Documentaries Lists News

Sight & Sound’s Greatest Documentaries List

Sight and Sound Doc Poll

Sight and Sound have recently released the results of a poll of critics and filmmakers to find the greatest documentaries of all time.

The Critics’ Top 10 documentaries are:

1. Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

2. Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France 1985)

3. Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker (France 1982)

4. Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais (France 1955)

5. The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris (USA 1989)

6. Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin (France 1961)

7. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty (USA 1922)

8. The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda (France 2000)

9. Dont Look Back, dir. D.A. Pennebaker (USA 1967)

10. Grey Gardens, dir. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (USA 1975)

The poll report is released in the September edition of Sight & Sound published today, Friday 1st August.

The full lists of all the votes received and films nominated will be available online from 14th August.

You can join in the debate at Twitter using the hashtag #BestDocsEver.

> Sight and Sound
> More on documentary film at Wikipedia

Documentaries Interesting

The March (1963)

MLK at March on Washington

To mark the 50th anniversary of the The March for Jobs and Freedom, the US National Archives have posted a digitally restored version of James Blue’s famous documentary.

You can watch it here:

> Find more about the US Civil Rights Movement at Wikipedia
> Civil Rights Roundtable 1963 involving Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando

Documentaries Interviews Podcast

Interview: Alex Gibney on We Steal Secrets

Julian Assange in We Steal Secrets

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is the new documentary from director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Darkside, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) and explores the organization started in 2006 by Julian Assange.

It then charts the various people involved in the leaking of secret information, including hackers, journalists and activists who during 2009-2010, leaked information about the the Icelandic financial collapseSwiss banks evading tax and toxic-waste dumping.

It then focuses on the case of Bradley Manning, the army private who leaked an enormous amount of classified information about the Afghan and Iraq wars, as well as over 250,000 diplomatic cables.

Since the film premiered at Sundance in January, Manning has pleaded guilty and could face the death penalty, some Wikileaks supporters have taken issue with the film and Assange remains holed up in diplomatic limbo at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Added to this, another leak of seismic proportions rocked the US government in early June when a new whistle-blower named Edward Snowden released details of PRISM, a top-secret global spying program of unprecedented scope and size.

At the time of writing, Snowden is in diplomatic limbo at Moscow airport, but although some of the events and issues raised in the film are ongoing, there was much to chew on when I spoke with Gibney at the end of June.

Have a listen to the interview here:

You can also download the podcast via iTunes or get the MP3 directly.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks opens in the UK on Friday 12th July

> Alex Gibney on Twitter and the IMDb
> Get local showtimes via Google Movies
> Find out more about Wikileaks and Edward Snowden at Wikipedia

Awards Season Documentaries

84th Academy Awards: Documentary (Feature)



A film about a sergeant in the United States Marines Corps, who returns from the Afghanistan conflict with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Visit the official site and connect with the film on Facebook and Twitter.


Director Marshall Curry explores the origins, motives, and organization of the Earth Liberation FrontEco-terrorism and how the Department of Justice was able to find and arrest Daniel McGowan.

The official site is


The sequel to the landmark documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which chronicle the arrest, 18 year imprisonment, and eventual release of the West Memphis Three.

The official site is and connect with the film on Facebook and Twitter


3D documentary about the late Pina Bausch, directed by Wim Wenders.

The official site is


The film documents the struggles of the Memphis’s Manassas Tigers as they attempt a winning season under a new coach after years of losses.

The official site is

Official Oscar site
Explore previous winners and nominees of Best Documentary Feature

Awards Season Documentaries

84th Academy Awards: Documentary (Short Subject)


  • The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement – Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin
  • God Is the Bigger Elvis – Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson
  • Incident in New Baghdad – James Spione
  • Saving Face – Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
  • The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom – Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen


The story of James Armstrong as he prepares in 2008 for the election of America’s first black President and reflects on his own contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.

Raising questions about democracy and prejudice, it charts the long struggle for racial harmony

Find out more at the official site: and see Robin Fryday interviewed on the Tavis Smiley Show.


The story of Dolores Hart, who gave up her career as an actress in Elvis Presley movies to become a Benedictine nun.

IMDb link


An exploration of the notorious deaths in 2007 of two Reuters journalists and several civilians at the hands of U.S. attack helicopters on the streets of Baghdad.

Recounted by US soldier Ethan McCord – one of the first troops on the scene – it has already won awards at the Tribeca and Rhode Island Film Festivals.

The official site is


Documentary which explores a Pakistani plastic surgeon who returns to his homeland to operate on victims (all women) of acid violence, a grisly and disturbing phenomenon in the country.

It focuses on two survivors of acid attacks and their battle for justice and their journey of healing. Directed by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.

The official site is


Director Lucy Walker explores how survivors of Japan’s recent tsunami rebuild their lives just as cherry blossom season begins.

Official site is and connect with the film on Facebook and Twitter.

Official Oscar site
Explore previous winners and nominees of Best Documentary Short

Directors Documentaries

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

The BFI have put Martin Scorsese’s 1995 documentary about American cinema online.

Titled A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies it was produced by the British Film Institute and originally aired in three parts on Channel 4 back in 1995.

Co-directed with Michael Henry Wilson, it explores Scorsese’s favourite American films grouped according to three different types of directors:

With contributions from the likes of Billy Wilder and Clint Eastwood it is essential viewing.

You can watch it in full here:

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese (1995) by BFIfilms

His documentaries about cinema are like the best film school you never went to, featuring invaluable insights from a master director and a passionate movie fan.

The best compliment I can pay them is that you should just see them as soon as you possibly can.

Scorsese also made a documentary about Italian films called My Voyage to Italy (1999) and is currently preparing one about British cinema.

> Martin Scorsese at Wikipedia
> DVD review of My Voyage to Italy

Documentaries Interesting

The American West of John Ford

A 1971 documentary on the westerns of John Ford provides a fascinating insight into the director and his work.

Filled with clips from his work, it also contains interviews with colleagues such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Andy Devine.

It was filmed just two years before he died in 1973 and the tone is somewhat elegiac, as the Western was dying as a genre along with the old studio system.

I love the formal way in which Wayne, Stewart and Fonda address the camera and share stories with their old director (Wayne calls Ford “Pappy”) along with expensive helicopter shots of the landscape he made famous.

Also note that it is screened in the 16:9 aspect ratio, which seems unusual for the TV of the time but was presumably so they could capture the widescreen images of his films.

> Find out more about John Ford at Wikipedia and MUBi
> Senses of Cinema essay on John Ford

Documentaries Interesting Short Films

The Umbrella Man

A new short film by Errol Morris explores why a man was holding an umbrella just a few feet from where President Kennedy was shot in November 1963.

Like his friend Werner Herzog, the famed director has long been fascinated by the events surrounding the JFK assassination.

Morris has written an accompanying piece for the New York Times, in which he says:

For years, I’ve wanted to make a movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Not because I thought I could prove that it was a conspiracy, or that I could prove it was a lone gunman, but because I believe that by looking at the assassination, we can learn a lot about the nature of investigation and evidence.

Why, after 48 years, are people still quarreling and quibbling about this case? What is it about this case that has led not to a solution, but to the endless proliferation of possible solutions?

The only thing I can recommend is that you click here to watch the video as soon as possible.

> NY Times directors statement and video
> More on Errol Morris and the JFK assassination at Wikipedia
> Thoughts on his nw film Tabloid

Documentaries Reviews Thoughts

Into the Abyss

A powerful exploration of the death penalty sees Werner Herzog probe deep into the horrors of killings in Texas.

There is a moment in Herzog’s latest film where he tells a young man that “I don’t have to like you”.

You soon realise why.

The man he’s speaking to is Michael Perry, who is on death row after being convicted, along with an accomplice, of murdering three people in October 2001.

Viewers might be conditioned to think that a film about the death penalty made by someone who opposes it (as Herzog does) might be an issue film.

After all, Errol Morris famously got an innocent man off death row with his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line.

But we quickly realise this isn’t an issue film about the death penalty and instead a long hard look at death itself, as seen through the ripple effects of a murder.

In a similar way to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood it provides an examination of evil in the heartland of America.

Perry was convicted, along with Jason Burkett, of brutally killing three people in Conroe, Texas: a 50 year old nurse, her teenage son and his friend.

Herzog’s conversation with Perry is one of several: he also speaks to Burkett, the families of the prisoners and victims, as well as various people connected with the business of death, including a retired executioner and pastor.

Whilst it doesn’t come to any firm conclusion as to Perry’s guilt – he protests his innocence throughout – it seems likely he was guilty.

But the film is not an exploration of who did what and instead opts to probe around the question of why people kill and condone killing.

The shallow reason Perry and Burkett murdered was to steal a car for a joyride, whilst Texas as a state seems to have a pathological addiction to killing its prisoners.

Since the resumption the death penalty in 1976 (after four years when it was suspended) Texas has executed nearly four times as many inmates as its closest rival, Virginia.

But Herzog isn’t singling out the Lone Star state – the disturbing details of the murder case are constantly in the air and some of the people not directly connected with the case have an impressive moral dignity.

There is the retired executioner who forgoes his pension because he is tired with legally killing people, whilst a pastor manages to give an unexpectedly profound answer to Herzog’s curve ball question about a squirrel.

As usual the small quirks of human behaviour are picked up on although this is a much more sober film than Herzog’s recent work and at time Mark Degli Antoni’s sparse score gives it an appropriately sombre tone.

Herzog is a past master at eliciting revealing answers by asking deceptively straightforward questions.

One of the most startling dialogues here is with an articulate woman who became attracted to and pregnant by Burkett.

Quite how an inmate gets a woman pregnant from inside prison is an open question, but that is part of the rich tapestry Herzog weaves with this film, managing to touch upon the trend of death row groupies.

Always a director attracted to extremes, be it pulling a boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo or putting his cast under hypnosis for Heart of Glass, here the extremity of the subject matter is complemented by a notable visual restraint.

We never see him on screen and his regular DP Peter Zeitlinger opts for a restrained visual style, but this is purposely not a fly-on-the-wall film.

In fact it’s quite the opposite, as Herzog’s probing presence and restless curiosity can be felt in every frame as he engages with the people surrounding the killings and the issues such actions raise.

Just a few days after filming in July 2010, Perry himself was killed by lethal injection, which provides the film with a brutal final stop.

It doesn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but therein lies its power – after the film is over the questions raised stay with us, precisely because they have no definitive answers.

The title of this film could describe many of Herzog’s previous movies, as it perfectly describes deep themes and stark feeling of awe embedded in his best work.

It is hard not to come out profoundly shaken as the questions of how and why human beings destroy one another are presented with such piercing clarity that they linger in your mind long after the final credits.

Into the Abyss is out now in the US and opens in the UK on March 23rd

> Official site
> Reviews of the film at MUBi and Metacritic
> Interesting Guardian article on the case by Joanna Walters, who interviewed Perry just after Herzog

Directors Documentaries Interesting

Errol Morris at BAFTA

Famed documentarian Errol Morris was at BAFTA this week where he gave the annual David Lean lecture and a Q&A with Adam Curtis.

He has been in London this week promoting Tabloid, his new film about a bizarre scandal involving a beauty queen and a mormon, and the event was live streamed over the web on BAFTA Guru.

To watch the full 30 minute speech head on over to the BAFTA site, but here is a clip:

Afterwards he engaged in an interesting Q&A session with fellow director Adam Curtis which can be seen here:

I first saw Tabloid at the London Film Festival last year and it is going to be a strong contender for the inaugural BAFTA documentary award.

Interestingly, the film hit the headlines this week when Joyce McKinney (the main subject) announced she was suing Morris for her portrayal in the film, which has echoes of Randall Adams suing Morris, despite the fact that (or maybe because?) his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line got him off death row.

Perhaps there is a follow up film to be made?

> Tabloid review from LFF 2010
> BAFTA Guru
> Adam Curtis’ essential BBC blog which regularly culls interesting material from the archives
> More on Errol Morris at Wikipedia


Watch Life in a Day on YouTube

The crowd-sourced documentary Life in a Day is now available to watch in full on YouTube.

Depicting life on July 24th 2010, the film consists of over 80,000 video clips submitted to YouTube and is credited to director Kevin Macdonald and ‘the Youtube Community’, with Ridley Scott as producer.

Editor Joe Walker along with McDonald had the daunting task of whittling down over 4,500 hours of footage from 140 countries into a coherent 95 minutes.

You can watch it all here:

The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and the premiere was streamed live on YouTube.

It was also announced recently that a follow up film called Britain in a Day will be made from videos from the public about their lives on November 12th, 2011.

> Life in a Day’s channel on YouTube
>  YouTube at Wikipedia and Facebook
> Find out more about Britain in a Day on YouTube


George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George Harrison is an absorbing and surprisingly spiritual examination of the late musician.

After screening at the Telluride film festival last month, this 208 minute film recently aired on HBO in the US and has just come out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK before a screening on BBC Two later this year.

Part of the realities of modern movie distribution mean that this long-form work only got a brief screening at cinemas around the UK last week, before its arrival in shops on Monday.

But it marks another landmark musical documentary for Scorsese after No Direction Home (2005), his outstanding film about Bob Dylan, as it charts the cultural impact of the Beatles from the perspective of its most reflective member.

This not only gives the familiar subject a fresh feel, but it also goes into deep and moving areas as it charts how he dealt with the onslaught of fame and attention that came with being in the biggest band in the world.

Made with the full co-operation of Harrison’s family – his widow Olivia and son Dhani – it features interviews with them, bandmates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, plus numerous friends and acquaintances including Yoko Ono, George Martin, Eric Clapton, Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voormann, Eric Idle, Phil Spector (before his 2009 murder conviction) and Tom Petty.

Split into two parts the first deals with his childhood in Liverpool, the early days of The Beatles in Hamburg and their eventual rise to the dizzying heights of global fame, whilst the second explores how he dealt with that fame, becoming a solo artist, staging charity concerts, financing Monty Python films and his growing interest in Indian music and philosophy.

Scorsese has long had an interest in rock music but here he seems to have found a kindred spirit in Harrison, whose desire to transcend the surface trappings of fame provides the real fuel for this film.

Brilliantly assembled from a wealth of archive footage, including some vintage photography of the Fab Four and lots of material from the Harrison home movie collection, it creates a fascinating portrait of a musician who unwittingly became part of something huge.

For Beatles fans, it doesn’t attempt the scale of the 11-hour Anthology project from 1995 – still the definitive filmed history of the band – but gives us a different perspective outside of the Lennon-McCartney axis and provides us with unexpected pleasures as it charts his spiritual growth.

There is the persistent theme running throughout that Harrison was the dark horse of the group, a songwriter who gradually became the equal of his more illustrious band mates and on Abbey Road actually surpassed them by writing Something (described by Frank Sinatra as one of the greatest love songs of the 20th century) and Here Comes the Sun.

Scorsese also captures the dizzying cultural ascendency of The Beatles as they conquer the music world and become icons.

It touches on the dynamics within the band: George’s early friendship with Paul, which later led to tensions caught on film during the Let it Be sessions, the bewildering rush of fame and money and how this affected their lives.

One revealing bit of footage early on sees the band members sign the official contracts that dissolved the group in 1970 – Harrison is uttering an Indian mantra as he signs, which hints at his trepidation at the end of an era but also his growing interest in Eastern spirituality.

Throughout his time in the Beatles he had written songs where this was noticeable – Love to You, Within Without You and The Inner Light – but, after forging a close friendship with Ravi Shankar, he seemed to be the only one who fully embraced both the musical and spiritual dimensions of something the rest of the band just flirted with.

This may explain why he made a great solo album – All Things Must Pass – very soon after The Beatles broke up and could navigate the subsequent years with a degree of serenity and humour.

These times included: the Concert for Bangladesh (a benefit gig that foreshadowed Live Aid); a bizarre divorce from first wife Patti Boyd (his friend Eric Clapton essentially stole her with his ‘blessing’); the purchase of a large Victorian estate (Friar Park in Henley-on-Thames); film production (he created Handmade Films after financing Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) and his love of F1.

For film aficionados his patronage of The Life of Brian (1979) – which was hugely controversial amongst some observers – and films such as Time Bandits (1981), The Long Good Friday 1980), Mona Lisa (1986) and Withnail & I (1987) was really quite remarkable.

His reason for stumping up the $4m to fund Life of Brian – “because I wanted to see the film” – was both the most brilliant and eloquent reason ever given by a film financier and as Eric Idle points out was “the most expensive cinema ticket in history”.

Going in, I was expecting the film to tail off towards the end, as it deals with the last phase of his life, but it is to the films great credit that it manages to hold the attention right until the closing credits.

His second wife Olivia and son Dhani speak movingly about his home life and his struggles with cancer that were made worse by a home invasion and assault in 1999.

That nasty attack, which Dhani believes shortened his life, had chilling echoes of Lennon’s death at the hands of Mark Chapman in 1980 – an event which was extra painful for George, as he was deeply concerned with the manner in which the human spirit leaves the body.

A lot of family archive material was made available and editor David Tedeschi, who also worked on Scorsese’s Dylan documentary, has managed to arrange it with considerable skill and judicious use of music.

It also sounds great, thanks to the new 5.1 surround mix that was done by a team including George Martin’s son, Giles, who worked on the recent Love remixes.

There is always the danger of hagiography when it comes to films about famous figures, but this manages to paint a broad and interesting look at Harrison’s life without slipping into sentimentality.

Scorsese has long been interested in spirituality, whether it be the Catholicism of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) or the Buddhism of Kundun (1997), and here he digs deep into Harrison’s spiritual awareness and how it kept him sane after the global goldfish bowl that was life during and after The Beatles.

Like Harrison himself, the film contains surprising depths and offers a refreshing glimpse into the world’s most famous band from the perspective of its most thoughtful member.

> Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD at Amazon UK
> IMDb entry
> More on George Harrison at Wikipedia

Documentaries News TV

Trailer: George Harrison – Living in the Material World

The new trailer for the new Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison is now online.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World features rare footage from Harrison’s childhood, his time in The Beatles, his solo career and his unlikely career as a movie producer through Handmade Films.

The interviewees include Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono and Olivia and Dhani Harrison.

Like Scorsese’s previous documentary about Bob Dylan – No Direction Home – this is split into two parts: the first section (94 mins) covers Harrison’s early life in Liverpool and career as a Beatle up until their break up in 1970.

The second part (114 mins) charts his solo career during the 1970s and 80s, up until the end of his life in November 2001.

It is being screened at cinemas across the UK and Dublin on October 4th.

In the US it will air on HBO in two parts on October 5th and 6th and in the UK on the BBC at some point (although details are unclear, it may be on BBC2 in November for the 10th anniversary of his death).

The DVD and Blu-ray come out soon after on October 10th.

> For more info and to book tickets visit the Facebook page
> More on the film at the IMDb
> Pre-order the DVD or Blu-ray at Amazon UK

Documentaries Interesting

Gary Slutkin on Disrupting Violence

This week sees the UK release of The Interrupters, a documentary which explores an anti-violence program in Chicago based on the theories of Gary Slutkin.

Directed by Steve James, who made the classic 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, the film follows the work of CeaseFire, an initiative which has created and implemented the concept of ‘The Violence Interrupter’.

This sees three people – Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra – with experience of crime, work on the street to mediate conflicts which could result in violent crime.

Essentially, it’s a bit like Minority Report without all the high-tech stuff.

The CeaseFire project was founded in 1995 by Dr. Slutkin, who developed the theory that violence is like an infectious disease that can be prevented by changing behaviour.

Last year he gave this talk explaining his basic ideas:

The UK release of The Interrupters is incredibly timely, with riots and looting breaking out in London and other major cities in the same week it opens in UK cinemas.

In a related side note, the films UK distributor Dogwoof was affected by the devastating fire at a Sony distribution centre in Enfield, which housed most of the stock for the UK’s indie music and film labels.

I would strongly recommend the film, as it is easily one of the best films of the year and essential viewing in a week where violence and urban decay have dominated UK headlines.

> My review of The Interrupters
Official website
> Official Facebook and Twitter
Reviews of The Interrupters at Metacritic
Original NY Times article by Alex Kotlowitz that inspired the film
> More on the UK Riots of 2011

Cinema Documentaries Reviews

Project Nim

The life of a chimpanzee raised like a human makes for a rich documentary, which is assembled with considerable skill and intelligence.

After the success of their previous film Man On Wire (2008), director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn came across another story that has its roots in New York of the 1970s.

In November 1973, a professor at Columbia University began an experiment to raise a chimpanzee like a human being in order to explore how this would affect the his communication skills with humans.

The chimp was named Nim Chimpsky after Noam Chomsky, the linguist whose thesis stated that language is hard-wired to humans only, and the experiment became a practical exploration of communication.

If Man on Wire played like an unlikely heist movie, this film is more like Frankenstein or a genre film where scientific breakthroughs have unintended consequences.

But as it progresses, the film is more than just about a curious scientific exercise as it peels away the different layers of the story to become something profound and unsettling about the relationship between humans and animals.

The opening section explores the behavioural psychologist who supervised the experiment, Professor Herbert Terrace, and his various assistants during the 1970s who treated Nim like a human child – a period which saw him introduced to human breast milk, alcohol and marijuana.

This makes for some eye-opening comedy in places, which is brilliantly augmented with interviews, period photographs and various other media from the time.

Part of the virtues of choosing a scientific project as the subject of a documentary is that the original observational materials can be incorporated into the film, as well as contemporary TV reports and magazine covers.

But the film really hits another plateau when we follow what happened to Nim when he left the supervision of Professor Terrace and his various surrogate mothers.

The story then becomes a darker tale which gradually holds up a mirror to the humans involved with Nim’s life.

Without going in to too much detail, it says a lot that the person who emerges with the most credit is Bob Ingersoll, a pot-smoking Grateful Dead fan who seemed to have Nim’s best interests at heart.

The second half of the film has some genuinely surprising twists and if you aren’t familiar with the real-life events I would recommend going in cold.

Part of what makes the film so effective, is the overall journey of Nim’s extraordinary life, which is presented with a meticulous care that is rare, even for a documentary.

Whilst the scientists depicted in Project Nim held up a mirror to a chimpanzee, the film also holds up a similar mirror to the audience about their relationship with animals and themselves.

On one level the film powerfully depicts the growing pains of a chimpanzee, but as this journey grows messy and painful, it is hard not to see the human parallels – we share 98.7% of our DNA but also a range of emotions and experiences as we age.

Marsh develops this material in such a way that it never feels simplistic or sentimental and along with his editor Jinx Godfrey have managed to whittle the story down to something that is both specific and universal.

Whilst the story of Nim is about an experiment from another era, the film of Nim is a vivid document of the humans who conducted it.

In a week which sees the UK release of an expensive reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, it is ironic that the chimpanzee film made for a fraction of the budget should have more drama and surprise.

But then this year has been a very strong one for documentaries with films like Senna, The Interrupters and now Project Nim prove that real stories told well can provide the drama that expensively produced fiction simply cannot match.

Project Nim is out at selected UK cinemas from Friday 12th August

> Official website
> Reviews of Project Nim at Metacritic
> James Marsh at the IMDb

Cinema Documentaries Reviews

The Interrupters

The latest documentary from Steve James is a riveting examination of a community group tackling urban violence in Chicago.

Inspired by a 2008 article by Alex Kotlowitz in the New York Times Magazine, it explores the work of CeaseFire, a program which adopted ‘The Violence Interrupter’ concept, which uses people with experience of violent crime in order to prevent it.

The brainchild of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, the interrupter concept treats urban violence like an infectious disease – if you go after the most infected, then you can stop the infection at its source.

Shot over the course of a year in Chicago, it focuses on three interrupters: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, who all have lives shaped by past violence on the streets.

But the fascination of the film lies is the way it combines the history of the interrupters with their practical application of Slutkin’s theory.

CeaseFire utilises whatever nonviolent means possible to prevent violence: interrupters listen to the chatter on the streets and intervene when something is about to go wrong.

We see the power of ‘interruption’ in practice as Ameena, Cobe and Eddie apply it in the streets, using their contacts, negotiating skills and quick wits to diffuse potentially volatile situations in areas blighted by poverty and crime.

This means that in order to be effective, they have to exercise a special brand of street diplomacy, which can involve anything from talking out issues on a porch to an impromptu trip to the local food joint.

Ameena draws on her own background as the daughter of a notorious gang leader to befriend and mentor a girl who reminds her of her younger self; Cobe uses his experience of loss and time in prison to disarm people with his charm and good nature; whilst Eddie’s empathetic work with young children is driven by his own haunted past.

Each of these narrative strands could potentially provide the basis for a gripping feature film, but Steve James weaves them skilfully into a documentary which tackles a deep problem with considerable insight and human drama.

Returning to the same city that formed the backdrop of his landmark film Hoop Dreams (1994), the film is refreshingly candid about the problem of urban violence and mercifully free of the fake inspiration of mainstream TV documentaries.

The cameras here capture some extraordinarily raw scenes: a quick-witted doorstep negotiation with an angry man bent on revenge; a dramatic apology delivered to the owners of a barbershop; an interrupter lying on a hospital bed; and a school girl describing the effects of violence, are just some of the most affecting things I’ve seen this year.

But their power comes from the extensive groundwork laid out by James and Kotlowitz, who shot over 300 hours of footage and took time to earn the trust of their interviewees and the communities where they filmed.

This means that what we see on screen is filled with the kind of genuine surprises, narrative suspense and inspiring actions that only real life can provide.

Perhaps the most lasting aspect of The Interrupters is that it serves as a welcome counterblast to traditional ways in which the issue of urban violence is framed.

Hollywood favours improbable stories of mavericks beating the odds, whilst mainstream media such as CNN and Fox devote plenty of time to the gory outcome of murder whilst ignoring the root causes.

James and Kotlowitz (who served as co-producer on the film) adopt a slower and more considered approach which reaps rich dividends in exploring the complexity of human beings and the environment they inhabit.

In a sense, the film stays true to the long form journalism that inspired it, as research and a careful fidelity to the facts and issues at hand provide the backbone to the film.

According to the filmmakers, the minimalist production values and aesthetic were partly a product of making their subjects feel comfortable on camera, but it also emphasises the human factor well, which after all is what the film is really about.

The real genius of The Interrupters is that it immerses us in a particular situation but ultimately achieves a universal significance in depicting human struggle and redemption.

It also acts as a valuable document of a time when Chicago was brought into the national spotlight through the death of Derrion Albert in September 2009, and almost became a symbol for the violence across US cities.

After an acclaimed run at film festivals including Sundance, Sheffield and South by Southwest, it is very hard not to see this as an early Oscar frontrunner for Best Documentary.

At Sundance its running time was 164 minutes, but will open in the UK at a more audience-friendly running time of around two hours.

This means its commercial theatrical prospects have been improved – and it is a film I would urge you to see at a cinema – but presumably there is enough raw material for an extended cut on DVD or even a mini-series.

Like Hoop Dreams, the achievement here is immense and the film shines a valuable light on an issue which affects not just Chicago but every city suffering the human cost of violence.

The lasting legacy may be that practical, grass roots activism can provide relief from even the most intractable urban problems.

In what is already a very strong year for documentaries, this is one of the very best.

The Interrupters opens in the UK on August 12th and you can find a list of cinemas showing it here

> Official website
> Official Facebook and Twitter
> Reviews of The Interrupters at Metacritic
> Original NY Times article by Alex Kotlowitz that inspired the film

Cinema Documentaries Interviews Podcast

Interview: Liz Garbus on Bobby Fischer Against The World

Bobby Fischer Against The World is a new documentary about the rise and fall of the legendary American chess player and his 1972 match with Boris Spassky.

The film explores Fischer’s rapid rise to national fame and the political significance of his clash with Spassky, which attracted global media coverage as a wider Cold War confrontation between America and Russia.

It then delves into the later years of his life as he effectively retired at the peak of his career and became a wandering enigma, exiled from his own country, making controversial statements after 9/11, before eventually retreating to Iceland where he died in 2008.

Directed by Liz Garbus, it premiered at Sundance earlier this year and mixes rare archive footage and photos, along with interviews from those close to Fischer as well as figures such as Gary Kasparov and Henry Kissinger.

I recently spoke to Liz in London at the offices at Dogwoof, who are releasing the film in the UK, and you can listen to the interview by clicking below:


You can also download this interview as a podcast via iTunes by clicking here.

Dogwoof release Bobby Fischer Against The World at selected UK cinemas on July 15th

> Download this interview as an MP3 file
> Official website for Bobby Fischer Against The World
> Get updates for the film via Facebook and Twitter
> Find out which local cinemas are playing the film
> Follow Dogwoof on Twitter
> Find out more about Bobby Fischer at Wikipedia

Cinema Documentaries Reviews

Countdown to Zero

Lucy Walker’s campaigning documentary is an absorbing warning about the dangers still posed by nuclear weapons, even though its optimism blurs the wider issues.

Did you know that the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse in January 1995, when Russia mistook a Western weather satellite for a US strike?

This is just one of the startling facts in Countdown to Zero, produced by Lawrence Bender and co-funded by Participant Media and the World Security Institute, which explores how the nuclear threat has stayed with us ever since the Cold War ended.

Interviewing a variety of political leaders (Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf and Jimmy Carter) along with experts in the field (Joseph Cirincione) it paints a sobering portrait of a persistent, yet still largely hidden, menace.

Since the dangerous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 or the Able Archer incident in 1983, it seemed that the collapse of the Soviet Union signified a new era where the superpowers relented from their deadly game of brinkmanship.

The film shows through inventive graphics and research, the newer threats have emerged over the last 20 years: how states such as Pakistan and North Korea have acquired nuclear capability; the problems of enriched uranium on the black market; the near-miss incidents caused by human error and the prospect of terrorists using a dirty bomb.

Aside from the aforementioned incident in 1995, there are documented cases involving shocking lapses within the US military and the elusive figure of Dr. A.Q. Khan, the shadowy scientist mostly responsible for Pakistan (and maybe others) getting the bomb.

Director Lucy Walker didn’t originate the project, so it perhaps lacks the personal touch of her other recent film Waste Land, but she handles the information and interviews with efficiency and intelligence.

Where the film falls down slightly, is in the campaigning edge which creeps in too often: we sees pointless vox pop interviews where members of the public around the world are asked about nuclear weapons.

Is it really a shocker that most people aren’t experts on this?

There is also a disconnect between the premise of the film, which is the noble aim of reducing global nuclear stocks to zero, and the dark side of humanity which it reveals.

After watching it you may be more convinced than ever that zero nuclear weapons is necessary but virtually impossible, so long as nation states continue to have them or pursue them.

In the last decade US foreign policy in the Middle East has probably helped accelerate proliferation, with states such as Iran seeing it as a necessary deterrent to what they regard as Western aggression (Tony Blair’s presence in the film only accentuates this point).

The example given in the film of South Africa dismantling their programme is misleading, as it remains hard not to conclude that the racist Apartheid regime simply didn’t wanting the incoming ANC government to have it.

The fact that Israel officially deny the existence of their nuclear weapons program (which conveniently allows them to opt out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) shows the extent to which even developed countries are literally in a state of denial about them.

One of the paradoxes of a nuclear arsenal is that countries feel safer with deadly weapons that they cannot use, as to do so would trigger their own destruction.

This dilemma still haunts governments today and even though President Obama has in theory pledged that zero is an option for the US, the current state of world affairs suggests it may remain a distant dream.

Speaking of which, at one point we see Osama bin Laden on screen and watching this film just days after his death was an interesting (if chilling) experience, which highlighted a pressing problem documentaries face in depicting current affairs.

This film premiered at Sundance in January 2010 and screened to acclaim at Cannes later in May of that year, but has taken over a year to reach British cinema screens.

In that time we have seen such seismic global events as the Wikileaks revelations, the Arab Spring and the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist (the latter may indeed have grave implications for US/Pakistan relations).

As it happens the core of Countdown to Zero is still relevant, but in this day and age why does it take so long for a documentary like this to come out and risk being out of date?

Perhaps a multi-platform release around the buzz of opening at festivals might be an option for more arthouse films like this.

That being said, despite the ambitious optimism of the film’s campaign, this is still one that demands to be seen as it is an alarming reminder of the dark, self-destructive impulses of mankind.

> Official site
> Reviews of Countdown to Zero at Cannes 2010
> Find out more about countries with nuclear weapons at Wikipedia

Cinema Documentaries Reviews Thoughts


Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and career of Ayrton Senna is a riveting portrait of the F1 driver.

Using only archive footage alongside voiceover contributions from those who knew and wrote about him, it constructs a compelling story of a sporting icon.

Beginning with his early career in Europe, it charts his rapid ascent to Formula One where he joined the McLaren team in the late 1980s and quickly established himself as a precocious rival to reigning world champion Alain Prost.

Exploring his extraordinary feats on the track and the joy his three world titles brought to his native Brazil, it then covers his tragic early death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

With judicious use of archive footage, which really comes alive on the big screen, it also covers the murkier politics off the track with former FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre coming across as another rival to be beaten.

Although this will be devoured by motor racing fans, it also works as a fascinating introduction for those who know little or nothing about Senna and his impact on the sport.

Part of what makes it so exciting is his life story, which whilst not a rags-to-riches tale (he was from a wealthy Brazilian family), feels like the subject of an epic novel filled with memorable touches.

His iconic yellow helmet, loving and devoted parents, faith in God, millions he donated to charity, glamorous girlfriends and the driving skills which established him as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time are just some of the rich details which make up the story.

The film contains many of his greatest moments: his amazing F1 debut at Monaco in 1984; his victory at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix to clinch his first world title and his electrifying win at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991.

Assembled from hours of footage from various broadcasters and the F1 archives, the editing is frequently inspired, providing an unusual level of excitement for a documentary.

At one point we see some especially prophetic comments from Prost (“Ayrton Senna has a small problem, he thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God and I think that is very dangerous for other drivers”) as well as footage from family home videos.

Some of the internal F1 videos of driver meetings are an eye-opening glimpse into the world of a dangerous sport and Senna’s pleas for more safety add to the tragic irony of his untimely demise.

There are also astute voiceover contributions from journalist Richard Williams, F1 doctor Sid Watkins and racing commentators Galvão Bueno and John Bisignano which explain and illuminate his impact on the sport and his home country.

For director Asif Kapadia this marks a change from his previous feature films (such as The Warrior and Far North) but he seems to have a natural feel for the drama of real life and of the intense highs which sport can deliver to both participants and fans.

A subtle but atmospheric use of music augments the film nicely and the use of internal F1 footage of the drivers observing the horrific accidents during that fateful weekend in 1994 brings a new perspective to what would be a turning point the sport as a whole, as major safety changes were brought in following the crash that killed Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

Although the exact cause of Senna’s crash at Imola still remains a mystery, it seems an unlikely confluence of events was ultimately to blame: the new rules imposed on the Williams car that season, an engineering fault, a previous crash at the start of the race and bad luck in how the car actually crashed on impact.

On paper this might sound like a film just for devoted F1 fans, but perhaps its greatest achievement lies in how it not only makes the races truly thrilling but finds universality in the details of a sportsman’s life.

After scoring major buzz at Sundance earlier this year, Universal and Working Title will be quietly confident that it finds a deserving audience hungry for engaging factual entertainment.

With the summer movie season fuelled by comic book fantasy, Senna provides a welcome injection of real-life drama and excitement.

> Official site
> Find out more about Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia
> Follow Asif Kapadia on Twitter
> Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter

Documentaries Interesting TV

Ayrton Senna 1995 BBC Documentary

UK viewers can now watch the 1995 BBC documentary about Ayrton Senna online.

With Asif Kapadia’s new documentary about the Brazilian F1 driver at cinemas, it makes for a nice companion piece.

Presented by Steve Rider, the 50 minute programme features plenty of archive footage from Senna’s life and interviews with Frank Williams, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Martin Brundle, Damon Hill, and Nigel Mansell.

Watch it in full here:

1995: Ayrton Senna – BBC Documentary. from EffOne Archives on Vimeo.

> Find out more about Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia
> Official website for the new Senna documentary

Documentaries News

Tim Hetherington reportedly killed in Libya

Reports are emerging that filmmaker and photojournalist Tim Hetherington has been killed in Libya.

He was reportedly killed in an attack whilst on assignment covering the Libyan civil war and his last update on his Twitter feed was:

In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO

Fellow photographer Andre Liohn wrote this on his Facebook page earlier today:

Sad news Tim Hetherington died in Misrata now when covering the front line. Chris Hondros is in a serious status. Michel Brown and Guy are wounded but fine.

A regular contributor to Vanity Fair, Hetherington reported on wars for the last decade and along with author and journalist Sebastian Junger, co-directed the recent documentary Restrepo.

Detailing a year in the life of US soldiers stationed in the Korengal valley in Afghanistan, it won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and got nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.

This is a lengthy discussion about the film Hetherington did with Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation last summer:

Also worth looking at is this short film he made called ‘Diary’, which he uploaded to his offical Vimeo page.

Of it, he says:

‘Diary’ is a highly personal and experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work, and was made as an attempt to locate myself after ten years of reporting. It’s a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo

He was also a cameraman on the documentaries Liberia: An Uncivil War (2004) and The Devil Came on Horseback (2007), in addition to winning numerous awards for his photography including the World Press Photo of the Year 2007, the Rory Peck Award for Features and an Alfred I duPont award.

> IndieWire report on Hetherington’s death
> More on Restrepo at the IMDb and Wikipedia
> Tim Hetherington’s official site and Vimeo page

Documentaries Interesting

First Orbit

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s pioneering mission into space and First Orbit is a new documentary that gives audiences a view of what the cosmonaut would have seen.

Directed by Chris Riley, it uses footage shot aboard the International Space Station the film mixes some extraordinary images with Gagarin’s historic voice recordings aboard the Vostok 1 along with an original score by composer Philip Sheppard.

You can watch it in full here:

There is also a short making of film here:

> First Orbit
> More on Yuri Gagarin at Wikipedia
> Listen to Philip Shepard’s songs for the film

Cinema Documentaries


A riveting documentary about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan provides an eye-opening view of the War on Terror.

The directorial debut of Janus Metz is a startling one and the title comes from the military base in Helmand province where troops are based for six months.

Over the course of the film we see various troops as they leave home, go out on patrol, get involved in skirmishes with the Taliban and deal with civilians caught up in the conflict.

Comparisons will be made with last year’s Restrepo, the Oscar nominated documentary about US troops in the mountainous Korengal Valley, and even Susanne Bier’s drama Brothers (2004) which explored how the conflict affected Danish troops.

But Armadillo has its own distinct flavour and part of this comes from the extraordinary level of access afforded to Metz and his crew, which one suspects would not have been afforded to a similar film about US and UK troops.

A brutal honesty pervades the film and it doesn’t shy away from showing details which don’t make it on to the nightly news.

We see soldiers bored in their downtime as they watch porn, play first-person shooter computer games and make phone calls to worries relatives.

When it comes to the battlefield, the uncertainty and mistrust of the locals isn’t whitewashed as the local elders demand to know why innocent people are dying in the crossfire and even children insult the troops.

But where the film kicks into another gear is with the remarkably candid and unsettling scenes where the troops confront the Taliban.

One fire fight involves a hauntingly ambiguous image of a corpse and the images captured are a world away from the carefully edited coverage you see on the nightly news.

The most memorable sequence involves an extraordinary shootout at dawn where the soldiers find themselves right next to five Taliban soldiers in a ditch.

After it screened at Cannes last year, this sequence proved controversial in Denmark and led to an official investigation which eventually cleared soldiers in the film of any wrongdoing.

Part of the footage was actually shot from a camera attached to a soldier’s helmet, and the resulting images provide an incredible glimpse into life on the frontline.

This will prove a turn off for some audiences, but as a document of the brutal realities of war, it remains vivid and valuable document of this conflict.

There are numerous interviews with the soldiers and some revealing conversations, which capture their love of battle as well as the anxiety of knowing death is close by.

Shot on a variety of digital cameras, the visuals by DP Lars Skree are highly impressive and effectively mix the energy of combat with quieter moments.

The mood of the film is also greatly enhanced by Uno Helmersson’s atmospheric score and the sound design by Rasmus Winther.

There also appears to be a use of colour correction to give the film a consistent look, giving it the visual sheen of a dramatic feature like The Hurt Locker (2008).

Aside from being a technically brilliant portrait of modern warfare, Armadillo also poses interesting questions about how the war in Afghanistan has been represented.

Could it be that mainstream media have subconsciously watered their coverage down to gain access and submit to a conventional narrative of the troops as heroes? Recent revelations would suggest things are more complicated.

It is easy to forget that Afghanistan isn’t just an American war. The allied forces which make up the International Security Assistance Force are drawn from many countries from around the globe, including Denmark.

Perhaps it took a Danish perspective to craft such an illuminating film, which doesn’t take sides but still confronts the audience with difficult questions about an intractable conflict.

Armadillo is currently out at selected UK cinemas and is released on DVD on June 13th

> Official site
> Find out if Armadillo is showing near you with Google Movies or Find Any Film
> Reviews at the IMDb
> More on the ISAF and the War in Afghanistan at Wikipedia

Documentaries TV

How the 2011 Japan Tsunami Happened

This recent C4 documentary explores how the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami happened.

Some of the raw facts about the disaster are mind-boggling:

  • It was the most powerful known earthquake ever to hit Japan, and one of the five most powerful in the world since modern records began in 1900.
  • The amount of energy released by the earthquake was 2 million times that unleashed by the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945
  • The earthquake shifted the Earth on its axis by almost 10 cm (3.9 in).
  • The cost of the disaster could reach $309 billion, making it the world’s most expensive natural disaster.
  • The earthquake triggered tsunami waves of up to 97ft (29.6m)
  • The waves struck inland minutes after the quake and some travelled up to 6 miles (10 km) inland.
  • So far the official death toll is 11,828 and 15,540 people are still missing
  • Over 125,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
  • Japan suffered extensive structural damage with roads, railways and dams affected
  • Around 4.4 million households in northeastern Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water.
  • Many electrical generators went down, and at least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due after cooling system failures.
  • Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said: “In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.”

You can still donate to relief efforts.

In the UK The British Red Cross is collecting funds to support the Japanese Red Cross which is playing a leading role in the disaster response.

Save the Children, World Vision and Oxfam are supporting the work of their colleagues in Japan.

If you are in the US you can donate via the American Red Cross.

> Watch the documentary in better quality at Channel 4’s site
> More on the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami at Wikipedia
> Coverage of the disaster at BBC News and the New York Times
> Interactive map of the disaster at the New York Times


Trailer: Waste Land

Lucy Walker’s inspiring documentary Waste Land explores the work of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz as he creates art with the cooperation of garbage pickers at a landfill site just outside of Rio.

The film portrays their lives and working conditions as well as Muniz’s efforts to help them to gain recognition and better living conditions.

Nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, the soundtrack features many tracks from Moby’s latest album ‘Wait For Me’, and he has announced that he will add this album to his free film music site,, making the full track listing available for all independent film makers to use for free.

You can watch many of the films at the Mobygratis Vimeo channel by clicking here.

Walker has also given the following interviews to PBS and MCN about the film:

Waste Land is out in selected UK cinemas from Friday 26th February

> Vik Muniz at Artsy
> More on Lucy Walker and Vik Muniz at Wikipedia

Documentaries Interesting

The Power of Decision

A recently released film from the late 1950s demonstrates the possible outcome of a Cold War nuclear strike.

The U.S. Air Force produced it during 1956-1957 at the request of S.A.C. (Strategic Air Command) and it was presuambly intended as a training film to prepare troops for a Doomsday scenario.

Unseen for years, it was only recently made public by the National Security Archive and is from a DVD supplied by the U.S. National Archives’ motion picture unit.

A grim but fascinating document of the Cold War, it feels like the kind of film Stanley Kubrick would have wanted to see in his research for Dr Strangelove (1964).

It says a lot about the era when the death of 60,000,000 citizens is described as a ‘success’.

You can view the complete film here.

> More about the Cold War at Wikipedia
> Download or watch the film at the Internet Archive
> The National Security Archive
> Read the Air Force Descriptive Index Card

Documentaries Interviews Podcast

Interview: Charles Ferguson on Inside Job

This week sees the UK release of Inside Job, a documentary which examines the global financial crisis.

Directed by Charles Ferguson it explores the deeply troubling relationship between financial and political elites which triggered the current recession.

Opening with a startling prologue about how Iceland’s economy was ruined, it sets up in microcosm the wider story of how, over a period of 30 years, successive governments have allowed large financial institutions to inflate an economic system until it eventually burst in the autumn of 2008.

One of the most important documentaries in years, it was the most critically acclaimed film at the Cannes film festival last May and has been nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.

I spoke with director Charles Ferguson and producer Audrey Marrs at the London Film Festvial last October and we discussed how they made the film and the issues it raises.

You can listen to the interview by clicking here:

Or here:


You can also download our interview podcast via iTunes by clicking here.

Inside Job opens in selected UK cinemas from Friday 18th February

> Download this interview as an MP3 file
> Full Inside Job review from the LFF
> Official site
> Detailed press notes for the film (essential reading)
> Reviews of the film at Cannes from MUBi and Metacritic
> Get local cinema listings for the film via Google or FindAnyFilm

Awards Season Documentaries Interesting

Exit Through the Pet Shop

A new video has surfaced, appearing to be some kind of viral spoof of the Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.

After the raves at Sundancewidespread critical acclaim and a truly maverick indie release, the debut film of renegade street artist Banksy recently got nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar.

The big question was whether or not the reclusive man himself would turn up at the ceremony on February 27th, so when a mysterious Oscar-themed mural appeared in Los Angeles, it seemed his own renegade Oscar campaign had begin.

Now, there is this bizarre spoof trailer titled ‘Exit Through The Pet Shop‘ which plays on the internet meme of a keyboard-playing cat:

There is also a livestream of a gallery which appears to be littered with Keyboard cat art in the style of Mr Brainwash:

Watch live streaming video from petshop at

For those unfamiliar with the film (and if you haven’t seen it, you really should), it features a filmmaker named Thierry Guetta who documents Banksy and then later becomes an artist himself, using the moniker of Mr. Brainwash.

This new cat-themed site purports to be that of a performance artist and ‘professional nose dancer’ Charlie Schmidt, the originator of the Keyboard Cat meme from a couple of years ago.

But it looks to me like this is the work of Banksy and his cohorts as they mount what is the most unusual campaign in Oscar history.

> The recent Banksy Oscar mural
> The history of the Keyboard Cat meme
Buy Exit Through The Gift Shop on Blu-ray or DVD
> Official site for the film

Awards Season Documentaries News

Will Banksy show up at the Oscars?

After his his film Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for Best Documentary, will the reclusive street artist Banksy turn up at the Oscars?

Whilst Hollywood and Oscar pundits digested the Oscar nominations yesterday, in the documentary category a small bombshell went off when Banksy’s debut film made it on to the final list.

A year after it premièred at Sundance 2010, where Banksy left this commemorative mural in Park City, it has reaped huge acclaim (98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 85 on Metacritic) and extensive speculation as to whether it is all some kind of elaborate hoax.

It purports to be the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman who films street artist in Los Angeles, who comes across the reclusive Banksy and also starts making his own art under the name ‘Mr. Brainwash’.

An intriguingly constructed film-within-a-film, it is also a gleefully anarchic film with plenty of intelligence underneath the frequently hilarious exterior.

At Sundance Banksy opted not to introduce the film but got festival director John Cooper to read a statement at the premiere:

“Ladies and gentlemen, and publicists.Trying to make a movie which truly conveys the raw thrill and expressive power of art is very difficult. So we haven’t bothered.

Instead, this is simply an everyday tale of life, longing, and mindless vandalism. Everything you are about to see is true, especially the bit where we all lie.

Thanks for coming, please don’t give away the ending on Twitter. And please, don’t try copying any of this stuff at home, wait until you get to work.”

The relatively low budget nature of the film, plus its unlikely subject matter, meant that the films backers (Cinetic Media) opted to bypass the traditional indie route of trying to attract a distributor.

IndieWire explained the strategy back in April:

John Sloss – who represented rights to the film at Sundance (and then Berlin) – co-founded a distribution entity called the Producers Distribution Agency with his Cinetic partner Bart Walker.

With a team including Richard Abramowitz, Donna Daniels and Marc Schiller, the company decided that despite offers coming in the wake of “Exit”‘s acclaimed screenings in Sundance and Berlin, it was a highly unlikely project for a traditional distributor.

Sloss explained last week that this was due to the fact that not only is Banksy very controlling, but you can’t talk to him (Sloss himself never expects to meet the elusive man).

With this in mind Sloss raised a ‘sizeable chunk’ of money and created a specific distributor called the Producers Distribution Agency in order to give it a platform release.

To call this unconventional is an understatement (or is it all part of the ingenious marketing?), but the grass roots campaign worked with strong showings in April at cinemas in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The enigma of Banksy helped build buzz and once people saw the film as it rolled out to other cities, it ended up grossing a highly respectable $3.3m in the US and $4.9m worldwide.

As Sloss explained:

“We very little P&A to work with in buying traditional awareness,” he said. “We did not have a ‘money’ New York Times review. So I think this is close to unprecedented to make this kind of film work with very limited resources.”

By November it featured on the Oscar longlist for Best Documentary and its reputation was further enhanced when it cropped up on many end-of-year films lists (including mine).

Some didn’t expect it to make the final nominations, but yesterday it did and Banksy issued this statement:

“This is a big surprise, I don’t agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I’m prepared to make an exception for the ones I’m nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me.”

But will he show up at the Kodak Theatre on February 27th?

I’m expecting that another Banksy mural might be seen outside the morning after.

> Official site for Exit Through The Gift Shop
> IndieWire on the release strategy for the film
> More on Banksy and the debate surrounding the film at Wikipedia
> Buy Exit Through The Gift Shop on Blu-ray or DVD

Documentaries Short Films


A short film by Andrew Wonder provides a fascinating glimpse of hidden areas in New York City.

Undercity follows urban historian Steve Duncan as he ventures underground to subway stations, sewers, tunnels where the homeless live and the Williamsburg Bridge.

Shot on a Canon 5D MKII in a raw, handheld style it is surprisngly tense, mainly down to the fact that much of the filming was illicit.

Not only does it look professional, but it has an exciting climax with some stunning shots of the Manhattan skyline.

> Andrew Wonder on Vimeo
> Steve Duncan
> NPR story
> NY Times article on The Wilderness Below Your Feet

Documentaries News

The Economist Film Project

The Economist have partnered with PBS for a film project in which they are seeking documentary submissions over the next year.

The aim is to eventualy showcase independent documentary films from around the world and eventually screen selected segments on PBS NewsHour through in 2011-2012.

They are looking for films that:

“…offer new ideas, perspectives, and insights that not only help make sense of the world, but also take a stand and provoke debate”.

The Project is open from January 10, 2011 and will continue monthly until January 2012.

Documentary shorts and feature-length films can be be submitted and winning films will get exposure through The Economist’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, and the PBS NewsHour website, YouTube and Hulu channels.

More details can be found at their website.

> The Economist
> PBS Newshour

Awards Season Documentaries

Best Documentary Short list Announced

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the 15 films which will compete for the Documentary Feature category at this year’s Oscars.

The Documentary branch of the academy viewed all the eligible documentaries for the preliminary round of voting and members will now select the five nominees from among the 15 titles below.

The films are listed in alphabetical order by title, along with their director and production company:

The major omissions would appear to be Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Dir. Werner Herzog) and Last Train Home (Dir. Lixin Fan).

The nominations are announced live on Tuesday, 25th January and the Oscars themselves follow on Sunday 27th February at the Kodak Theatre.

> Official site for the Oscars
> Previous winners for Best Documentary at Wikipedia

Documentaries Interesting

Charles Ferguson on CBS

Charles Ferguson recently sat down with Katie Couric of CBS to discuss his documentary Inside Job which explores the global financial crisis and the troubling relationship between financial and political elites.

It was one of the most acclaimed films at Cannes earlier this year and paints a devastating picture of the disaster unleashed by Wall Street greed and their connections with Washington.

The full 36-minute interview is here:

If you are in the US, it opens to its widest point this weekend and is arguably one of the most important films to be released this year.

> Follow the film on Facebook
> A full list of the US cinemas showing Inside Job
> Download the press kit for the film
> My LFF review of Inside Job

Documentaries Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2010: Inside Job

Charles Ferguson’s documentary explores the global financial crisis with devastating clarity and paints a deeply troubling picture of the relationship between financial and political elites.

Within the space of just two hours, using interviews, graphics, impressive editing and a sober narration from Matt Damon, Inside Job takes us through the causes of the current economic meltdown.

Beginning with a startling prologue examining how Iceland’s economy was essentially ruined by big finance, it sets up in microcosm the the wider story of how, over a period of 30 years, successive governments have allowed large financial institutions to inflate an economic system until it eventually burst in the autumn of 2008.

Interviewing a variety of experts and policy makers including Nouriel RoubiniGeorge Soros, Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank and Christine Lagarde it takes us step-by-step through the deregulation of the financial industry under successive presidents from Regan onwards.

We are presented with a non-partisan examination of how Republicans and Democrats were seduced by financial sector: the Reagan-era deregulation of Wall Street, which led to the Savings and loan crisis; the Clinton administration’s numerous mistakes in repealing key laws designed to minimize risk in the financial sector; the lack of regulation under Bushthe rise in derivatives (increasingly complex and dangerous financial ‘innovations’); and finally the Obama administration, which made the mistake of employing Clinton-era officials who were part of the original problem.

Although a lot of the information presented here has been explored in other books and TV programmes (such as the BBC’s The Love of Money), to see it presented in a single film is both constructive and chilling.

Ferguson himself cross-examines a number of government and private sector officials – though many of the key culprits refused to be interviewed – and his probing questions elicit some revealing requests to stop filming when they appear unexpectedly thrown by certain questions.

One startling aspect of the film is how much academics, supposedly independent from Wall Street banks, are actually paid by them for opinions or even serve on their boards – a clear conflict of interest which several of them appear oblivious to.

Using a sober tone throughout, the narration, interview footage and graphics all collate and explain the financial jargon of CDOs, credit default swaps and the policies which left much of the public scratching their head as they tried to process the full extent of what happened.

But this is more than just an academic primer: featuring widescreen lensing, aerial shots of New York and some appropriate music (the opening credits feature Peter Gabriel’s ‘Big Time’) it is a cinematic experience, which visually reflects the gravity of the subject.

The relentless approach is both appropriate and effective, although it also reveals some ghoulish comedy when exploring the widespread use of cocaine and prostitutes on Wall St and the stuttering angst of interviewees caught out by Ferguson’s well-researched questions.

One of the most damning aspects to arise from Inside Job is the incestuous nature of the relationship between Washington and Wall Street.

The revolving door connecting the political and financial worlds, along with figures such as Henry Paulson, Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, has effectively shielded large banks from any effective regulation.

The result of this has been the largest financial crash in history, which almost brought down the whole banking system in 2008 and resulted in millions of people losing their jobs and homes.

The only thing that prevented a full scale collapse was the bailout of the banks at the taxpayers expense.

But this was essentially socialism for the rich, in which the public paid the price for the irresponsible actions of political and financial elites.

Inside Job might appear to be an incendiary title, but it is wholly appropriate: two years on from the averted meltdown, there appears to be no meaningful financial reform and the governments appear to have little taste for prosecuting those who helped cause the crisis.

Partly this is down to the power and influence of the large banks, whose ex-employees litter government and shape policy, as well as pay for political campaigns.

Could the embattled Obama administration, currently suffering because of the economic collapse, find renewed energy in restoring the financial regulations lost over the last thirty years?

Bringing those responsible for the fraud that triggered trillions of dollars in losses would certainly be a vote winner, even if the Wall Street backlash was severe.

That may or may not happen, but in the mean time this documentary is a worthy call to arms: in examining the root causes of the crisis and emphasising the importance of restoring honesty to the global financial system, it is one of the most important films of the year.

Inside Job screened tonight (Oct 27th) and plays tomorrow (October 28th) at the London Film Festival.

It is currently out in the US in limited release and opens in the UK on February 18th February 2011

> Inside Job at the LFF
> Official site
> Detailed press notes for the film (essential reading)
> Reviews of the film at Cannes from MUBi

Documentaries Interesting Short Films

Henry Murals

This short documentary Henry Murals about artist Ryan Henry Ward painting a mural for an elementary school in Seattle is both inspiring and uplifting.

> Official site
> More videos by Adam Bale at Vimeo

Documentaries Interesting

The Road to the Wall (1962)

The Road to the Wall was 1962 short documentary film about the construction of The Berlin Wall produced by Robert Saudek and narrated by James Cagney.

It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short and like a lot of US government films of the era, has a distinct reds-under-the-bed tone.

Documentaries Interesting

The Wall (1962)

An short film made in 1962 by the United States Information Agency about the erection of the Berlin Wall.

It clearly bears the hallmarks of the era (notice how it has the pace and feel of a horror film), but it is an interesting snapshot of the time.

Directors Documentaries Interesting

Errol Morris talks about The Thin Blue Line

Errol Morris talks about his classic documentary The Thin Blue Line.


102 Minutes That Changed America

Twin Towers

September 11th, 2001 is still a date that looms over our world, eight years on from the attacks on New York and Washington.

The events that day not only saw the death of thousands of innocent people but were also a catalyst for the political and religious turmoil that has engulfed the first decade of this century.

There have been mainstream films about that day (the best being United 93) and some outstanding documentaries such as 9/11:  The Falling Man and HBO’s In Memoriam: New York City 09/11/01.

But earlier this week Channel 4 screened the most compelling documentary about the events of September 11th that I have seen.

Entitled 102 Minutes That Changed America, it was produced by The History Channel and consisted of footage shot on the day in (almost) real time without any framing, voice-over or overt editorialising.

It contained a lot that I hadn’t seen before and the editing of raw video gave it a haunting and visceral impact, which this footage shot from the dorms of NYU gives you a flavour of.

Some of it was graphic and upsetting, but it is a film I would urge people to see and the History Channel’s website has an interactive map with more information and interviews with the people who turned on their cameras that day.

UK viewers can watch it again on 40D whilst US viewers can watch it on the History Channel tonight at 9pm or watch selected clips here.

Documentaries Interviews

Donald Trump on Citizen Kane

This is footage from an Errol Morris project that didn’t work out in which Donald Trump discusses Citizen Kane.

According to Morris the project (entitled The Movie Movie) was based on the idea of taking Donald Trump, Mikhail Gorbachev and others and putting them in the movies they most admire.

As Morris says:

Isn’t it possible that in an alternative universe Donald Trump actually starred in Citizen Kane?