Sheffield Doc/Fest is upon us once more. Running from 10th-15th June, the internationally renown festival will be bringing us more of what the worlds finest documentarians have to offer. To celebrate the first day of the festival VH writer Matthew Hayhow takes us through the films he thinks are the greatest examples of the genre. Do you agree? Let us know.
Gates of Heaven (1978) – Errol Morris
Ostensibly a documentary about pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven is a curious, endlessly fascinating film that’s at once a snapshot of 70s folksy rural America, and a timeless rumination on life, loss, loneliness and love. The initial premise is so outlandish that Werner Herzog claimed that he would eat his shoe if the film ever made it into theatres (a promise he follows up on in a documentary called, funnily enough, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe). The appeal of Gates of Heaven isn’t to learn about the pet cemetery business, but the eccentric human beings that Errol Morris manages to not only find, but tease out from them stories and dialogue that are bizarrely poetic and eloquent.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) – Frank Pavich
In 1975, the rights to Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune were bought by the experimental filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky’s unrealised vision of his movie hums with creativity – the framing of each shot, what actors should play which part, which bands should do the music for which planets. He remembers every detail. Had this film been made, even if it was bad, it would be clear that it would have been an important film, not least for its unmatched ambition. But, being constrained by the compromising nature of the film industry, the film was never to be. But despite being a film about a grand failure, the case it makes is that the work Jodorowsky undertook on his greatest film never made was still worth his while, and made a deep mark on the landscape of cinema. Not bad for a movie that doesn’t exist.
The Act of Killing (2012) – Joshua Oppenheimer
One of the main difference between narrative and documentary films is how much of the film’s success is left up to chance; as Alfred Hitchcock once said, “in feature films the director is God, in documentary films God is the director.” I can’t think of a documentary where the chips land on the table more perfectly than The Act of Killing. The film’s ‘heroes’ are the perpetrators of the Indonesian Massacres in the 1960s, and Oppenheimer’s success in making them recreate and relive their deeds with some careful ego-stroking. But, like all great documentaries, it is about so much more than it purports to be. There are not many better films that really explore the nature of psychopathy and evil, and ends on a note so perfect that it’s still difficult to believe that everything you see actually happened.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Banksy
Speaking of difficulty in believing in whether something is real, Exit Through the Gift Shop is the subject of much speculation about its authenticity, to the point where many people accept it as a hoax. This in some way adds to the mythos of the film, but it’s unfortunate (if the film is true) that it’s dismissed as fraudulent, as the story is so abundant in humour and intrigue, and is simply too crazy to have been made up. The film focuses not on Banksy, but on a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta, who, like the monster of Victor von Frankenstein, is inadvertently created in his master’s image. The film is partly a meditation on what it means to be an artist, and partly a character study of a fascinating, dumbfounding man, very funny, slightly sad, and oddly likeable. Much like the film itself.
Burden of Dreams (1982) – Les Blank
There aren’t many making-of documentaries that can claim to be better than the subject itself, but Burden of Dreams manages it. Werner Herzog, whom we met before, is a god of documentary filmmaking, and it’s criminal that I haven’t included any of his films on this list, but he is the eccentric subject of Burden of Dreams, a film about the making of the film Fitzcarraldo. Both Burden of Dreams and Fitzcarraldo have many similarities, the main one being that they both concern an impossibly ambitious figure determined to transport a steamship over a mountain. Herzog’s insistence to perform the impossible task leads him to become Fitzcarraldo himself. The feat he sets out to accomplish is already difficult enough, but the obstacles of disease, plane crashes and unfriendly natives mean it’s a miracle that the film exists. Equally fascinating is Blank’s unflinching portrait of Herzog, who monologues with beautiful nihilism, the most famous scene of which is perhaps his reflection on the cruelty of the jungle. It’s a movie about a movie, but it’s also a movie about movies, and challenge the lengths to which an artist should go to realise their dreams.