I started writing this at the halfway point of the year, but then life got in the way in good and exciting ways so this post got put in hold. However, then as now, I was doing well on the documentary-watching front. I said at the start of the year that I wanted to watch at least one feature-length documentary a month this year and so far, I have indeed watched one a month.
As always there’s been a certain amount of hold over from previous years as I track down films that came out a while back but that I either missed the one screening round my way or where it has just taken that long for it to make it to my neck of the woods. In my 2013 review I talked about The Act of Killing being much touted but never actually seeing screenings advertised – though I couldn’t remember its title at the time. (It turns out to be about an anti-Communist purge in Indonesia but the events are no less horrific if less widespread than the Khmer Rouge) Turns out that one reason I’d never seen screenings advertised was that it didn’t make it to my local arts cinema until April this year. It was a strangely compelling, somewhat disturbing little documentary and made the oddest contrast with A Story of Children and Film (lovely, lovely film, made me want to watch all the films featured – though a sad lack of mention for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Quvenzhané Wallis’ frankly mesmerising performance in it) that I watched two days later.
My first documentary of the year was watched almost immediately after I wrote my review of the previous year’s documentary offerings. I was all fired up and motivated and, while flicking through the iPlayer looking for something else entirely I stumbled across Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair. I’d missed it in the cinema when it came out, but I’d really wanted to see it then so I watched it there and then before I could forget it was on again and it was definitely worth seeking out. How gripping can a documentary about hair be you wonder? Very. Especially when you discover the complex issues around culture, politics and economics that interweave around the issue of African-American hair. Also it’ll be a long while before I can hear the phrase ‘hair relaxer’ without flinching a little.
The most recent documentary that I saw this year was The Bridge Rising/An Drochaid I think, largely because I went to the premiere of it during Celtic Connections. It’s a film about the campaign to remove the tolls from the Skye Bridge – a summary that either tells you everything you need to know about the film or leaves you utterly in the dark. So, essentially, the bridge connecting the Isle of Skye to the mainland was one of the earliest Public/Private Funded ventures in Scotland and as such was massively controversial (such projects, especially in regard to hospitals and prisons remain highly controversial) in its own right. On top of this, the tolls were high and in a place where petrol/diesel is notoriously expensive anyway so a protest movement began – marches, petitions, refusal to pay tolls, legal campaigns, questions in parliament, and the lot. Anyway, the tolls were eventually removed at some considerable cost both financial and personal, and it was really fascinating to see it all gathered together because I was quite young when all this started and we only really got snippets a significant turning points. It’s also an interesting demonstration of how important Gaelic media is in the Highlands and Island, because the vast majority of news footage they have is from Telefios (Gaelic news programme in the 80s and 90s) and lots of the interviews with campaigners are in Gaelic. So I’d recommend it even if you know nothing about the Skye Bridge, purely if you’re interested in grass roots protest movements or minority-language/indigenous media.
I intended to see more documentaries at the Glasgow Film Festival, but most of them were either really popular and sold out, or their alternative screenings started when I was either at work or finished at a time that would see me missing the last train home. I did manage to schedule a documentary double-bill to see The Last Impressario and On The Edge of the World. The first of this double-bill I saw without trouble (well, there was some unnecessary running about to get my tickets in time but never mind) a strange and intriguing little documentary about an equally strange and intriguing man. Michael White was a producer and social butterfly extraordinaire for the best part of 60 years (he’s still alive, just reluctantly retired), putting on a kinds of interesting and controversial plays (including the original run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and introducing all sorts of the artists – including Yoko Ono and Pina Bausch – to British audiences. Despite his social butterfly/party animal status, he’s very shy and seems to have spent a great deal of time hiding behind his camera, which has made for some fantastic photos with which to illustrate the stories in the film and fill in the gaps where his memories are now failing him. The second of my double-bill was denied me, as the screening was cancelled – not because the film hadn’t arrived in time but in a new issue with digital projection, the films arrive at cinemas time-locked, so they can’t test the films until the day they’re being shown and thus if they find they either can’t unlock them or there’s otherwise an issue in formatting or ratio or even just that the file is corrupted, its too late to get a replacement or reach most of the people who’ve pre-booked their tickets. So I saw the Japanese remake of Unforgiven instead, which was good but not a documentary in any way shape or form.
More recently, I indulged my DVD buying habit, by getting a double-bill of documentaries from 2010 Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Senna which were both excellent for very different reasons. Oddly enough, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the only Werner Herzog film that I’ve ever seen and based on it I feel I should watch everything he’s ever made, because its essentially a record of the archaeological excavation of a cave in France which holds the oldest cave paintings – the earliest known human art by quite a considerable stretch of time – in the world. It’s somewhere between a museum’s audio-visual display and a mediation on the history of art and what it means to be human. It is fascinating and compelling and if you’re remotely interested in history or art then I highly recommend it. Senna is good for completely different reasons. Whereas CoFD peaked into a world of people whose names we’ll never know and whose lives beyond the art they left behind are a mystery to us, Senna is about someone whose life was lived largely in the public eye, whose words and actions we have detailed documentary proof of and can analyse in great detail, yet still remains an enigma. You know how the story ends from the very start, yet still, somehow, when it does your heart still breaks a little.