Documentary Triple Bill

Truth can not only be stranger, but also more exciting, disturbing and affecting than fiction. As these three recent documentaries demonstrate....

Winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Oscars, Free Solo (Vasarhelyi & Chin, 2018) is about professional rock climber Alex Honnold and his attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000ft high El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park, WITHOUT ROPES!! As you can imagine, those with a fear of heights might do well to avoid this as the documentary team, themselves hanging precariously on the rock face, capture some stunning, vertigo-inducing footage of Honnold clinging on with his fingertips to the mountainside. There is no doubting the extraordinary nature of his achievement(s), but beyond the actual athletic feat the examination of Honnold's motivations is rather superficial, while the effect on his girlfriend, friends and family is also explored in conventional, but rather unsatisfying fashion. Compared to something like Man on Wire, a much superior account of a similarly amazing feat, this felt like a film that was content to stay safely tethered to an easy narrative, rather than reach for something more challenging. Personally, I was initially scared he might fall and die, but one look at his black, soulless eyes and I knew he was dead already.

Less easy to dismiss flippantly is Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed, 2019), an account of Michael Jackson's alleged sexual abuse of two boys, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, at the height of his fame in the 80s and 90s. I say 'alleged', but this is pretty damning stuff, as over the course of 4 hours, both men give profoundly disturbing testimony about how Jackson groomed and abused them as kids, leaving them deeply affected and emotionally scarred as adults. There's also an exploration of how their parents, in particular their mothers, who also feature here, could let their sons go off to sleep in this man's bedroom and not suspect anything sinister was going on. It isn't a balanced documentary in that Jackson's side of things is not really presented, but then again we've heard his 'defence' many times and it is something people believe or not. What we haven't heard until recently is the version put forward by these two men and it would be a cynical or deeply deluded soul indeed who claims they are lying just for the money. It's not easy to watch or hear the graphic details, but it is important that this gets seen to ensure Jackson is not just remembered for being an eccentric musical genius. Instead, this is more proof, if anyone really needed it, that the king of pop was in all probability a very calculating smooth criminal and an utterly despicable human being. Let's hope someone buys Neverland and razes it to the ground.

Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018) is an astonishing, couldn't-make-it-up tale about identical triplets separated at birth who are reunited as 19-year-olds following a quirk of fate. However, the real trick here is that after sucking you in with its incredible feel-good story, the film smartly moves into more tragic and disturbing territory, as we gradually discover why they were separated the way they were.  It makes for gripping viewing, mixing archived footage with engaging talking head interviews as the story twists and turns are revealed. The only pity is that some parts of the story remain tantalisingly out of reach, through no real fault of the film-makers, which leads to a slightly anti-climactic resolution. Of course, this is real-life, not a three-act script, so perhaps expecting a neat conclusion is unfair, but it is still a great watch, especially for anyone interested in the nature-versus-nurture debate about what makes us the people we are.

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