When an observational documentary is masterful, the world of the story and characters simply appears to unfold right before your eyes, drawing as little attention to the filmmaking process as possible. No narration, minimal voiceover, sometimes not even interviews - just scene after scene of raw footage strung together in which the characters and their often-turbulent lives drive the film.
The degree of intimacy and naturalism achieved is contingent entirely on the strength and depth of the filmmaker/subject relationship. In addition to this, the best of these documentaries have shoot periods spanning years or even decades, and once the dramas and changes of that sprawling time period are compressed into 90 minutes it’s near impossible not to get caught up in the fraught destinies of the players on screen.
This is the style of film that has truly given documentary its claim on ‘reality’ and ‘authenticity’. Ironically however, the more invisible the crafting of the film, the more highly refined and manipulated it may actually be, even while the flow may seem effortlessly ‘real’…
10. Salesman (1969)
The Maysles brothers, who made this classic and many others (including the legendary Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens), were pioneers of ‘Direct Cinema’. They actually personally invented a handheld portable sound recording device so they could shoot films on the fly. In this film, four door-to- door salesman travel across Florida trying to flog people expensive mass-produced bibles in what the New York Times labelled an effort to “move horizontally through the capitalistic dream”. Probably most astounding is the access the filmmakers got to private homes even when they turned up completely unannounced - those were the golden days before super-saturation of cameras, where women still opened the door in hair curlers and didn’t sue for defamation!
9. Knuckle (2011)
OK, granted, the beginning of this film does feature the voiceover of the Director Ian Palmer explaining how he stumbled upon this mad world of illicit Irish bareknuckle fighting – but overall the style is pretty ‘fly on the wall’ and it was shot over 12 years, often just on a scrappy amateur handycam. What emerges when all these morsels of footage are woven together, however, is the incredible story a longstanding rivalry between clans of low socioeconomic Irish ‘traveler’ families (Irish equivalent to trailer trash) who organize illegal boxing matches in clandestine locations like carparks and taunt each other with inflammatory video messages to the tune of “I’m gonna give it to ya, you baldy bastard!” If humanity needed further confirmation that violence will always beget violence, here ‘tis – and if documentary makers ever needed a reminder that the power of a brilliant story will eternally trump production values, this is it.
8. Rough Aunties (2008)
Kim Longinotto is a master of the observational style – her films are no frills, rough and ready with jumpcuts, shaky camerawork and minimal music, but the raw heart of the characters and their usually tragic stories always shines. She is renowned for delicately balancing the grim tragedy of people’s lives with the triumph of their spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. In Rough Aunties, she follows an inspiring group of women in South Africa fighting against the rampant endemic sexual abuse of poverty-stricken children, so the stories are pretty bleak. But somehow there is still colour, song and uplifting moments, which counteract the despair. Sisters In Law, Divorce Iranian Style, Runaway and other films in her backcatalogue are equally deserving of viewership.
7.War Photographer (2001)
This film follows renowned war photographer James Nachtwey through postwar Kosovo, riots in Jakarta, mass graves in Rwanda, tension on the West Bank and possibly the most treacherous of all – the editorial offices of Stern magazine where the images are judged for their capacity to sell tabloids! Nachtwey hasn’t missed a war in 20 years. Director Christian Frei mounted a lipstick camera on Nachtwey’s stills camera so that the viewer can see things from his direct perspective as he traverses this dangerous terrain, creating an unparalleled sense of ‘realness’. As well as being a portrait of Nachtwey and his experiences, this film is also a meditation on the nature of war journalism and the ethics of documenting other people’s suffering, which unfortunately is what always makes the best pictures.
6. Children Underground (2001)
This hardcore observational film is shot over a year in the subways and squats of Bucharest, Romania. It intimately, unsentimentally captures the dire situation of nihilistic street kids, some as young as 8, as they starve, fight, sniff paint and eke out a chaotic existence. Director Edet Belberg was criticized for supposedly dispassionately documenting the children and not trying to save them (but apparently she and her crew did contract tuberculosis, lice and scabies!). She said: ''I realized early on that if we were to intervene, it would make a difference for the children only in the very short term, and meanwhile, because the crises were so relentless, the film would not get made.'' The observational style in this case allows the film to make a potent social and political statement about the consequences of the despotic Ceaucescu regime, without being polemical. Ultimately this documentary offers no happy endings, and the starkness of reality is not mitigated by any poetic frills, not even music.
5. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
Out in the rural hills of New York State, a family of four brothers, now in their 50s and 60s, have been living an isolated hillbilly life in a dilapidated barn since birth, even as the modern world swarms around them. When Delbert is accused of suffocating William -- and the police coerce him to sign a statement despite the fact he is illiterate -- a murder trial shakes up the world of these gentle, introverted country folk and the locals of Munnsville rally around them. Directors Berlinger and Sinofsky, who had never made a film before, saw the story in the paper and drove out to investigate. Slowly they gained the brothers’ trust and were able to film scenes of their antiquated daily life and the tensions leading up to the trial, for which they seredenipitously fluked access to the courtroom. As per their Paradise Lost triology, this film is an indictment of the American justice system.
4. The Monastery: Mr Vig and the Nun (2006)
Eccentric 82-year-old bachelor Mr Vig, who lives alone in a ramshackle old castle in the forest in northern Europe, attempts to fulfil his lifelong dream of creating a monastery by inviting some Russian nuns to take up spiritual residence in his digs. Stunningly shot and scored, this film is both comic, poetic and profound, and the subtleties of the observational detail (filmed over 5 years) are masterfully captured and edited. The intimacy attained just by allowing the scenes to unfold mean you finish the film feeling like you’ve personally lived with the strange, endearing Mr Vig and shared his dream, where any other style of filmmaking may have ridiculed or caricatured him.
3. Sister Helen (2002)
A rowdy foulmouthed ex-alcoholic nun running a halfway house in the South Bronx for drunks and crack addicts – what more need be said? Brilliant raw characters and a compelling journey elevate this film into the upper echelons of great observtinoal documentary. Though the camera work is scrappy and the aesthetic unpolished, this film, shot over three years, has more raw heart than an epic multimillion-dollar blockbuster. The ending will make you weep!
2. Hoop Dreams (1994)
This 3 hour epic shot over 5 years in Chicago follows the trials and tribulations of two talented and athletic black teens from poor families, trying to bust out of ghetto life and make it in the National Basketball League. Aside from the rich personal journey ensured by filming these young men throughout their formative years as they mature exponentially, the struggle of their families and the backdrops of their decaying neighbourhoods provides an incisive insight into underprivileged black urban existence.
1. Armadillo (2010)
A purist observational masterpiece, the story of some young Danish soldiers and their platoon deployed on a tour of Afghanistan, Armadillo is just pure riveting, cliffhanging, stunning live action from beginning frame to end – no voiceover, no narration, not even any interviews. Stunningly shot and dramatically scored, the film has actually been criticized for being ‘too cinematic’! There are sections where sync location sound drops away and all slow motion images play against evocative music to create sheer poetry in the chaos of the warzone – which might be a bit emotionally manipulative but at least you won’t hear any annoying talking! The best of showing rather than telling makes the meditation on war much more profound.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns’ provocative documentary is a “devastating portrait of contemporary social inequality" - The New Yorker.
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