Documentaries of the 00s Round Up

In which we find that fact can often be more entertaining that fiction.

If you want to impress your friends next time you’re out, remark that the defining feature of cinema in the Noughties was the rise in popularity of the documentary feature. (Although note that when I say ‘impress’, this may actually mean ‘bore the arse off’). Kick-started by the success of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and later Farenheit 9/11, it demonstrated that there was a genuine market for real stories and real emotions (which has also fuelled the seemingly interminable reality TV phenomenon in all its guises). It meant multiplexes began to offer people the chance to see marching penguins, weeping camels and inconvenient truths alongside the standard blockbusters and that can only be a good thing. So we might as well take a fly-on-the-wall look at a few worthy efforts over the past decade.

Let’s creep up unawares on a trio of ‘action’ documentaries. Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008) is an utterly absorbing account of tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring and highly illegal high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974. As gripping as any heist movie in its structure, it’s a great yarn and the talking heads are all engaging. None more so than Petit himself, the consummate showman even when sitting and talking, whilst the others lend perspective and a surprisingly emotional aspect. Dogtown & Z-Boys (Stacey Peralta, 2001) is another expertly put together documentary about the genesis of skateboarding in 1970s California. Even if you don't like skateboarding, it’s full of verve and excitement and captures just how brilliant it must have been for these kids to be in the coolest gang in town. Seeing them as grown-ups, one gets the impression they were never as cool again. Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003) recounts the survival-against-the-odds story of mountaineer Joe Simpson who broke his leg on a mountain in the Andes, then fell down a giant crevasse and still crawled his way down to safety. It also deals with the trauma of his companion Simon Yates, who had attempted to help him down but was forced to cut the rope joining them, sending his friend to (almost) certain death. Best stay at home, I say.

After all that, a change of pace with Etre & Avoir (Nicholas Philibert, 2002), a lovely, gentle documentary about a rural school in France, celebrating teaching, learning and basic human decency. Not much more than that, but it would be a hard heart indeed that isn’t moved by the final goodbyes. Sadly, the success of the movie turned everyone a bit greedy, with the teacher and several students suing the producers for a share of the profits. Similarly meditative is Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005), an interesting account of ecowarrior/complete asshole* (*delete as appropriate) Timothy Treadwell and his attempt to live as one with the bears in the Alaskan wilderness. One of the bears had other ideas. Herzog tries a bit too hard to emphasise the "chaos, hostility and murder" in the story and some of the talking heads feel like padding, but Treadwell did capture some startling shots on his adventures. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002) is set in the cut-throat world of the spelling bee contest in the US and is a rather worrying account of the obsessed kids and their families who make them read dictionaries rather than fairy tales. But it’s gripping stuff - by the end you’ll be whispering the next letter to yourself as you urge the kids to get it right. Or you would if you could actually spell the words.

Enough of this idle chit-chat - time for a little war! Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007) is a scathing, often distressing account of the torture interrogation techniques endorsed by the US in the 'War on Terror'. It loses a little steam in the second half and could have been a little more neutral, but if you didn't have deep contempt for key figures in the Bush Administration before, you will have after. A good companion piece is The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003), in which former U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara muses on US security, international relations and the nature of modern warfare. Fascinating stuff. Then there’s the Cocaine Wars in Florida in the 70s/80s, as explored in the absorbing Cocaine Cowboys (Billy Corben, 2006). It features some fascinating and unsavoury characters, some shocking anecdotes and some truly staggering stats about the whole business. It's all a bit too frenetically edited and frantic for its own good, but I guess that sort of suits the material. Makes Tony Montana look like a rank amateur.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003) starts out as a documentary about children’s birthday party entertainers, but turns very unsettling when the focus shifts to a popular clown whose brother and father have been accused of child abuse. Some frank footage makes for uncomfortable, but undeniably fascinating viewing. In the entertaining Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004), Spurlock discovers a diet of McDonalds is very unhealthy and can sometimes make you vomit. In other news just in, Planet Earth is not flat! Repeat: not flat! Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2010) may be a bit of an imposter here, since there have been doubts about how ‘real’ a documentary it is. Nevertheless, the first two-thirds plays out in intriguing fashion as it records the online relationship between Nev Schulman and a hot girl (and her family), whom he begins to suspect are not all as they presents themselves on Facebook. This is followed by a final third which is quite sad, rather than shocking. But the real food for thought comes in considering the murky ethical and moral issues surrounding the making of the film at all, which may leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable about the whole thing. And might just make you look twice at your online friends – do you really know them?

In truth, this round up barely scratches the surface of the range of documentaries that have graced our screens over the past decade. For more, check this list of most successful documentaries and this list of Oscar nominated efforts.

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