From the very beginning, documentary film and controversy were bound together. The first recognised full-length documentary, Nanook of the North, was Robert Flaherty’s record of a ‘real-life’ Inuit family, but even that early documentation of reality was built on deception, and artifice.
Frederick Wiseman, whose films are considered the epitome of realism in documentary-making, has battled with censors and bans for most of his career. When fiction is claimed to be reality, there is something inherently deceitful happening, and documenting reality without intrusion is itself intrusive. Every documentarian, with each film, must decide where to place themselves on this spectrum, and any foray toward the edges invites controversy.
Who decides what it is dignified to show on film and how it should be shown? Is every documentary that depicts death a snuff film? Can death be presented as art? Does art even belong in documentary at all? Is it a crime to encourage sympathy for a criminal? If their crime is an exploitation, is it wrong for a filmmaker to exploit them? Picking apart these films goes some way to answering the questions above, but only so far as to raise a dozen more.
How the responsibilities of documentarians are negotiated with their subjects, issues, themes and artistic merit is an important part of understanding the documentary mode. Everyone has been shocked or offended by a documentary, perhaps even left the cinema, switched off the TV, joined a revolution, or maybe written a stern letter. Yet a world where documentary existed without controversy would surely be a dull one.
These twenty films all encounter the controversial in different ways, some through their material, their practical approach, the after-effects, some for what they have achieved and others for what they fail to achieve.
To recommend every one of these films would, in itself, be controversial but, so with certain examples in particular, viewer-caution is strongly advised.
20. Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922)
Surely the most famous documentary on the list, if not of all time, Nanook of the North stands as the earliest feature-length anthropological documentary, and a landmark in film history.
Robert Flaherty’s genre-defining silent film is a portrait of the Inuit way of life in the Canadian Arctic, and a celebration of love, tradition and survival in extreme conditions. It is difficult not to be charmed by Nanook and his family, and Flaherty compassionately displays their bond. Yet this ‘display’ is the film’s undoing.
To capture the scenes he wanted, Flaherty infamously staged a number of Inuit practices, including many that were outdated and no longer necessary for their survival, while deceptively presenting them as truth. Flaherty filmed inside the family’s igloo with one wall removed for extra light and camera-space, production necessities taking priority over the reality. To add to the artifice, Nanook’s real name was Allakariallak, and his ‘wife’ was in fact a spouse of Flaherty himself.
While there were realist aspects to the film, the inconspicuous deceptions go some way to spoiling the enjoyment of this important documentary.
19. The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)
Texan boy, Nicholas Barclay, disappeared in 1994, aged 13. Four years later he returned as a different person, quite literally. The Imposter tells the story of Frédéric Bourdin, the ‘Imposter’ of the title, who pretended to be the Barclays’ lost son despite striking, inexplicable differences. This sounds like a revelation that might come at the end of a thrilling documentary but it is, in fact, the intriguing lure at the opening of Bart Layton’s film.
As the plot scrambles further and mysteries expand, Bourdin’s interview runs as the narrative backbone, and this in itself is what is contentious about The Imposter. As Bourdin’s character is developed, and the vast extent of his deception is revealed, you are taken along through each stage of the artifice. He appears intriguing, accessible, and as the story progresses, somehow more and more relatable, as he explains his miserable background and tries to justify his actions.
The Imposter allows Bourdin to deceive the viewer just as he did 15 years earlier with the Barclay family. This is an unsettling and fascinating position to be in as a viewer, but understandably a controversial one, as Layton encourages a sympathetic response to an expert fraudster.
18. Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, 2012)
Sometimes statistics and graphs are not enough. James Balog, a National Geographic photographer, knows that there are some things you have to see to truly fathom. Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, follows Balog on his endeavour to record the visible effects of global warming on the Arctic’s glaciers, with time-lapse montages that compress years into seconds.
The results are frightening and beautiful, as huge masses of ice recede like a carcass decaying. In another extraordinary sequence, the crew captures extended footage of a glacier calving, as a section the size of Manhattan breaks away.
Orlowski’s film illustrates humanity’s unstable predicament, and shatters the narratives that have prevailed for so long, that everything will be fine, and that the planet will fix itself. For any who still believe the distorted truths and outright denials of global warming, Chasing Ice will be the nail in that coffin. Here the images do all the talking.
17. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994)
The man of the film’s title is the controversial comic book artist, Robert Crumb. The documentary is a strange and intimate portrait of his life, family and upbringing. In the 1960s his style became renowned, the cover of Janis Joplin’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ record, and his iconic “Keep on Truckin'” illustration to name a few famous examples.
Though Terry Zwigoff’s direction is not contentious in itself, his personal familiarity with Crumb allows the film to explore depths it might otherwise abandon. Crumb examines the impulses, the sexual fantasies, racist and sexist themes, and debauchery that pervade his artwork, with an enraptured eye. The interviewees are both charming and unsettling, most notably Robert’s reclusive and suicidal brother, Charles, whose mental illness and self-proclaimed “paedophiliac tendencies”, in his teenage years, have left him house-bound for decades.
Examining Robert’s provocative artwork, as the film does, is interesting in itself, but Crumb steps into contention as it delves into the inspirations and disturbing mental processes behind it all.
16. Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2012)
“They call them Blackfish. They are an animal that possesses great spiritual power, and they are not to be meddled with.” Blackfish explores the maltreatment and exploitation of captive orcas, used in acrobatic water displays in Seaworld, Florida. There is a clever parallel between this ‘circus animal’ portrait and the almost mystical, powerful majesty of a true predator of the sea. The film investigates several incidents where trainers were attacked and, in some cases, killed by the whales.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s access to stock footage, spanning four decades of the theme park’s history, is impressive and clarifies the cruelty in capturing and imprisoning the whales in disgracefully small enclosures. Seaworld’s efforts to hide or obscure these and other incriminating facts, as well as their refusal to be interviewed for the film, only intensify their inherent corruption.
For many years, especially in America, Seaworld has been a beloved family resort and theme park. Now, with Blackfish at the forefront of protests and campaigning against the park, there has been a genuine impact on Seaworld’s practices, and its days could be numbered.
15. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
“The first movie mystery to actually solve a murder” boasts the film’s billing. The Thin Blue Line tries to unpick the evidence of a problematic case in 1976, in which Randall Adams was falsely convicted of murdering a police officer. Director, Errol Morris, formerly a private investigator, uses the film as his own form of investigation into this injustice. He presents several different reconstructions of the event, to depict every recollection and report of the crime, comparing the plausibility of each.
Morris’ film is controversial in its intense scrutiny of contradictory reports and verdicts, but also in the film’s concluding passage. The other suspect in the case, David Harris, finally admits Randall Adams’ innocence, and indirectly confesses his own guilt. Morris’ tape recording was subsequently used to reverse the verdict, proving the potential influence of documentary in a wider social context.
The Thin Blue Line was a game-changer in the documentary field, and Morris is now considered one of the most important documentary filmmakers of all time.