10 Great Documentaries That Challenge the Conventions of the Genre
A documentary film is predisposed toward exposition. Whether shedding light on an artifact of popular culture or something more esoteric, the intention is nonetheless to share a slice of life that is assumed to be outside the bounds of common knowledge. By focusing on a subject outside the limelight, a documentary seeks to inform, enrich, and expand the perspective of its audience.
However, certain films achieve these aims with such brilliance as to broaden the definition of documentary filmmaking. This type of film may challenge the conventions of narrative, create a new style, develop new techniques, blur the boundaries between fiction and the real, or some combination of these innovations.
Sometimes the break with tradition is quite radical, as was case with the multiverse of perspectives in William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. In others, the break may be subtle, as demonstrated by Errol Morris’ befuddling ode to mortality, Gates of Heaven. By challenging the conventions of their medium, the films in this list made an indelible impression on the history of documentary filmmaking.
1. Meeting People is Easy (Grant Gee, 1998)
Celebrity is the double-edged sword of modern mythology; those that seek it often romanticize its image to the detriment of themselves, while those that hold it often become depressed and oppressed by its existential weight. Grant Gee’s 1998 rockumentary demonstrates these polarities while documenting Radiohead as they embark on a world tour following the enormous success of 1997’s Ok Computer.
Composed of full and partial clips of concert footage, TV appearances, and Gee’s own cinematography, Meeting People is Easy develops a series of non-chronological vignettes while showcasing the band’s alienation from their newfound stardom. Dreamlike and anxiety-inducing, Gee’s use of crosscuts, dissolves, and overlays creates a fragmentary sense of time and identity.
At one point, singer Thom Yorke paces through a hotel room only to be forced by way of rewound film to repeat the
cycle once more, his movements seeming to mimic those of a pendulum. In the universe depicted by Gee, time and popular culture seem to trap the protagonists and toy with them, like rats forced to traverse a dizzying labyrinth.
A singular and dissociative dream, Meeting People is Easy renders the disease of rock idols through uncomfortable timbres and hues. It challenges notions of celebrity while breaking with the traditions of the rockumentary to offer challenge and reward for those that are patient.
2. Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
Chris Marker’s peculiar cinematic essay is narrated by a nameless woman that relates the travels of a friend through readings of the letters written while the friend was abroad. Relaying a journey from Africa to Japan she prefaces each reading with a phrase that will take on deep resonance by the end of the film: “He wrote…”
Convoluted though it may seem, what follows from this premise is a glorious cinematic experience: a poem masquerading as a fiction while wearing the clothes of a travelogue, in which the traveler is never the one speaking. The cinematography juxtaposes intimate slices of life with others pulled from television, documentaries, or the far reaches of film history.
Flitting playfully between places, times, fictions, and supposed realities, Sans Soleil cannot help but speak of tragedy, as its muse is memory. It begins with an image of nascent beauty, alludes to its eventual decay, and evolves into an ode to its enigmatic glory.
3. Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1962)
The oeuvre of Stan Brakhage stands as one of the most original bodies of work in the history of experimental film. The peer or friend of leading avant-gardist artists such as Maya Deren, the composer John Cage, and even the synthesist Morton Subotnik, Brakhage was often surrounded by other profound creative voices.
A wide-ranging innovator, his films often presented dizzying mélanges of painted, scratched, and otherwise mutilated celluloid, and were always silent. The influence of Brakhage’s techniques can be found far and wide, as it has evolved with the culture. For example, it is evident equally in the home-movie quality of many independent films; the glitchy, color-splotched music videos of early 90’s MTV; and, likewise, the grainy, fragmented opening credits of David Fincher’s Seven.
However, Window Water Baby Moving is a film of restraint and reflection, less so of formal novelty. as it documents the birth of Brakhage’s first son. Shot on 16mm, running 12 minutes, and finished in 1959, the film pivots between phases of a new life’s creation.
The couple’s copulation, the mother’s swollen belly, and the moment of birth each share time and space within a non-chronological sequence, enfolding like a personal process of recollection. Revolutionary and equally controversial in its day for its frankness, Window Water Baby Moving is a documentary, a love-song, and a genuine original.
4. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (William Greaves, 1991)
When William Greaves arrived in Central Park on a Saturday in 1968, he knew not what would become of his highly conceptual idea for a film. As is made clear in his production notes, this uncertainty is central to the film. For Greaves, the film was meant to be “…a free fall in space…,” and “…a study of the creative process in action.”
Drawing inspiration equally from the music of Miles Davis and a social theory concept of Arthur F. Bentley, Greaves assembled three film crews to create a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of life, power, and revolution. The first crew was instructed to film a scripted narrative as it was practiced in the park; the second, to film the activity of the first crew; and the third, to film the activity of the first two and anything else that caught their eyes and seemed important.
While the scripted narrative feels stifled by convention and artifice, authenticity shines from the overlaps in perspective, and sets in motion a mounting frustration and sense of confusion which results in the crew wresting power from the director and making space to not only critique his performance, but analyze his intentions in all their cryptic, theoretical complexity. A work of depth and imagination, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a cerebral, genre-bending documentary like non-other.
5. Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978)
On the surface, Errol Morris’ first documentary feature appears rather underwhelming. After reading about the closing of a pet cemetery in Los Altos, CA, and the subsequent relocation of the deceased animals to another burial ground in the Napa Valley, Morris felt inspired to make a film about the events.
However, what emerges from his interviews with pet and cemetery owners alike is one of the most unusual portraits of American life ever captured to celluloid. As it exists in a familiar looking universe with an unfamiliar tone, the appropriate frequency at which to hear the testimonies in Gates of Heaven remains as elusive as the answers to the questions at its core.
Because it portrays the memories, tragedies, trials, and philosophizing of its characters in earnest, the audience is allowed the opportunity to assess their stories as we do in ordinary life: at face value. What results is an understated investigation of faith, mortality, and psychology with a quirky atmosphere that would be at home in the most sentimental film by an aged David Lynch.
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