Thursday, July 4, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: Documentaries

by Amanda Earl

I am a fan of documentaries, not outright docugandas but specifically those which portray  unusual or obscure people or tell us something about well-known artists we might not have known. I am chiefly fascinated with these phenomena: the force of the imagination and what drives people,  how they live their lives, how they survive great tragedy and carry on, the passion and inspiration of artists to create. Imagination and people are the central preoccupations of my creative work.

Here are some documentaries or documentary series that have stood out for me over the years.

1. Michael Apted's  "Up Series," 1964 to present

In 1964 Apted began this series in which he follows the lives of fourteen British children every seven years. The premise of the series is "Give me a child until he is seven and I'll show you the man." Francis Xavier.  The series deals with this as a hypothesis of Britain's class structure with Apted interviewing the subjects every seven years. The series is now up to 56 and I've been fascinated from the first program, which I saw in the 90s. The subjects undergo major life changes. Neil for example goes from being a very imaginative child to a sullen, taciturn 21-year old who lives in a squat and then later becomes a politician.

2. Agnès Varda's  "Les glaneurs et la glaneuse" (the Gleaners & I), 2000

Varda was one of the few women members of the French Nouvelle Vague Cinema. This documentary deals with the resurgence of gleaning in France, that is picking up the remains of the harvest. Economic difficulties in the 21st C. have led to this resurgence. But while Varda shows the various harvesters of vegetables, grapes etc in action, she also extends the idea to those who salvage old junk and turn it into art. She uses the opportunity to make connections with her own work, with the ways in which she has gleaned subjects for her films.  In some ways, this is very much like the Up Series in that it is about people attempting to surmount horrendous obstacles, but it is also about art, the inspirations for it, the waste of food and objects that occurs every day and the way we choose to interact with our world.

3.  Jessica Yu's "Henry Darger In the Realms of the Unreal," 2004

Darger was a reclusive writer and artist living in Chicago who died in 1973. After his death, it was discovered that his apartment was full of art that he'd created. This 2004 documentary talks about Darger and his art. His work is considered to be part of what is referred to as "Outsider Art" or "Art Brut" for the work of self-taught artists. What is amazing about Darger's work is that it is incredibly imaginative and bountiful. "In the Realms of the Unreal" is a huge opus with over 15,000 pages of water-colour illustrations and writings, mostly about an invented group of young girls called "the Vivian Girls."

4. Agnieszka Piotrowska's "Married to the Eiffel Tower," 2008

This film is about object fetishists or objectum sexuals, women who feel sexual desire and romantic love for objects…from roller coasters to the Berlin Wall to the Eiffel Tower. The topic  is treated by Piotrowska very sensitively through in-depth interviews with the subjects.

Honourable Mentions

"A Lady's Guide To Brothels" is a documentary about the attempts of  Britian's Hamshire Women's Institute to get prostitution legalized.

"Be Here To Love Me" about the amazing but troubled singer songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

"Love Shines" about Canadian musician Ron Sexsmith's journey with his Bob Rock produced album "Long Player, Late Bloomer."

"Lou Reed's Berlin: Live at St.  Ann's Warehouse," a film by Julian Schnabel, is the live performance of the album in Brooklyn, New York, 33 years after its release.

"Woodstock" about the big outdoor music festival in the 70s.

"Dont Look Back," a rokumentary about Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour in the UK.

"Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey" about the strange life of the creator of this ghostly instrument.

"Grey Gardens" about former socialites living in a rundown mansion with their cats. Various adaptations were made, including a musical and an HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

"Hoop Dreams" about inner-city kids and their attempt to rise from poverty through basketball.

"Dream Tower" about Rochdale College, a combo of university and student residence in Toronto in the 60s where rogues, drug enthusiasts, intellectuals and free thinkers hung out.

Simon Sharma's "Power of Art" Series, especially the Mark Rothko episode.

"Rivers and Tides," a portrait of Andy Goldsworthy's amazing nature sculptures.

"Être et avoir" (To Be and To Have) about a one-room rural school in France. 

& if you movies that spoofs documentaries or mockumentaries, I highly recommend

"A Hard Day's Night" which is a fictionalized account of several days in the lives of the Beatles.

Woody Allen's film "Zelig" about a non descript fellow who becomes a bit of a celebrity in the 20s. 

"This is Spinal Tap" follows the rise  and fall of a fake metal band.

"Anvil! The Story of Anvil" about a Canadian heavy metal band's struggle to become famous. Both "This is Spinal Tap" and "Anvil!" are interesting and funny even for those of us who are not metal fans. 

"A Mighty Wind" spoofs folk music and stars some of the old Second City gang; 

If you're interested in documentaries, you might enjoy this list of 50 best documentaries from Time Out. or IMDB's list of weird docs.

In Canada, the CBC's "the Passionate Eye" series and TV Ontario offer excellent documentaries; in the USA, there are several notable documentary film makers, such as Ken Burns and Michael Moore. Both PBS and NPR offer great documentaries. In Britain, I know the BBC produces and shows documentaries as well. France is also a big producer of documentaries.

Getting hold of these documentaries isn't always easy. They are sometimes available for free online or can be ordered as DVDs. In Ottawa we have a great DVD store still impossibly around against all odds called Invisible Cinema. It has a prodigious documentary section. Public Libraries are often good places to find documentaries as well.

A post script: I always prepare my blog posts for Oh Get A Grip in advance and edit them as I go, so it is a lovely bit of serendipity that Daddy X and I both chose documentaries as our subject. Nice to be simpatico with a fellow member of the group and erotica writer. 


  1. Wow. I've got a lot of catching up to do.

    One of my favorite documentaries (though maybe it doesn't strictly belong to that genre) was Latcho Drom, by Tony Gatlif, about the gypsy music - from Rajasthan to eastern Europe and Spain. Magnificent!

  2. Go, Amanda! On the same wave length...again.
    Like Lisabet, my 'to see' list has just grown exponentially. I've seen some of these and have enjoyed them very much. Your taste, once again is impeccable, girl!

    I want to find the one about Rochdale, which is in line with a book I'm reading now, an advance copy of "This Aint No Holiday Inn" By James Lough. It's about NY's iconic Chelsea Hotel near the end of it's century long run as a catalyst for art and home for struggling (mostly doper) artists.

    And, in response to Lisabet, I saw "A Gladjo Dilo" (think that's the spelling) about Roma life. It wasn't a documentary per se, but it was a dynamite film. Such a different way of life.

  3. TVO is so kick-ass for documentaries. We are incredibly lucky to have such an amazing public television station in Ontario. They produce balanced, forward-thinking content and pluck some really great filmmakers out of obscurity.

  4. Lisabet, thanks for the recommendation of Latcho Drum. i have put it on my documentaries list. it looks fascinating. & if it blurs genre boundaries, so much the better :)

    Daddy X, i haven't been able to find Dream Tower since i saw it on the CBC some years ago, but it was produced by our National Film Board, so perhaps they have it for sale. i've added Lough's book to my wish list.

    Giselle, hell yeah, TVO is amazing. i should have mentioned the National Film Board as well. they have a lot of their movies streaming on line for free. i should also have mentioned the excellent film about Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen called Shadowmaker.

  5. i also should have mentioned Varda's amazing film, Sans Toit Ni Loi which is the first film of hers I saw, about a homeless young woman who is found dead in a ditch. her life is traced backwards by those she encountered.

  6. Great list of films, Amanda. Actually, browsing through a catalogue of the National Film Board of Canada would be a good way to find documentaries. Thank you for naming so many titles.

    1. thanks, Jean. NFB is a great idea. & many of its films are free now online.


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