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2017's best documentaries found new ways to engage reality in a post-truth world

Five types of nonfiction films challenged old paradigms and drew audiences into fresh ways of engaging reality.

Casting JonBenet, Unrest, and Jane
Casting JonBenet, Unrest, and Jane.
Netflix; Jason Frank Rothenberg; National Geographic
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Before 2016 ended, the Oxford Dictionaries had declared it to be the year of “post-truth.” But that, as it turned out, was just a taste of what was to come in 2017. Just a day after President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was declaring against all evidence that the audience at the event was the largest ever. And as the year wore on, following the news became an exercise in not just separating fact from fiction, but trying to keep a grasp on the concept of “facts,” period.

It’s safe to say that the concept of “nonfiction” got complicated in 2017. The reason for that complication isn’t new at all — postmodern theorists and media scholars for decades have been writing and thinking about the effect that our mediated relationship to the truth has on our perception of what truth even is. We rarely experience “reality” directly; it comes to us filtered through the written word and the TV screen, the Twitter feed and the YouTube stream. And we already knew that “reality” didn’t necessarily mean real, thanks to reality TV. But this year, that awareness spilled out of entertainment and into politics, policy, and social issues in a way that even those formerly comfortable with the squishy nature of “reality” couldn’t ignore.

Humans curate, report, write, and edit, and for most people, knowing which humans to trust became more difficult. Authority figures shifted the meaning of the term “fake news,” turning a phrase once used for stories invented wholesale in order to dupe the audience into a synonym for “whatever story is inconvenient for my position.” Ordinary people found that they’d been in the crosshairs of concerted disinformation campaigns with origins both foreign and domestic. And even those who continued to understand and support what the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan called the “reality-based press” could feel themselves losing a former confidence that what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and read in the morning paper is a close match to what’s actually going on.

So where did nonfiction and documentary films fit into this calculus in 2017?

Standard issue-driven documentaries feel out of place in 2017

The word “documentary” — the “nonfiction” side of cinema — still connotes, for most people, an issue-driven, fact-based movie, one explicitly designed to convince the audience of a thesis or prompt them to take action. One of the year’s big documentaries, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which served as an urgent follow-up to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning 2006 An Inconvenient Truth (and opened the Sundance Film Festival, the night before Trump’s inauguration), exemplified the genre: Its goal was to convince the audience to take climate change seriously.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel
Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.
Paramount Pictures

But I found watching An Inconvenient Sequel incredibly strange in 2017 — especially when news surfaced that some of the story had been bent a bit in order to fit the narrative. As I wrote at the time:

Reading about a film that left me depressed about the role of facts, data, and information in our society, only to discover how it bent the truth, feels both frustrating and somehow depressingly obvious, like I should have expected it all along.

Selective editing is the documentarian’s tool, of course. But if most of the film’s hope is pinned on this example of cooperation — and yet the details I saw didn’t really line up with reality — then what are we meant to believe? Is there any chance that anyone who advocates for a cause in which they passionately believe can make headway? Or are we destined to be mired in an endless gridlock?

However, issue-driven documentaries like An Inconvenient Sequel were the exception rather than the rule in 2017, which boasted a staggering number of outstanding nonfiction releases.

The most interesting documentaries released in 2017 extended some decades-long traditions in nonfiction filmmaking and storytelling: using unique points of view, employing observational filmmaking techniques, and relying on the audience to participate in constructing the meaning. So in recognition of that, I broke the year’s documentaries into five rough categories exploring different storytelling approaches to conveying reality. This isn’t every great documentary from the year — there were so many that it was impossible to see them all — but together, they represent an entire segment of cinema that’s working hard to say true things in a post-truth world.

Observational documentaries took a fly-on-the-wall approach to American institutions

My pick for the year’s best documentary was Ex Libris: New York Public Library, the long-awaited magnum opus on the New York Public Library by the celebrated filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman has been observing American institutions (like prisons, dance companies, welfare offices, and high schools) for the past half-century; for Ex Libris, he turned his camera to the New York Public Library and the many functions it fills in the city of New York.

Over a mammoth runtime — nearly three and a half hours (but I promise every moment is riveting) — we watch Wiseman construct a cogent argument for the vitality of an institution that’s constantly in danger of losing public funding. We just see what his camera captured, which in this case includes community meetings, benefit dinners, after-school programs, readings with authors and scholars (including Richard Dawkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates), and NYPL patrons going about their business in the library’s branches all over the city. The result is almost hypnotic and, perhaps surprisingly, deeply moving.

Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris goes inside the New York Public Library.
Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris goes inside the New York Public Library.
Zipporah Films

Other observational-style nonfiction in 2017 also looked at American institutions. Legendary documentarian Albert Maysles’s final film, In Transit, served up a profile of our long-haul train transportation system by traveling on it, along with people headed to one place or another and willing to talk about their lives. And Peter Nicks’s The Force, filmed for three years in the beleaguered Oakland Police Department, is a damning but illuminating portrait of an institution that can’t seem to fix itself.

But one of the very best films of the year was Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s The Work, which lets the audience sit just outside a circle of men — some incarcerated, some from outside the prison walls — engaging in intense, four-day group therapy at Folsom Prison. The Work spends almost all of its time inside the room where that therapy happens, observing the strong, visceral, and sometimes violent emotions the men feel as they expose the hurt and raw nerves that have shaped how they encounter the world. Watching is not always easy, but by letting us peek in, the film invites us to become part of the experience — as if we, too, are being asked to let go.

These documentaries’ observational style works well for nonfiction storytelling in 2017 for a couple of reasons. First, because the films don’t use familiar documentary techniques such as talking-head interviews, dates, and (in many cases) captions, the audience is drawn into the experience more fully; we’re part of the meaning-making process, asked by the filmmakers to join in the work ourselves. And second, because much of the meaning in observational documentaries has to do with the way footage is cut together, and the juxtaposition between scenes, we are able to bring meaning from our own lives to the film itself. It’s a powerful method of integrating audience, subject, and filmmaker together, and especially well suited to filmmakers who want to explore institutions — which, by nature, require the involvement of participants to remain vital.

Essay-style documentaries argued for ideas by weaving together strands

A second style of filmmaking that marked 2017’s standout documentaries is best described as “essayistic.” Permit me a brief and pedantic detour, because I think it’s interesting: The word “essay” is related to the French word essai, with the denotation of “trial” or “try.” In other words, to write an essay is to try out an idea, to test it and see if it holds. An essay-style film does the same.

The very best essay-style documentary I saw this year was Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, which explores “redlining,” eugenics, and Baltimore’s racial history through the lens of the city’s most notorious rodent, the rat. It is a barnburner of a movie, one that flicks back and forth through different pieces of an argument, which manifest themselves in very different ways. Sometimes we’re just listening to a guy talk. Sometimes we’re watching maps take on different colors. Sometimes we’re literally watching rats. But the larger point, which slowly emerges as Anthony builds his argument by trying out the ideas next to one another, is that the roots of many social problems in Baltimore — and elsewhere in America — come from the way we subtly code racial and class biases in a manner reminiscent of our treatment of vermin.

Rat Film
Rats and racism are the focus of Theo Anthony’s Rat Film.
The Cinema Guild

A more straightforward version of this comes in Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. On its surface, Nobody Speak looks more conventional; it’s a documentary about Hulk Hogan’s case against Gawker, with a narrative built piece by piece by the filmmakers with interviews and news footage, as the participants in its events as well as the journalists who wrote about them recount their memories. But there’s a sort of twist in the middle that casts new light on everything that came before, and that gives Nobody Speak the feel of a thriller — one built on very recent history.

Nobody Speak carefully brings in former employees (including Gawker founder Nick Denton) and lawyers from the case, covering the Gawker trial in so much detail that Peter Thiel, the mogul who was revealed to be bankrolling Hogan's lawsuit, doesn’t even show up until halfway through the film. Once he arrives, the movie shifts from a bizarre courtroom story to an ominous (and very convincing) demonstration of the threat that big money tied to big egos poses to press freedom in America.

I think both of these films function as essays, because they explore bigger ideas than their ostensible subject (whether that subject is literal rats or figurative ones). They try on ideas — frightening, damning ones in both cases — by way of stories and scenarios that both support and complicate their theses. The result for the audience is that we feel not so much instructed as brought along on a journey, invited to be participants in the discovery process laid out by the documentarians. Preaching at people is rarely a convincing documentary approach, but letting them follow in an argument’s footsteps can work well — and both of these films let us do that, in their own way.

Found-footage documentaries reused materials to construct a new narrative

A third category of documentary took a different approach to filmmaking: Instead of shooting new footage in order to create the movie, these films reused materials that had been intended for other purposes in the past. That gives us a glimpse into history, but it also subtly trains us, as viewers, to engage with the complexities of nonfiction.

My favorite of these was The Reagan Show, one of several 2017 films (and by my lights the most effective) to tackle the Trump era. Directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill reused news reports and B-roll shot by the Reagan administration, recutting it to make the case that Reagan’s onscreen experience in Hollywood was perfect training ground for his presidency — which, they posit, was itself structured like a TV series.

The Reagan Show uses Reagan’s work as an actor and one of his common nicknames — “the Great Communicator” — as its jumping-off point, opening with a very prescient-seeming clip of Reagan telling newscaster David Brinkley, at the end of his time in office, that “there have been times in this office when I wonder how you could do the job without having been an actor.” It’s often funny and fascinating, and it leaves the audience to draw the lines between a presidency structured like a scripted TV series and one that leans heavily on reality TV tropes.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in The Reagan Show
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in The Reagan Show.
CNN Films

Another, very different use of found footage shows up in Jane, Brett Morgen’s film about the British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall. Jane is no ordinary biographical documentary: Morgen worked with hundreds of hours of archival footage (shot by Goodall's husband and considered lost until recently) to create a captivating portrait of her life and work, as well as a story of romance, dedication, and unbounded curiosity about the world. Backed by an emotional Philip Glass score, it's a work of art — and Goodall has said in interviews that it’s the first film that captured not just what her work was, but what it felt like to be out there among the chimpanzees. The footage isn’t presented chronologically (that would be impossible, since there wasn’t a camera on Goodall at all in the early days of her work), but the film’s emotional experience is more central to its success than strict temporal accuracy.

And a third, marvelous example is Dawson City: Frozen Time, for which Bill Morrison — who often works with old footage to construct his films — reused hundreds of reels of nitrate film shot in the 1910s and ’20s and unearthed in 1978 in Dawson, a town on the Yukon River in northwestern Canada. Like the footage in Jane, the reels used in Dawson City were presumed lost, but Morrison uses them to reconstruct the history of the town, which is loaded with wild stories of fortunes made and lost, with twists and turns as exciting as those found in any fictional film.

Found-footage films give audiences the experience of peering into a reality that we know, consciously, has been constructed for us by the filmmaker, but that feels entirely unforced. This footage wasn’t shot for us; it was intended for someone else. We’re the voyeurs, the ones peering through the keyhole into a different reality that is still, somehow, our own. And when old footage is made to say new things, it also reminds us of something important about reality itself: Everything we take to be “true” or “obvious” because it’s caught on video today may look remarkably different a few decades from now, observed through other eyes.

It’s impossible to watch films like these and not consider what documentarians of the future will make with the billions of hours of video clips we’ve dumped onto the internet. What story will they tell about us in the future? (The upcoming 2018 documentary Our New President, a feature-length version of a 12-minute film created using Russian YouTube clips and telling a story about President Trump, starts to give us some answer to this question.)

Personal narratives put a highly individual stamp on issues of broader interest

A fourth category of documentary in 2017 most neatly maps onto the memoir, a genre of nonfiction writing that uses a personal experience as a lens onto a broader truth about what it is to be a human. These films delve into stories that are close and sometimes deeply uncomfortable, challenging us to enter into the emotions and experiences of someone else and let them change our own mental landscapes.

One of the most celebrated documentaries in 2017 was Yance Ford’s Strong Island, a searing personal account of Ford’s grief, frustration, and struggle following the murder of his brother — a black man killed by a white man, investigated by a justice system that doesn’t seem interested in solving the case. The film is both emotional and pointed, with Ford attempting, on camera, to determine what really happened and what that means for self, family, and country when justice is so frequently crossed with prejudice. The camera often pulls in close to his face as he speaks directly to us, but we’re not the only ones being addressed; Ford is mining memory and experience, retreading paths that are painful in search of answers that may never come. But that lack of resolution, as uncomfortable as it is for us as the audience, is the point.

Strong Island launches on Netflix on September 15
Yance Ford’s Strong Island explores a family tragedy through a deeply personal lens.

Another film in this vein is Unrest, directed by Jennifer Brea, which both chronicles Brea’s own struggles with extreme chronic fatigue syndrome and unlocks for the audience a lot of information about the experiences of those around the world who are left helpless by the syndrome, which the medical establishment often treats as made up or untreatable. That Brea pulled off the film at all is astonishing, given that she was bedridden for much of the time she spent making it. But her personal perspective makes all the difference: She gains our trust, since we can plainly see the veracity of her experience, and that makes the moment when she widens her perspective to the community of people suffering from chronic fatigue all the more moving — and the failure to address a search for the cure all the more infuriating.

Risk, from Citizenfour director Laura Poitras, also leans on a personal approach — this time for a look at Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks. Poitras had spent years filming Assange, and in the film she makes a conscious choice to reveal her own involvement in the narrative, instead of pretending to be an impartial observer. She does anything but lionize Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, having sought and received asylum there.

Poitras’s uncompromising, commentary-free approach allows Assange to simply talk about his work and his ideas, as well as display the more unsavory aspects of his character. But Risk doesn’t try to take down Assange, either. Though Poitras disagrees with some of WikiLeaks’ actions, the director — whose work often critiques the secrecy of governments and institutions, as well as the surveillance state — also clearly appreciates WikiLeaks’ goals.

Movies like these, which use personal narratives as a window onto a broader issue, can be both fascinating and intensely frustrating. Real life doesn’t fit into neat boxes with tidy conclusions, and for people who appreciate a more Hollywood version of personal narrative — the biopic — the memoiristic style’s tendency toward complicated and open-ended conclusions can feel unsatisfactory. But in telling a true story, a trustworthy narrator is key, and these documentarians have made themselves into those narrators. The result draws us into a relationship between viewer and filmmaker that fosters a deep connection to the story, and to whatever issue is at hand.

Portraits helped us see places and people with a wider lens

A final category of nonfiction film I loved in 2017 was what I’d call a portrait. Filmmakers put frames around groups of people (and cats) that helped us see them in a new light, sometimes by telling their stories and sometimes by simply letting us watch them go about their business. But the goal in each case was to do the cinematic equivalent of painting a picture for the audience.

One of my favorites was Kitty Green’s film Casting JonBenet. It’s not a documentary about the JonBenet Ramsey case; instead, Green put out casting notices for a movie about the Ramseys in the Colorado town close to where the child beauty queen was found murdered in 1996. When the actors showed up, she asked them about their knowledge and opinions of the case, and that audition footage forms the bulk of the film. As the film progresses, it slowly reveals how a sensational news story like this one can both shape and be shaped by the people who, for reasons of proximity, feel like they’re part of the story.

Another terrific portrait documentary is Contemporary Color, from Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, who captured an event organized by David Byrne at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena in which color guard teams performed with a variety of contemporary musical artists (such as St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, and Byrne himself). That sounds like it could have been a bit of pedestrian event filming, but Contemporary Color is something more magical — part performance documentary and part performance itself, a work of art that celebrates other art forms and is one all its own.

The stars of Kedi.

A very different but equally interesting film is Kedi, for which filmmaker Ceyda Torun follows the street cats of Istanbul. It’s adorable, of course — it’s a film full of cats — but it’s also a portrait of the people who put up with the cats, think about the cats, care for the cats, and have remarkably carefully observed philosophical and theological insights about the cats and life in the city. Kedi gradually telescopes out to some big questions (like “How do we live in society without destroying each other?” and “Could you ever prove God exists?”), but since its subject is street cats, it never feels too ponderous.

Faces, Places, one of the year’s most celebrated nonfiction films, was a joint effort between the accomplished French street artist JR and legendary Belgian film director Agnès Varda, whose work was central to the development of the French New Wave movement. The pair (whose difference in age is 55 years) met after years of admiring each other’s work and decided to create a documentary portrait of France — by making a number of actual portraits. The film chronicles a leg of the "Inside Outside Project," a roving art initiative in which JR makes enormous portraits of people he meets and pastes them onto buildings and walls. In the film, Varda joins him, and as they talk to people around the country, they grow in their understanding of themselves and each other.

But the portrait that sticks with me most from 2017 is found in Jonathan Olshefski’s film Quest, a documentary portrait of a North Philadelphia family shot over a decade. Quest is a cinéma vérité documentary portrait of the Rainey family, who operate a recording studio. But life (and movies) doesn’t always go as planned, and when tragedy hits the family, the documentary takes an unexpected turn. It is, by far, one of the most moving documentaries of the year, and vital viewing that somehow captures the past 10 years of the American experience — including life in the city as well as the broader political and social situation in America — better than either the Raineys or Olshefski could have ever imagined.

PJ Rainey, Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey and Christopher “Quest” Rainey, appear in Quest directed by Jonathan Olshefski, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
P.J. Rainey, Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey and Christopher “Quest” Rainey in Jonathan Olshefski’s documentary Quest.
Jonathan Olshefski

Portrait-style documentaries do what great art always does: direct our attention to what matters, to things and people and experiences we might miss otherwise in our myopic daily lives or never have the chance to experience at all. As audience members, we are invited into a larger context than our own, and if we let it, it has the potential to transform us.

And that, in 2017, is what documentaries that stretch beyond standard issue-driven fare have been able to do — to stretch our perspective. And, perhaps more importantly, they endeavor to tell true stories in a world where truth seems up for grabs. Sometimes they even help train us to see truth in a new way, to see how our own experiences and memories cloud our vision of what’s honest, and perhaps help us build more empathy along the way while also not shying away from what is difficult.

In a mediated environment often driven by what sells advertising and what attracts eyeballs, the more modest and often long-gestating world of nonfiction film may prove to be a vital part of keeping our faith in reality alive.

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