Friday, June 19, 2009

List #3: 9 Great Documentary Films

As we arrive at week three of the 52 Lists in 52 Weeks project, I wanted to share with you my nine favorite documentaries of all time:

9) Road Scholar (1993) In this film, Romanian-born intellectual Andrei Codrescu takes the ultimate American road trip in a classic convertible. He begins in New York City, talking with Allen Ginsburg as they stroll down the street, and then visiting a family of crack addicts who literally live in the hole of a wall of an abandoned building. As he travels across the country he meets increasingly quirky people: a church service on Roller Skates, a street artist in Detroit, a new age healer who uses crystals. Critics say that Codrescu is opportunistic and consdescending. I find him to be genuinely mystified by the diversity of the American landscape.

8) Murderball (2005) At first the idea of watching paraplegics smashing into each other in their wheelchairs seems somehow perverse. This (appropriately MTV-style) documentary shows us the world of wheelchair rugby and it manages to be crude and obnoxious and deeply reflective at the same time. The young men who play wheelchair rugby often injured themselves in daredevil fashion. But their spinal cord injuries do not take away their competitiveness or their testosterone. Not only is this a film about masculinity; it is a film that will change the way you perceive disability.

7) Bowling for Columbine (2002) Michael Moore’s sprawling documentary purports to be an investigation of what led two students in Littleton, Colorado to go on a killing spree at their high school. Actually, this piece is a bait and switch. Bowling for Columbine is about our tendency to point fingers and assign blame so as to explain (away) why horrible tragedies happen. Moore focuses on why these explanations are often silly. (The Columbine killers went bowling the day before the shooting, but nobody has suggested that bowling leads to gun violence.) But more than that, Moore shows how conventional wisdom often obscures our own capacity to truly make sense of the world in which we live. For example, there is a major missile factory near Littleton and Moore interviews a man standing in front of a nuclear ICBM and the man talks about how his town is quiet and peaceful. While the documentary is sprawling at times and the interview with Charlton Heston at the end is painful to watch, I find BFC one of the most memorable documentaries I have ever seen.

6) Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) I caught this documentary at the Rio in Overland Park a few years ago. This film provides an in-depth look the rise and fall of the Enron corporation and all of its unethical and underhanded business practices. This film is a case study in greed and the seductiveness of power. From tales of executives who hire strippers for office parties to the company manipulating the California power grid during a heat wave that resulted in wildfires, this documentary contains many powerful images, images that we would see mimicked leading to the recession we currently face.

5) Young at Heart (2007) Imagine a chorus of senior citizens singing numbers like “I Want to Be Sedated” by The Ramones or “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth. Young at Heart is both the title of this documentary and the name of an odd senior citizen choir from western Massachusetts. The film begins lightly and then continues to deepen. We see the group perform at a local prison. We witness the diminishing health and death of several members of the group. When the choir performs a version of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” it is one of the most touching moments I have ever seen on film. You can see the trailer here.

4) The Power of Nightmares (2004) This documentary was a three part series issued by the BBC. The Power of Nightmares chronicles both the rise of Islamic extremism and the rise of neo-conservatism in the United States. The subject and its treatment is so incendiary that it was blocked from being shown in the United States! I managed to secure a copy of it when it was included as a bonus by Wholphin.

Islamic extremism actually originated in the United States. The seeds for its ideology were sown at a college in Colorado where an exchange student from the Muslim world in the 1950s was shocked by the cultural differences he observed at a college dance(!) From that point forward, the documentary traces the rise of Islamicism and neo-conservatism and how the two followed a similar rise to power.

3) Sicko (2007) Michael Moore’s least politicized documentary is also, in my opinion, his best. When I saw this film in the summer of 2007 I was moved to tears and left the theater in a state of shock. At times, Moore does employ the power of anecdote and some of the habits of shock journalism, but he does so in pursuit of a righteous anger. Sicko, as I wrote about in this sermon, asks profound questions about the existence and possibility of a social contract.

2) Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) I blogged about this movie here. Taxi explores the practices of torture and interrogation conducted by the United States government at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. This Academy Award winning documentary by Alex Gibney is hard to stomach, but essential to watch.

1) Man on Wire (2008) Of my nine favorite documentaries of all time, five are politically charged. However, my favorite documentary of all time is not political. It does pretend to offer sociological or anthropological insights. It does not offer an alternative or transformative vision of a marginalized community. This Academy Award winning documentary is about the oddness and idiosyncrasies of the human condition. This film focuses on a French tightrope artist named Philippe Petit who daringly improvised a tightrope between the tops of New York Twin Towers in 1974. Petit then performed an amazing tightrope act 1,350 feet above the city streets. For those of us living in a post 9/11 world, the presence of the Twin Towers in this film is emotionally stirring. This documentary is the ultimate human interest story. It is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit. UU theologian Rebecca Parker writes that we must choose whether to bless or curse the world. For buildings that are best known for terrorists who chose to curse the world, it is powerful to see them in the context of a man who instead chose the path of blessing. You can watch the trailer here.