Due to consumer-priced digital video, a shrinking amount of grown up movies in multiplexes, increased global awareness, and a few films by a man named Michael Moore, the 2000s were a watershed moment for documentary film.
From the beginning of the decade to the end, production values were on the rise, as were the sheer number of people attempting to tell nonfiction stories. By 2009, documentaries were a mainstay in major theaters and the experimentation that has been infused into nonfiction films of the early 2010’s was already taking shape.
The following list attempts to be a snapshot of the very best documentaries the decade had to offer. Surely, films such as Man on Wire, Murderball, Spellbound, and The Fog of War deserve a look and any of those could be swapped for any of these. However, you could do a lot worse than using these 15 as a starting point for diving into this crucial period for the nonfiction form.
15. Zoo (Robinson Devor, 2007)
Hybrid documentary is a bit of a dubious term. Generally meaning a combination of styles to tell a nonfiction story, it’s at once limited and far too inclusive. That said, Robinson Devor’s Zoo is one of the best early examples of the current incarnation of the “hybrid documentary.”
Almost exclusively using re-enactments and voiceover, Zoo tells of the life and death of Kenneth Pinyan, a Seattle man who was killed after receiving anal sex from a horse. Devor has little interest in exploring the story from an objective journalist’s perspective. Instead, he smartly analyses the psyche of Pinyan along with others in his ostracized community who engage in sex with animals. Brief news clippings, which are expectedly mocking as well as judgmental, provide context, while the voices of participants reveal their sides of the story.
Beautifully shot with an emphasis on atmosphere, Devor’s camera often films from a deliberate distance with objects such as car bumpers and trees to obscure his view. This, matched with interview subjects whose voices and faces are purposefully anonymous, make for a voyeuristic gaze into a community operating on the fringes. Devor walks a careful line that never condones the behaviors of his subjects, while also never looking upon them with obvious judgment.
One scene, where a subject recounts giving up Pinyan’s horse, edges towards sympathy, as do convictions that these animals are loved more than most kempt up in pens. Yet, Devor’s model is to create a mood and provide a cinematic world. A subject that should have been too difficult to endure becomes an artistic portrait of an America that most would prefer to assume doesn’t exist.
14. Ghosts of Cité Soleil (Asger Roth, 2006)
If you want a glimpse into what created the horrible situations inhabited by citizens of Haiti, Ghosts of Cité Soleil will not be the place to look. Unlike the multitudes of objective stories told about the nation from a distance, director Asger Roth and his cameraman Frederik Jacobi thrust themselves right into the center of the storm. Following two brothers, Billy and Haitian 2Pac – each leaders of the deadly secret Army of the President called Chiméres – the film is a verite image of love, tragedy, violence, and pride.
The Chiméres are essentially a street gang, whose power is derived not from respect so much as brute force. Provided with artillery from the government, young men and boys are left patrolling the streets with little idea what to do or why they are there. Gunfire is an hourly occurrence in a place where human life has little value. Yet, the filmmakers never turn their subjects into monsters, providing us instead with the same hopes and dreams that make any person tick.
Perhaps most fascinating about Ghosts of Cité Soleil, while also the most maddening, is Roth essentially lets the viewer know how this will all end. With no sustainable government and heavy ammunition in the hands of uneducated, un-lead, and extremely macho men, every character we follow will likely end up dead. In fact, one of the ones who become most sympathetic had already died by the time the film reached final cut. Yet, we root for these people.
Partially because mixed in with the suspense of battle are scenes of honesty and passion. Most notably moments between Haitian 2Pac and his girlfriend, Éleonore. At one point, the filmmakers get caught right in the center of gunshots. Unable to escape, they take cover behind concrete walls. Where most creators would protect themselves, the camera here instead roves around the building, capturing the violence as it unfolds. It’s this kind of veracity that sets this small picture apart.
13. The Weather Underground (Sam Green & Bill Siegel, 2002)
The crime of organizations like the Weather Underground has a unique place in drama because depending on what side you are on, the criminals could quickly look like heroes or terrorists. Immediately one will have a prejudice, and conflict is born from how a story re-enforces or rethinks that assumption. At the very least, an understandable motive comes from approaching material of this kind.
The Weather Underground interviews students who made up the massive student-driven violent movement from the late 60s and early 70s, that used terrorist acts as scare tactics in order to protest a United states government that they felt was in a constant “state of war.”
The major message explored throughout the film relates to achieving peace by way of minor acts of war and whether there’s much of a difference between a military bombing innocent people overseas versus an organization doing it on our soil. The difference of course is that one act is governmentally ordered and thus its purpose must be for “good.” But what if you do not agree with that purpose?
Most of the subjects in The Weather Underground are the former students who made up the group. Now aged by three decades and seemingly settled into normal lives, they speak with candor and relative remorselessness about what they were a part of. And that being “a part” seems to be what helped most perpetrators to reconcile with how this violent time in their lives was worth the effort. The subjects stood for something and most still do. Modestly made, with few stylistic flourishes,
The Weather Underground build its story out of firsthand accounts. The ultimate goal is to stay objective and considering the gray areas related to everything – from environmental terrorism to 99% protectors to the Arab Spring – that has come since, the film plays like a rallying cry that citizens can make change in large groups, even if sometimes that change comes at a major price.
12. Manda Bala (Jason Kohn, 2007)
Only about half of Manda Bala will make any sense to the average viewer. Like any narrative that unravels the deep intricacies of corruption, that’s precisely how the people in the know get over on other, all in the name of money. If the complex systems of corruption don’t work, in Brazil at least, you then have to “send a bullet.” (The English translation of Manda Bala.) The story involves a frog farmer who uses his trade as a front for drug smuggling, as well as underground favela criminals who regularly hold wealthy people hostage to collect ransoms.
One typical scare tactic is to cut off a hostage’s ear and send it to the family. Enter a plastic surgeon who has made a living off his revolutionary technique of removing cartilage from a victim’s rib and remolding it into an ear. (Word to the squeamish: Kohn shows us the procedure up close and personal.) Manda Bala adds up to the most thorough portrait of the Bazilian criminal ecosystem put to film.
Kohn’s style is feverish, fast-paced, set to pop music and employing techniques like fast motion and long takes. Kohn is trying to make this the realistic Brazilian version of Goodfellas, only these guys make Henry Hill and his gang look like petty crooks. Shot on film, the vibrant colors of a nation at once crime-ridden and oozing with culture pop off the screen.
Like Bus 174, the decade’s other Brazilian crime masterpiece, Manda Bala emphasizes how little hope people living in the deeply impoverished favelas have. While their tactics are violent, if borderline sadistic, Kohn never once allows his film to judge them, nor does he become precious about defending them. It’s a harsh world out there and those who survive are the ones willing to go all in.
11. Rize (David LaChapelle, 2005)
Had Rize simply been a moving image version of fashion photographer David LaChapelle’s signature style, it may have already been worth the price of admission. That he smartly blends that style with a realistic look at the struggles of people living in South Central, Los Angeles makes this one of the foremost nonfiction experiences of the decade.
The subjects are gangs, but not the sort that the media has given us for several years. These are dance groups – the krumpers and the clowns – who give poor young people an outlet other than drugs and violence to express themselves. Within each group there are fights, jealousies, camaraderie, and necessary familial support.
LaChapelle structures his picture like a sports movie, presenting the ups and downs of training, prepping, and the seriousness of practice. Stitched between are slow motion, high contrast images of the dancers in all their glory. It’s in these moments that LaChapelle’s eye for color and contour shines by providing a celebration of the athletic bodies of his subjects. Muscular, sweating, moving each limb a mile a minute.
There’s so much beauty to these people and in these otherwise innocuous segues, we just get to watch in awe. Yet, just as effective are scenes such as Tommy the Clown breaking down into tears upon hearing that his house has been broken into. Never are racial or economic tensions jammed down the throats of viewers. If anything, LaChapelle wants to show us people who have not accepted their “Fate” and remain unwilling to maintain any stereotype. These dance competitions are their vessels to being better people who will not only survive, but also thrive at all costs.
10. Bus 174 (José Padilha, 2002)
Between City of God, Manda Bela, and José Padilha’s Bus 174, American audiences were exposed to the increasingly desperate lives lead by millions of impoverished people throughout Brazil. From a dramatic perspective, the violence meant for riveting storytelling, while the sociological ramifications have continued to send shockwaves through to today, were security concerns involving the World Cup and the upcoming Olympics make clear that not much has changed.
Bus 174, a mostly found footage documentary, tells the story of a hostage stand-off between police and a gunman in Rio de Janeiro. As television cameras descend upon the bus at the crime’s epicenter, the situation escalates from petty crime to a potential mass murder. While the stand-off stands as the thread binding the film together, Bus 174’s power comes from probing the psychology of the criminal, the law enforcement agents, and a culture generally fit with corruption.
Beyond its representative qualities, Bus 174 also plays as a smart thriller. Using interviews with those on the bus, there’s a slow build from people stating they thought this was just an “ordinary hold-up,” as if this sort of thing occurs all the time, to the panic that arises when failed attempts to negotiate build into rage.
Most interesting is how Padilha turns news footage into high-intensity action moments when cut together to create tension. The full effect of Bus 174 is to understand the fears of people trapped unwittingly in an unknown situation while also learning to sympathize with the perpetrators, as well as the less trained police officers faced with keep the problem to a minimum.
9. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)
What becomes terrifying by Dear Zachary’s end is how modestly it’s constructed in its beginning. Kurt Kuenne seems to be shooting some raw footage on a cheap camera, attempting to give his murdered best friend’s son a nice portrait of his father. The framing is humble, straight-forward and unassuming. Friends and family talk in anecdotes and borderline idol worship, as one might expect from a dedication film.
By the time the film explodes into its suspenseful and terrifyingly tragic second act, the grounded opening feels as haunting as any other choice. One can’t talk about the full effect of Dear Zachary without giving away its most startling secret. I’d suggest knowing nothing about the story before going in.
Beyond it’s great mystery, Kuenne’s greatest trick is turning his portrait film into a suspense thriller and then ultimately into a social activist documentary. As such, he’s folded all of the prevailing documentary styles of the aughts into one microcosm. The film is also shot cheaply and likely edited on consumer software. While stylistically this adds a texture of intimacy from maker to subject, it also speaks to how the 2000s meant anybody with a story to tell could turn a camera on and reach an audience.
There’s some heartstring pulling that viewers might find grating and Kuenne, to his credit and detriment, bleeds every inch of creativity out of his limited resources. However, Dear Zachary is a testament above all to having an eye on a tremendous, far-reaching story, and having compelling passionate subjects to tell it.