8. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2013)
This peculiar film toys with documentary realism in the same way Peter Watkins did with The War Game (1965) and Punishment Park (1971). Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is initially presented as a record of a 1980s convention in the US, where computerised chess programmes compete.
The goal of each programmer is for their machine to be unbeatable by a human, or by any other system, developing artificial intelligence at a time when it was in its primitive state, long preceding the highly digitised world we now live in.
Without prior knowledge of its contrivance, you would be forgiven for believing the authenticity of this isolated world of almost caricatured “nerds”, obsessing over enormous computers, during a long weekend in a run-down motel.
Bujalski shoots the film with the visibly dated black-and-white video look of a 1980s tube camera, with an effect that resembles low-quality home movie footage. It seems unedited and immediate, as ungainly as the early computers, further confusing the film’s documentary boundaries.
There are weighty issues here; the potential consciousness of androids, the mechanised elements in humanity, and their engagement with one another, all veiled behind this quirky, outdated aesthetic. Cleverly, the filmmaker just allows you to become familiar with the style and awkward realism, before subverting believability entirely, showing his deceptive strategy.
Computer Chess edges into disturbing, surreal fantasy, while keeping the same documentary feel. Cryptic on several levels, this film exploits our expectations of non-fiction cinema, to weave in themes that are more relevant now than ever.
7. The Walker (Ming-Liang Tsai, Taiwan, 2012)
The Walker is surely the oddity of this list. At 25 minutes, and originally part of the collaboration, Beautiful 2012, the film is considered a short within its ‘slow cinema’ demarcation, where a long running-time is almost a prerequisite. There is certainly no running in Ming-Liang Tsai’s meditative film.
The ‘walker’ of the title appears to be a Buddhist monk, dressed in a crimson robe, whose movement through a busy urban landscape is so slow as to be almost imperceptible. It works as both an exercise of stamina and spirituality for the walker, and as a juxtaposition of tranquillity and the bustling inner-city, for director, Ming-Liang Tsai.
The Walker is an apt introduction to slow cinema, and viewing requires the kind of patience needed to sneak through a city centre at crawling pace.
The film is a unique cinematic spectacle, perhaps not classed as a documentary by all, but taking a seemingly fictional character and unleashing him into a familiar reality. Some on-looking pedestrians marvel at the monk, others seem agitated by his slow speed, and most ignore him completely, which could well represent the range of responses to cinema of this kind.
The Walker is part of a growing cycle of slow films that counter the frantic pace of the digital age, and allows a serene moment to reflect on a peaceful part of consciousness that we seem to have lost.
6. Samsara (Ron Fricke, USA, 2011)
Samsara is a portrait of the modern world that is at once sensory, hypnotic, and thought provoking. Ron Fricke’s film journeys through 25 countries across the globe, taking in visual spectacles; natural marvels, manmade wonders, moments of intimacy and awe, and the sequence of birth, life, death and rebirth.
Rather than relying on narration, Samsara tells its story through the image and music in simple cohesion, a display of the cinematic at its purest and most impressive. Religion is the through-line here, but Fricke juxtaposes culture and faith with cycles of consumerism, mass-production, and evolving technologies, all in stunning time-lapses.
Human faces glare into the lens, eyes that have seen everything, followed by life-like androids, who have yet to see anything. A mother pig, feeding her piglets, becomes meat in a factory, from one frame to the next. These surreal moments chime throughout this grand-scale documentary.
Fricke’s film follows on from his equally impressive, Baraka (1992), and there is a clear precedent in the iconic Koyaanisqatsi (1982) for which he was a writer, cinematographer and editor. Yet Samsara is endlessly inventive in its own way. It discovers beauty and an aesthetic thrill in the least likely places – production lines, traffic jams and fast-food restaurants – and provides an artistic document of our time, to cement its place in history.
5. Life May Be (Mania Akbari, Mark Cousins, Iran, N. Ireland, 2014)
Mark Cousins is a documentary-maker unafraid to stray into the expressive and poetic. Life May Be, a collaboration with actor and director, Mania Akbari, is perhaps best described as a film- conceived through cinematic correspondence. It explores intimate emotion, profound thought and personal idiosyncrasies in a way that recalls the films of Chris Marker. The documentary is structured as a back-and-forth exchange of ‘cine-letters’, in five parts between Cousins and Akbari, read as narration over simple but evocative images.
The format feels unfamiliar but the charisma and intriguing insight of both characters breathes life into the discourse. They muse over their differing national identities, cultural boundaries and unlikely similarities, from approaches to art and poetry, to a celebration of nudity. They explore each other’s bodies without ever meeting on-screen, Akbari inspired by Cousins’ energy, and he enthused by her reflections and revelations.
The increasing affection between filmmakers as it progresses, and the seemingly private nature of each instalment, give Life May Be an untouched quality, like unravelling a series of love letters. They prove that, though an unconventional approach to documentary, the film- can be an accessible, and endlessly fertile form.
4. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, USA, 2012)
When a trauma is so difficult to express with words, filmmakers may turn to other methods. The Act of Killing dares to confront the dark history of Indonesia; the mass genocide of 1965-66 where hundreds of thousands of communists were murdered. These killers have been hailed as respected heroes for more than 40 years, without ever facing any repercussions for their crimes.
Director, Joshua Oppenheimer constructs a mock-feature film, where these men, mostly gangsters and paramilitaries can ‘tell their story’, by re-enacting the murders. Through performance and re-enactment, the film aims to find some form of retribution against them; an indirect accusation to allow these men to realise, for themselves, the gravity of their actions.
Oppenheimer’s brave innovation is to film the “making-of” this feature, which of course would eventually be the crux of his documentary. There are, inevitably, moral uncertainties in the filmmaking process, where the subjects are misled in their participating, but many would argue that it was a necessary ruse, to expose monumental corruption.
The Act of Killing is a fresh approach to confronting historical trauma, and a revelation in the world of documentary.
3. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia, 2013)
Reconstruction has become an important component of documentary. As implied by this film’s title, when the picture is missing, reconstruction is a filmmakers tool to fill the gaps. The Missing Picture is Rithy Panh’s autobiographical retelling of a history full of holes. The Cambodian director remembers his youth in labour camps, under the Khmer Rouge; the Communist regime that inflicted genocide upon the country between 1975 and 1979.
Panh saw the starvation of his entire immediate family, but he, himself, somehow survived to tell the harrowing story. With this documentary he uses reconstruction in a unique way that does justice to such an important subject. Using handcrafted clay figures, of himself, his people, and members of the Khmer Rouge, he composes detailed dioramas depicting scenes from his memory.
Panh films the static figurines as if studying pictures from the past, and his words (spoken in French narration by Randal Douc) give spirit to these tableaux. We see fingertips and chisels carving in close-up, as if the whole process of making the film is a form of therapy for Panh.
The filmmaker includes stock footage that, of course, avoids the harsh realities of life at this time. He goes further by inserting his clay figures into many of the black and white clips, stressing the artifice of the footage, and the constructions of storytelling, by allowing his creations to get lost in the background.
Panh’s unusual devices are initially distancing; inanimate characters for a story that is difficult to articulate. The simplicity of the visuals actually brings the viewer closer to this traumatic story, demanding your imagination to fill in the nuances – the missing pictures that Panh is trying to find.
2. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, USA, 2012)
We are used to a cinema experience – the kind of films, like Avatar (2009), that are marketed as a 3D adventure simulator – but how often does a documentary offer that sort of experiential thrill? To compare Leviathan to Avatar seems, admittedly, a bit absurd, but in the depths of Leviathan’s art-house engagement with sensory immersion, the ‘experience’ is the filmmakers’ motivation.
Onboard a fishing trawler out in the middle of the ocean, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel use waterproof GoPro cameras to capture unexplored perspectives. Submerged in the ship’s wake one minute then, the next, hovering within splattering distance of a gutting knife, and splashing in amongst discarded innards.
Castaing-Taylor’s approach comes out of his ‘Sensory Ethnography Lab’ research at Harvard, where the idea is to explore the feeling of immersion in kinetic environments, to a further extent than ever achieved before. The sound is a crucial element of this. Leviathan’s haunting soundscape is psychedelically aquatic, like being plunged into a frantic tide. It lifts the simple but often visceral visuals to a surreal level, and thrown-away fish-heads become indelible images with the eerie, groaning soundtrack.
Leviathan’s critical acclaim and the impact of its innovative style, suggest that there is great potential in the ‘documentary experience’, delving to strange new depths.
1. The Arbor (Clio Barnard, UK, 2010)
The Arbor is a biopic of Andrea Dunbar, the British playwright who died aged 29, in 1990. Most famous for her play, ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ that was adapted into the Alan Clarke film of the same name, Dunbar’s short career, was fruitful but borne out of great suffering and domestic anguish in her private life.
Director, Clio Barnard, integrates the theatre – that was so important in Dunbar’s life – into the formal structure of the documentary. Throughout the film, and intercut with other sections, Barnard stages scenes from one of Dunbar’s plays, on a lawn on the Bradford estate where she lived.
Her work is allowed to run parallel to the film’s narrative. Barnard’s greatest innovation, however, is more complex and unsettling. On-screen, actors lip-synch to recorded interviews with friends and family of the playwright. As jarring as that should be, the execution is remarkable, and with startling effect.
Memories, articulated directly to the camera, are visualised in the background, allowing Barnard to use expressive images to enhance the often harrowing interviews, in a way similar to the animated recollections in Ari Folman’s documentary, Waltz With Bashir (2008).
Disconnecting the audio from its original visuals becomes a constant reminder, for the viewer, that the truth is caught up in layers of artifice, existing somewhere between the theatrical visual and the ‘truthful’ recordings. Barnard is implying that every version of a story has its own subjective truth, and picking them apart is a duty of documentary, however disarmingly it is done.
The Arbor is inventive on so many levels, and by engaging difficult material with such an original mutation of the form, Barnard has paved the way for other documentarians to experiment in a similar vein.
Author Bio: Joe Horsey is a writer and film student from Sheffield, England. Kubrick is his motivation, Kiarostami is his voice of reason, and documentary is his favourite form of fiction. Joe hopes to find a career in documentary filmmaking and film journalism.