Leviathan (and 10 other strangely gripping documentaries)
Undoubtedly one of the most surprising success stories of 2013, Leviathan is one of the most unusual documentaries to hit the big screen in recent memory. Charting the exploits of a fishing boat in the harsh Atlantic environment, this film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel offers no dialogue, narration or even any soundtrack in the traditional sense, nor does it offer any conclusions, context or even any suggestion of its reason for existence. Despite all this, it has won a host of awards and garnered praise from critics.
Using hundreds of tiny cameras that were attached to nets, fish and just about anything else, the film is set aboard a commercial fishing trawler launched from the port of New Bedford. Claustrophobic and mesmerising, the film's unique approach is a kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary that leaves the viewer to make sense of the experience for themselves. Whether this film is intended as a commentary on the human race's effect on the envronment or simply a tribute to the lives and work of the fisherman going about their often gruelling work is open to interpretaton. All we know is that it had us...if you'll excuse the pun...absolutely hooked.
It isn't the first documentary to feature no dialogue or conceivable plot by any means, but the effect is stunning and we took the opportunity to examine 10 slightly less unusual - but just as absorbing - documentaries:
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
For years now Adam Curtis has been quietly establishing himself as one of our best documentary makers. His unique style is a mesmerising blend of interviews intercut with seemingly random - but extremely well chosen - archive footage and music, stitched together by his almost hypnotic narration. Curtis' skill lies in his ability to make connections between what appear to be unrelated historical events and present a narrative that alters our perception of the world we live in. In particular, Curtis has a knack for unravelling myths and untruths about the structures of power and revealing things as they truly are.
In two of his other series made for the BBC, The Centrury of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, Curtis deconstructs the ideas behind consumerism and political extremism by presenting a series of historical events and their impact on our society. In All Watched Over..., he turns his attention to technology and the idea of the internet as a tool for freedom. Beginning with the story of Ayn Rand and her impact on Silicon Valley, he systematically charts and dismantles many of the ideas that led to unregulated free market capitalism, presenting the argument that technology, far from freeing us, is being used as a tool to maintain existing power structures. Watched in light of the recent Edward Snowden revelations about NSA spying, this is chilling but essential viewing.
Exit Through The Gift Shop
This film from the infamous Bristolian street artist recounts the story of shopkeeper and amatuer filmmaker Thierry Guetta, whose obsessive habit of filming everything with his video camera leads him to capture some of the emerging street art scene in Los Angeles. Through a combination of naiveity and relentless badgering, gradually he manages to capture many of these secreive artists at work, including the likes of Invader and Shepard Fairey, who come to accept him as a harmless oddity. Eventually Thierry becomes obsessed with tracking down Banksy, the most elusive of them all and the only one he has yet to film going about his work. After much vetting, Banksy finally agrees to let Thierry become the first filmmaker to capture his working process, even suggesting that Thierry make a film about him. Then things start to get weird...
There is a point in this film where Banksy, being interviewed with his face and voice disguised, recounts seeing Thierry's first edit of his street art film: "I started to realise that maybe this guy isn't really a filmmaker at all...maybe he's just a bloke with mental problems." From here on in, Banksy turns the camera onto the eccentric filmmaker and it is Thierry who becomes the subject of the documentary, with some startling results.
Baraka isn't really a documentary in the traditional sense - there is no dialogue, or narration - rather it is a collection of beautifully filmed events happening in various parts of the world that paint a picture of our planet as we rarely see it. Shot on 70mm film over five years in over 25 countries, its stunning cinematography is utterly compelling even in the absence of a coherent narrative. Depicting everything from the ritual chanting and dancing of indigenous cultures to the strange, unfeeling sequence in which baby ducklings are randomly selected or discarded by a factory machine, Baraka manages to be truly thought-provoking without ever saying a word.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Sacha Gervasi's documentary is essentially a love letter to his teenage heroes - the Canadian heavy metal band Anvil. Formed in 1978, they had one minor hit in 1982 with their album, Metal on Metal, and have been relentlessy toiling in obscurity ever since. At equal turns heart-warming and heart-breaking, the film charts the story of a band whose inability to accept the idea that their time has been and gone is like watching This is Spinal Tap, except that it's real and the joke isn't funny any more.
At times it makes for very uncomfortable viewing, but it's a compelling watch nontheless and Gervasi's sympathetic angle does have a persuasive effect; the viewer is continually torn between rooting for them and yelling 'give up!' at the screen, but if nothing else Anvil!... is a lesson in perseverance.
The Trials of Henry Kissinger
Satririst Tom Lehrer once joked that "political satire became obsolete the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize" and after watching The Trials of Henry Kissinger, it's easy to see why. Based on the book of the same name by Christopher Hitchens, this documentary accuses the German-born diplomat of being guilty of war crimes in territories from Cyprus to Bangladesh. (Hitchens went as far as to describe Kissinger as "a stupendous liar with a remarkable memory").
Eugene Jarecki's film (co-written by Alex Gibney) explores Kissingers' role in many wars all over the world, examing his influence on U.S. foreign policy and presenting a damning indictment of his career. Hitchens would have been proud.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Gibney is in the director's chair for this account of one of the biggest corporate scandals in history, eventually culminating in the demise and bankruptcy of the Houston, Texas-based energy company. The documentary charts the rise and spectacular fall of one of America's largest corporations, recounting how Enron's directors hid billions - that's billions - of dollars in losses from shareholders and auditors. A tale of greed, arrogance and downright stupidity, this doucmentary is as rage-inducing as it is gripping. Well worth a look.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
If Marcel Duchamp is 'outsider art', then the work of Daniel Johnston might be considered 'outsider music'. For those not aware of his existence, Johnston has become something of a cult legend among the Alt-Rock scene in the U.S., with his art and music being championed by a host of celebrity admirers ranging from Elvis Costello and Tom Waits to Beck and Kurt Cobain. Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 documentary details Daniel's life, from his artistic beginnings making home-recorded cassettes through his battles with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.
This is a great introduction to Johnston's work for new initiates and a fitting tribute to a true original whose work more than deserves this kind of exposure.
Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore has made a name for himself making provocative political documentaries, including Sicko and Farenheit 9/11, but Bowling for Columbine is perhaps his most poignant. Focussing on the possible causes behind the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, Moore's film addresses the gun culture in America and seeks to find out why the rate of firearm-related homicides is so much higher than in other nations.
The documentary sees him obtain a free rifle for opening a bank account and conduct some well-chosen interviews - the highlight being his interview with then-president of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston, which makes for some awkward viewing. Whatever your opinion on Moore's politics, in light of more recent similar incidents across the Atlantic this film is as relevant now as it was on its release in 2002.
West of Memphis
Amy Berg's 2012 documentary details the events that led to the wrongful conviction of three teenagers - commonly known as The West Memphis Three - for the murder of three children, allegedly as part of a 'Satanic ritual', in 1993. In a complete failure of the justice system, the boys were jailed for more than 18 years and Berg's film tells a story of police coercion and mishandling of evidence to such an extent that the police were accused of forcing the boys into 'confessions'. Produced by Peter Jackson, this film is infuriating but essential viewing.
Searching for Sugar Man
Ask a South African to name the top 5 biggest albums ever recorded and - along with extablished staples like Sergeant Pepper's... and Dark Side of the Moon - it is likely their answer will include Cold Fact by Rodriguez. Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from Detroit who, in the early 1970s, released two critically acclaimed but commerciallly unsuccessful albums before being dropped by his record label and spending the next few decades working on construction sites. Unbeknown to him however, his debut had slowly become a word-of-mouth phenomenon in South Africa and by the mid-90s was as much a fixture of the nation's record collections as any record by The Beatles or Michael Jackson. Despite this, information in the country about the artist was scarce - which only added to his mystique - and rumours abounded that Rodriguez has comitted suicide some years earlier. Two South African filmmakers decided to try and uncover the truth about his death... only to discover he wasn't dead after all, but still lving in Detroit, completely oblivious to his legendary status on another continent.
What makes this story so incredible is that in the age of information you would imagine this kind of thing would be impossible. Regardless, this documentary is lovingly assembled and reaches a truly touching conclusion when Rodriguez arrives in the country to play three sold-out nights to a raptuous audience. Not to be missed.