and No Direction Home. Ultimately, I chose films that took me places I couldn’t go myself, taught me things, and moved me with their commitment, honesty, and beauty. Here they are in alphabetical order:
Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)
This film has yet to find a distributor, but it did find a champion in Roger Ebert, who showed it at the 2009 Ebertfest. Exploring Times Square both before and after Giuliani’s “clean up,” what comes through most movingly about this film is the meaning of friendship, as director Karen Gehres films the life and times of her troubled friend, artist Elise Hill.
Beyond Ipanema (Guto Barra and Béco Dranoff, 2009)
I can’t remember when I’ve learned so much in such a short span of time. Barra and Dranoff’s pulsing exploration of Brazilian music since the 1940s is like a musical composition itself—driving, expressive, and filled with the enthusiasm to stuff as much great music into its horn of plenty as possible.
Born into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004)
The red-light district of Calcutta is never captured on film, so this documentary is valuable for that feat alone. But it would be nothing more without the children who did—and did not—find a way out of the cycle of poverty and prostitution through photography. Moving, memorable, and a worthy winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, a Life in Animation (Margaret Selby, 2000)
As a big Chuck Jones fan, just about any documentary about this great animator and director would have made my day. But Margaret Selby’s documentary doesn’t leave any aspect of his career on the cutting room floor, while moving with the verve and humor of the animated world the great man himself brought to life.
Cinerama Adventure (David Strohmaier, 2002)
Another film without a distributor, this film represents the most enjoyable documentary movie experience I’ve ever had. My curious obsession with movie technology—particularly widescreen formats—was more than sated on this history of Cinerama and the technology Strohmaier created to simulate a Cinerama experience—Smilebox.
Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004)
You may not like it, but Al-Jazeera is the voice of news and information for the Arab Middle East. Control Room offers a unique look at this misunderstood organization and the way that American public information workers come to see the world in a different light by watching it, and then watching what their bosses tell them to report. Essential viewing, in my opinion, with real-life drama that will stop your heart.
DAM/AGE (Aranhada Seth, 2002)
Indian writer Arundati Roy is the focus of this documentary about the proposed construction of a dam in the Narmada valley. Roy, a native of this area, protests the construction and visits communities along the river, so her odyssey is a very personal one, the nuances of which Seth captures beautifully. This affecting profile of a famous person and her fabled country can be viewed for free at the invaluable Snag Films.
Excellent Cadavers (Marco Turco, 2005)
Despite a slightly awkward framing device, Excellent Cadavers exposes and explains the complicated history of the Sicilian Mafia and two crusading lawmen who paid the ultimate price to try to bring them down. Sad, infuriating, urgent, this is a look at justice and its cost that will have you rethinking your devotion to the Sopranos.
The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
Master filmmaker Varda premiered a great autobiographical documentary this year, Beaches of Agnès. But it is this minutely observed documentary on those dedicated to saving what others discard that, to me, provides the best portrait into her life and work. A beautiful exploration of aging and the mystery of life, filmed as only Varda can.
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) (Joe Angio, 2005)
Melvin Van Peebles is the most important African-American filmmaker alive today, and perhaps of all time, but I didn’t know the half of it until I saw this energetic, humorous, and sharp documentary. I felt the kind of rush watching it that I had on viewing Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for the first time. Irreverent, caustic, and vitally important.
Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)
Terry Gilliam’s loss in failing to film Man of La Mancha is our gain, as Fulton and Pepe use bits and pieces of footage of the failing production to show a train wreck in slow motion. It’s funny, horrifying, and ultimately sad when one considers the film that might have been.
Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (Chris Metzler and Jeff Singer, 2004)
I’d never heard of the Salton Sea before viewing this documentary, and now I’ll never forget it. Archival footage of this California resort community’s heyday juxtaposes with dead fish and welfare communities that have sprung up in this real estate fiasco some still remember fondly.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, 2003)
It doesn’t get any better than this—real footage of the attempted coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez shot by an Irish film crew that happened to be filming a profile of the leader at the time. A lucky break for Bartley and O’Briain and, ultimately, for us, in helping to make sense of a fast-moving event and providing a filmed record of an historic event.
Riding Giants (Stacy Peralta, 2004)
Step into Liquid is perhaps the better known of modern surfing films, but Riding Giants is the more awe-inspiring. The footage is beautiful and masterfully cut for suspense and visual impact, and the score is hypnotic and inspiring. I can’t think of a better sports or nature documentary of the 2000s.
A State of Mind (Daniel Gordon, 2004)
Director Daniel Gordon was given unprecedented access to film in North Korea, chronicling school girls spending all of their spare time rehearsing for the yearly Mass Games, an enormous and lavish demonstration to honor dictator Kim Jong-il. An extremely rare look at a truly awesome event, and the mindset of North Korean youth dedicated to pleasing their leader.
Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
This is the hardest film you might ever try to watch. Hoop Dreams director Steve James looks up the man who was his charge when James was in the Big Brother program. Stevie, a difficult boy James backed away from, has become a sad, lost, and dangerous fringe dweller. James wonders if Stevie ever had a chance, and if he himself failed Stevie. Honest, brutal, unforgettable.
Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler, 2004)
What’s it like to be the son of a famous director/cinematographer? Mark Wexler demonstrates as he attempts to document his father, Haskell Wexler, for posterity. It’s a fractious ride that will make you wonder why Wexler didn’t become an accountant instead of trying to follow in his father’s footsteps.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)
We’ve all wondered about the secret workings of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating board. Kirby Dick takes us inside the process by recording this documentary’s ratings odyssey, and by cracking the veil of secrecy by interviewing a couple of former raters who have broken their contracted silence. Dick connects the dots and helps us reach some disturbing conclusions about the agenda of censors in the film industry.
Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, 2008)
Go inside New Orleans’ Ninth Ward as Katrina approaches, hits, and recedes. Watching the waters rise higher, higher, higher through the live footage of a family of survivors, cut with follow-up footage and news reports by Lessin and Deal, brings the tragedy of Katrina and the shame of our nation vividly to life.
The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (Jennifer Baichwal, 2002)
Exploiter. Artist. Appalachian insider and friend. Photographer Shelby Lee Adams is, perhaps, all of these things. But respected Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal allows everyone to have their say. What you ultimately decide is up to you.
War Photographer (Christian Frei, 2001)
James Nachtwey is one of the world’s preeminent war photographers. Why does he do it? How does he get so close to danger, grief, and anger? Why do his subjects trust him with their rawest emotions and experiences? Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei combines fly-on-wall experiences with interviews to paint a portrait of a complicated man.
The War Tapes (Deborah Scranton, 2006)
Three American soldiers in Iraq filmed their experiences. Deborah Scranton edited their footage and interviewed them and their families. Together, they created a record of the passage from civilian to survivor for two of the men, as well as the viewpoint of a career soldier. I haven’t seen all the Iraq-related docs that are out there, but I feel I understand so much more about this war than I did before because I got it right from the horse’s mouth.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)
Spike Lee’s documentaries are as renowned as his feature films, and with When the Levees Broke, he has created his most ambitious and meaningful film to date. The four-part, 255-minute opus gives a thorough, impassioned, 360-degree view of the weather event known as Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy that followed.
Whose Song Is This? (Adela Peeva, 2003)
An exploration that rose out of a lighthearted curiosity about the origins of a popular song turns dark and deadly as Bulgarian filmmaker Adela Peeva makes her way around the Balkan countries that claim the song as their original creation. A shrewder illustration of the term “balkanization” you’ll never find.
Why the Towers Fell (Garfield Kennedy and Larry Klein, 2002)
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were huge blocks of steel and concrete, built to withstand the impact of weather and aircraft collisions. They should have withstood the impact of the jetliners that crashed into them, bruised but unbowed. But they didn’t. This fascinating documentary shows schematics and offers penetrating analysis about the design flaws that brought them crashing to the ground. It’s not easy to watch, but it is an important look at the very heart of why this tragedy was not better contained. The documentary can be viewed here.