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by Paula Bernstein
December 13, 2013 9:31 AM
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For the Year's Best Documentaries, It All Began With the Casting

A feminist punk singer who becomes mysteriously ill, a humble secretary to the world's most famous rock band, a father who learns that his daughter is not his biological child and a long-married couple of Japanese-American artists were among some of the most memorable characters in film this year – and they were all playing themselves. 

These personalities appear in "The Punk Singer," "Good Ol' Freda," "Stories We Tell" and "Cutie and the Boxer," part of a new wave of character-driven documentaries that rely on dynamic real-life "stars." Some are still in theaters, but they are also available to rent or download online (we've included links to the films where applicable).

To acknowledge the role of the subject in documentary films, for the first time this year Cinema Eye, the organization behind the annual nonfiction awards ceremony Cinema Eye Honors, compiled a list of "The Unforgettables," a new category that pays tribute to the notable faces of documentary film.

The idea for the list itself was inspired by documentary filmmaker and critic Robert Greene, who called on Cinema Eye to create an award for Best Performances in Non-Fiction Film.

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"Many of the best documentaries play with the idea of performance and with representations of reality, and helping viewers understand why this is a crucial aspect to documentary cinema can only help elevate the form," Greene wrote. 

Sarah Polley on the set of "Stories We Tell."

Among the faces they honored were Freda Kelly, the Beatles secretary ("Good Ol' Freda"), Michael Polley ("Stories We Tell") and Ushio and Noriko Shinohara ("Cutie and the Boxer"). In all, the organization honored 17 people (and one bull orca -- Tilikum, in "Blackfish") who appeared in 15 documentaries. 

"The ways in which we use real people – beyond interviews – and the amount to which they cooperate in that process certainly changes what nonfiction films can be," said Cinema Eye Founding Director AJ Schnack.

Of course, there have always been character-driven documentaries with films like "Grey Gardens," "Grizzly Man," and more recently, "The Queen of Versailles" that brought compelling characters to the forefront. Without the complicity and collaboration of documentary subjects, these films likely wouldn't exist. But the fact that these subjects seemed almost participants in the storytelling process only made their stories more compelling.

"Over the last few years, with films like 'Man on Wire' and "Exit Through the Gift Shop,' there has been more of a focus on performance in highly constructed documentaries," said Schnack. "The way in which performance is used (in these films) is more expected now – especially compared to traditional ideas of what documentaries are."

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  • Chris Knight | December 17, 2013 8:46 AMReply

    I haven't thought about docs this way before. If Netflix had a category "best performance by a remarkable person to witness" I'd definitely check it out even if I weren't interested in the larger issue/topic addressed. Though the use of the word performance is confusing and maybe troubling. Some people will reveal themselves on camera, be themselves, others either won't or can't. But nominating Tilikum is ridiculous - I just watched his doc and he's just too withholding and shy an Orca to carry the film.

  • billies.climer10@yahoo.com | December 13, 2013 10:55 AMReply

    my roomate's mother makes $80 an hour on the computer. She has been without a job for 9 months but last month her pay check was $19253 just working on the computer for a few hours. learn the facts here now http://7.ly/dape

  • john24 | December 13, 2013 10:18 AMReply

    This article comes across as extremely amateur and uninformed. People, subjects have been "acting" in docs for decades. You should delete this article immediately; it's embarrassing and obnoxious to read.

  • Art | December 13, 2013 10:32 AM

    If you go back and read the third paragraph you'll see that this article was prompted by something happening "for the first time," a "new category" that is just for subjects in documentaries. This is not something that has been happening for decades (maybe the subjects have been acting for decades, but the acknowledgment of such has not). And later on in the story the author specifically mentions that the participation of documentary subjects and audience expectations have changed.