Just as fiction has been expanding the narrative barriers and experimentation this decade, so has non-fiction – maybe even more so. With the advancement of social media comes a generation of people with the desire to capture each and every key milestone of their lives on their phone or tablet or other device. As such, the wealth of first-hand material we will be getting in the years to come will no doubt facilitate and advance the way documentaries can tell a story and shape their narratives. In essence, everyone at the moment is working on their own little documentary of their lives, many without even realizing it, and the wealth of media that one person from this generation can amass in a lifetime will be very much part of the trajectory that fiction and non-fiction films will follow in the next 30-40 years. This is why a documentary like “Amy” or a movie like “Tangerine” – shot on an iPhone – might just represent the most ground-breaking film events of the year. They will no doubt inspire many to follow in their footsteps. The following seven 2015 docs are but a few of many examples of an extraordinary year in non-fiction cinema.
The Look of Silence
“The Look of Silence” is Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to “The Act of Killing,” and he once again addresses the Indonesian genocide of the mid-1960s that killed millions. If the first film dealt with the perpetrators this one is about the victims, as a man who lost his brother in the killings tries to track down the perpetrators through research and in-your-face interviews. The truth isn’t easy and a final confrontation had me almost looking away, but the interviews are the highlights as they bring back a past that most of the perpetrators are in denial about. If there is a more important, contemplative, and meditative film about human nature this year, I sadly haven’t seen it. This isn’t an easy watch, but it’s an essential one. It represents one of the reasons I hope we all go to the movies — to face hard truths and cold facts that might otherwise be forgotten. Oppenheimer is quickly becoming a world-class filmmaker with these important films and the potential significance they bring to society is almost beyond words. The Indonesian genocide that took place in the ’60s is such a layered, sprawlingly controversial part of history that these two films will no doubt be seen as indispensable historical documents for the years to come.
Heart of a Dog
Heart of a Dog is Laurie Anderson’s ode to life, which to tell you the truth results in a much more absorbed and pondered contemplation than most film-makers would care to deliver. Anderson is the definition of an artist, always pushing boundaries and always looking for different ways of expression. Here she uses all kinds of modern media to create something wholly original: a meditation on life and death that is meant to relax and open up your thoughts. The project started out as memories and thoughts about her rat terrier Lola Bell and her mother, both of which passed away rather recently. Then her husband, the rock musician Lou Reed, died as well — which seemed to have pushed Anderson further down the spiritual path of healing, which then explains why the topic of death seems a very natural one for, not only her, but the film she decides to make. This hard-to-describe, almost unexplainable film also needed the soothing sound of Anderson’s very soft and melodic voice to narrate this tremendous achievement. Her narration is so important to the surroundings that the film would quite simply just not work if she hadn’t lent her voice to it.
“Amy” is virtually the first of its kind, a tragic examination of the late singer’s life, composed entirely of footage shot by Amy and her friends and directed and assembled with immeasurable passion by Asif Kapadia. The late 27-year-old singer/songwriter was an unmatched talent but tormented by the most torturous inner demons imaginable. This compulsively watchable film exemplifies the next evolution in documentary, one in which each key milestone of a life is recorded with phone or camcorder by the subject herself, and then this wealth of first-hand material is shaped by a talented director into a touching portrait. Kapadia doesn’t show talking heads as they’re being interviewed; instead he lets us listen to the interviewee while Amy’s personal footage plays in counterpoint onscreen. Don’t be surprised if we get more of this kind of found-footage documentary in the years to come, as we seem to be part of a generation that wants everything recorded and instantly mementoed. In fact, two other films on this list have used the same approach. “Amy” is quite simply the best of the three and a serious Oscar contender for Best Documentary.
In Jackson Heights
Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure, a non-fiction filmmaker that deserves to be considered among the greatest documentary filmmakers of all-time. “Jackson Heights” — his 43rd film — explores the fascinating story of Jackson Heights located in Queens, New York City, one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse communities in the United States and the world. Given the current climate and the backlash happening in this country over Syrian refugees, a film such as this is a much needed wake up call. In Jackson Heights there are immigrants from every country in South America, Mexico, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and China. The film mentions the stunning fact that more than 167 languages are spoken in this densely crowded diverse sector of New York. Some are illegal, some aren’t, but all try to integrate into American society by any which way possible. It’s through this ethnic diversity that we as viewers watch in amazement at a fascinating stronghold of American culture. The issues raised are important and relevant : assimilation, integration, immigration and cultural and religious differences figure prominently into the picture that Wiseman tries to paint. It’s not only a fascinating film, but also one of his very best.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Alex Gibney’s tough inspection of Scientology might be the most effective horror movie of the year. Documenting the inner-working of the Church of Scientology, “Going Clear” is the definitive look at the history and rise of an organization from a cult to controversial new religious movement. It documents its belief system, the role of celebrities who are part of it, and its long- standing allegations of psychological abuse and exploitation that occur within the church. Gibney uses archive footage and interviews from former Scientologists who describe their very own horrific experiences when they were part of the religion to uncover the disturbing secrets of this new religion that still remains shrouded in mystery. What struck me the most though is what the movie says about the absurdity and dangers of blind faith by illustrating how easily people can be manipulated as a solution to all their problems. There will be those that will mention the film as being a very one-sided affair, but the data and evidence Gibney gives the viewers is more than enough to put a clear and concise argument against Scientology at the table. It will be interesting to see if Gibney’s impeccable direction and cleverly told expose will lead to a Best Documentary nomination come Oscar night, protesters be damned.
Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck
Director Brett Morgen, who gave us the Robert Evans profile, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” back in 2002 now brings us this fascinating dissection of Kurt Cobain. If a theme kept popping up in non-fiction films about deceased artists this year it was the word “intimate,” which perfectly explains Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck hook. It’s a vivid and detailed account of the Nirvana lead singer’s life, rise, demise, and untimely death. Morgen compiles most of his film with details from Kurt’s notebooks, drawings, audio recordings and self-made video footage. It’s a fascinating — warts and all — depiction of a complicated, misunderstood musical legend that went haywire when fame came knocking at his door. The part of the movie that most people will be talking about — understandably so — is when we see home video footage of Cobain and Courtney Love, most of the time, chain-smoking, strung out on heroin and alcohol. This is all going on even while Love is pregnant with their child, Frances. This is where the intimacy really takes on a new life. At one point Kurt proclaims he’d make himself miserable to make her happy and even “abort Christ for her”. It’s a chilling moment that only gets enhanced when Morgen interviews Courtney Love and gets her side of the story. No matter who you believe, it’s impossible to leave “Montage of Heck” unshaken by what you’ve witnessed.
Listen to Me, Marlon
Just like the above mentioned docs about Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, the subject of “Listen to Me, Marlon” was an enigmatic cultural figure that seemed to defy description. You’ll get numerous accounts about how beautiful, compassionate, difficult, weird, crazy, tragic, bizarre, provocative, secret, shy, he was. These are all contradictory ways to describe him in his own right, but maybe they were all true and THAT is what might make him the most fascinating Hollywood figure to come along in decades, maybe ever. Brando also had a habit for recording personal audio of his own thoughts spoken aloud, a sort of self-therapy that becomes a godsend in the hands of these talented filmmakers, put to effectively use in”Listen to Me, Marlon.” Brando as he spoke into a tape recorder for many years, whether it was preparing for a role (as we hear for Apocalypse Now and Last Tango in Paris), self-hypnosis (he had to meditate a lot one can see), and just stuff to leave behind for his kids. Riley found close to 198 hours of Brando mumbling and musing on tape recordings. He’s on record here saying things that — as mentioned before — might contradict one another, but they are such fascinating, thought-provoking ruminations that we listen in awe at a legend having a go with himself.