2013 was a pretty great year for documentaries. I liked a lot of them. Rewind This, First Cousin Once Removed, Cutie and the Boxer, Our Nixon, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, Gideon’s Army, Call Me Kuchu, and Let the Fire Burn were all memorable. Sure, everyone gushed over Stories We Tell, and it was a well-done doc, no doubt. But, for me it felt like a million New Yorker stories I’ve read, something in that comfortable tradition of upper middle-class literary memoir that while good enough on its own terms, didn’t really seem to be adding much to what the documentary form is capable of doing. So, these three docs and one hybrid are the ones that seemed to be working in those directions, pushing at the boundaries, opening up new possibilities.
1. The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer
This film is hard to watch and hard to stop watching at the same time. For me, it’s one of the most important documentaries I’ve ever seen, and one of the hardest to truly recommend watching since the act of watching is so emotionally draining. The premise is a masterstroke: the gangsters responsible for a witch-hunt of leftists in Indonesia (that clearly earns the genocide label) are asked to recreate their killings as they see fit for a big screen production. These mass murderers (who are now regarded as heroes by the Indonesian government) are more than happy to help depict their past deeds, and for over two hours we spend time listening to them as they gloat over their killing, grapple with the horror of it, and argue for how to make filmic images that fit their heroism.
At times the images they decide on are surreal, almost beautifully psychedelic, though just as often dip into the wells of action film star-making tropes. It’s baffling, really traumatizing material, yet the film is devoid of any graphic historical images, opting to view all of this madness only from the point of view of the perpetrators, through their words and crafted images.
The film has done a lot to help change public perception of the genocide within Indonesia, but it also clearly speaks to the falseness of collective memories of violence shaped by any nation. The quote from Voltaire that opens the film speaks to this: “All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets.”
2. Leviathan – Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
Leviathan is a documentary, but it is unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen. Ostensibly it’s about life aboard a fishing boat in the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic, but The Deadliest Catch this is not. The film you’re presented with is not about the job or the lives of the people aboard the boat as much as it is about the sounds and sights and atmosphere of the boat itself, it’s guts and its surfaces, it’s rust and creaking, the water flowing into and out of it, the animals in its belly, the ones walking the deck, and the ones in the air circling above it.
The effect is otherworldly, a complete sensory overload that pulsates with life and death and danger and beauty. Turn the lights off and the sound up.
3. Snow on tha Bluff – Damon Russell
This one dates back to 2011, but I’ve included it on my list since it never had much in the way of distribution until Netflix started streaming it in 2013. Snow on tha Bluff is a totally unique film, fitting uncomfortably between documentary and mocumentary, that deserves to be seen as much for it’s unfiltered access to a part of the U.S. that much of America would like to pretend doesn’t exist, as for its merits as a film, which are many.
The Bluff of the title is a notoriously troubled ghetto in Atlanta, and the main “characters” of the film are real-life gangsters and drug dealers who live there. For all the fucked up shit happening around (and because of) our main characters, they’re surprisingly charismatic, and watching their day-to-day interactions with friends and family offers a glimpse at the struggles and joys that move life along at the farthest reaches of American life. You may not like what you see, but this film earns its place in cinema history for taking you there.
4. Stemple Pass – James Benning
Comprised of four static 30 minute shots (one for each season) of a cabin set in the deep woods of Stemple Pass, this film is an exploration of the writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, or as most people know him, the Unibomber. It’s a story of solitude, survival, the natural world and humanity’s place in that world, as well as a story about one man’s sociopathic acts of violence against the world he both strove to understand yet refused to acclimate to. Once you sit down and open your eyes and ears, you’ll be surprised at the complexities that come from such a simple gesture. For one, I won’t lie, it is a test of endurance. It’s uncomfortable to watch grass grow or snow fall for extended periods, and the voiceover often drops out for ten minutes at a time. But, if you can find the right headspace to take on the task, it’s a rewarding, difficult, and often enthralling journey.