10 Favorite Documentaries
Over the past 30 years I’ve seen hundreds, perhaps even thousands of documentary films – as a student, teacher, editor, consultant, festival juror, foundation panelist, critic, programmer, fellow filmmaker, friend, and quite often, simply as a film lover. I’ve been emotionally touched, physically wrenched, politically outraged, philosophically provoked, psychologically unhinged and once even fainted (watching the forced feeding scene in Titticut Follies by Frederick Wiseman) in the presence of great documentary films. But in order to put together my list of “favorite” films, I’ve had to go back to a time in my life before I knew anything about documentary films. To a time when I was watching films in search of my own voice as a filmmaker.
I studied filmmaking at a unique university program that treated cinema as a fine art, focusing on the history, culture and poetic aspirations of the avant-garde in all fields and disciplines, but especially in the cinema. There were times when we studied paintings and pieces of music as often as we looked at films. I also took art classes in photography, sculpture and video, developing the foundation for body of work that would ultimately lead to the audio, video and para-cinema installations I continue to make to this day.
Back then, almost all of my work and affinities tended towards a very abstract, minimal, often geometric abstraction. Malevich and Mondrian were my heroes. Eventually I gravitated towards a more complicated “collage” aesthetic (embracing artists like Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell), making a series of short “found footage” films that explored montage via dynamic sound/image relationships. My discovery of home movies, (both anonymous and those of my own family), opened up new relationships to archival imagery for me, and set me on the course I now travel: making an on-going series of personal essay films that traverse the complicated road where themes of family, history, memory and identity all intersect. If anyone had told me back in the early 1970’s that I would one day end up making personal films about my family, I would have laughed out loud. Such is the wonderful and unpredictable journey of a creative life.
And yet, I don’t necessarily consider myself a “documentary” filmmaker. I make films that combine experimental aesthetics with documentary strategies; that utilize archival footage and home movies -- personal, historical and anonymous; and that approach personal storytelling through a carefully constructed, yet simultaneously playful montage. One thing has remained constant over the years: I am the primary creative force behind all aspects of my work. I’ve produced, directed, edited, often photographed, and always been responsible for writing my films. I consider them labors of love; the sweat and grease of my fingerprints can be found all over them.
Over the last 20 years, my films have been described as, “personal non-fiction,” “experimental documentaries,” “cine-essays,’’ “autobiographical” -- even “memoir.” To be honest, as someone who is always trying to break and blur boundaries, how I’m labeled doesn’t mean all that much to me. And that’s why I hope the “labels” of my selections won’t matter much to you. Great films are great films. Period. Films like Manhatta, Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Man With A Movie Camera, Enthusiasm and Rain have already been canonized as classics of early avant-garde cinema. At the same time many of them are (or should be) taught in Documentary film classes all over the world. Meshes of the Afternoon, A Movie, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania and Window Water Baby Moving are all regarded as quintessential works of the modern era of experimental cinema.
This group of films contains the seeds of my evolution as a filmmaker. They have remained deeply embedded in my thoughts since the day I first saw them. They are films that helped define my cinematic consciousness; that changed the way I saw the world, the way I understood history; the way I looked at the idea of “family” -- my family, even myself -- in cinematic terms. In short, these are ten films – in ways I both do and do not (and may never truly) understand -- that have inspired me more than any others.
I sometimes like to think of these films and their makers as my direct cinematic ancestors. I think it’s important to for every filmmaker to imagine a “family tree” of films and filmmakers (and of course, other artists, thinkers and tinkerers) whose legacy they feel connected to. My list is composed of filmmakers whose aspirations and passion drove them to push boundaries, questions assumptions, take risks, and feel responsible to help make cinema the most dynamic art form of the 20th century. I consider each of these films a “classic.” They have all withstood the test of time; they can be seen over and over (and over) again and still resonate with new discoveries, insights and surprises. They take my breath away every time I see them. They are films that affirm and confirm my belief in the transformative power of art, and especially the art of cinema.
There are a number of themes running through my list of films -- home movies, ethnography, compilation montage, collage, exquisite photography, avant-garde poetics vs. documentary purpose, cinematic innovation, and for me, the utterly seductive genre of the “city symphony.” All of them hover in the high cinematic altitude somewhere between experiment and document, between personal reality and historical realism, between inside and outside. And with the purposeful exception of one or two, all of them (in one form or another) celebrate the power of editing.
Having said all that, I am willing to admit that this is not a particularly “sexy” list of films. Several of them are from the 1920’s; eight of them are black and white; six of them are silent. Most of them were made before I was born. All but two of the directors have passed away. And it might already have occurred to you that none of these films is even a true “documentary,” (certainly not in the eyes of their makers), though I believe each one of them offers unique insights into some important dimension of the documentary impulse.
My list begins with the oldest of all moving images -- the films of Auguste and Louis Lumière (1896 -1898), the inventors of motion pictures. The source. No cinematic genre can claim exclusive rights to these short, single shot recordings of myriad simple moments in life. They are the first documentary films, the first actualities, the first experimental films, the first home movies, even the first small “dramas” – all in one. They remind us that there was once a time when film audiences jumped out of their seats while watching images of a train arriving at a station, if only because they were so physically, perceptually and culturally shocked by the unprecedented experience of an optical illusion that mirrored reality so completely.
When I first saw Esther Schub’s, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) as an impressionable young film student, I too was shocked – by the presence of a genre of filmmaking that I’d never known existed – the compilation film. Here was a historical documentary film made out of found (existing) puzzle pieces of reality. I had never heard of such a thing. I had been reading the writings and studying the films of Sergei Eisenstein, (whose Strike (1924) very nearly made this list), when I learned that Schub had not only been Eisenstein’s editing mentor, but was considered the most innovative, if not the most important woman filmmaker of her generation.
The footage junkie in me is always stunned by the staggering array of incredible historical imagery (supposedly gathered from thousands of sources, including footage shot by the Czar’s own cameraman – the fanciest home movies ever made!) collaged together to dramatize the story of the collapse of Czarist Russia and the triumph of the Communist revolution. It’s a monumental cinematic jigsaw puzzle. In many ways the footage from Schub’s film is as remarkable for its dramatic view of historical events as the Lumière footage is for its celebration of the daily and the mundane. I admit I’m not in love with all the inter-titles, but I always manage to forgive her.
I don’t think there’s a filmmaker alive who hasn’t thought about making a film about the place they live (or were born). There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t wonder how I’d go about capturing a day in the life of New York City (the high, the low, the good, the bad, the sublime and the stink -- all of it, in it’s multitudinous splendor) on film. I don’t do it because I know that it’s literally, figuratively, financially, metaphorically, and practically impossible. I also wouldn’t ever dare attempt it because the genre of the city symphony is already filled with several transcendent masterpieces. And three of them (well, actually four) are on my list.
Manhatta (1920), a day in the life of New York City from morning to sunset (though shot over several months), seen from the painterly and visually sophisticated eyes of painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand was the very first. Titled after an 1860 poem by Walt Whitman of the same name, some of whose verses it uses as inter-titles, Manhatta is a film about seeing, framing and transforming urban geometry into boldly abstraction; compositions that become visual metaphors for the dynamism and complexity of modernism and big city life.
The next great city symphony is Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927). Ruttmann, who both edited and directed the film, found the heart of Berlin’s pre-war energy and vitality (what he called, “the thousand-fold energies of a great city”) by translating the passage of time from morning to night into a series of rhythmically lyrical passages composed of stunningly beautiful imagery. The film made extensive use of hidden cameras, and I like this film so much, I bought a 16mm print of it. I’ve even borrowed images from it to use in my two most recent films.
But perhaps the most well known and most renown of all the city symphonies is Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, made a few years later in 1929. Man With A Movie Camera is also a day in the life of a city (supposedly Moscow, but it’s actually comprised of footage shot in three Russian cities), interwoven with the rhythms of the life cycle (a lyrical compendium of images from birth to death). Not only that, but there are threads of socialist activism, (his Kino-Eye manifesto advocated a radical politics of revolution and reinvention, celebrating proletarian dedication), and a bold self-reflexivity (it’s also a film about filmmaking!). In short, it’s a film that’s avant-garde both politically and aesthetically and is as close as I’ve ever seen to a film “about everything.”
You cannot talk of Man With A Movie Camera without talking about editing: it is the cinematic textbook for learning the mathematics of montage. The film manages to reveal editing as a process of discovery, a means of creating a flow of thought, a cross between the logic of language and the energy of music. Man with a Movie Camera unfolds as a series of visual equations, inviting the viewer to participate in the process of making connections between images. I’ve probably seen Man With A Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov more than 15 times, and it never ceases to amaze me.
Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin, Symphony of a Great City and Manhatta all showed me how one person alone with a camera could find beauty, meaning and metaphor simply by immersing in the flow of daily life around them, and looking around. They made me see the city as a studio, as a visual laboratory, as an unending source of small astonishments and big surprises. And when it comes to sitting at an editing table, they taught me how the big picture can be conveyed in the small detail.
As these films grow older and age gracefully, the inexorable passage of time only enhances their mystique and beauty. Looking at New York, Moscow, and especially Berlin, (now more than 75 years later, from the other side of history) is an act of faith. We can all anticipate what is yet to come with an unerring prescience: we know what will be gained; we know what has been lost. It’s not unlike watching our own childhood home movies as adults – wistful, wishful, tearful, grateful, resentful – that also inevitably foreshadow the march of time upon our lives and our destinies. Like all visual time capsules, we are what we became -- for better and for worse. By the same measure, we are now making the “documents” (and the home movies) that the future (generations) will use to measure itself (themselves) by one day (from their side of history).
After completing my list, I realized that there was a space missing on my cinematic family tree. The pantheon of great city symphonies is generally regarded as a quartet, the fourth film being, Rain (1932) by Joris Ivens, a film I somehow missed over the years. From everything I’ve read and heard about Rain, it would surely deserve to be on my list, sharing the screen with it’s fellow great city symphonies. And so I got greedy. I asked the programmers at IDFA to grant me an 11th favorite film, and invited Rain to join my list, sight unseen. Thankfully they said yes. It is only a pure but magical coincidence that Rain just happens to be a city symphony shot in Amsterdam, and that there is a beautifully restored print at the Dutch Filmmuseum. This gives me the chance to make a new "old friend" -- and honor our host city in the process. Perhaps the gods of cinema will pour some rain on Amsterdam the day of the screening.
And no, that’s not a misprint. I’ve included two Vertov films. Vertov’s first sound film, Enthusiasm, Donbass Symphony is one of the most amazing exuberant films you’ll ever see. Even Charlie Chaplin called it the best film of the year in 1931. In true Vertovian style, the film combines an abstract constructivist collage sensibility with his agitprop Kino Pravda political agenda. Enthusiasm’s tour de force mastery of sound and image taught me about the power of music, the artistry of sound/image juxtapositions, and the sheer raw beauty of industrial sounds; some music critics have even called this film the precursor to musique concrete. Here suddenly was sound directly woven into a radicalized montage, but treated as equal to the image. A soundtrack as bright as the images are loud. That’s revolutionary, particularly in 1931.
SOUND IN MY WORK
The loosely knit community of what has been called the New American Cinema, that began with Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas (along with many other filmmakers back in the late 1940’s and early 50’s), derived much of it’s spirit and energy from a dedication (maybe insistence is a better word) on treating cinema as an authentic form of contemporary art -- as vital, poignant and culturally relevant as painting, literature, poetry, painting and the other fine arts. Pluralistic in its cast of characters and the aesthetic diversity of films it spawned, they were all united in strong opposition to the formulaic vacuity of the dominant cinema, particularly Hollywood.
Like all movements born in a particular time and place, the avant-garde is a product of its perceived connection to any number of historical antecedents, and especially its capacity to create a living, breathing creative milieu that fosters cross-pollination, cross-fertilization and dialogue with history, the other arts, critical theory and of course, the inklings and ideas of provocative new films and filmmakers as time goes by.
In the particular genealogy of my list: Mekas knew Brakhage. Both Mekas and Brakhage knew Deren. I assume Connor knew Deren; I know he knew Brakhage and knows Mekas. Deren and Brakhage knew the work of Sheeler and Strand. Mekas and Connor know the work of Sheeler and Strand. Deren was born in Russia in 1917, the year of the fall of the Romanov dynasty. They all know (or knew) the work of Schub, Vertov, Ruttmann and Ivens. Schub and Vertov were enemies. And everyone studied Lumière.
Obviously the range of films and filmmakers whose experimental works have influenced me is great, but a few films have been especially resonant. Films like the late Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971/72) both use the camera as a tool of personal revelation. They assert the role of a filmmaker who can document his or her own life, even become subject matter, and still transcend the pitfalls of indulgence. Both of these films combine intimate, personal material – the images in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (like most of Mekas’ diary films) and Window Water Baby Moving are essentially modern day color home movies; distant cousins of the old Lumière actualities from the turn of the century.
Window Water Baby Moving was the very first contemporary experimental film I ever saw. Brakhage, who may very well be the most prolific filmmaker ever (the Filmmaker’s Cooperative lists 777 of his films in their catalogue), filmed his pregnant wife Jane in the bathtub before, during and after the home birth delivery of their first child. Hand-held and heart-felt, this grainy 16mm film is a profound expression of love, of tenderness, and bloody beauty. It is a supremely personal gesture made by filmmaker as father/father as filmmaker. It uses light and water as both a metaphor and energy, and it planted a seed that awakened within me three decades later when I filmed my own child’s birth in Wide Awake. I’m not attributing direct causality, only the sense of wonderment that comes with ineffable connections.
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania is the most recent film on the list. Made by Jonas Mekas about his first visit back to the landscape of his memories called Lithuania. It’s a reflection upon displacement: from childhood, family, friends, culture, history, from memory itself -- and most importantly, his sense of self. Like all of Mekas’ film and video diaries, it’s about using the camera as an extension of the body, mind and soul. The seemingly spontaneous flow of his hand-held diary footage is edited in such a way as to create a spontaneous relationship to the flow of memory – an inseparable cauldron of presences and absences.
The film is composed of three sections, though I’ve always been particularly struck by the formal contradictions of the middle part – “100 Glimpses of Lithuania” – in which the formality of the numerical headings that count down the “glimpses,” barely contain the emotional complexity of his encounter with his past. His use of the “parenthesis” as a storytelling device was also very exciting to me. Like all of Mekas’ work, the deep thread of big history (including characters from the contemporary world of art and culture) is woven inside every frame, every image, every story or anecdote Mekas utters in his inimitable voice.
As the grandchild of immigrants, I too have made a trip to Europe, to Poland, in search of my own family’s buried history, and tried to reconcile with the ghosts that still taunt and entice me, but always elude me. Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania – a mixture of pathos, exhilaration, stoicism and loss, taught me just how complicated and emotionally complex that kind of journey might be. Mekas, who even to this day is never without his camera in hand, has, perhaps more than anyone else, documented his life, the times he’s lived in, the characters and relationships he’s encountered and his passion for the art of cinema.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is the only film on my list that one might call a work of “fiction.” It uses many of the classic strategies of dramatic storytelling, but subverts them with a haunting and disorienting cycle of repetition and variation. Over the years, many films have captivated me, but this film revealed the power of cinema to truly mesmerize. It is a classic example of what has been called the “trance film,” using the language of cinema to evoke dream-like (or is it nightmarish?) dislocation and mood, develop a landscape of symbolic objects, and suggest an open-ended multiplicity of readings -- all to profound effect.
The film was collaboration between Deren and her then husband, Alexander Hammid, shot in their own home over the course of two weeks, without a script. While Deren herself is the protagonist, Hammid also appears briefly in the film. Whether the film is a psychosexual representation of their relationship is open to question; at the very least, I suppose you could call it another idiosyncratic form of home movies. Originally silent, a soundtrack was added in 1953 by Deren’s third husband, Teiji Ito. It’s only 18 minutes long, but of all the films on my list, it just might be the one that shows up in your dreams tonight.
I was two years old when Bruce Connor made A Movie (1958). I was 17 years old when I first saw it. The only way I can describe the experience of seeing it is to compare it to the first time I ate the controversial (you either like it or hate it) Japanese food, Natto – fermented soybeans. I instinctively said to myself, “I know this food. The taste of this food makes sense to me. And I like it. I like it a lot.” It was as if my taste buds were built to taste the flavor of natto. (Ask any Japanese person how unusual that is.) This is the only time this has ever happened to me with any type of food.
But something like it also happened when I saw “A Movie” for the first time;” it was if it touched me at a cellular level. How can you already know something when you’ve never seen or heard it before? To me the more interesting question is why it doesn’t happen more often? (I wish it did!) The experience of seeing this 10 minute collage of found (mostly newsreel footage) activated a deep place in my subconscious. I realized that my response was an awakening of my own innate affinity to the act of collage, of putting things together, of working with archival imagery, and ultimately towards developing an aesthetic grounded in an editorial based cinema. It made me understand the balance between control and playfulness.
The arc from a compilation film like The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty to A Movie is a beautiful but wicked curve. Connor is not interested in compiling history so much as reworking it, playing with it. With finding new meanings and liberating the footage to squeeze new life and meaning out of it. You might say Connor is out to make some trouble; to have some fun. With an infinity of archival images at his disposal, and the principles of montage editing at his whim, A Movie is yet another example of editor as director. But it’s really a pioneering example of cinematic alchemy. Turning lead into gold.
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