Since I was a kid, I’ve had a great fondness for documentary filmmaking. I think this love of mine must have been parented by an early draw to weekly natural documentaries like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Nova coupled to a fascination with behind-the-scenes and making-of vignettes (which were fairly hard to find in the pre-DVD era.)
Whatever the cause, I love a good documentary and it seems there are a lot of great ones around these days. But for a lot of folks, documentaries are way off the radar, and understandably so. They rarely get wide theatrical releases. They seldom benefit from a marketing campaign. And they are rarely aired on cable television. Basically, the only engine of market penetration that a documentary has is its word-of-mouth. So consider what follows as my attempt to pass along words from my mouth in hopes that they find their way to your ear and trigger whatever mechanism in your mind is necessary to effect the further life of these films.
These are films that document true stories. They are sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious, sometimes thought provoking, and sometimes enlightening. They are all worth a couple hours of your time and if you’ve got favorites that I haven’t mentioned, let’s hear about them. Spread the word. The documentary film is an artform that deserves its due.
(Note: Most of these are available via Netflix Instant-View for those of you who have Tivo, an Xbox, or a PS3.)
I hesitate to call this a ‘great’ documentary, but it does document some of the most hilarious and bizarre people you’ll ever meet. The story goes that the filmmaker (Errol Morris) learned Vernon, FL was the nation’s leader in ‘accidental’ amputees and there was suspicion that the townsfolk were lopping off their own arms and legs and living it up on the insurance money. Morris went to Florida to document that story but when he got there he found a town even stranger than he imagined. Due to alleged death threats, he abandoned his documenting of the amputees and let his camera roll on the townspeople merely being themselves. It’s strange, funny, and, if you grew up in rural Florida like me, disturbingly familiar. If you can find it, check it out.
Deep Water: In the 1960’s Britain put forth a challenge, promising wealth and fame to the first man to sail around the world alone and non-stop. Keep in mind that these are the days before satellite positioning and reliable global communication. The men that would attempt the feat would set out on their tiny sailing ships and spend nearly a year in total solitude in some of the world’s most treacherous oceans. One of those men was Donald Crowhurst, a family man on the verge of bankruptcy and a weekend sailor at best. In what he hoped would be a heroic journey to rescue himself and his family from poverty he answered the call.
What follows is a story so surreal in its developments and plot twists that had it been written in fiction, no one would believe it. It’s a tale that travels not only the deep seas of the world, but the troubled waters of the human mind. Donald Crowhurst’s is a haunting story that stayed with me for days if not weeks afterward. Unforgettable. (view trailer)
Deliver Us From Evil: By now we’re all too familiar with stories of young girls and boys abused by Catholic priests but I suspect that few of us have heard the story from those who’ve experienced it firsthand. Deliver Us From Evil is a difficult movie to watch. It tells the story of a single priest in the San Francisco area who raped and molested boys and girls over a period of some twenty years, all with the knowledge of his superiors, including the man who is now the Pope. The testimonies of parents who welcomed him into their homes are heartbreaking, especially when some are led to renounce God in their grief. And equally horrifying are interviews with the priest himself who is almost smugly unrepentant and still lives as a free man in Ireland under the protection of the church.
This is a shocking documentary that manages to shine a relatively objective light onto the actions of individuals without taking the more easily travelled road of demonizing the church as a whole. Some of the best interviews are with Catholic priests who are fighting passionately within the church for justice. (view trailer)
American Movie: Mark Borchardt loves making movies. Unfortunately, he’s in the wrong line of work. Mark’s one of the strangest guys you’ll ever meet. He lives in a small town in Wisconsin where he’s been making his own movies for his entire life. The film documents his efforts to shoot, edit, and release his latest ‘masterpiece’, a horror movie called Coven (inexplicably pronounced with a long ‘O’). I’ve watched this one a couple of times and laughed my butt off in amazement at just how out of touch with reality Mark and the rest of his cadre of filmmakers are. These people are so sad and strange and hopeless that if I didn’t see it on film, I wouldn’t believe it. (American Movie contains a lot of strong language.) (view trailer)
Anvil: The Story of Anvil: Here’s one that’s almost too good to be true. In many ways it’s the musical partner to American Movie and can rightly be called a real-life This is Spinal Tap as well. In the early 80’s a band named Anvil burst onto the metal music scene and inspired the likes of Metallica, Megadeath, Anthrax and a slew of others. But while those bands went on to super-stardom, the Canadians, Anvil, fell off the map and never got their big break.
Fast forward thirty years. The band members are in their 50’s, they’re construction workers and school lunchroom employees by day but they’re still hopeful that their time will come. As the tagline says, “At fourteen, they made a pact to rock together forever. And they meant it.”
The thing that makes this such a great movie is that, yes, the story of Anvil is ridiculous, but after watching them try and fail so many times and because of the passion and love that the players have for each other and their music, you can’t help but cheer for them by the end. I bought their new record as soon as the movie was over just because I felt like they’d earned my ten bucks, even if I never listen to it. (Strong Language) (view trailer)
But I’ve found myself rethinking a lot of things since watching Food, Inc. The film is about the way our food has been industrialized in the last hundred years and the unintended consequences we’ve brought upon ourselves. This film isn’t just about health, though, it’s also about government policies and trends that are downright scary. Since watching the film, I’m far more inclined to buy organic food, even when it’s more expensive, not so much because I think it’s healthier, but because I think it’s the moral thing to do…and because I want Wendell Berry to stop making faces at me. (view trailer)
Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock: This is a fascinating little documentary that contains the following quote: “Everybody knows fairytales begin with ‘Once Upon a Time’. Well this here’s a truck driver’s tale and it begins with ‘You ain’t gonna believe this s**t.'”
If that right there hasn’t convinced you to watch this movie, I don’t know what will. It’s about a cranky old lady truck driver who buys a painting at a thrift store for $5 and sets out to prove to the world that it’s an actual work by Jackson Pollock, and therefore worth upwards of $50 million. Evidence suggests she’s right but the snooty art community isn’t having any of it. Fireworks ensue. The result is an interesting and entertaining look at how we value art and judge its worth. (Despite the title and opening quote, that’s really about the only strong language in the film.)
When the filmmaker, Mark Moskowitz, was a teenager he began reading a book called The Stones of Summer that was heralded by critics as one of the major works of his generation. As teenagers often do, he got sidetracked and didn’t finish reading it. But when he returned to it as an adult, he fell in love with the book and was astonished to find that the author had apparently fallen off of the face of the earth, never publishing another book.
The film is about Moskowitz’s quest to track down the author and find out what happened to him. Along the way we’re treated to a celebration of the novel as an artform and some interesting pontifications on other such “One and Done” author’s like Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Joseph Heller (Catch 22). The film, though flawed, is a fascinating story and since watching it, I always look for one of those rare first editions of The Stones of Summer when I’m in a used book store. (view trailer)
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: I’ve saved my favorite for last. Do not be fooled by the geeky nature of the film’s subject. This movie is one of the real greats and I defy anyone to not enjoy it: Man, woman, or child.
Steve Wiebe is our hero, a nice family guy that one day decides he’s going to be the best Donkey Kong player on earth. But little does Steve suspect the vast evil that will attempt to prevent him. King of Kong is the tale of the rivalry between the lovable Steve Wiebe and he of the impeccable hair: Billy Mitchell.
Whether you want to or not, you will learn a fantastic amount of trivia surrounding 80’s style arcade games and the strange sub-culture that still exists around them. The real charm of the film, though, is in its characters. Billy Mitchell is perhaps one of the most memorable ‘bad guys’ to ever enter a story. No matter how despicable you think he is, he continually finds ways to sink lower, and he does it all with flawless hair. It’s pure genius.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to play some Donkey Kong, and you’ll never forget Steve and Billy. (view trailer)
The best (and sometimes worst) thing about all these films, is that they are true. These are things that really happened, to real people, with real emotions, struggles, and dreams. A good documentary, as the word suggests, is a record of life here on planet earth. For good or evil, this is who we are: a strange and restless bunch all tangled together with stories to tell.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.