There have been many influential recent trends in the cinema as it has changed shape over the past few decades, from the commodification of blockbuster culture to the international rise of regional filmmaking. But one of the most valuable, and hopefully enduring, has been the emergence of the documentary film as a vital part of the conversation societies engage in. Audiences have shown a passion for the truth – or at least a version of it – that a documentary can reveal, and the cinema allows for a length and complexity, an artistic vision and a focused reportage, that can prove memorably illuminating.
Here are just five modern classics ready to view at SBS On Demand service, each a fascinating documentary that is revealing enough to change your perceptions.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
(1991, George Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr & Eleanor Coppola)
Upon introducing Apocalypse Now at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, Francis Ford Coppola equated the many setbacks of the film’s production with its subject, America’s disastrous war in Vietnam. “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane,” observed the filmmaker previously responsible for The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. Coppola wasn’t wrong. In footage and recordings made on the set over several years, often by his wife Eleanor, Coppola’s take on warfare, bloodily satirical and violently psychedelic, is reflected in the machinations on set, which include but are definitely not limited to Marlon Brando arriving completely unprepared for his role as the mythic Colonel Kurtz and the Filipino military suddenly removing the helicopters they’d provided for the shoot because there were needed to quell an ethnic uprising. The result is horrifying but compelling, and staffed with unforgettable moments. When his leading man, Martin Sheen, suffers a massive heart attack, Coppola insists the actor can’t be declared dead unless he personally says so.
(1994, Steve James)
Hoop Dreams is a remarkable deep dive into the murky intersection of institutionalised sports, personal ambition, the education system, and the realities of African-American life. Shooting over five years, Chicago filmmaker Steve James and his small crew trailed a pair of promising high school basketball players: the physically commanding William Gates and the intuitively inventive Arthur Agee. Both boys – although they’re rarely given the grace to be children – are talented enough to be elevated out of the struggling inner-city communities they call home, recruited by a mostly white, suburban Catholic high school to help them win. Their ultimate goal is a professional contract, an event that would change not only their lives but that of their entire family. But expectations become pressure, and the mere suggestion of success introduces a telling dynamic onto both already splintered households; William and Arthur are trying to master all sorts of games. Supporting characters, such as William’s older brother Curtis, a failed hoops prodigy, come into focus, but the documentary is an intensely intimate portrayal of a vast system at work, one where highs and lows are sadly complementary.
(2002, Jeffrey Blitz)
Do you think, if asked, you could spell aloud on national television words such as “seguidilla”, “encephalon” and “logorrhea”? That’s the task facing the American children in Jeffrey Blitz’s deceptively riveting documentary about eight participants in the United States’ 1999 National Spelling Bee. The structure is by the book, introducing the eight participants, from a field of hundreds, who’ve set themselves to win the prestigious prize, and detailing their academic and personal lives. The diversity allows for an examination of America and the way its citizens believe they can advance themselves, as the likes of Neil, an Indian-American student pushed to win by a demanding father (his grandfather has a different approach, paying 1,000 people in India to pray for Neil’s victory) competes with Ashley, who comes from a grim public housing estate in the forgotten suburbs of Washington D.C. As competitors are eliminated the tensions grows, and the narrower the field becomes the richer the sense of how a nation is defined by its next generation of adults.
The Thin Blue Line
(1988, Errol Morris)
A man being tried for murdering a police officer in Texas – thus facing the death penalty if convicted – is found guilty in part because he’s depicted as a sociopath for showing no remorse. How can I show remorse for a crime, the man argues, if I’m innocent of it? This is one of the beguiling mysteries traversed by Errol Morris in this landmark documentary, which ultimately led to the release of the man, Randall Adams, after more than a decade of imprisonment on death row for the 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. The teenager the film positions as possible the true murderer, 16-year-old David Harris, testified against Adams, and Morris uncovers a web of perjury and misdirection via interviews with major and minor participants (peripheral eccentrics have long been the starting point for a Morris work) as his camera elegantly glides from one version of that fateful night to another. Morris, along with Frederick Wiseman, is the pre-eminent American documentarian of the last 50 years, and The Thin Blue Line is one of the reasons why.
The Weather Underground
(2002, Sam Green & Bill Siegel)
Given that radical terrorists are tragically prominent in the headlines now, it’s very much worth remembering the era of American radicalism described in Sam Green and David Siegel’s exploration of how members of the American college student anti-war protest movement in the 1960s evolved into an urban terrorist cell in the early 1970s that planted bombs and eventually committed armed robberies. Using archival material and contemporary interviews, the filmmakers chart the mass psychology that led these often middle and upper-class activists into hard left dogma and a fight to the death – in several cases their own – with a state that couldn’t comprehend their actions. It was as if they needed the movement to exist, even when the cause it opposed, the war in Vietnam, had ended for America. On camera, the graying remnants of the Weather Underground veer between exhibiting pride and being mystified when trying to explain their actions. It’s worth seeing the film to understand why.
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