A Cluster of Possibilities

The final part of this week's Culture Digest: some favourite documentaries available online

To finish up this week’s focus on documentaries, and to anticipate tomorrow's announcement of the Venice Film Festival award winners, here are a few favourites from the past 80 years or so – a small selection that illustrate some of the wildly different approaches various directors and writers have taken. (See my earlier two posts this week – part one and part two – for more on the subject.)

Len Lye’s GPO Films

The New Zealand film pioneer and kinetic artist, Len Lye, came to London in the 1930s and his camera-less animation techniques attracted the attention of John Grierson and Alberto Cavalcanti of the General Post Office Film Unit. They sponsored Colour Box (1935) and other films on the condition that Lye included a postal advertisement at the end. Screened in cinemas in Britain, the film divided audiences and won awards, though some festivals had to invent a special category for this new style of animation.

More information about Len Lye can be found at the Len Lye Centre, in Plymouth, New Zealand.

Ghislain Cloquet, Alain Resnais & Chris Marker, Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953)

A groundbreaking essay film directed by Ghislain Cloquet, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais about the impact of colonialism on the perception of African Art.

Marcel Ophüls, Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity, 1969)

Marcel Ophüls’s devastating two-part documentary by about the collaboration between the French Vichy government and the Nazis. Urgent, neccesary filmmaking that has great contemporary relevance.

David and Albert Maysles, Grey Gardens1975

David and Albert Maysles hypnotic study of two wealthy socialites who have fallen on hard times is still watched, discussed, imitated and revered.

Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning1990

Jennie Livingston’s influential chronicle of the ball culture of New York City in the 1980s and its LGBT+ communities is a heady, invaluable portrait of race, class, gender, sexuality – and survival – in America.

Agnes Varda, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000)

The great Agnes Varda’s study of gleaners – people who collect leftover crops from farmers’ fields – explores how, according to one of her interviewees, ‘junk is a cluster of possibilities’. It’s an idea that is a timely as it ever was.

Marcus Werner Hed and Nathaniel Mellors, The R&B Feeling: Art. Music. Death., (2014)

Directed by Marcus Werner Hed and Nathaniel Mellors, this portrait of the eccentric British artist Bob Parks explores his wild life in Los Angeles in the 1970s, his unique performances and approach to art-making, his fall from grace, his troubled relationships and the tragedy that transforms him. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure: a film that is as inventive as its brilliant, troubled, subject. 

Jennifer Peedom, Sherpa: Trouble on Everest (2015)

On 18 April 2014, an avalanche on Mount Everest killed 16 Sherpas and mountain workers. In her study of the tragedy and its repercussions, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom interviews sherpas, their families, the climbers and tour managers. With its combination of great sensitivity, incisive journalism and brilliant cinematography, her film is a profound analysis of the ethics of mass tourism and its impact on local cultures.

What will be recognized as the best documentary of 2016? The full line-up of contenders for the prize in Venice is here.

Jennifer Higgie is the editorial director of frieze.

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