How many documentaries have you seen? Each year the odd tent pole documentary hits cinemas for non-cinephiles to tick off on their annual Academy Award bingo-card (see Asif Kapadia’s droll Amy, for example) to feel a sliver of cultural individuality. In truth, we could all watch a few more documentaries.
Avant-garde, Canuck Guy Maddin’s latest mysterious-comedy-mind-fuck The Forbidden Room hit shelves this week and in the spirit of his opaque cinematic charm here are some documentaries that stick out from the rest. Here is a list of truly unique genre-bending documentaries that blur the lines between reality and fiction and stand as the idiosyncratic works of art that they are.
The Arbor (2010)
For British director Clio Barnard’s breakout feature The Arbor, the question of whether the material would be handled as a documentary or fictional account seemed inconsequential. Instead the director took a different approach when discussing the life and works of playwright Andrea Dunbar by blurring the life accounts with the fictional scenes from her stage plays. Filming actors in the impoverished suburb of Bradford that Dunbar grew up in, Barnard had the actors lip-syncing interviews with Dunbar and her family. The result is a poignant, often enticing portrait of the broken relationship between Dunbar and her daughter Lorraine.
Criminally never winning the Outstanding Debut for a British Director at the BAFTAS, Barnard’s unflinching handling of the subject matter is captured through subtle, picturesque imagery of working class life in the north. The lip-syncing technique works hauntingly and compliments the gritty visual aesthetics.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Part One (1968)
Documentaries don’t always have to tug on the audiences’ heartstrings. For William Greaves’ satirical experimental doc Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Part One, a jovial approach was taken. It begs the question of what was intended and what was improvised? Peeling back the layers of this metatextual meltdown of an independent picture gone awry, the doc manoeuvres between a behind the scenes look at a directors struggle to find meaning in his lame script and the production crew attempting to find meaning to his madness before a mutiny is organised.
“It’s a feature length… we don’t know?” Greaves informs a curious police officer. “We don’t know-” becomes a sentiment that is echoed by the actors and crew as the filming continues. The same page of dialogue is run through, again and again, until all meaning becomes banal. What is apparent is that documentary itself is searching for the answer to a question that many Cinéma vérité filmmakers ask themselves – where does the acting begin and where does the truth end?
My Winnipeg (2007)
Maddin’s hauntingly cinematic and surreal documentary about the dreamy, snow crusted town where he grew up is something wholly unique and utterly magnificent. Described by the director himself, as a “docu-fantasia” there was no way I couldn’t include this on the list. Shot in black and white with a whimsical soundtrack and absurdist imagery – My Winnipeg is potentially the freshest documentary to grace international screens in years.
At a brisk hour and fifteen running time the film flies by in a blink. Constantly demanding the audience’s attention with his misanthropic storytelling all the while capturing your imaginations and never letting go. Maddin seamlessly blends metafictional stories of an aged actress who can’t let her children go, a Hockey centre on the brink of annihilation, and a field of frozen writhing horses into one fantastic portrait of the forgotten Canadian city.
Jane. B by Agnès V. (1988)
Agnès Varda made a name for herself during the French renaissance of cinema (a.k.a the French New Wave) with female driven films such as Cleo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond. Since those glorious days of the Golden Age of independent cinema, Varda faded into obscurity outside of France and her home country of Belgium. In this documentary about Jane Birkin - the English born actress, model, singer, and muse to Serge Gainsbourg, Varda is never far the corner of the frame. Often giving direction or input into Birkin’s story about her life whilst designing conceptual period sets and bank robbing scenarios that Birkin fantasised about, Jane B. by Agnes V is truly awe-inspiring.
At times we even see a glimpse of Varda through a mirror or during a bizarre Laurel & Hardy sketch. Is it a documentary? Is it a mockumentary? The Parisian backdrop and visual flourishes feel somewhat ironic given Birkin’s British origin. However with the tableau art visuals, offbeat sketches, and personal confessions from Birkin and Varda - one thing is for certain… the documentary is very French.
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