Friday, August 08, 2014

The Greatest Documentaries of All Times (Sight & Sound, September 2014)

Man with a Movie Camera. Poster design: Vladimir Stenberg, Georgi Stenberg (1929)

Engrossing: the Sight & Sound special documentary issue (September 2014) with a poll of the best documentaries of all time. The top ten, as usually, is predictable. The most frequently quoted films are:
    Man with a Movie Camera, Shoah, Sans soleil, Night and Fog, The Thin Blue Line, Chronicle of a Summer, Nanook of the North, The Gleaners and I, Dont Look Back, and Grey Gardens (Critics' Top).
    The Filmmakers' Top: Man with a Movie Camera, Sans soleil, The Thin Blue Line, Night and Fog, Shoah, Salesman, Titicut Follies, Dont Look Back, Man of Aran, and Nanook of the North.

The engrossing part, as always, is in the individual lists. The lists of 50 critics and 50 filmmakers are included in the printed magazine. The rest (totalling 237 critics and 103 filmmakers) will be published online later. There are true discoveries and interesting arguments in the individual lists.

My own top ten:
1. The Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright, GB 1934)
2. L'Inde fantôme / Phantom India 1-7 (Louis Malle, FR 1969)
3. S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge / S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Panh, KH/FR 2004)
4. Vlast Solovetskaya / Solovki Power (Marina Goldovskaya, SU 1988)
5. Elegiya (Aleksandr Sokurov, SU 1986)
6. Vauhtia - Tempo (Heikki Aho & Björn Soldan, FI 1934)
7. Les Statues meurent aussi / Statues Also Die (Alain Resnais & Chris Marker, FR 1953)
8. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, US 1974)
9. Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, US 1970)
10. Hollywood 1-13 (Kevin Brownlow & David Gill, GB 1980)

I agree with the Sight & Sound top ten films, but there are others equally great. Cinema started as non-fiction. The Lumière brothers were the first film artists; films produced by Thomas A. Edison started as straight records. Everybody should see every now and then a programme of a hundred Lumière films (total duration 90 minutes); it is always a revelation and an education in ways of seeing.

Some masters of the non-fiction made but a few films, like Robert Flaherty. Others have made dozens or hundreds. There is a renaissance of non-fiction cinema today, not least in Finland, where there are many interesting and talented documentary film-makers. The most famous is Pirjo Honkasalo who gets mentioned in the S&S lists, and another great veteran is Markku Lehmuskallio, but there are at least 20 others working today that are very good. There is a great Finnish documentary tradition since the very start because the first pioneers, the Atelier Apollo team, had a background of photographic art in a way comparable to the Lumière brothers. In 1924 the Aho & Soldan company was founded, inspired by Bauhaus, László Moholy-Nagy, and soon also by Soviet montage (especially Turksib), in a way comparable to John Grierson's British school of documentary. Both the Flahertyan tradition and the montage tradition flourished in Finland in the 1930s. The last decades have been a golden age of personal expression in Finnish documentary film.

A top ten list could be made just of great documentary essay films by - Chris Marker - Jean-Luc Godard - Marcel Ophuls - Edgardo Cozarinsky - Thom Andersen - Martin Scorsese - Wim Wenders - Peter von Bagh...

Random examples of unforgettable non-fiction films that are unlikely to be mentioned often enough on lists like these: - early cinema could be mined endlessly - early medical films such as Edison's records of epilepsy - and brain surgery documents by Dr. E.-L. Doyen - early scientific films such as La Torpille produced by Éclair (an electric ray lighting a light bulb) - Jean Painlevé - Richard Massingham - The T.A.M.I. Show - Breakaway - Zaproszenie do wnetrza / [Welcome Inside] (Andrzej Wajda, PL 1978) - Arne Sucksdorff, of course - but also Eric M. Nilsson - the Kulturfilm genre (films such as Wunder der Schöpfung) - Tercer mundo, tercer guerra mundial / Third World, Third World War (Julio García Espinosa, CU 1970) - Cien años de lucha: 1868-1968 (Bernabé Hernández, CU 1969) - Painters Painting - Luciano Emmer's art documentaries - Jean Epstein's films on Bretagne - Michelangelo Antonioni - Vittorio De Seta - Mario Ruspoli - Why We Fight 1-7 - Folco Quilici (L'ultimo paradiso) - Franco Piavoli - the paradise on earth genre - the films of Charles Eames and Ray Eames - Eugene Jarecki's devastating The House I Live In (2012): how the war on drugs turned into a war on non-whites, with the result that 25% of the prisoners of the world are in the U.S.

Documentary / non-fiction film is having a very fertile phase in its evolution right now. Especially sport films and nature films have been having their golden age in the last decades on television, and there are now too many of those to be listed. Partly because of music television good non-fiction films on popular music have exploded.

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