A Journey Into Obscurity – Documentary Edition

Rollin', rollin', rollin' down the river.

Rollin', rollin', rollin' down the river.

[Welcome readers! A friend of mine, Mr. Brown, has provided an good article on the art of the documentary and recommends four of his favorites. Check it out, and let me and him know what you think. And get yo’ learn on and take a gander at these and any other docs you can get your hands on. I recommend an excellent one, The Thin Blue Line, by Errol Morris.]

When you hear the word “movie”, what do you think of? I’m betting most people begin to conjure up images of large Hollywood sets, sound stages, A-List actors and actresses, and all the trappings that accompany large scale, big budget films. While these films have a definite and undeniable place in today’s mainstream media, there is another type of film that goes largely unnoticed and unwatched. I speak of course of the documentary. The origin of the doc coincides with the origin of film itself. It is an integral and absolutely fascinating area of narrative cinema that is far too often overlooked for one reason or another. Admittedly, some docs do harbour some serious bias (*cough* Michael Moore), but they also offer us a venue to examine the world in which we live, other people and cultures, and even ourselves. What style of filmmaking could combine the long held human tradition of narrative storytelling, with real life situations and people more effectively and elegantly than the documentary? So, let’s put down our copies of Transformers or Spiderman 3 – at least for the time being – and instead submit ourselves to some obscurity.

Here are four documentaries, ones that represent a wide variety stories and people, that I urge each of you reading this blog to watch…

1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Writer: Kurt Kuenne

In 2001, Andrew Bagby, a medical resident, is murdered not long after breaking up with his girlfriend. Soon after, when she announces she’s pregnant, one of Andrew’s many close friends, Kurt Kuenne, begins this film as a gift to the child. Friends, relatives, and colleagues say warm and loving things about Andrew; home movies confirm his exuberance. Andrew’s parents, Kathleen and David, move to Labrador where the ex-girlfriend has gone. They await an arrest and trial of the murderer. They negotiate with the ex-girlfriend to visit their grandchild, Zachary, and they seek custody. Is there any justice; is Zachery a sweet and innocent consolation for the loss of their son?

PERSONAL THOUGHTS: This film is one of the most heart wrenching, and infuriating stories I have ever came across in my life. Had this been a Hollywood flick it still would have been jarring, but the fact that it’s real will make you want to pound your fists and tear out you hair by the end of it. And without giving too much away, it slams you with one of the most shocking twists I’ve ever seen in a film, doc or otherwise.


2. Baraka (1992)
Director: Ron Fricke
Writers: Constantine Nicholas, Genevieve Nicholas

Without words, cameras show us the world, with an emphasis not on “where,” but on “what’s there.” This documentary begins with shots of the morning, the natural landscapes and the people at prayer: volcanoes, water falls, velds, and forests; several hundred monks perform a monkey chant. Indigenous peoples apply body paint; whole villages dance. The film then moves to destruction of nature via logging, blasting, and strip mining. Images of poverty, rapid urban life, and factories give way to war, concentration camps, and mass graves. Ancient ruins come into view, and then a sacred river where pilgrims bathe and funeral pyres burn. Prayer and nature return. A monk rings a huge bell; stars wheel across the sky.

PERSONAL THOUGHTS: Simply put, this film is beautiful. It is known as a “pure cinema” film: while having no conventional plot and no script, and using only photography, it manages to tell a story using real people and locations. Baraka will undoubtedly make you see the world in a new, reverent light. It needs no words nor fancy tricks to enrich its presence. The juxtaposing imagery of traditional tribes and cultures with that of the industrialized, fast paced modern world is nothing short of extraordinary. If one could qualify something as being “spiritual”, whatever that may mean, then this film has it in spades. Watch it and it will stick with you long after.


3. The Fog of War (2003)
Director: Errol Morris

Robert S. McNamara discusses his experiences and lessons learned during his tenure as Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He talks about his work as a bombing statistician during World War II, his brief tenure as president of Ford Motor Company, his 13 years at the World Bank and the Kennedy administration’s triumph during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the film focuses primarily on his failures in Vietnam. The theme of the film are his “eleven lessons” learned during this time. Some of these include improving military efficiency, understanding your enemy, and the frustrations of trying to deal with (and unsuccessfully trying to change) human nature.

PERSONAL THOUGHTS: An extremely dense yet infinitely thought provoking film. Through the weaving, thoughtful, and deeply insightful narration by Mr. McNamara, one can truly see how complex and overwhelming of a machine war is. The eleven lessons contained in the film are at once sharp as they are philosophical. Make no mistake, this is not a film for political science enthusiasts only. It makes some interesting and bold statements about war and the very nature of humanity. Also, the score by Philip Glass is pretty stellar.


4. Up the Yangtze (2007)
Director: Yung Chang
Writer: Yung Chang

A luxury cruise boat motors up the Yangtze – navigating the mythic waterway known in China simply as “The River.” The Yangtze is about to be transformed by the biggest hydroelectric dam in history. At the river’s edge, a young woman says goodbye to her family as the floodwaters rise towards their small homestead. The Three Gorges Dam – contested symbol of the Chinese economic miracle – provides the epic backdrop for Up the Yangtze, a dramatic feature documentary on life inside modern China.

PERSONAL THOUGHTS: I had originally heard about this film during a documentary class at film school in Vancouver, but I had wrongly neglected to watch it until recently. I suspected a kind of “by the numbers” look at the modern day economic giant that is China. Instead I was treated to an extremely intimate and rare glimpse into a culture caught in a monumental struggle of tradition versus progress. Despite it being completely non fictional, there are several individuals that emerge out of this film as true characters, the likes of which great modern screenwriters may have crafted. While the film doesn’t go into any great detail about the Three Gorges Dam project –the effects on the ecosystem, the costs, etc.– it succeeds greatly in showing the personal stories and sacrifices Chinese families and individuals have to make in order to fuel their nations enormous leap to the forefront of the 21st century. This film is a testament to what you can do with a camera, a small budget, and the people willing to share their stories.


Well there you have it. Four fantastic films, all of which I hope spark your interest. The documentary genre is  an amazing, fascinating, and underrated genre; one that should be approached with curiosity and an open mind. There’s always a true, incredible story waiting to be told.

Happy viewing!


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