If there’s a theme for documentary film in 2021, it’s variety—those who prefer old-school docs featuring talking heads and archival footage will find plenty to enjoy, but those who prefer a bit more experimentation and blurring of boundaries will also find much of interest. So what is a documentary, anyway, and how does it differ from a feature film? I don’t know, and I don’t really care—and there’s never been a Good Old Days when such distinctions were clear. Some of the earliest documentaries were scripted and cast, and every film, feature or documentary, is an interpretation, shaped by the choices made by the filmmakers.
All About My Sisters: Director Qiong Wang’s film, running nearly three hours, can feel like an endurance contest at times, but there’s good reason for that length—it allows her to include many unscripted moments with her own family and others as she explores not only the effects of China’s one-child policy but also the real living conditions of people in China today, outside the glittering cities and tourist destinations.
Faya Dayi: Jessica Beshir’s black-and-white documentary refuses to stay within the lines, combining straightforward footage of people harvesting and processing khat with abstract imagery, legends, and poetry. In the process she communicates a sense of this crop’s importance in both the cultural traditions and present-day economy of Ethiopia, where it’s the country’s leading cash crop.
Flee: Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses a mix of animation style plus archival news footage to tell the story of Amin, a refugee who fled Afghanistan with his family survived an arduous, multi-step journey to finally settle in Denmark. The mix of visual styles underscores the slippery nature of both memory and reality, leading to the conclusion that trying to establish the absolute truth of past events may be far less important than simply living well in the present.
My Name is Pauli Murray: Betsy West and Julie Cohen proves that old-school documentary techniques can still produce a fascinating film, if you know how to use them. And use them they do, creating an absorbing portrait of this little-known but absolutely groundbreaking lawyer, priest, activist, and challenger of racial discrimination and gender categories.
Procession: Robert Green’s documentary finds a new approach to a now depressingly familiar subject—children sexually abused by priests—by focusing on the recovery process of six adult male survivors. Making short films expressing their experiences is part of the healing process for these men, and the incorporation of those films within this documentary gives it an immediacy and depth that goes far beyond a simple recounting of facts.
Rebel Dykes: Harri Shanahan and Sian A. William’s documentary is a zine come to life on the screen, telling the stories of women outsiders who had no intention of conforming to the demands of Thatcherite Britain. Among other things, they took part in the Women’s Peace Camp at RAF Greenham Common, protested Section 28, and created the first dildos intended for women—and had a great time doing it all.
The Rescue: Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow up their Oscar-winning Free Solo with another spell-binding tale, using every technique at their disposal to tell the story of the amazing-yet-true rescue of 12 teenage boys from a cave in Thailand, where they had been trapped by the early arrival of the monsoon rains. So smoothly do Vasarhelyi and Chin meld the different elements of their film that you could easily forget that they could not possibly have been present to film the rescues as they took place.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain: Morgan Neville draws on a wealth of archival materials, Bourdain-specific and otherwise, to create a cinematic portrait that captures both the anarchical and driven aspects of his subject’s character, while highlighting an approach to life that embraces risk and accepts screwing up rather than striving for perfection. Bourdain may have first gained fame as a celebrity chef, but his greater contributions include blowing up much of the mythology surrounding prestigious restaurants and modeling an openness to and appreciation of food cultures that will never be featured in the Michelin Guides.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised): If there were an award for best use of archival materials, it would surely go to Questlove’s documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. 1969 was also the summer of Woodstock and the moon landing, but if you have heard of those but not the Harlem Festival, you might spare a moment to consider what that says about our culture. Summer of Soul draws on film shot during the festival, supplemented with more recent interviews, and gives adequate attention both to the music performed on stage, and to the cultural importance of this event.
The Truffle Hunters: Not the feature film starring Nicholas Cage, but a documentary by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw that offers a vicarious trip to a simpler and more relaxed world. In the process, you get to enjoy the company of a mostly elderly group of Italian men who hunt truffles in Italy’s Piedmont region, and observe them resisting the siren song of capitalism to sell their knowledge to restauranteurs who would exploit it, perhaps to the point of extinction.
Honorable Mention: A Cop Movie, All Light, Everywhere, Being Bebe, Being Cousteau, Cane Malice, End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, In the Same Breath, Little Girl, MLK/FBI, The Witches of the Orient. | Sarah Boslaugh