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It’s movie awards season again. That breathless time of year that starts with the Golden Globes and climaxes with the Oscars, at which point we are all pretty tired of the hoo-ha and ready to move on. That repeated cackle of “who are you wearing,” the sight of brilliant artists teetering down red carpets, and media stories concocted by publicists all wear thin after a while. We adore movies, and of course we secretly love some of the silliness; it’s part of our culture to cheerfully obsess with trivia while the world implodes.
All of these award shows have an obligatory documentary film prize that often, though not always, goes to a film that has had serious impact: Taxi to the Dark Side, The Thin Blue Line, Harlan County USA, Born Into Brothels, to name just a few. They are magnificent and brave films that have sought to change our way of looking at the world. And then of course there’s the occasional penguin film …
As a dedicated doc-watcher, as well as a documentary screener/curator for an international film festival for the past five years, I’ve found a few documentaries related to art and culture that have really stuck with me over the years.
Here is my roundup, not only of films from the last year but of the past decade. These are films you may have missed in theaters, never saw because they got a one-week showing in NYC and LA and nowhere else, or that were simply too far below the radar.
In absolutely no hierarchical order, here we go:
Art War (2014)
This is one of the most current films on my list, and one that is still making the festival circuit in Europe. Director Marco Wilms and crew document the work of passionate Egyptian street artists, both visual and performance artists, whose work made a difference during the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2010. From graffiti to performance art, we see a class of young, educated activists that rarely make an appearance in Western media. The film will soon be released on DVD and streaming.
East Side Story (1997)
A surprising and affectionate look at one of the oddest film legacies of the Cold War era. Evidently, Soviet filmmakers were deeply enamored of big Hollywood musicals. Think Busby Berkeley on tractors and close replicas of Hollywood blockbusters, except that everyone is singing about the glories of the Socialist State. Perfectly coiffed peasant girls and big burly factory workers dance and sing in perfect unison, extolling the joy of working towards a unified Communist world. Interspersed with interviews with the films’ participants and fans, this movie has far more depth than the subject matter at first suggests. The lavish production values, fully orchestrated musical numbers, and single-minded propaganda content make for a wonderfully strange mash-up.
The Yes Men Fix the World (2009)
A must-see for all political activists and performance artists. The Yes Men are a duo of “culture hackers,” with a network of supporters around the globe who have pranked some of the world’s largest corporations and political organizations. Addressing what they see as hypocrisy and wrongdoing by the corporate world, armed with cheap suits, and a lot of chutzpah the Yes Men have pulled off some of the most daring and audacious political theater imaginable.
The Green Wave (2010)
A documentary film that combines live-action footage caught on cell phones, animation, Twitter messages, and interviews that documents the attempt to bring real social change to Iran during the “Green Revolution,” one of the first revolutions fueled in part by social media. This film will come to be seen as a critical historical document of its era. It’s a documentary that feels like a thriller. The pace is fast and urgent, much like the lives of the young people on the streets of Tehran.
Tomorrow We Disappear (2014)
For over fifty years, the Kathputli Colony in New Delhi, India has been home to 2,800 artist families. Generations of magicians, acrobats, puppeteers, painters, and musicians have lived in this slum, passing on their craft to generation upon generation of artists. In 2009, in what appears to be a classic real estate grab, the New Delhi government sold the land to a group of foreign investors intent upon building Delhi’s tallest skyscraper. Filmmakers Adam Weber and Jimmy Goldblum have documented the last days of this vibrant community in an incredibly beautiful and sensitive film. Though the footage is at times stunningly beautiful, this is not a romanticized vision of life in an Indian slum. The people are brutally poor, and life is hard. But the movie focuses on their artistic ancient traditions. Once communities like this disappear, their craft and customs will be utterly lost. A plea to the world to help preserve the community and its heritage, the film follows the lives of three of the performers, a magician, an acrobat and a puppeteer, and chronicles their lives.
Staff Banda Billi (2010)
A music documentary of the most unusual band imaginable. Comprised of five quadriplegic homeless street musicians from Kinshasa, Congo, a group forms to make music — and a little money to survive — in a country without safety nets or infrastructure for the disabled. This band went from literally nothing to playing giant venues throughout Europe, playing kick-ass hard and fast Afro-pop that refuses pity. Using homemade rock and roll instruments, living on the streets, and enduring incredible hardship, the band gains notoriety and faces some classic band problems. Great music and a great story make this a movie that will stay with you long after it’s over.
This film documents the life of Mark Hogancamp, a self-taught artist living near Kingston, NY. After a near-fatal beating in a bar, a profound brain injury, and the loss of his veteran health benefits for rehabilitation, Hogancamp seeks to rebuild his life by recreating a fantasy World War Two Belgian town called Marwencol on 1/6 of its scale. Populating Marwencol with customized GI Joe and barbie dolls, Hogancamp acts out and photographs the lives of his miniature populace. Yes, this story is as strange and even stranger than it sounds, with a few twists and turns that make for a very dramatic and affecting movie.
Birth of the Living Dead (2013)
Night of the Living Dead was a film that single handedly and permanently changed what had been a hackneyed and formulaic genre: the horror film. Released in 1968, it was also the first horror film whose hero and lead was a black man. Filmed and released during a horrifying time in American history — the onslaught of Vietnam and the violence of American cities consumed by race riots, the assassination of leaders — this film eerily reflects a sense of our nation gone mad. Its connection to the political currents of 1968 remains shocking to this day. Birth of the Living Dead documents the genesis and making of this seminal film, weaving it seamlessly into its late-sixties origins. There’s the added bonus of an extensive interview with a most delightful George Romero (the director of the 1968 film) as well as hilarious details of how this film was made on a shoestring in suburban Pittsburgh, with many from the local community volunteering to portray the first flesh-eating zombies of the modern era.
How to Draw a Bunny (2002)
A heartbreakingly beautiful documentary about Ray Johnson, one of the most original and mysterious artists of the 20th century. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1995, created a unique visual universe, reaching out to and teasing the art world through “mail art” and the “New York Correspondence School,” both Johnson’s inventions. Blurring the lines between life and performance, reality and invention, Ray Johnson left the world, his friends, and admirers with more questions than he ever cared to answer. The film attempts gently to unravel a little of this mystery, but seeks mostly to present and celebrate an artist whose work influenced generations to follow. Killer drum score by Max Roach.
The Red Chapel (2009)
Without a doubt one of the strangest documentary films I have ever seen. By turns hilarious and wrenching, this is the story of a fake Danish guerilla theater group called Red Chapel — two Korean-born, Danish adoptees and their director who somehow get the idea that they will go to North Korea to perform for the Great Leader. Their “comedy” act is subversive and political, and their goal is to have the youth chorus of North Korea perform the Oasis song “Wonderwall” in English for the Great Leader. One of the actors has spastic paralysis; had he been born in North Korea he would have been locked away for life in a “home,” or killed. The troupe is fêted and toured around North Korea, as the Danish director Mads Brugger attempts to document their ultimately subversive mission. The young disabled man, who is smart and very funny, is treated as both a returning hero and a freak. To reveal any more would be to spoil your experience of this wonderfully odd and brilliant movie.