The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science honored the highest achievements in film last night at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. The academy has been handing out awards since 1929. Since 1942, with the exception of 1950, the academy has recognized the top documentary film of the year. I was pleased as punch that music based documentaries won in both the long and short form categories last night. Having spent the last few years of my life writing, directing, and producing a musical documentary, that can only be a positive. 20 Feet from Stardom won in the Best Documentary feature category. The film, produced by music industry executive Gil Friesen along with Caitrin Rogers and directed by Morgan Neville. The film follows career back-ups singers, including Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Jo Lawry, Darlene Love, and Tat Vega. The film has been universally praised, beating out docs that deal with much more life-or-death situations.
It is quite an amazing time for documentary film all-around. Digital technologies and the relatively low cost of camera equipment have made it more affordable than ever before for filmmakers to shoot and edit. Stories that would require huge investments in both equipment and personnel a generation ago can now be told with a camera, computer, and the tenacity of the engaged filmmaker. It is for this reason that so many good documentaries are now being produced. Here are ten films from 2013 that I think deserve to stay in the public consciousness:
The Act of Killing: In this disturbing doc by Denmark-based director Joshua Oppenheimer turns his lens on death squad leaders from Indonesia’s communist purge in the 1960’s. The men, some of them revered in Indonesia, reenact their killings for the camera. The results are surreal and unsettling.
Cutie and the Boxer: This well-crafted work by newcomer Zachary Heinzerling tells the story of the charming and tumultuous 40-year marriage between Japanese Neo-Dadaist artist Ushino Shinohara and his wife Noriko.
The Square: No film on the list epitomizes the power of modern storytelling techniques and technologies to tell a complete story than “The Square.” Jehane Noujaim’s film tells the first-hand account of the Egyptian Revolution from 2011 to 2013 in amazing detail and scope.
Dirty Wars: Jeremey Schahill is somewhat of an anachronism in my eyes–an old-school investigative journalist in the form of a Gen-Xer. “Dirty Wars” explores the U.S. involvement in military actions in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. based on Schahill’s book of the same name, the film was both written and narrated by Schahill.
After Tiller: I wear my journalism/historian credentials as a badge of honor. This makes it difficult for me to stand in the rather large banner of partisan documentary film making. In fact, I usually have little time for any documentary with a political agenda. Sometimes, however, a partisan documentary succeeds in capturing a historical moment in such away that it transcends politics. “After Tiller” does that by documenting the four U.S. doctors still performing late-term abortions in the wake of Dr. George Tiller’s murder in 2009. Partisan? Yes. A document of our times? For certain.
Gideon’s Army: In 1961, Clarence Gideon was convicted of stealing a can of soda in Panama City, Florida. Gideon had defended himself at trial. he appealed his case to the Supreme Court. The end result was a ruling that everyone had the right to legal representation. “Gideon’s Promise” brings us into the Southern Public Defender Training Center, an organization tasked with supporting young public defenders. The real story, though, is the lawyer’s themselves: broke, tired, and endlessly willing to fight for the right’s of their almost exclusively impoverished clients.
Blackfish: Perhaps no film from 2013 was as controversial as “Blackfish.” The film tells the story of a killer whale named Tilikum, held by SeaWorld Entertainment. Tilikum is notable for not only being the most prodigious killer whale father in captivity, siring 21 offspring, but also for being responsible for the deaths of three people since 1991. The film makes a stark case against the captivity of killer whales, which SeaWorld vehemently disputed.
Our Nixon: My favorite histories tell the stories of the unknown and forgotten. My second favorite histories tell the story of the fampus in new and interesting ways. “Our Nixon” does just that, telling the story of President Richard M. Nixon’s White House years from 1969-1974 entirely from archival footage. This is not just any stock footage, though. This is Super 8 footage recorded by Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman and special assistant Dwight Champman.
God Loves Uganda: Much like “After Tiller,” “God Loves Uganda” places itself unabashedly at the center of the culture wars. The film draws parallels between evangelical Christianity in the United States and Uganda, going as far as to suggest that the link between the two is the reason for the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The bill, which is currently table in Uganda’s parliament, prescribes the death penalty for gays and lesbians. Again, another partisan film that manages to document a moment in time.
Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story: We live in an era of partisan hackery that is sweeping away the last vestiges of real journalism and paving the way for generations of elivision news personalities that are part political wonk, part P.T. Barnum. Evocateur comes closer than any film I have seen in capturing the genesis of this modern phenomenon in the guise of 1980’s syndicated talk show host Morton Downey Jr. The man’s name is unknown to Millennial, but he was the godfather of sensational political discourse and the ringmaster of uncivilized debate.