Presumably, any moderately blog-centric “critic” end of the year best-of listing is the easiest part of the job–compiling a blurb heavy inventory of all of the films reviewed over the year. That is if said reviewer actually has access to the myriad documentaries produced and shown around the multifarious festival circuit, the breadth of which is nightmarish to imagine traversing in person. So, email queries are sent. Press kits are downloaded. Youtube is accessed. DVDs are watched on laptops. Our hypothetical critic could theoretically list the entire lineup of documentaries (unalphabetically of course) shown at the Toronto International Film Festival as the official Best of, and be sure of a comprehensive and well-endowed catalogue. As it stands, just wiki-ing, i.e. copying and pasting the prepared blurbs, seems a bit overly 2011. A dark year of documentaries unveiling the wrongs of the world, more to understand than to right them, HESO looks at the Best Documentary Films of 2012, doing our photographic duty to represent the efforts of directors and crews worldwide in their valiant attempts to document the various truths and lies, sublimities and atrocities, living and dying and everything in between, in this one paltry end-of-the-year-best-of-bullshit-attempt-to-grow-our-online-readership blog post.
Best Documentary Films of 2012
The Best Documentary Films of 2011 seemed to be mostly light-hearted and satirical in a way that the 2012 field can’t comprehend, mirroring the shadowy gloom of big feature film releases (Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln & Zero Dark Thirty). Meanwhile, women writers and directors (Alison Klayman, Marina Zenovich, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Lauren Greenfield and many others) are not just gaining acceptance and respect in the film industry, while documenting the world, they are taking it over.
Take the Middle East going full frontal with a slew of portrayals from all ends of the spectrum, including a few inner sanctum expositions on Israel’s complex workings and philosophies. Beginning with The Gatekeepers (Cinephil), directed by Dror Moreh, who interviews six former heads of the Shin Bet–Israel’s secret service–who reflect publicly on their experiences and attitudes during, and after, their service. Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, The Law in These Parts (Praxis Films), from Shilton Ha’Chok interviews the architects of the Israeli military legal system in the Occupied Territories.
Contrast these with 5 Broken Cameras (Kino Lorber), directed by Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi, a record of a Palestinian attempting to record the struggles of his community in the occupied West Bank. Preceding the United Nations General Assembly granting Palestine non-member observer State status, State 194 (Participant Media) from Dan Setton, documents how in 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad launched a plan to demonstrate that his people were deserving of statehood, inspiring them to change their destiny and seek U.N. membership.
Director Damien Ounouri describes his film, Fidaï (Kafard Films), “During the Algerian Revolution, my great-uncle El Hadi joined his sister in France and became an active member of a secret FLN armed group. Settling of scores, attempted murder, hiding, imprisonment and finally deportation back to Algeria in 1962, his personal journey tells the story of countless ex-fighters for Algerian independence, and echoes the current effervescence of the Arab World. Today, at the age of seventy, El Hadi reveals this dark part of his life for the first time.” While This Is Not A Film, (Kanibal Films) reveals director Jafar Panahi video diary travails of being banned from filmmaking in Iran, yet continuing to practice his art while under house arrest. As if We Were Catching a Cobra (Ramad Films), documents Syrian director Hala Alabdalla’s foray into the art of caricature in Egypt and Syria, and in the meantime captures insurgencies breaking out in both countries.
Despite the turmoil in Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the war in Syria, the rest of the world continues to be absorbed with its own vital intricacies. Picture the opening of North Korea to the world and Marc Wiese’s Camp 14 — Total Control Zone (Engstfeld), which tells the story of Shin Dong Huyk, who says, “Our sole purpose was to follow the rules of the work camp and then die. People on the outside call this place the ‘Total Control Zone.’ We knew nothing of the outside. All we knew was that our parents and our forefathers were guilty and we had to work hard in order to make up for it. Sometimes new people entered the camp but I never saw anyone pardoned for their crime and allowed leave. So none of us thought we would ever leave this place. Sometimes people tried to escape, driven by fear of starving or being beaten, but they were publicly executed and became the object of hate for those of us who were left behind.” The Girl from the South (Taskovski FIlms), chronicles José Luis García fascination with the story of a young South Korean student activist he met who crossed over into North Korea and what happened to her.
Fighting censorship has always been the role of the artist and 2012 has seen some of the loudest artists in recent memory. In Alison Klaymans’ Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (United Expression Media), we travel alongside the Chinese “dissident” activist throughout his dealings with the Chinese government. In the same vein is Abdoul Aziz Cissé, The Walls of Dakar, chronicling Dakar’s spontaneous mural frescos, produced by marginal painters, rappers and taggers, as one of its rare sites for free expression.
The ubiquitous face of the most obvious film for the role of the artist in society hangs on nearly every college dorm wall (next to the Che poster), Marley (Shangri-La Productions), the long-awaited Kevin MacDonald bio-pic which uses little-seen archived filmstock and live concert footage to put together a cohesive and even-handed portrait of the man everyone thinks they know. Someone you likely don’t know is the subject of Brad Bernstein’s Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, which depicts the renegade children’s book author and illustrator Ungerer’s wild, life-long adventure of testing societal boundaries through his use of subversive art. Marina Zenovich’s second film on Polanski, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, following Wanted and Desired, “explores the bizarre clash of politics, celebrity justice and the media.”
But what about ‘Merica? What ever happened to the good ol’ days? When we ruled the world…Detropia (Loki Films), directed by Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing, an artistic look at the decline of the quintessential American Car city and The Queen of Versailles (Magnolia Pictures), directed by Lauren Greenfield, which shows us the 2008 financial crisis from the point of view of the 1%, won, respectively, the U.S. documentary editing award and the U.S. documentary directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Interviewing The Wire producer David Simon, Arianna Huffington, Woody Harrelson, Eminem, Susan Sarandon and infamous drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, Matthew Cooke’s How To Make Money Selling Drugs (Bert Marcus Productions) spends the first half of the film literally teaching the viewer how to do so, and soon offers glimpses into the lives of those on both sides of the “war on drugs.” Drugs is one thing, but what about the pimp? Told through interviews Chris Rock, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg and with Iceberg Slim himself, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp (Final Level Entertainment), directed by Jorge Hinojosa, shows us the crazy life of the man who reinvented himself from the pimp to founder of Street-Lit by authoring of seven books.
Well-known directors had another banner year in documenting the unknown abuses still happening throughout the world. The Werner Herzog, Errol Morris-produced The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer lets the Suharto-backed Indonesian death-squad leaders tell the story of their atrocities by writing the script, playing themselves, as well as their victims. Less bloody, but equally affecting is Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney’s exposition on the abuse of power in the Catholic Church. And The Central Park Five from Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, the story of how five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping the Central Park Jogger.
Men At Lunch (Sonta Films), directed by Seán Ó Cualáin and narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, tells the story behind one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, taken on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Building in the autumn of 1932, an unprecedented race to the sky and the immigrant workers who built New York. From New York to London – The Modern Babylon, from director Julien Temple, who tells how it was the marginalized–the immigrant and the artist–that created modern-day London.
Finally, if Vanishing of the Bees and Queen of the Sun failed to impress upon the film-watching populous that the looming epidemic of disappearing honeybees for reasons still obscure, then Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey should suffice. The tagline of Bitter Seeds (Teddy Bear Films), the final film of Micha Peled’s Globalization Trilogy (Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Bluereads) reads, “Every thirty minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” Enough said? Not even close.