Not so long ago documentary films were seen a little more than just something that you would watch on the telly if nothing else was on….. well nothing else of interest anyways! As a species humans are suckers for truth, so why was it that documentaries than essentially focus on truth and nothing but the truth did not even reach the mile marker while their super siblings the movies forged ahead full speed? Maybe the topics weren’t interesting enough? Or the budgets weren’t enough? What ever the case might be it doesn’t exist anymore.
In the last decade alone documentaries have chartered their path and have risen from the ashes to not only become popular but also carve a niche unto them. So much so that at least 16% of the venerable Cannes film festival is about documentaries. In an unprecedented ever-Fahrenheit 9/11 became the first ever-documentary film to win the Cannes Palm D’Or in 2004.
So why have documentaries suddenly become so popular? One undeniable fact is that the documentary filmmakers today have definitely become better at the art. But also that fact that we live in an insecure world where we are constantly perplexed over its state, unwilling to trust in our leaders and politicians, it is then justified that we seek the truth in documentaries, we rely on them to give us the facts as they are and find out, though ostensibly what is going on in the world.
Having said that, lets talk about some of the more sensational and groundbreaking documentaries of 2017.
Central Park in New York was termed as the lungs of the city by Fredrick Law Olmstead, well if the Central Park is the lung then The New York Public Library has to be the mind of the city. And that, ladies and gentleman, is what our first noteworthy documentary, Ex Libris, is all about- The New York Public Library. Shot by the legendary Fredrick Wiseman, the documentary illustrate how the NYPL just like a mind isn’t just a collection of facts but home to our understanding of morality and community. Threads of life recur and echo through the NYPL’s lessons until they essentially become a singular blur that is: Listen, Learn and be Kind.
If you like seeing movies or well….. documentaries that cover a period of time, well then the next one on our list literally blows it out of the park. Dawson City Frozen Time, links found footage from the Gold Rush era to dawn cinema and the modern age. What makes this film by Bill Morrison an absolute masterpiece is that fact that you don’t just watch the film, it actually makes you step in right into the Gold Rush era.
Citizen journalism has often been met with a lot of skeptism and not mention many times outright rejection, but if there is one piece of citizen journalism that deserves praise (which is too small a word to describe this one, believe me!) it’s the documentary film City of Ghosts. The film is about a courageous group in Raqqa, Syria, who in the face of ISIS terror has formed a sort of resistance cell and a digital citizen journalist group. When Islamic state took over their city, these people took to social media. They risked their lives and shot and showcased countless videos and images that showed the brutality and the sheer psychopathic violence meted out by ISIS, before many of them were silently and brutally killed by the ISIS. The group eventually had to flee for their lives and have now taken refuge in Germany. Their stories are a testament to not only their courage but also how low humanity can sometime sink.
From the bleakness of a terror regime that is showcased in City of Ghosts to France where our next documentary was shot. If City of Ghosts shows the low point of humanity, Faces Places restores it. The film is a charming union of two unlikely people, Agnes Varda, who at 90 is still making films and 30 years old JR a French artist and photographer. The duo traveled through France meeting, shooting and photographing people, buildings, farm houses, abandoned homes and more on the way. The truly remarkable thing about this film is that is showcases the basic goodness of people. Faces Places is movie full of life and joy that manages to be thoughtful at the same time.
For as long as the mankind has had conscious thought, the one prevailing question it has sought through the ages is where we come from? Who is our creator? Why are we here? While many turned towards science to explain the rationale, these questions gave birth religion. Religion gave faith to people in believing God, in believing that there was supreme power out there. And yet, being human we divided our religions. We no longer have a choice of religion, we are born into it, and anyone who questions or tries to break away from the religion that they born in are frowned upon to say the least. And that is at the heart of our next documentary film One of Us. The film follows the journey and struggle of young New Yorkers who are trying t break free from their Hasidic Judaist community.
Documentaries are not feel good and romantic and mushy, they are definitely not something you can just watch while munching on popcorn and then go off to sleep, happy in your snug little comfort zone. Documentaries are often hard hitting, brutal in their portrayal and the best part of them is they give you the truth and nothing but the unblemished, untarnished Truth.