Documentary Filmmaking

Cinéma Vérité Vs. Direct Cinema: An Introduction

Robert Capa uses a hand-held camera

From its very beginnings in 1877 when Eadweard Muybridge took sequential photographs of moving horses and animated them with the zoópraxiscope—a device he invented two years later to project the images—documentary film has taken many forms and adopted numerous styles and techniques. Most notably, was when the Lumiére brothers invented the first movie camera in 1895 that could hold fifty feet of film stock, with which they captured a train pulling up to a station. As a result, the concept of unedited documentation of real-life situations referred to as “actualities” came about. Today, the two most common methods used in the genre however, are ‘direct cinema’ (the more commonly recognized, ‘standard’ method, if you will) and ‘cinema vérité.’

Both practices were quite revolutionary in their time and were developed during the same historical period in the early ‘60s—a period where documentary cinema had become more comparable to highly edited post-World War II propaganda than portrayals of real events. Developments in technology like smaller and lighter cameras that used 16mm film stock (as opposed to its 35mm predecessor), and portable sync sound allowed for a much less obtrusive way of filming events on site as they happened. The major film crews could be significantly downsized, editing became much more unnecessary and the hand-held cameras could ensure a closer, more authentic look at the subjects in question. Although the two similar techniques came about with synonymous ideologies about championing realism in film, they do have some subtle, yet important differences.

The Maysles brothers, Albert and David Maysles of the United States were most well-known for developing direct cinema. Three of their most popular works in the genre were Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975). Rather than planning a scene they wanted to shoot, the brothers would let the story unfold organically as the camera rolled. They believed the documentarian was an objective observer, a completely invisible passivist as opposed to a director or participant—a noteworthy sentiment that sets the genre apart from cinema vérité.

French for “film truth”, cinema vérité was first developed by French ethnologist and filmmaker, Jean Rouch during the early 1960s and brought to documentary filmmaking a natural dialogue and authenticity of action. But unlike its direct counterpart, the philosophy behind this technique was that the filmmaker actively participates in the film as a subjective observer where necessary; combining observational AND participatory filming in the same breath. Essentially, there is an awareness of the camera that is filming the scene, thus establishing a connection between the cameraman/filmmaker and those who are being filmed. It can also involve stylized and staged set-ups and the degree of intervention is greater than in direct cinema, with the filmmaker’s subjective involvement evoking provocation—something critics point out goes against the whole foundation of documentary as a means to portray uninterrupted truths. In its defence, famous vérité filmmaker Dan Kraus once said “no documentary can ever show you the truth, because there are multiple truths, but vérité can at least relay the truth as seen by a single observer…” Similarly, Rouch’s view about the camera provoking subjects was that provocation reveals people’s true selves as the creatures of fantasy, myth and imagination, which he believes constitutes the most authentic self.

One of the earliest and most widely known of Rouch’s films using vérité was Chronicle of a Summer (1960), which he did with fellow French filmmaker Edgar Morin. By gathering a number of Parisians, including a few supporters of a group with socialist ideologies, either through one-on-one interviews or group discussions, the film addresses topics ranging from happiness and love to colonialism and racism. True to the active role of vérité filmmakers on-camera, the action of the characters in the film seem to always be a response to an impulse by the leader of the conversation or the interviewer. Both Rouch and Morin play with their own roles within the film and are never detached or disengaged from the process of filming. They even included responses from all of the characters in the edited film after showing them the original; allowing for the luxury of self-representation in all parties that resulted in a sense of equality never achieved in direct cinema.

In comparison, both direct cinema and cinema vérité aim to uncover truth in two different ways. The former hopes to unveil truth through the camera’s observation of events and subjects; the latter uses any means possible to seek out truth and is intrinsically an internal process being gradually revealed. Nevertheless, documentary is rarely a matter of pure, untouched observation, but within both methods lies an opportunity for revelation—regardless of the degree of mediation by both the camera and the filmmaker. As such, they are viewed equally as two alternative methods of documentary filmmaking whose use of particular cinematic philosophy and new technology had a huge influence on many generations of filmmakers which is still felt today.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujam

 

Although female names among the incessant list of filmmakers in a male-dominated industry seem as scarce as hen’s teeth, there are quite a few females in the documentary filmmaking landscape who are thriving and have produced some magnificent work throughout the years; one of whom is Egyptian/American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim. Born in Washington D.C. in 1974 to an Egyptian father and an American mother, she was raised in Kuwait and Egypt until her family moved to Boston in 1990, where she later graduated Magna Cum Laude in Visual Arts and Philosophy from Harvard. Before graduating however, she was awarded the Gardiner Fellowship for her film Mokattam, an Arabic film she directed about a garbage-collecting village near Cairo. This was the precedent for a long and successful career directing and producing many films in the Middle East and the U.S in an attempt to create a day where the power of film could bring a global community together; allowing a new understanding of one another. The following are four of Noujaim’s most notable documentaries with which you should get well-acquainted.

1. Startup.com (2000)

This film follows childhood friends and co-founders of a dot-com start-up, govWorks.com, Kaleil Tuzman and Tom Herman, during the troubled state of the Internet revolution. It uses an intimate and dynamic cinema-vérité style in personalizing the crisis through intensely private views of those involved and tells a classic story about values and friendship during the dawn of the Internet Age. The film was shot over two years on digital video and required over 400 hours of video editing—right up until its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Along with a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the festival, the film also won Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary at the Directors Guild of America in 2002, among many others.

2. Control Room (2004)

This feature documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Arab news network, Al-Jazeera, as it covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Including interviews with military officials and both American and Al-Jazeera journalists, this film showcases the huge gap in understanding that exists between the Arab world and Americans, and the way events relating to the war have taken on significantly different meanings, weight and emotional import. Through this, it essentially asks the big question of whether America is radicalizing or stabilizing the Arab world. Among the film’s seven wins and eight nominations, it was awarded the coveted TED prize in 2006. Noujaim was the first woman and the youngest person to win the prize, which grants winners a wish to change the world.

3. Rafea: Solar Mama (2012)

This co-directed documentary with Mona Eldaief follows Rafea, a Jordanian woman from one of the country’s poorest desert villages, Bedouin, as she leaves her 4 daughters and husband to study solar engineering at the revolutionary Barefoot College in India. The college teaches rural men and women—many of whom are illiterate—to become engineers, doctors and artisans with only 2 requirements for enrollment —you must be poor and you must take what you learn to your home village. The challenges Rafea faces are ongoing, with many of the men back home (including her husband) intervening and unconvinced of her ambitions as a practical avenue for women, but her desire for a better, more sustainable future remains clear. The documentary won a U.S. Cinema Eye Honors Award in 2014 and the EDA Award at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in 2013.

4. The Square (2013)

This film follows a handful of Tahrir Square protesters through a 3-year course of Egypt’s political upheaval since 2011. An intimate observational documentary, it begins in the tents of Tahrir in the days leading up to Mubarak’s fall and follows the life-changing journeys of its characters as they begin the real struggle with the military regime—one that has been in power longer than the dictator they removed. The film had over 1600 hours worth of material that was edited and finalised in 2012. But after entering the Sundance Film festival a year later and winning the Audience Award, Noujaim and her crew went back to Tahrir to keep shooting after the situation on the ground had changed and the characters found themselves in the thick of things once again. As a result, the film became an even deeper and more complex story, receiving an Academy Award nomination and winning a Directors Guild Award, the International Documentary Award and an Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival—making it the first ever film to win the award at both Sundance and Toronto.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Werner Herzog

werner herzog

If there’s ever a documentarian that hires cast and crewmembers whose endurance levels match their professional skills, it’s German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. Born on September 5, 1942 in post-World War II Germany, the offbeat visionary thrives on filming in rugged and exotic places like Antarctica or the Amazonian forest and is renowned for putting his subjects to the test—both physically and mentally.

He uses his camera to unveil new layers of experience, nature and the human psyche and is well-known for his frequent collaborations with the controversial and often temperamental actor, Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s films, like himself, are offbeat, cluttered and ecstatic and once professed that “the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” But this crazed valour is all part of his mystique—he once ate a shoe after losing a bet to fellow documentarian Errol Morris.

With over forty years in filmmaking and more than sixty films (including feature films) under his belt, to say Herzog’s had an illustrious career would be an understatement. But as far as documentaries go, if you were to watch any 5 of his works, these should be the ones.

Grizzly Man (2005)

This documentary follows the work of grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard—both of whom were mauled to death by the animal—and was pieced together using actual video footage of Treadwell’s. One of the elements that makes this film so fascinating is the contentious dialogue between Treadwell’s running commentary in the footage and Herzog’s narration; Herzog only saw the overwhelming indifference of nature in the bears whereas Treadwell believed in them as more than just killers.

Fata Morgana (1971)

A truly one-of-a-kind piece of nonfiction filmmaking that could only have come from a mind like Werner Herzog’s, this film puts together narration reciting the Mayan creation myth and stunning yet sometimes bizarre images of the Sahara Desert. The film was initially intended to have a science fiction narrative, but still contains some fascinating dystopian imagery that’s even more bizarre when accompanied by the songs of Leonard Cohen.

 

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

This film is what inspired another of Herzog’s films, the narrative drama Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Steve Zahn. Made for German television, this documentary follows German-American Dieter Dengler as he discusses serving as an American naval pilot in the Vietnam War. His stories of deprivation and struggle in the years after the war echo similar memories from Herzog’s past.

 

Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

This film shows how the deaf and blind struggle to understand and come to terms with a world from which they’re almost completely isolated. It does so through Fini Straubinger, the protagonist, an elderly woman who has been blind, deaf and mute since adolescence. She uses tactile sign language to communicate with people who rely only on taste, touch and smell as she helps them ease the isolation they experience because of their disabilities. It truly is an equally fascinating and touching film.

 

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

This film shows the disaster of the post-Gulf War Kuwaitian oil wells in flames, in a style that seems almost like it’s documented through the perspective of a somewhat alien observer. With few interviews and no explanatory narration, but only a soundtrack full of melancholy and grandiosity, this visually mesmerizing exploration of the ravaged fields sits side-by-side with its equally effective companion Fata Morgana.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Feminist Cinema Of Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto

Oprah, Beyoncé, Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie; when talking feminism, art, and pop-culture, these are the names that immediately spring to mind. But what about the strong and talented females behind the camera that use their art to elevate women’s rights and their plight in trying to fight for them? Kim Longinotto (1952), a documentary filmmaker from the UK, is one of them and has been using her talent to highlight the oppression and discrimination of females from stifling traditions and authoritative rule for the last three decades.

Her debut film, 1976’s Pride of Place, a school project of hers during her years at England’s National School of Television and Film, was somewhat of a rebellion against her previous boarding school in Buckinghamshire, a repressive institution with absurd punishments and incalculable rules. This dark exposé used the students’ perspectives to condemn the school and resulted in it closing down a year after the film was released. This kind of observational documentation of the lives of females as they rose up against any situation that was unjust set the tone for a very long and prestigious career for Longinotto.

As an observational filmmaker, her techniques were unobtrusive—often steering away from any advanced planning, narration, scripting, or staging and yet somewhat also participatory. She would make sure that the audience would feel like they were involved, right there in the scene as her, watching what was happening through the camera. As a result, her work always exhibited her subjects with a fervent veracity that penetrated the camera lens, giving them a distinct voice and presence not always shown in other documentary genres.

Take Shinjuku Boys (1995), a candid look at the lives of three female-to-male transgender subjects working as hosts at the New Marilyn Club in Tokyo. This remarkable documentary followed the three subjects (all of whom don’t identify themselves as lesbians) at home and at work with an anthropological immersion as they entertained their exclusively heterosexual female clientele. Showcasing the complexities of sexuality in an ultra-conservative Japan, this film really thrust Longinotto into the filmmaking limelight and won Outstanding Documentary at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. This then catapulted the career of the self-confessed “lover of the underdog” as she continued to be adorned with honours—including a two-week-long career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among the 14 films featured at the event was Rough Aunties (2008), winner of the Sundance documentary award for its portrayal of five South African women, aka “Bobbi Bears,” who looked after abandoned and abused children. There was also Pink Saris (2010), with protagonist Sampat Pal, a relentless vigilante battling India’s endemic rape dilemma. And Sisters in Law (2005), following Cameroonian judge, Beatric Ntuba and prosecutor, Vera Ngassa as they help women fight cases of abuse; a film that also won the Prix Art et Essai at Cannes and was awarded a Peabody.

The consistent theme behind her works could easily be misinterpreted as continuous representations of female victims and their tragic stories. But Longinotto is quick to point out that none of her subjects are victims but rather survivors. “These stories are about rebels, and those rebels are usually women, because, in most situations, men have an awful lot more power,” she says. However she also clarifies that her work empathises with all of those who struggle. “If there was a place where men were being kicked around and women were locking them in cages, then you’d focus on the men,” she says.

Her passion for those who struggle without a voice comes as no surprise when considering her own history. Born to a Welsh mother and an Italian father, a photographer who later went bankrupt, Longinotto grew up in complete fear of her father’s next “blow-up,” followed by the fear of her boarding school headmistress’ next punishment. She eventually ended up as a homeless 17 year-old where she found herself at the brink of death from illness. It was only when she discovered her love of filmmaking at the National Film and Television School, that she felt she had a calling.

True to form, her latest film Dreamcatcher won the Directing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Following Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute and addict as she dedicates her life to saving girls on the street, it’s clear from the get-go Longinotto’s intent to truly bring the audience in through all the harrowing accounts of rape, violence and abuse. It includes everything, from the shockingly nonchalant confession of a nine-year-old rape victim having witnessed her four-year-old sister receive the same treatment, to the opening scene, where a young sex-worker recalls being stabbed multiple times by a client. And through it all, Longinotto shoots with her resolute adherence to justice through awareness. And may she continue to do so.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The History of the Mockumentary Artform

“I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.” – David St. Hubbins, This is Spinal Tap

One of the countless memorable quotes from the title that spawned—and defines—an entire genre, blurring the lines between scripted satire and improvised comical genius. And while Spinal Tap is arguably the most well-known and oft-quoted of the mockumentary genre so far, it wasn’t strictly the first mockumentary…and it definitely won’t be the last.

As such, join us outside the classroom of your documentary school for this tour of one of the most quirky genres in cinema as we explore:

The History of the Mockumentary

RickyGervaisAsBrent

The first major English language example of the genre—and also the first to leave a long-lasting impact on popular culture—came to us way back in 1938 in the form of a radio play.

When Orson Welles read out a fake news broadcast based on and adapted from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, his delivery and the format of the program reportedly led many people to believe that Earth was, in fact, being invaded by a genocidal martian army.

While there was a disclaimer at the start of the show, it’s suspected that many people missed it due to crossover scheduling and tuned in ten minutes too late to catch Welles describing the invasion in media res. With heightened tension in the face of the real war looming in Europe, the broadcast hadn’t even ended before authorities swarmed CBS and tried to shut it down based on reports of public mass hysteria (they were met with physical resistance from radio executives).

Without any commercial interruption, even with 70 years of hindsight it’s easy to see why the realism unintentionally deceived people (especially if you imagine just tuning in at the 2:30 minute mark.) Here’s the complete broadcast, and it’s every bit as good even when you know it’s a dramatization:

While the scale of the public hysteria is under debate, there’s no doubt that the 1938 War of the Worlds adaptation put Orson Welles squarely on the path to stardom and kickstarted the whole idea of fiction presented as fact, even if it was unintentional.

A Hard Day’s Tap

Not much occurred in the genre for the next few decades following the Welles broadcast, though it should be noted that ‘joke’ news articles and journalistic satire did see a rise, and the tradition of running April Fool’s news segments on both screen and in print was cemented shortly afterwards. The latter was achieved mostly through the ready availability of stock footage, coupled with ludicrous voice over content.

But it wasn’t until the 60s that we saw anything approaching what we currently know as a ‘mockumentary’ feature; that came in the form of A Hard Day’s Night, which served as a strong precursor to the aforementioned This is Spinal Tap:

The format and writing really resonated at the time with the legion of Beatles fans who were afforded an inside look—albeit tongue-in-cheek and scripted—at the Liverpudlian quartet’s everyday lives. And its appeal has endured, frequently being named as one of the most influential music films ever produced.

Approaching the Apex

With the momentum of the mockumentary artform now building,  few more titles embraced the style—namely, the extremely meta David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and the forgettable Pat Paulson for President (1968)—but it was Woody Allen who took the ball and ran with it, pushing the genre to new heights with 1963’s Take the Money and Run and later with 1983’s Zelig.

And then along came Christopher Guest, the grandfather of the improvisational mockumentary.

Directed by Rob Reiner and co-written with Guest (along with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), the 1984 masterpiece This is Spinal Tap changed the game forever and arguably hasn’t been topped since.

We’ll let this iconic clip speak for itself:

There’s not much more to be written about the comic and cinematography genius that hasn’t already been stated over the past three decades since its release, save for another recommendation to immediately go and watch it if you haven’t already.

The Modern Era

A few mockumentaries have tried to turn the dial to eleven since then, to varying degrees of success. Sascha Baron Cohen put a fresh spin on the genre and brought it to a new age with Borat, at the same time pushing the limits of how awkward and cringeworthy unleashing a character actor into real-world settings can be:

But proving that you can have too much of a good thing, his subsequent efforts—Brüno and The Dictator—failed to capitalize on the format Cohen invented.

When it comes to television, however, the mockumentary genre has flourished with some seminal titles coming particularly out of Britain: The Office revolutionized the genre for the medium (and spawned many international versions), and many heralded the black comedy, spoof news series Brass Eye as being the pinnacle of satirical TV news (NSFW language warning):

Going forward however, it’s the new mockumentary series Documentary Now! which looks set to steal the spoof TV crown back for America.

Written by notable Saturday Night Live alumni Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen and inspired by the likes of Spinal Tap—though intentionally trying not to mirror it. The show recently wrapped up a successful first season that included such documentary punching bags as a parody of Nanook of the North and a lampooning of Vice’s journalistic practices. We’re eagerly awaiting the upcoming second season to see which sacred cows of documentary film they take on next.

Certainly one to watch, and we’d love to know what you think of the new show (and any other favorite mockumentaries we might have missed.) Head on down to the comments below and let your voice be heard!

5 Fallen Musical Idols Immortalized in Documentary Form

It’s a sad fact of life and with way too much precedent that some of the finest musicians bow out early, leaving the rest of us with the unanswerable question of what they would have gone on to achieve had they not passed too soon.

At the same time, these stars—regardless if what mind you pay to the notion of celebrity—usually have a colorful life and personality, and it takes an expert documentarian with access to really good footage in order to tell their stories in an effective and respectful way.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse

5 Must-See Documentaries About Tragically Lost Music Stars

1. This is It

One of the more controversial documentaries listed here due to both the subject himself and the nature of it’s release, This is It covers the preparations behind what would be Michael Jackson’s final curtain call, both literally and, sadly, figuratively. A very interesting inside look behind the scenes of an enigmatic, true genius… as long as you can put aside the fact that none of the footage was intended for release, the Jackson estate didn’t exactly approve, fans objected to the exploitative nature of the tour itself, and that – arguably – Jackson himself wouldn’t have wanted its release.

2. Montage of Heck

If Michael Jackson is to be considered the most tragic figure in pop, Kurt Cobain surely ranks among the same leagues when it comes to rock.

Kurt Cobain: A Montage of Heck is one of the finest documentaries of 2015 so far, let alone one of the best music documentaries ever released. Montage paints a very different picture of Cobain to the one that has endured in popular culture. Particularly, we learn that he wasn’t the moody, tortured artist who only took his own life to escape the trappings of fame; in reality, he was a humorous (if highly-strung) perfectionist who loved music and did all he could to steer his life in the right way before succumbing to his long-lasting battle with depression and drug addiction.

Documentary filmmaking at its very finest, and will no doubt be the definitive work on the Nirvana frontman for years to come (and probably permanently.)

3. What Happened, Miss Simone?

This Netflix original opened this Summer to great acclaim, helped in part thanks to Nina Simone’s only surviving daughter overseeing the fine work of director Liz Garbus as executive producer.

And really, a documentary covering the huge career and personality of Simone was never in better hands than Garbus’. If you know the name, it’ll likely be from her biopics Bobby Fischer Against the World (which opened the Premier Documentary event at Sundance in 2011) as well as the Love, Marilyn documentary; anyone that can craft a well-made homage to Marilyn Monroe where so many others have failed is worth following.

4. Amy

Joining Kurt Cobain in the notorious 27 Club—a term used to describe the phenomenon of gifted young artists passing away at the age of 27—Amy Winehouse’s death came as a shock, if not surprise, to the British music scene and far beyond.

And like Cobain, Winehouse’s story (as well as what drove both her musical aptitude and self-destructiveness) is complicated and multi-layered, making it and Montage two of the most essential documentaries of the summer. This year’s Amy is an achievement because it does exactly what a good documentary should do: taking a complex figure and getting right to the heart of what they’re all about, with depth and feeling along the way.

A truly heartbreaking study of fame, addiction, broken relationships and, above all, a uniquely talented musician.

5. Searching for Sugarman

An anomaly on this list of musicians that died way before their time if taken in a literal sense, the twist in the tale of Stephen Segerman’s life and career is way more glorious and magical to view on screen than anything you might have read about it on paper … so we won’t give anything away.

Almost unanimously voted as the best documentary of 2013, Searching for Sugar Man plays out much the same as a beloved, emotional song: a disarmingly grabbing intro, a strong hook and a surprising turn at the bridge, all leading into an incredibly eclectic crescendo. If you haven’t watched Searching for Sugar Man, you’re missing out.

BONUS – Notorious B.I.G: One More Chance 

BIGGGIE

While March 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Biggie’s shocking murder at the young age of 24, Biggie Smalls is not only not forgotten — he’s still loved and revered by many as the greatest rapper of all time. The Brooklyn-based artist originated a unique sound mingling Jamaican Patois and East Coast grit that is still unique and resonant two decades later.

B.I.G. not only inspired a generation of hip-hop artists, musicians, and singers; he’s inspired documentaries and an upcoming scripted true crime series. He was the subject of a 2007 documentary feature titled “Notorious B.I.G. Bigger Than Life,” which included personal appearances and interviews with some of the biggest names in hip hop.

And, as announced in Spin March 2017, a new Biggie Smalls documentary is in the works: “‘Notorious B.I.G.: One More Chance’ will be directed by Emmett Malloy and Brendan Malloy, and will be made with the full cooperation of the late rapper’s estate and his mother, Voletta Wallace.”Singer Faith Evans was married to B.I.G. at the time of his death, and has commemorated the 20th anniversary of his by loss dropping a new album of duets she created with her late husband, titled “The King & I.”

Know of any more musician profile documentaries that deserve a watch? Don’t hesitate to give it a shout out in the comments below—we’re all ears.

5 Essential Documentaries To Watch This Summer

It’s been something of a banner year for documentaries so far, with many feature-length releases already being touted as candidates for the best non-fiction releases of the year despite still having five months left to go.

best documentaries 2015

In fact, the pick of the crop has been so strong in 2015 that it was tough to narrow it down to just 5 Essential Documentaries to Watch This Summer… but if you’re studying the craft at documentary filmmaking school or even just love a great story, here are five titles we’d highly recommend you add to your ‘To Watch’ list.

Let’s start with some essential viewing for anyone except those who suffer from vertigo…

Meru

Nothing quite captures the spirit of human endeavor than a mountain climbing movie, and as a general rule it’s the non-fiction that’s more compelling than anything a screenwriter can dream up.

Most climbing documentaries inherently contain all the ingredients for a good watch—conflict, despair, life, death, endurance, and triumph—but this year’s Meru really pushes it all to the next level.

Set on the utterly terrifying Shark’s Fin feature on the mountain of the same name, Meru is a disarmingly moving story of three climbers attempting the near-impossible.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

There have been a number of documentaries over the years covering the life and untimely death of the enigmatic Nirvana frontman, and for a long time 2006’s About a Son was considered the most definitive… and then came this Summer’s Montage of Heck.

Montage is not only the best piece of material ever made about Kurt (and it is solely about Cobain, not the rest of the band), but it’s probably going to end up being the best documentary of 2015.

Even the most hardcore of Kurt Cobain fans will be surprised by the level of intimacy of the footage, as well as the approach taken to the documentary.

For the record, Dave Grohl reportedly lasted ten minutes before he became “too terrified” to continue watching.

Amy

Another member of the fabled ’27 Club’ and as equally tormented as the late Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and her tragically young death has been deserving of a careful documentary treatment since her passing in 2011.

As both a celebration of her art and career success and a study of what ultimately became her undoing, the team behind the 2010 documentary Senna have produced another powerful and tender biopic which borders on masterpiece. Another essential—if heartbreaking—documentary to watch this Summer.

The Wolfpack

In 2010, documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle chanced across a perculiar bunch of teenagers walking around First Avenue in Manhattan. Dressed in all black, wearing dark Ray-Bans and with their hair down to their waists, Crystal ended up befriending the group of siblings and chanced upon a bizarre story—the six brothers and one sister had all been forcibly confined to their Lower East Side apartment by their father since birth and homeschooled.

Nearly everything on the outside world was new to them, and in turn, the very candid look into their bizarre world is very new to us as viewers. Well worth watching.

Going Clear

An incendiary documentary which unpacks the claims made by the Church of Scientology (and based on the 2013 book of the same name), Going Clear is probably the most deeply disturbing piece of nonfiction you’ll see this year.

Despite a furious and sustained effort to block the documentary by the Church of Scientology itself, Going Clear went on to become the second-most watched HBO documentary of the last ten years ( behind a feature on Beyoncé.) In fact, director Alex Gibney voiced appreciation for the Church taking out full page ads discouraging potential viewers from watching it, thereby increasing its exposure.

5 Of The Best Space Documentaries Now Streaming

What lies beyond the confines of our own atmosphere is mind-boggling in the truest sense of the word, so it’s little wonder that space—and the stuff in it—makes for compelling subject matter when it comes to documentaries.

That said, it’s a double-edged sword for students at documentary filmmaking school looking to focus on the cosmos. For one thing, space documentaries have to rely on inventive ways to represent the subject matter visually since there’s usually no direct footage or images of deep space objects or abstract concepts.

Secondly, it’s tricky to balance the writingyou don’t want to lose 99.98% of the viewers who don’t know the intricacies of Minowski spacetime, but at the same time you don’t want to patronize them with details most 8th graders know.

What follows is a roundup of titles that serve as near-perfect examples of space documentaries which manage to tick all the right boxes. Set your warp drives to maximum as we chart:

The Best Space Documentaries Currently Streaming

1. Life in Our Universe

Life in our universe documentary

A six-part series lead by the hugely engaging (and award-winning) Dr. Laird Close, Life in Our Universe charts the progress of scientists and uncovers how our civilization is conducting the hunt for others. The question of whether or not life exists amongst the stars has always been an exciting one, and this series does the magnificence of the question justice.

Streaming on: Netflix

2. In the Shadow of the Moon

best space documentaries

By far the most comprehensive documentary about the Apollo lunar landings ever produced, this British-made documentary managed to do something never done before: bringing all of the key players of the moon landings together to reminisce on their experiences (even those who had previously been interview shy.)

Even those who think they know it all will be surprised at the amount of detail coveredif you loved Andrew Chaikin’s book A Man on the Moon or the HBO series it spawned (entitled From the Earth to the Moon), you’ll love this.

Streaming on: 4oD (may not be available in all regions)

3. NASA: The Space Shuttle

Just as interesting as space itself are the marvels of technology that got us there, and this YouTube documentary is both a fascinating look back at the Space Shuttle fleet as well as a celebration of its time in service (even more poignant given that the last Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.) But we can sell this documentary about rocket ships with just one line: it’s narrated by William Shatner.

Streaming on: YouTube

4. The Journey to the Centre of the Universe

In the span of just 90 minutes, this National Geographic documentary covers a lot of ground—namely, from the sands of our own planet to the borders of the known Universe. While the special effects are somewhat rudimentary by current standards, it’s nevertheless one of the best space documentaries on YouTube.

Steaming on: YouTube

5. Cosmos

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No list of the best space documentaries available for streaming would be complete without a hat-tip to Cosmos. These days Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s reputation as a compelling astrophysicist speaks for itself, and although the show has been aimed at a broad audiencemeaning the science is a little entry-level at timesit doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Extremely impressive special effects, excellent animations, and every bit as good as you’ve no doubt heard.

Streaming on: Netflix

Know of any other fantastic space documentaries currently streaming that we should be watching? You know what to do – descend on down to the comments below and jettison your suggestion!

6 Female Documentary Filmmakers To Watch

While the number of female directors in Hollywood is depressingly few and far between, the state of play is a lot more balanced in the world of nonfiction with some tremendous female talent coming out of documentary filmmaking school and going on to create magnificent work.

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From industry stalwarts with numerous award wins behind them to brand new talent currently making waves, below you’ll find six excellent documentary filmmakers who just so happen to be women. Dive right in, and you may just find a new favorite…

1. Barbara Kopple

A regular name which has appeared on every decent Top Documentarians list since the mid-90s, Kopple has won not just one, but two Academy Awards for her documentary work. Hallmarks from her extensive filmography include dissections of American culture and biopics of intriguing figures, particularly the controversies (such as Woody Allen and his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, or the Dixie Chicks’ anti-war backlash.)

If You Had to Watch One: Go with Harlan County, USA. It was one of her Oscar winners and a classic example of a documentary crew becoming part of the story itself, cementing its status in the documentary film canon. The above link plays the full feature.

2. Abigail Disney

Since the release of her debut documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell in 2008, the granddaughter of the famous animation studio’s co-founder has come into her own as a force to be reckoned with. As well as a slew of critically acclaimed documentaries, Disney is also responsible for the formation and success of numerous pro-female causes and peace initiatives.

If You Had to Watch One: The aforementioned Pray the Devil Back to Hell—co-directed with Emmy Award winner Gini Reticker—is a great place to start.

3. Kim Longinotto

A British documentarian who draws from inspiration from her tumultuous early life, Longinotto began working as a director way back in the mid-seventies and has since become a benchmark for the cinema vérité approach as applied to documentary filmmaking. With her material typically highlighting cases of women who are subject to discrimination and/or oppression, Longinotto usually leaves those she films to tell their own story (to great effect.)

If You Had to Watch One: Her most recent documentary, Dreamcatcher, is well worth checking out and won the World Cinema Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

4. Chris Hegedus

Another luminary from the style of Direct Cinema, Hegedus has won more lifetime achievement awards for her documentary filmography than we could possibly list here. Along with her husband D.A. Pennebaker—a hugely influential filmmaker in his own right—the duo have blown open the stories behind numerous significant events in contemporary American history, as well as produced some second-to-none profiles of many musical legends.

If You Had to Watch One: Either The War Room (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), or Moon Over Broadway if you’ve got an interest in musical theatre.

5. Lourdes Portillo

A Mexican-born documentary filmmaker whose extensive body of work borders on the avant garde. Much of her work—which is frequently the subject of Chicano studies—centers around aspects of Latin America culture and events, but that doesn’t mean her documentaries are any less engaging for a wider audience.

If You Had to Watch One: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, covering the disturbing story of mothers in Argentina whose children “vanished” during the human rights atrocities of the Dirty War.

6. Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Cowperthwaite has produced a number of TV series documentaries over the past two decades, but it was with the release of 2013’s Blackfish that she gained worldwide recognition as a director and a BAFTA nomination. Interestingly, despite the unparalleled success of Blackfish, Cowperthwaite is yet to make any money off its release, admitting that she wasn’t much of a “business-minded shark” when it came to negotiating investment contracts.

If You Had to Watch One: Blackfish is as engaging as you’ve heard, but if you’ve already seen it, try her other directed credit City Lax.

6 of the Best Environmental Documentaries

Documentaries have the power to change perceptions about the world around us on both a personal and societal level, and as we’ve seen time and time again, the source of this can come from anywhere; a student at documentary filmmaking school is just as likely to inspire big change as a well-known celebrity A-Lister.

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One area in which documentary filmmaking is making great strides is ecology and the environment. With single titles having a notable impact on how we as a species affect our planet, let’s take a look at six of the best environmental documentaries you should check out right now (from both the obscure to the award-winning).

Food, Inc. (2008)

Usually high up the list of many people’s “best environmental documentaries,” Food, Inc. went after one of the biggest subjects in ecology with a brazenness the likes of which isn’t often seen in modern documentary filmmaking. It found its mark.

Divided into three acts, the documentary covers the production of meat and vegetables in the first two before turning its attention to the conglomerate nature of food sales. Eye opening and horrifying in equal measure, it wholly deserved the Emmy which it went on to win.

Dirt! The Movie (2009)

Based on the book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth and narrated by none other than Jamie Lee Curtis, this is a documentary that doesn’t look appealing at first glance but is actually essential viewing given the ubiquity of the subject matter. It’s also free to watch on YouTube, so dive into this unexpected (and award-winning) treat by clicking here.

General Orders No. 9 (2012)

One of the lesser known yet no less stunning environmental documentaries on this list, General Orders No. 9 is an absolute beauty to behold.

Eschewing all of the standard documentary conventions and running like a visual meditation, this unique film sequence chronicles the American South’s demise as the wilderness is slowly paved over. Having taken 11 years to make, cinematography doesn’t get much more elegant than this.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

No list of the best environmental documentaries would be complete without a hat tip to Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. No real introduction is needed for the title which arguably did more for raising global consciousness than any prior film to the effects of global warming, so if you haven’t already, go watch it immediately.

Gasland (2010)

As we mentioned in our “How to Shoot a Documentary” post, Gasland has the distinction of being one of the few feature-length, widely distributed documentaries to have been produced by just one man. That man is Josh Fox, and Gasland doesn’t suffer any for the lack of crew members.

Fox’s story comes out of the gate swinging, beginning in medias res with a natural gas company offering him $100,000 to lease the land he lives on for drilling purposes. Intrigued, the director goes on to speak to families who have accepted the offer and uncovers numerous serious health issues in the process—essentially, it’s a modern-day Erin Brockovich in documentary form.

Blackfish (2013)

One of the most recognizable entries on the list of best environmental documentaries, in part due to the immense furor it caused upon its release in 2013 and the subsequent fallout.

If you want an example of a documentary that tangentially changed the world, this is it. The tale of one orca’s life in captivity and the narrative surrounding it totally savaged SeaWorld’s reputation, so much so that the company’s shares and attendance figures plummeted in the documentary’s wake:

Seaworld Share Prices
For its part, however, SeaWorld has claimed that the documentary hasn’t had a negative effect and that the drop in share prices is down to other factors (and the drop in attendance is the result of unseasonably bad weather at its main parks). We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Got your own recommendations of the best environmental documentaries we should be watching? Don’t hesitate to hit the comments below and share with the group.

The Best Documentaries – Nine Films of Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney

On the short list of current documentary filmmakers that can create a world of buzz with a new film, Alex Gibney is near the top. Born in New York City in 1953, Gibney went to film school after getting his bachelor’s degree from Yale University. The son of a journalist and stepson of a Reverend, his films often show great concern for finding the inherent truths of their subjects, while also possessing a moral compass that orients Gibney’s relationship to both the subject and the audience. The following are nine documentaries from Gibney’s filmography that illustrate the work he’s done for the form.

1. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Based on the 2003 best-seller of the same name, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts and analyzes the Enron Corporation’s headline-making collapse due to massive corruption at the highest levels and the epic scandal that followed. Gibney’s film, released in 2005, includes interviews with Enron executives and other employees, as well as stock analysts and reporters, including the book’s authors, Bethany McLean and peter Elkind. Released in 2005, Enron was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary in 2006.

2. Taxi to the Dark Side

Gibney didn’t win the Oscar for Enron, but he did the following year for Taxi to the Dark Side, which documents the horrific story of an Afghan taxi driver tortured and beaten to death by American soldiers while in prison. The film broadens its subject to the American policy on torture and enhanced interrogation and, by interviewing political and military experts on both sides of the issue, examines the ethics of torture as well as its effects on pop culture and its relation to the Geneva Convention.

Taxi to the Dark Side DVD cover

3. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Released in 2008, Gonzo tells the story of groundbreaking journalist/author Hunter S. Thompson, using interviews with friends and family to add insight into the enigmatic writer’s life. The documentary was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the WGA’s Best Documentary Screenplay award, and is one of the few documentaries with a Grammy nomination, for its album notes co-written by Johnny Depp and Douglas Brinkley.

4. Freakonomics

The Freakonomics movie was four short documentaries packaged together, all based on stories depicted in the best-selling book of the same name by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Each documentary had a different director, including Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki and Rachel Grady. Gibney directed the second segment, “Pure Corruption,” which concerned match fixing in Sumo wrestling, a scandalous yet prevalent feature of the Japanese sport. Freakonomics premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010.

5. Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Released in 2010, Casino Jack tells the story of Jack Abramoff, the D.C. lobbyist who went to prison for orchestrating a massive bribing scandal involving him and several lobbyists, politicians and congressional staffers, including a Congressman and two White House officials. While focusing on Abramoff, a conman and schemer, Gibney takes a broader look at the corruption embedded in the nation’s capital and its inner workings.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

6. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

At first glance, Client 9 seems to be another of Gibney’s intensive looks at political corruption at the highest levels. While that is certainly an important component of the film’s DNA, Client 9 is a more personal look at one individual, former Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer, whose meteoric rise and White House aspirations collapsed under his epic prostitution scandal. Client 9 premiered in Spitzer’s home state at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010.

7. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Gibney again tackles the darkest corners of the current political climate, but rather than taking a broad view or a specific look at an individual, he takes focus on an organization—WikiLeaks. The documentary covers the history of WikiLeaks and the context that led to its creation, including a 1989 hacking of NASA and a timeline of WikiLeaks’ major whistleblowing efforts, culminating in Chelsea Manning’s leak of classified war footage and documents. A story about WikiLeaks and a story about its founder, Julian Assange, go hand-in-hand, but Gibney interviews several people, including Manning, and uses previous interview footage of Assange himself.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

8. Finding Fela

Gibney narrows his focus again to a single individual for Finding Fela, offering an intimate look into the fascinating life and career of musician Fela Kuti. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2014.

9. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Currently airing on HBO, which produced the film, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear is adapted from Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name. Once again Gibney tackles a powerful institution and the controversy that surrounds it—this time the Church of Scientology. Gibney uses provocative footage of Scientology conventions and meetings, and interviews prominent ex-Scientologists, many either famous or former high-ranking members of the group. Gibney also includes footage from one of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s rare interviews. Before airing on cable, Going Clear premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, continuing Gibney’s streak of event-filmmaking.

Scientology church from Going Clear

Interested in telling stories of your own? Check out our documentary school programs today!

How to Shoot a Documentary

As we’ve covered previously, 2014 was a solid year for documentary filmmaking, and this raises a question…

… are you going to be part of 2015’s legacy?

how to shoot a documentary

Whether you’re still grafting at documentary filmmaking school or already qualified and shooting out in the field, it’s never a bad idea to take pause and reflect on some of the best practices of crafting a documentary (while you work on innovating and finding your own ‘voice’.)

No matter what level of experience you may currently find yourself, let’s revisit what’s at the very core of our artform:

1. The Golden Rule: There Are No Rules

It sounds corny, but there really isn’t a blanket tip that will bring the best out of every documentary. If there’s one single thing that should be kept in mind, it’s that every story will require different telling techniques: you’ll have to rummage through your cinematography toolbox and figure out which tool is right for the job, and that kind of intuition (as well as acquiring the tools in the first place) only comes through practice.

how to shoot a documentary tips

Another thing to keep in mind is that no amount of practice or experience will ever see you knowing it all, so with that in mind…

2. Surround Yourself With Talent

We can think of very few documentaries that are written, directed, shot and produced by a single-person film crew. In fact, Gasland is the only critically notable example that springs to mind, and even that ended up having a few people working on it by the end of production.

Gasland

We’re not saying it’s impossible to go it solo, but unless you’ve got absolutely no other option, it’s not going to be an easy (nor probably enjoyable) experience and you’ll inevitably end up not doing the documentary the justice it deserves.

Instead, seek out people who are gifted in their respective fields and you’ll set yourself up for success. This may sound difficult – especially when on a budget – but you’ll probably find it’s easier to find folk that share your vision for a documentary than for a feature film. It’s not hard to convince people to take part in covering an issue they’re also passionate about, whereas trying to explain why your script about zombies in space is going to be the ‘next big thing’ can be an uphill struggle.

This is also one of the biggest benefits of documentary school: you’ll never be short of bright stars with which to collaborate.

3. Shoot a Film, Not a Documentary

Michael Moore is one of the most controversial documentary filmmakers of the modern age; love him or hate him, he certainly knows how to push buttons and get his documentaries seen, so his views on the craft are worthy of consideration.

Michael Moore documentary tips

Amongst many good points raised during a candid interview with Indie Wire, Moore observes that people go to see movies for the exact same reason they see documentaries: “They want the lights to go down and be taken somewhere. They don’t care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even challenge them to think – but damn it, they don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained.”

In short, your documentary should provoke an active emotion out of the audience – whatever that may be – not just give them information…

… there are Wikipedia pages for that.

4. Exposition Bad, Bad Reenactment Worse

As you’ve probably already figured, an exposition overload rarely makes for engaging viewing. One way that documentary filmmakers try to get around this is to reenact past events using actors – surely it’s the only way to portray a real-life event when no actual footage of it exists?

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Quite often, yes; but a terribly executed reconstruction scene can be more jarring to an audience than any lengthy voiceover possibly could be. Check out some great documentaries like the Thin Blue Line, Man on Wire and the recent 1971 to see how it’s done well and try to emulate their techniques, but if you don’t feel like you’re going to be able to do it effectively, it may be time to pick another tool from the toolbox.

5. Ignore the Big and the Small

Too many documentary filmmakers first starting out worry about whether or not they’re covering big enough stories. Why focus on a homicide in a rural, Midwestern town when you can expose the entire US government, right?

Wrong. A thousand other people are going to try and tell the story of the NSA, but only one is going to end up making CitizenFour. On the other hand, only one Kurt Kuenne could have created Dear Zachary.

dear zachary poster

By focusing solely on a huge story just because it’s huge, you run the risk of being totally blindsided by it and never really finding ‘your’ angle to the whole thing. But if you stick to the age-old adage ‘shoot what you know’, you’ll be able to really own the project. You’ll also find that the locality or niche-nature of the documentary won’t hamper the chance of it getting mainstream appeal in the slightest.

If you think a story is worth telling, it almost certainly is.

Just get out there and tell it well.

New Eminem Documentary – Watch ‘Not Afraid’ Now

Eminem Not Afraid Documentary

The music documentary industry has never been better or more prominent. From 2012’s flawless Searching for Sugar Man to the DJ essential Scratch ten years before it, we’ve seen some excellent works from the genre coming from both professional filmmakers and documentary school students alike.

With this in mind, we’ve previously covered a list of the most essential music documentaries ever made, but a brand new Eminem documentary has just dropped that may have us revising this list in the coming days.

Not Afraid: The Shady Records Story

Even non-hip hop fans will be aware of Eminem’s divisive music, public image and career. The Detroit-born rapper has never failed to push the envelope since his emergence (primarily through his Slim Shady alter ego) into the mainstream during the late nineties, and it’s tricky to sum up the entirety of his career in one go.

A new documentary, however, has done a pretty good of just that. Click the video to watch the brand new Eminem documentary produced and released by Complex:

Not Afraid: The Shady Records Story is a 30 minute retrospective released in time to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Marshall Mathers’ label Shady Records, which Marshall Mathers founded with renowned hip-hop manager Paul Rosenberg.

The documentary predominantly charts Slim Shady’s rise to prominence and features some behind-the-scenes stories from the Shady Records label, including candid interviews with Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Rosenberg and other label mates and luminaries of the genre.

The short itself is exceptionally well produced and will shed some light on facets of the label that even hardcore fans aren’t likely to know. There are also some great soundbites that emerge from the footage, including Dre admitting that he had no idea Marshall was white. Other stories from the documentary include 50 Cent’s near-fatal shooting, the background to songs like Lose Yourself and Stan, and the numerous collaborations that have happened so far on the label.

Are you a Shady fan, and have you seen the documentary? Let us know your take on it via the comments below.

Documentary Filmmaking in 2014 – Trends & Five of the Best Documentary Films

All in all, 2014 was a great year for documentary filmmaking with some brilliant work having been released by both returning professionals and new talent fresh out of documentary filmmaking school. We also saw a few definite trends emerge and a few that were further cemented with last year’s output, and the most notable one is the increased amount of character studies which are being released.

The Rise of the Portrait

For a while now, character-centric documentary films have become a staple of the industry but this has reached influx levels very recently. However, it’s for this very reason that not all character studies are good—some filmmakers have seen the success of such emotional documentaries featuring colorful (and often tragic) subjects, and feel that it’s a magic bullet guaranteed to make for a great documentary.

Due to the slew of documentaries of this ilk, it’s no longer enough to point a camera at someone with an interesting story. Audiences have had their fill of these, and require a cherry on top in order to become fully engaged.

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That said, thanks to the inherent nature of humankind’s love of storytelling, character study documentaries aren’t likely to lose their appeal – all we’re seeing now is that they have to be told exceptionally well in order to stand ahead of the competition.

And that is still achievable given that the subgenre offers a robust framework on which to tell a great story – character documentaries lend themselves extremely well to narrative story structure, can be less complicated to shoot (though not always) and often the story can unfurl in unexpected ways even as it’s being told.

NYFA’s Year in Documentary Film

In addition to the above trends, a number of instructors and students from NYFA’s documentary school have found significant success and awards season recognition for their documentary work. Curriculum Advisor and Master Class professor Geof Bartz edited the HBO documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Death that recently debuted at Sundance and was an Oscar contender this year. In addition, documentary graduate Muhammad Hamdy, who DP’d on the Oscar-nominated film The Square last year, had his most recent film We Are The Giant short-listed for this year’s Oscars.

A number of other films directed by NYFA instructors were also featured in this year’s Oscar race  including Jeremy Xido’s much buzzed-about film Death Metal Angola. In addition, instructor Hilla Medalia produced the acclaimed documentary and Oscar contender Dancing in Jaffa and wrote and directed The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. And recent One-Year Documentary graduate Colleen Shaw’s short documentary All in my Head: The Patrick Stein Story was short-listed for the Best Documentary Short Oscar.

Subculture Club

An even more recent documentary trend which has formed as an offshoot to this is the idea of ‘community’ documentaries – that is, exploring a subculture (usually Internet based) which is misunderstood by the mainstream.

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Documentaries covering video gaming and religious subcultures (think King of Kong, Indie Game: The Movie, For the Bible Tells Me So and Jesus Camp) seem to be especially rising to the forefront of documentary filmmaking, which seems to correlate with how both topics have risen in popularity over the past decade.

Again, this trend for documentary filmmaking isn’t likely to go away given that there are bottomless depths to plumb in terms of subject matter.

Top 5 Must-Watch Documentaries of 2014

Unfortunately, the Golden Globes have eschewed the idea of an award for documentaries again this year (the last time it recognized the work of documentary filmmakers was 1977), but there were many documentaries in 2014 that would surely be eligible for such an award if it existed.

Actress
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

Wire star Brandy Burr under the microscope, examining her decision to leave the show to start a family before trying to re-enter the limelight once again… but what starts off as a simple premise ends up twisting and turning in huge, unsettling ways.

Citizenfour
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

The Edward Snowden story was always destined to be retold on celluloid in some form or another, but thankfully Citizenfour was the one to do it justice. This is hardly surprising given that the documentary was created by Laura Poitras, the woman Snowden reached out to in order to expose the United States government whilst she was making a different film on government surveillance (and thus making her implicit in the dramatic—and, by turns, horrific—tale which rapidly unfolded).

The Case Against 8
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

A documentary covering a lengthy series of judicial proceedings may not sound incredibly engaging on paper, The Case Against 8 is truly deserving on a list of the top 5 must-watch documentaries of 2014. The fight for marriage equality which went all the way to the Supreme Court is a surprisingly emotional and deeply human one, with directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White carefully balancing the legal backstory with the relatable points.

Happy Valley
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

The Jerry Sandusky scandal was one of the most explosive stories to have hit the headlines in the last decade. Emmy Award-winner Amir Bar-Lev manages to not only cover all the angles (and failings) behind this sensitive story, but also deftly explores the wider issues surrounding “team spirit” and the seeming invincibility of sports stars.

National Gallery
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

For decades now, Frederick Wiseman has been an underrated master of cinéma vérité. His thirty-eight documentaries so far have primarily concerned themselves with exploring the workings of various major institutions—a ballet company, an air force training base, a major hospital—but last year’s study of London’s National Gallery might be one of his finest masterpieces.

2015 Oscars: A Look At The Documentary Short Subject Nominees

Oscar statue

The Documentary Short category often gets overlooked during the hype and blitz of the Academy Awards, but the films nominated for the Oscar are almost always powerful and important. Because they are cheaper to finance than features, documentary shorts often tackle subjects that are obscured from mainstream media, or tell deeply personal stories that resonate with a humanity that can be lacking in the movies of the other categories.

Documentary Shorts can come from career filmmakers or those making their first project after studying documentary filmmaking in film school. This is the first nomination for all of the producers and directors up for the Oscar this year. Their subjects are varied but united in their compassion for mankind, from thousands of war veterans to the life of a single infant. Here is a look at the other works these filmmakers have made before their shot at the golden statue.

Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry – Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Documentary Short Subject Nominee Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 chronicles the crisis center that handles military veterans, which account for 20% of all suicides in the United States each year. In addition to directing Hotline, Ellen Goosenberg Kent has directed the documentaries One Nation Under Dog and No Dog Left Behind, as well as TV docs Wartorn: 1861-2010, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, The Addiction Project, The Music in Me, Too Hot Not to Handle, Middle School Confessions, and Brett Killed Mom: A Sister’s Diary, among others. She has also produced Real Sex for HBO.

Producer Dana Perry has also produced Sex: The Revolution, Paramedics, and Motown 40: The Music is Forever. She had directed Top Ten Monks, Boy Interrupted, The Drug Years, And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop, and VH1 Presents the 70s.

Aneta Kopacz – Joanna

Documentary Short Subject Nominee Joanna

Joanna tells the heartbreaking story of a mother facing a terminal disease who writes a blog for her young son, hoping to impart some lessons and wisdom before she passes.

This is the only film credit Aneta Kopacz has to date, though she was given special thanks in the credits for Get Low, starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray.

 

Documentary Short Subject Nominee Our Curse

Our Curse is a Polish film directed by Tomasz Śliwiński, whose child was born with a very rare and incurable disease known as the Ondine’s Curse. He chronicles the struggles he and his wife have caring for their sick baby and the toll it takes on their own lives. He and his wife, Maciej, have no other credits but the making of this heartbreakingly personal film.

Gabriel Serra Arguello – The Reaper (La Parka)

Documentary Short Subject Nominee The Reaper

The Reaper tells the story of Efrain, who’s worked in a slaughterhouse for 25 years, gradually changing his worldview on life and death. Director Gabriel Serra Arguello has worked as the AC on Tiempos Felices and the cinematographer on Año Nuevo and Xinantecatl.

J. Christian Jensen – White Earth

Documentary Short Subject Nominee White Earth

White Earth takes place in North Dakota during an oil boom that is attracting many people looking for employment in a harsh economy. Unfortunately the winter proves even harsher. The film documents the struggle of an immigrant mother and her three children facing the situation head on.

J. Christian Jensen often acts as his own cinematographer, and has shot and directed documentary shorts including Between Land and Sea, Solitary Plains, Alpha & Omega, and Out of Body.

Any winner this year will be deserving of the prize. Check out our looks at the nominees for Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Documentary Feature.

2015 Oscars: A Look at the Best Documentary Feature Nominees

Oscar Statue
This year’s Oscar nominees in the Best Documentary Feature are an eclectic group—producers and directors of varying levels of experience. Their films are just as diverse, although all share a voice that says something powerful and critical to the human experience, a must for any documentary vying for the Academy Award. For students and aspiring documentary filmmakers who wish to learn more about the craft of documentary filmmaking, here is a look at those who might go home with the golden statue in an important yet somewhat overlooked major category.

Citizenfour – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky

Citizenfour movie poster

Citizenfour unravels one of the biggest stories of the decade—Edward Snowden and the NSA’s controversial surveillance program. This isn’t director Laura Poitras’s first time at the big show—she was previously nominated in the same category for My Country, My Country in 2006. She’s also worked on Exact Fantasy, Flag Wars, Oh Say Can You See, and The Oath.

Producers Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky haven’t had the honor before—this is the first nomination for both. Bonnefoy has worked primarily as an editor, cutting Hollywood thriller The International and European cult hits Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior,and Heaven. Dan Wilutzky was production manager on Bowling for Columbine, which won the Oscar in 2003.

Finding Vivian Maier – John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

Finding Vivian Maier movie poster

Finding Vivian Maier investigates the enigmatic life of private photographer Vivian Maier. This is the first Oscar nomination for John Maloof, but for good cause—to date, this is his only film credit. Maloof is actually a Chicago historian and collector, drawn to the life of Vivian Maier after discovering thousands of her negatives in an auction.

Co-director Charlie Siskel does have experience in documentary and producing, however. In addition to producing several Comedy Central programs like Tosh.0, Review, Crossballs,and Important Things with Demetri Martin, Siskel was also a producer on Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. In addition, he also assistant directed and was production manager for the Bill Maher documentary Religulous.

Last Days in Vietnam – Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester

Last Days in Vietnam

Last Days in Vietnam chronicles the chaotic, tragic American evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. This is the first nomination for both director Rory Kennedy and producer Keven McAlester.

Rory Kennedy is a prolific documentary producer, having produced Bobby Fischer Against the World, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Street Fight, and many others. She also directed Ethel, a documentary chronicling the life of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, wife and widow of Robert F. Kennedy.

Keven McAlester has produced and/or directed doc features and shorts including The Fence, You’re Gonna Miss Me, The Dungeon Masters, and Dance with Me.

The Salt of the EarthWim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

The Salt of the Earth movie poster

The Salt of the Earth documents Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who’s focused a lot of his work on the poor and suffering. Producer Wim Wenders is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having been nominated twice before for documentary features Pina and Buena Vista Social Club.

Wenders is also a prolific director in fiction, having directed films as Wings of Desire, Until the End of the World, The Million Dollar Hotel and Paris, Texas.

The Salt of the Earth’s director, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, has also worked on Paris la métisse and TV documentary Nauru, an Island Adrift. This is producer David Rosier’s first film credit and nomination.

Virunga – Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Virunga movie poster

Virunga tells the story of the battle between those tasked to protect the nature and inhabitants of Virunga National Park, a refuge for endangered mountain gorilla, and those who seek to profit from the oil lying underneath the park. This is the first nomination for both Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara.

Von Einsiedel has produced several documentary features and shorts, including Aisha’s Song, Little Voice Big Mountain, Superbob and Radio Amina, as well as two episodes of TV doc Earthrise. Natasegara is also a prolific director and producer, having produced documentaries Ministry of Truth and The Price of Kings series, which she has also directed.

Q&A With NYFA Grad and Documentary Filmmaker Jon Mann

Filmmaker Jon Mann

NYFA: Hi Jon, would you mind giving us a bit about your background and what drew you to NYFA’s screenwriting program?

Jon Mann: Hi! Thanks for having me. I’m from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada originally, and grew up in a family of readers and movie-goers so I’ve always had an interest in film and have been writing for as far back as I can remember. The NYFA has such a strong presence in the film industry and their list of alumni speaks for itself. It made perfect sense for me.

NYFA: You received your undergraduate degree in Political Science, but half way through your education, you decided that filmmaking might be the career path for you. How do you see your political science training influencing and helping your documentary filmmaking work and vice versa?

JM: It has definitely helped. One of the major lessons I took from my degree in political science that I have been able to use to help me as a documentary filmmaker is to realize that there are usually, at the very least, two sides to every story. It really gave me an open mind to not just accept headlines I’m seeing on TV or in newspapers as the be-all and end-all. It gave me a glimpse into the contemporary state of the world in different economies, different political systems, why they work, why they don’t work. Studying political science was an exposure to issues and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, and that is now something I aim to do with my own documentaries.
I took a course called “Political Argument” which has been very helpful, too (laughs).

NYFA: You studied screenwriting at NYFA, but work in documentary films. How did you find the screenwriting program helped you as a documentary filmmaker?

JM: Well, I think whether it is a documentary or a feature film, the script and the story will always be the most important thing. Maybe one difference with documentaries is that you need to discover the character arcs, and the midpoint, and the climax, etc. as opposed to feature’s where you write those yourself. But the way you tell the story on screen is the same. It’s all the same equation. It’s all filmmaking and it all starts with a story.

NYFA: Is there one lesson in particular that you learned while at NYFA that you find yourself continuing to apply to your work?

JM: In order to have a good script you need to make your character’s motivation believable. It seems simple but it is so true. That goes for all characters, not necessarily just your protagonist. The best villains have believable motivation as welllook at Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. You almost end up feeling bad for him in the end. Brilliant.

NYFA: In your TEDx talk, you discuss how the characters and story structures of the film Jaws parallel the fact that many social movements—like the organic social movement again the sale of New Brunswick Power you document in your film Project Power—are comprised of seemingly ordinary individuals who band together to fight against the great white shark that is corporate power. Do you think that such films like Jaws can be used to galvanize reluctant activists into standing against seemingly insurmountable power? What other films do you consider illustrate this correlation?

JM: I think you can really make that argument for any film as long as the audience is open to being motivated by a film in that way. One thing I focus on in my Ted Talk is that every time I watch Jaws it has different meaning for me. It means something completely different to me now than it did the first time I saw it as a 4 year old. Since my Ted Talk was published I’ve had a lot of people give me their theory on Jaws and that is what makes the movie so great is that not only is it a scary movie about a shark terrorizing a small-town, is it has all of these great elements under the surface and it means different things to different people.

Harlan County U.S.A. is a great documentary from Barbara Kopple that really magnifies my theory on Jaws in a more obvious light. Gladiator could be used under the same umbrellaa man who is stripped of everything through a socially unjust system takes on the Roman Empire the only way he knows how.

I think the films themselves are important but it comes down to the audience and what they may be going through in a particular time in their lives when they watch them.

NYFA: You worked with a wide network of creative individuals on your Project Power including the New York Times best selling author Raj Patel who also narrated your first film, Drink ‘Em Dry and a number of different musicians and bands from around the world. How do you forge these connections with seemingly disparate collaborators?

JM: I think one thing to remember is that the worst thing someone can say to you is “no.” Which happens a lot. A lot. Some of these requests may seem risky, but they were all calculated. Drink ‘Em Dry is the story of a group of brewery locals who were locked out from work, and during production there were massive protests in Wisconsin opposing legislation which would limit public employee collective bargaining. Dropkick Murphys had played a show in Madison and were right there in the thick of things so we told them about our project and they were excited for the opportunity to be part of the film and be able to lend any help they could to the cause. Steve Earle grew up in a union family, Billy Bragg has been a grassroots political activist punk-rocker for 30 plus years. Raj Patel is the greatest social justice writer on the planet. They all agreed with the subject matter.  Although they may seem like disparate collaborators, they all have the same values. I have nothing but great respect for all of them.

NYFA: What is your process for raising funds and marketing your documentary films? What do you consider the best methods for finding financing in the documentary industry, especially for filmmakers who are relatively new voices?

JM: The support I’ve received for the films I have done has been incredible. Much like the collaborators I’ve used on screen, I’ve been lucky enough to have a team off-screen who share the same values and who wanted to see these particular stories told as much as I did.

NYFA: As someone who seems to see documentary film as a potential catalyst for social change, what are some films in particular that you’ve drawn inspiration from and helped you to see the power of community activism?

JM: The first time I watched Bowling for Columbine I was frozen. I felt like I had just been hit by a truck. Inside Job is another film I always end up coming back to. In two very different ways, on two very different issues, those films peel back layers until you see the root of a problem, and it makes you sick to your stomach. They have a way of making you educated and angry, which is the perfect combination for social change.

You don’t need to look any further than Blackfish to see what an impact films have in a community. SeaWorld is losing an uphill battle.

NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers who desire to use the medium as a catalyst for social change?

JM: Find a story you believe in. Like a well-written script, if people believe in you, they will be much more willing to listen. When someone says ‘no,’ use it as a learning experience. Why did they say ‘no’ to you? All you can do is try and get better every day. Learn to love the adversity.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Patrick Creadon

Bill Clinton doing a crossword puzzle in Wordplay

Patrick Creadon is an American documentary filmmaker, well-known for his movies on puzzles, education, and the economy. Born in 1967, Creadon started out as a child actor in Chicago, a career that included a leading role as Tom Sawyer in a made-for-TV film co-starring Anthony Michael Hall and Cynthia Nixon. By his early 20s, Creadon was shooting and editing for the acclaimed PBS series The 90s and eventually moved to L.A. where he earned a masters in cinematography from the AFI Conservatory. In 1997, his student film, Tendrils, was nominated for a student Academy Award. He worked as a cameraman and producer for several broadcast and cable networks before moving on to documentary features.

Wordplay

Wordplay movie poster

Creadon made a name for himself as a documentarian with his very first feature, Wordplay, in 2006. Wordplay is about crossword puzzles, and specifically, the New York Times crossword. The film is divided into roughly two parts. The first half of Wordplay focuses on master puzzlemaker Will Shortz, the editor of the Times crossword and long-time co-host of NPR Sunday Puzzle, as well as veteran crossword constructor Merl Reagle and several other puzzlemakers.

The film also interviews noted celebrities who have proclaimed their passion for puzzle solving, including Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, Bob Dole, and President Bill Clinton. Other puzzlers who play in nationwide tournaments and have become renowned for their skills are featured as well; the film focuses on four in particular.

The second half of Wordplay concerns the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where the best of the best compete for a $4000 prize and the bragging rights of the country’s greatest crossword solver. The film was shot during the entirety of the 2005 ACPT and shows the mental as well as physical trials and tribulations of the competitors.

Wordplay was a critical and commercial success, grossing over three million dollars in domestic box-office, making it one of the most profitable documentaries of all time. It also managed nominations for Best Documentary from the National Board of Review, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Sundance Film Festival. A lighthearted romp and especially well received by audiences, the film even had enough cultural cache to inspire an episode of The Simpsons, guest starring Shortz and Reagle.

I.O.U.S.A.

I.O.U.S.A. movie poster

Creadon followed Wordplay with a documentary about a decidedly more serious subject matter, I.O.U.S.A., although he managed to keep a tone that wasn’t too maudlin, despite its release on the heels of the recession. The film partially profiles former Comptroller General David M. Walker and follows Walker and Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, travelling cross-country to discuss the national debt and its potential for disaster. The trek, which journeyed from community to community, was dubbed the “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.”

Bixby and Walker describe four aspects of the American economy: savings, budget, leadership, and the balance of payments. The documentary premiered at Sundance in 2008 before a unique event where it was simulcast across the country in 350 theaters and then followed by a live town hall meeting that included luminaries like Warren Buffett. Creadon hoped to get the very important yet relatively unknown issues about the national debt across to everyday citizens, and screened the film in college campuses and community centers throughout and after the 2008 presidential election. The film was even screened for members of Congress at the Library of Congress.

I.O.U.S.A. was well received, making Roger Ebert’s Top 5 Docs of 2008 as well as earning a Critics’ Choice Award nomination and Sundance nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. Creadon followed the film with a book, which expanded on the documentary and elaborated on the statistics and details featured on screen.

If You Build It

If You Build It movie poster

Creadon’s most recent documentary was 2013’s If You Build It, which followed a radical high school program in Windsor, North Carolina, part of the poorest county in the state. Chip Zullinger, the Superintendent of Bertie County, brought in two architects to design a curriculum for the high school. They created what became to be known as Studio H, and aimed to teach students how to design and build with their hands.

The students collaborated and built a farmers market pavilion for their community over the course of sixteen weeks. Better yet, it was designed by the students as well, a first for the nation. Zullinger aimed to give the students an education that enriched and empowered them as well.

Creadon’s film, whose title is derived from the famous Field of Dreams quote, screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival’s Art, Architecture and Design Series and was critically well received, continuing the filmmaker’s three-for-three hot streak of acclaimed documentaries.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Errol Morris

Errol Morris is an Oscar winning filmmaker who has been making documentaries for over thirty-five years, and is one of the few documentarian directors that casual moviegoers can name. Born and raised in Long Island, New York, Morris studied history and philosophy in college before moving to filmmaking. The subjects of his documentary films have ranged from specific oddities to broad geopolitical topics like the Vietnam War.

Morris’s films typically rely very little on narration, instead using interviews to propel his narratives. Morris is famous for his specific way of interviewing and the later invention of his Interrotron to aid his style. The Interrotron uses teleprompters as a sort of teleconferencing two-way mirror, allowing both interviewer and interviewee to look into the camera lens while also looking at one another. The result is that the interview itself is more personal and conversational, allowing the subjects to remove some of the distance that comes from televised interviews, while also giving the illusion that the subjects are talking directly to the audience. Many of Morris’s later films use the Interrotron in their interviews.

Errol Morris with the Interrotron

Gates of Heaven

Morris’s first documentary, 1978’s Gates of Heaven, concerns two pet cemeteries. It started a trend of Morris’s to follow everyday people with intriguingly odd professions and passions. Floyd “Mac” McClure, one of the film’s subjects, made it his lifelong mission to give pets a peaceful resting place. This combination of quirk and heart is central to several of many of Morris’s works.

Vernon, Florida

Morris followed up Gates of Heaven with Vernon, Florida, a documentary about the town of the same name and its idiosyncratic residents. Morris was originally drawn to the town because of its reputation as “Nub City”—many of its residents would actually cut off their own limbs as part of a large insurance scheme. Morris planned to document this shockingly morbid story of fraud, but the people involved threatened his life, causing him to expand his topic to the town’s other citizens.

Vernon, Florida DVD cover

The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line is one of Morris’s best-known works, and documents the murder of a police officer in 1976, the investigation of the crime, and the man who was wrongfully imprisoned for it, Randall Dale Adams. The 1988 film uses various reenactments and interviews to propose other scenarios and famously helped lead to Adams’s exoneration. While The Thin Blue Line is held in the highest regard and often on short lists of the best all-time documentaries, it wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award because Morris famously referred to the film as nonfiction, reflecting its narrative tropes.

A Brief History of Time

1991’s A Brief History of Time follows another person with a quirky passion, but in this case the person is famous and the passion is astrophysics—Stephen Hawking. While the title and marketing of the film may make it seem like it is an adaptation of Hawking’s famous groundbreaking science book, Morris’s documentary is more of a look at Hawking himself. In addition to many interviews with people from Hawking’s family, career and childhood, Time includes a soundtrack by Phillip Glass, who has collaborated frequently with Morris.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Morris’s 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control centers on four people with offbeat careers: a lion tamer, a hairless mole-rat expert, an M.I.T. scientist who designed tiny robots and a topiary designer. The film is upbeat and frenetic, its cinematography and musical score both illustrating and accentuating the quirk of its subjects. The four people narrate their own stories, with Morris intertwining each other’s narration and footage to highlight their thematic similarities.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Execution technician Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is the subject of Morris’s 1999 documentary. Morris was fascinated by what he perceived as Leuchter’s self-delusion and obliviousness to his own debauchery. Leuchter designed devices for capital punishment despite having no experience in engineering, and allegedly extorted the state into giving him work by threatening to testify on behalf of death row cases. He also supported Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel. Morris worked to discredit Leuchter’s work in the film.

Mr. Death movie poster

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War brought Morris an Academy Award for Best Documentary after its 2003 release. Scored again by Phillip Glass, Fog of War focuses on Morris’s interview with former Secretery of Defense Robert McNamara, McNamara telling in his own words the story of his early life, career at Ford, and how he ended up running the Vietnam War. The film gained great acclaim with its unique and potent perspective of Vietnam as well as its place in history within the context of the nascent War on Terror.

Standard Operating Procedure

The Fog of War started a loose trilogy of Errol Morris documentaries inspired by the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Standard Operating Procedure is Morris’ 2008 effort, focusing on the photographs of abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison and the scandal that followed after they were leaked to the public. The documentary seeks to tell a larger story, about the nature of the War itself and its relationship to the geopolitical atmosphere at large.

Standard Operating Procedure movie poster

Tabloid

Tabloid is another film by Morris that extrapolates a specific event to comment on a larger facet of culture. The event covered by the 2008 film was the tragic kidnapping and raping of an American Mormon missionary. Morris interviewed Joyce McKinney, the alleged rapist, as well as journalists involved in a battle between two British tabloids that had turned the case into a media circus.

The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld

The third entry in Morris’s unofficial War trilogy, 2013’s The Unknown Known focuses on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. On its surface, the film seems to parrot Morris’s Oscar-winning Fog of War. Both films center on one-on-one interviews between Morris and a SecDef who presided over controversial wars. Yet while Fog of War is seen as many by Robert McNamara’s attempt to justify and apologize for mistakes he made during his tenure, The Unknown Known is more of a verbal chess match between interviewer and interviewee. Rumsfeld, famous for his carefully worded memos and vague answers to the White House Press Corps’ questions, plays that role again, dodging any inquiries Morris makes that he doesn’t want to answer. While the result is an interview where nothing much of note is actually said, the film still manages to paint a portrait of the documentary’s elusive subject.

The Unknown Known movie poster

 

5 Hacktivist Documentaries Worth Checking Out

Hacktivists with a noble cause

It seems like every week another story makes the news about hacker groups and skirmishes in a worldwide cyber war. These stories and acts of digital sabotage have a wide range of purposes and renditions, spanning across the board in political, social and corporate spheres.

One of the more serious attacks in recent months has come at the expense of Sony, with feature films and personal information on employees and celebrities being stolen from their files. The Guardians of Peace, a hacker group of unknown origins, has so far taken credit, though many believe the attacks have come from North Korea.

With an abstract battlefield of ones and zeroes, it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate good guys and bad guys. Many individuals and groups are considered or identify themselves as hacktivists—hackers who use their skills in the name of social justice or for the greater good. Now more than ever has it become important for the public and the media to get familiar with the cyberscene and the major players involved, to better differentiate the various shades of gray this digital world exists in.

The following are five documentaries that cover some major hacktivist groups and individuals that have dominated the news. Feel free to add other relevant docs in the comments below.

1. Citizenfour

Citizenfour movie poster

Edward Snowden isn’t a traditional hacktivist but rather a controversial whistleblower that famously outted the NSA’s massive wire-tapping practices, possibly committing treason by doing so. On the run from his own country, Snowden has been trying to get his story out from nations who, for the time being, are protecting him, including Russia.

Produced by Steven Soderbergh and directed by Oscar nominee Laura Poitras, Citizenfour is a fascinating look at Snowden’s story with a much more personal perspective than most hacktivist documentaries. Poitras not only directed the film but was also one of the three original people Snowden came clean to, meeting in secret and going on record with his startling revelations. Citizenfour includes these actual recordings and tells the story of how—together with Snowden—this small group made history and risked their freedom to get the truth about America’s surveillance practices out to the public.

2. We Are Legion

We Are Legion movie poster

We Are Legion tells the story of one of the most famous hacktivist groups out there—Anonymous. Director Brian Knappenberger gives a biography of the international, decentralized network that has garnered headlines by attacking high-profile targets like the Church of Scientology, the Westboro Baptist Church, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, and major government agencies, including those of the United States.

By documenting major events and hacks in the timeline of Anonymous, We Are Legion weaves a coherent story and supplies a context for one of the most prominent and mysterious organizations in the world of hacktivism, shining a light on some of the Internet’s darkest corners.

3. The Hacker Wars

The Hacker Wars movie poster

Vivien Lesnik Weisman’s The Hacker Wars gets to the heart of the hacktivism moment by exploring the motivations of hacktivists and the purpose they serve in the grand scheme of the sociopolitical world. Fast-paced and loud, the film reflects the youth and anarchic energy associated with the hacktivist movement, while also focusing on those who no longer hide in the shadows whether by choice, or most often, not. Getting the story from hacktivists who have been imprisoned or already are in prison or on their way, The Hacker Wars offers a unique perspective on the movement as well as the personal implications for those involved.

4. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz movie poster

Aaron Swartz was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer and hacktivist who, in addition to working on the development of Creative Commons, Reddit, Markdown, and the RSS feed format, constantly championed charitable and social causes. He was a leading figure in the movement against SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. After he was arrested and convicted for illegally downloading a large number of academic journals from MIT, Swartz was found hanged in his apartment at age twenty-six.

The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary by Brian Knappenberger, the director of We Are Legion, is a heavy, sometimes somber look at the life of Swartz, using home movies from his childhood and footage from his public life to tell his story. The documentary contains several interviews, including those of Swartz, and chronicles his accomplishments and the battles he fought as well as the controversial charges and allegations that led to his suicide.

5. We Steal Secrets

We Steal Secrets movie poster

Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney directed We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a film centered on the hacktivist organization founded by Julian Assange. The documentary takes a wide-angle approach to its subject, starting with events in the 1980s and utilizing decades of background and history to detail the group known for collecting and distributing classified information from all corners of the world.

WikiLeaks and Assange came into the spotlight when American soldier Bradley Manning revealed damning footage of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although avoiding treason charges and the death penalty, the soldier, now Chelsea Manning, was convicted and is currently serving her sentence in a maximum-security prison. Interviews with Assange and Manning from other sources are used in the film, revealing an organization as complicated as the hacktivist world it occupies.