Here is a list of my 20 favourite documentaries of 2017, which is the second post of my three-part round-up of last year (click here for the first bit). The simple criteria is that the films were officially released in the UK during 2017 in cinemas, shown on streaming services or screened on TV.
20. Machines (Jain): Rahul Jain’s artful piece shows – in some depth – the workers and workings of a textile factory in Gujarat, India.
19. Lost In France (McCann): In the late 1990s several bands on Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground label played a festival in a small French town together, and they return for this doc, older and possibly slightly wiser; it’s a charming and nostalgic trip down memory lane with the key figures offering plenty of anecdotes and reminiscences.
18. Heroin(e) (Sheldon): A very good short-ish film about the effects of heroin on Huntington, West Virginia, where use of the drug (and related criminal activity) is widespread.
17. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (Cohen, Shenk): A documentary that describes Al Gore’s apparently tireless efforts with regard to tackling climate change during the past decade, following the success of earlier film An Inconvenient Truth. It looks closely at natural disasters befalling the world, particularly catastrophic flooding, provides a snapshot of Gore’s work relating to the Paris Accord – the film was updated in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull the US’s support earlier this year – and spends time with the former VP as he passionately promotes solar powered energy.
16. I Called Him Morgan (Collin): Engaging release about the brilliant but under-appreciated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot and killed by his wife Helen in a club in 1972 at the young age of 33. It feels standard to begin with, as talking heads lament the loss of a prodigious talent and share stories about live performances and other events. However, as it approaches the subject of Morgan’s death, director Kasper Collin’s film becomes more and more interested in the life of Helen, and it kind of turns into a documentary about her life, which is every bit as fascinating as Lee’s. It’s complemented by wintry images of New York and, unsurprisingly, an excellent soundtrack.
15. The Divide (Round): A fascinating film by Katherine Round that explores the vast (and increasing) gaps between the rich and poor in the United States and the UK, using seven subjects as case studies.
14. Trophy (Schwarz, Clusiau): There is a very even-handed approach to the emotive subject matter (big game trophy hunting): for all the sickening images of rich American holidaymakers standing over the magnificent lions, tigers and other animals they have paid considerable amounts of money to slaughter in the name of sport, there are also compellingly-put arguments that highlight the amount of money that such tourism brings into South Africa (the country that features the most here), and how in turn that money is subsequently spent on certain conservation projects or how it is used to combat the illegal, unchecked poaching of, say, rhinos and elephants. That said, although Trophy shows us how arguments for or against hunting are not quite as black and white as many of us might think they are, ultimately the witless, arrogant utterances of several hunters here – including one religious nutjob – ensured that my pre-existing views on the matter were well and truly cemented by the end.
13. Risk (Poitras): Laura Poitras’ latest documentary is a study of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, the Australian programmer who has been holed up in the Ecuador Embassy in London for the past five years. She ended up re-cutting the work, though, into Risk’s more critical presentation of Assange as a flawed character; a move that was triggered in part by some of his own on-screen comments about women and partly, as Poitras acknowledges via her candid voiceover, in the wake of her own brief affair with activist and Assange supporter Jacob Applebaum, who was publicly accused of abusing women in 2016. Some reviewers have criticised Poitras for entering into an affair with one of the subjects of the film, though the version released in 2017 seems balanced and honest to me, mostly as a result of her own commentary.
12. Five Came Back (Bouzerau): Netflix’s short, illuminating series explores the careers of five important Hollywood filmmakers – Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston – during the Second World War, as they helped with the US war effort. It’s fascinating to explore the stories behind films as diverse as William Wyler’s propaganda drama Mrs Miniver and Ford’s documentary The Battle Of Midway, and there’s lots of insightful commentary from the select band of interviewees (Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Francis Ford Coppola). Meryl Streep narrates. A follow-up focusing on the army careers of the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable would be great.
11. Kedi (Torun): A pleasant and often jauntily-scored ramble through the streets of Istanbul with a number of the city’s cats as the focus (though the film becomes just as much about the ordinary people who look out for the cats and care for them). Occasionally insightful, very restful and a good lesson for the majority of the rest of the world on how cities and residents of cities can be tolerant of and kind towards stray animals.
10. Casting JonBenet (Green): Kitty Green’s Netflix documentary about the 1996 death of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey in her Boulder, Colorado family home is an unusual affair: it seeks the opinion on events from a number of actors, who are all auditioning to play (or who are eventually cast as) JonBenét, or members of her family and other people who were involved in the subsequent unsolved investigation.
9. LoveTrue (Har’el): Director Alma Har’el ruminates on modern love in this superbly edited documentary, which follows the lives of three American families (in Hawaii, Alaska and New York) as they go through some form of relationship upheavel. In Hawaii we follow William, a surfer who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is not the biological father of his son; in New York Har’el explores the reactions of seven siblings after their parents separate in the wake of an extra-marital affair; and, in Alaska, Blake works as a stripper while seemingly in a stable relationship with partner Joel, though financial strains and the nature of her job eventually cause problems for the couple. It’s interesting to see how people cope differently with loss and disappointment, and although on occasion the trio of stories become sad to watch, there are more than a few notes of optimism by the end… and there’s a commendably non-judgemental stance towards the people who welcomed the director and her cameras into their lives.
8. Zero Days (Gibney): A film that sheds light on the process of cyberwarfare and, in doing so, confirms that we’re all absolutely fucked.
7. I Am Not Your Negro (Peck): Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary concerns the life and times of writer, critic and activist James Baldwin, and is based partly on his unfinished manuscript Remember This House. The film gets to grips with Baldwin’s life (at least the mainly public-facing side of it), and his observations on and role within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, occasionally underscoring his words with modern footage of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s a powerful piece that is put together very well by Peck and his editor Alexandra Strauss, who weave in archive news depicting racism towards black people, racist TV and film footage and Baldwin’s 1960s TV interviews, conducted with largely clueless white hosts who are sadly struggling to understand what all the noise is about. A restrained and low key Samuel L Jackson narrates.
6. Tower (Maitland): Keith Maitland’s gripping account of the 1966 shootings at the University of Texas, in which 15 people died (including the shooter, Charles Whitman, who had earlier murdered his wife and his mother). It blends rotoscoped dramatisations of events with numerous eyewitness accounts and newsreel footage that was shot on the day, and the looseness of the animation technique and the vibrant colours used seem apt when applied to a mid-1960s American campus – a politically-explosive place within a conservative state, for sure, but also somewhere right on the cusp of the hippie, psychedelic era. Maitland’s documentary captures the chaos of the morning as well as a film could possibly hope to, and the rotoscoping never once comes across as being a gimmick, which I had feared when I first heard about its use. If anything, when we eventually see the real footage of the survivors as they are today, near the end of the film, the fact that images of their faces have been withheld for so long seems to make their appearances doubly powerful and moving. This is inventive, effective storytelling.
5. Strong Island (Ford): A moving, powerful documentary by Yance Ford about the murder of his brother William Jr – who was shot dead during an argument at a gas station in Long Island in the 1990s – as well as the subsequent investigation, which Ford argues was not as thorough as it should have been and has as a result caused the family much anguish during the interim years. Ford often appears, speaking directly to the camera about how he feels and spelling out exactly why he feels the way he does, his face filling the majority of the screen; it’s a powerful technique that adds to the overall righteousness and anger of the piece, while appearances by other members of the Ford family are equally saddening, and maddening.
4. City Of Ghosts (Heineman): A harrowing film by Matthew Heineman, who has followed up the acclaimed drug trade reportage of Cartel Land with a piece that relies more heavily on footage captured by other people. City Of Ghosts details the dangerous work being carried out by the Syrian citizen journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, who have been reporting on the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their homeland for the past few years. Many of these journalists and their family members have been threatened, arrested or executed by ISIS, and the film mostly follows a half dozen who have made it out of the country (to Turkey, though they all eventually end up in Germany) and tries to understand the stressful circumstances in which they must carry out their normal lives. It’s a fascinating watch that lurches from the relative calm of the journalists’ new lives (which do involve protests with the far right but also marriage, and childbirth) with the sickening footage that captures public executions, warnings and the indoctrination of children in Raqqa.
3. The Work (McLeary, Aldous): This fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary is made up almost entirely of footage shot during a four-day group therapy session within Folsom State Prison. The programme involves incarcerated inmates – including several current and former gang members serving multiple life sentences – and members of the general public, who are apparently admitted after a strict vetting process that involves the input of prisoners (though there is not much information given on the procedural aspects of the whole affair, despite brief use of title cards). What happens is surprising – a very confrontational, testosterone-fuelled series of sessions that include plenty of primal screams and physical contact as the participants work through a variety of issues (though, it must be said, several seem to revolve around long-standing problems with their fathers). It’s utterly compelling to watch, and clearly of considerable benefit to those who take part.
2. Cameraperson (Johnson): A moving memoir of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s career behind the lens to date, reflecting on the places she has been, the people she has met, her relationships with collaborators and the way in which her life has changed as a result of her work.
1. The Vietnam War (Burns, Novick): A thorough, informative TV series by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick, who combine archive footage and interviews with an excellent soundtrack – which balances Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score with obvious but expensively-licensed late 60s/early 70s hits – and some stunning still photography. I appreciated the attempts to depict a balanced view of events, with talking-head screen time divided equally between American and Vietnamese survivors of the war. Frequently moving, with facts presented clearly and simply. (I should note that I watched the 10-hour BBC edit, rather than the 18-hour PBS original.)