10 Great Documentaries That Challenge the Conventions of the Genre

6. Tarnation (Jonathon Caouette, 2003)


Difficult to bare, and perhaps equally to express, the themes of tragedy and alienation animate some of humankind’s deepest, and most vulnerable feelings of connection. Jonathon Caouette’s 2003 biographical documentary embraces the former notions with bravura and honesty while achieving a triumph of style and design. Separated from his father at an early age and neglected by a mother with severe mental illness, Caouette found a way to transform his hellish odyssey into art.

Assembled from a collection of personal documents on a variety of media, Tarnation stitches together Super 8 and VHS home movies, answering machine messages, audition tapes, and first-person confessions to illustrate the complexity of the mother-son relationship at its center. Like its director-protagonist’s personality, the film seems to bounce between modes of being.

What at one moment may affect despair, will at another comedic abandon, and at another, cringe-worthy self-absorption. However, as much as a story of relationship, Tarnation is a tale of the self that emerged from the ashes of Caoette’s past. What results is a brave and fragmented narrative of transformation. Awash in heavy-handed pathos, there is no denying the earnestness of Tarnation’s vision, for it is an act of love.


7. The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth, 2003)

The Five Obstructions

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is no stranger to controversy. Never one to shy away from the darker side of human life, he has touched upon themes of religious dogma, misogyny, and power in masterpieces such as Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, and more recently, Nymphomaniac. Equally representative of the horror and beauty in nature, his works draw from a wellspring of classic influences (Bergman, Tarkovsky, Godard), while expressing a unique personal vision.

In 2003’s The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s proclivity for provocation is again center stage: here, the recipient is not merely a character; nor is it an invisible member of the audience. In this film, von Trier’s target is his favorite filmmaker, the man of flesh and bone, Jørgen Leth.

As much an exploration of the relationship between its “protagonist-antagonists” as it is a series of experiments in style, The Five Obstructions positions a series of film shorts within a broader context told in traditional documentary style. At the center of the meta-film sits Leth, the artist responsible for von Trier’s favorite film, The Perfect Human.

After praising his efforts, von Trier sets his first challenge, inaugurating a series of five assignments for Leth, all of which require that he remake his film with specific limitations prescribed by von Trier.

The Five Obstructions echoes the logic of the Dogme 95 movement von Trier helped create; and this is likely no accident. Though it is has the strength to stand on its own, the constraints of Obstructions feel a bit like an addendum to those prescribed in the Dogme manifesto. However, here, von Trier’s calculation has a more personal touch, and what emerges is an involving investigation of the tensions that fuel creativity and friendship.


8. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, 2012)


A hint of orange emerges in the lower left corner of the screen, like a sun arriving with the dawn. Images and sounds seem torn from elements both abstract and concrete. Far from land, the camera pans over Brakhage-like tapestries of color and texture. Chains emerge like tentacles from the ocean as water and machinery clamor for control of the sonic field, the former roaring one moment, the latter clanging the next. No one speaks.

So begins Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s bold “day-in-the-life” style document of the harsh realities of the fishing industry. Told without traditional narration, what little dialogue occurs is often muddied to the point of incomprehensibility. This is a story both fragmentary and strange, in which the viewer must interpret its philosophical implications by relying on intuition.

If one has the patience, the effect of the journey is both awe-inspiring and frightening, cast in the colors of marine life and death. It is perhaps no surprise that Melville’s Moby Dick was hunted in the waters depicted here, where the sea, human kind, and machinery converge in a maelstrom of interpretive sights and sounds.


9. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

The Act of Killing

In 1965, an organization of Indonesian National Armed Forces attempted to overthrow the Indonesian Army. Following its successful suppression, the army blamed this coup on the Indonesian Communist Party.

In the year that followed, the army enlisted former gangsters to round up, interrogate, and slaughter millions of ethnic Chinese and anyone suspected of holding communist sympathies. In present day, the leaders of these death squads remain in high ranking positions within a right wing Indonesian paramilitary organization.

Haunted by the specters of these atrocities, The Act of Killing not only showcases the present day lives of these self-identified gangster-killers, but also provides an opportunity for them to reminisce, and philosophize about their history. And in a move controversial as it is insightful, directing team Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn invited these men to reenact the interrogations and murders perpetrated years before.

Having appropriated the archetypes of film history, the killers recreate these murders in bawdy and overdramatic scenes produced with Indonesian film equipment and sets. With barely a trace of remorse, the men pivot between artifice, fantasy, and business-as-usual. What results is unsettling, and oddly hallucinatory.

As the documentation of the lives of these men dissolves into the scripted retelling of the murders, fantasy often becomes indistinguishable from the real. The sense of celebrity held by these men becomes linked with the violence-obsessed world-cinema they have consumed, which in turn relates back to the acts of cruelty perpetrated years before, and, too, the corruption upheld in present day Indonesia.

Co-produced by film mavericks Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, The Act of Killing pushes boundaries both political and aesthetic while implying powerful questions about the psychology of evil, world politics, and state-sponsored murder.


10. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, 2015)

cobain montage of heck

​Ever since the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, the life of Kurt Cobain has been the stuff of legend and cultural commodification. The decade in which Nirvana rose to stardom was one that called for anguish and dissatisfaction with the conservatism so present in American life. That the figure channeling the era’s angst would not survive it was a fate too cruel for words.

Like the Radiohead documentary previously mentioned, Montage of Heck establishes its subject as a reluctant demi-god struggling with success. Told through a whirlwind of animated reconstructions, intimate home movies, and interviews with those close to Kurt, the film weaves biography from disparate sources, fragments, and media, assembling as close a glimpse into Kurt’s private life as has ever been created.

Though the portrayal of his history remains controversial for many with whom Kurt was closest, Montage of Heck nonetheless achieves a feeling of intimacy and non-linear design uncommon to the genre of rock-biopic. It is a brave, unsettling, and ultimately beautiful journey through the world of a reluctant hero.

Author Bio: Tyler Brassard is a graduate of Burlington College where he studied Literature, Psychology, Philosophy, and Film. In addition to writing about movies, he also produces electronic music and is a creative writer. His dispatches can be tracked at https://soundcloud.com/even-the-dew-is-porous, https://eventhedewisporous.bandcamp.com, and the poetry blog he co-hosts with his friend, Aaron Mitton, https://nothinginitself.wordpress.com.