2006 spawned a wealth of excellent documentary films, a high percentage of which dealt with either matters of music or politics--and many even combined the two themes. But high quality and critical praise did not necessarily translate into huge box office numbers. Four of the year's most lauded music-related docs took in a combined total of just under 5 million dollars: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's Oscar short-listed "Shut Up & Sing" ($1.01 M), Lian Lunson's "Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man" (1.04M), David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" ($1.1 M), and Jonathan Demme's "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" ($1.83 M). Those films, incidentally, represent four of only seven documentaries to break the million-dollar mark for domestic box office in 2006.
"In some ways, it was an unusual year for nonfiction films, and I wonder if it is the start of a tipping point of some kind," AJ Schnack, director of "Kurt Cobain About a Son", told indieWIRE in a recent interview. "On the one hand, I think everyone agrees that we saw a large number of really great films with a variety of subject matters and styles, but I think there's a perception amongst distributors and exhibitors that audiences have not responded to them or will not show up. It's the old 'no one knows anything' maxim... So there is this greater sense of risk with nonfiction, which perhaps was felt less strongly in the past two or three years. And where there is risk, there is trepidation, particularly with distributors, even the smaller ones, looking for big scores."
"Kurt Cobain About a Son", which had its world premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, was one of the most innovative docs of 2006, turning the form inside out to create an original and fresh music film. Nominated for a Spirit Award in the Truer Than Fiction category, this is one worth seeking out. Other music docs of note were Paul Rachman's "American Hardcore," which debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, and Casey Suchan and Denis Henry Hennelly's "Rock The Bells," which had its world premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in April.
Another music doc that breaks the mold is Stephen Kijak's "Scott Walker - 30 Century Man," which had its world premiere at the 50th BFI London Film Festival in October, and will be coming Stateside soon, after a visit to the 57th Berlin International Film Festival in February. This remarkable film examines one of the most influential (yet often overlooked) musicians in rock history, exploring Walker's early career as a '60s pop star in Britain to his evolution into one of the most visionary composers in decades. The documentary features rare footage of Walker at work on his latest album, weaving in interviews with dozens of musicians who were influenced by him, including David Bowie, Radiohead, Brian Eno and Johnny Marr.
Kijak, who also directed the cult hit "Cinemania," recently looked back at '06 in a recent conversation with indieWIRE, saying that "the film that made the strongest impression on me would have to be 'Iraq in Fragments.' I love that a truly verite style film has been getting such acclaim... James [Longley's] films created something personal and poetic out of something that in lesser hands would be merely political. I strive to find that sort of loose, hypnotic, lyricism in my work... There just isn't enough of that kind of visual storytelling."
In addition to "Fragments," documentaries about the war in Iraq seemed to make up the bulk of the politically themed films this year, with other notable entries including Laura Poitras' "My Country, My Country," Richard Hankin's "Home Front," Patricia Foulkrod's "The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends," and Deborah Scranton's "The War Tapes."
Documentaries starring politicians themselves were also well-represented this year, including Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob's "Al Franken: God Spoke," which had its world premiere at SXSW in March, and Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's "An Unreasonable Man," which looks at the career of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. And of course there was Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth," the Al Gore global warming doc, which took in an astonishing $23.8 million at the box office, making it the third highest grossing documentary in history.
Several documentaries about elections also surfaced over the course of 2006, including Ian Inaba's "American Blackout," and the IFC Films release "So Goes the Nation," by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern. Focusing largely on Ohio in 2004, the film examines the broken electoral process, following citizens as they simply try to vote, and the challenges, court appeals and lawsuits that sometimes followed. The documentary exposes the inner workings of a political campaign, incorporating interviews from the far left and the far right, ultimately making the case that no matter what your political views, the system needs to be fixed.
Other standout docs from '06 cover a wide range of material, from Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar's "A Lion in the House," an extraordinary film about kids battling cancer, to Lauren Greenfield's debut feature "Thin," about girls struggling with anorexia, to Chris Paine's "Who Killed the Electric Car?," which chronicles the mysterious disappearance of electric vehicles from America's roads, looking at the devastating effect of this move on our economy and culture.
"From a creative standpoint, it felt like a very strong year," says Schnack. "There were a number of excellent films that could have been strictly by-the-numbers endeavors and still been somewhat successful, but the filmmakers did both small and large things to move the form. Films like 'The Trials of Darryl Hunt,' 'Black Gold,' 'Jesus Camp,' 'Deliver Us From Evil' and 'Wordplay' may appear on the surface to be strictly straightforward, but, in reality they have an artistic complexity that I find really exciting. Then there are films like 'Running Stumbled,' 'Manufactured Landscapes' and even 'Ghosts of Cite Soleil' that greatly expanded our contemporary notions of nonfiction by creating visually and aurally stimulating worlds in which our perceptions of reality are constantly challenged."