Truth in Entertainment; Five Hot Documentaries
by Nick Poppy
If the term “documentary” used to be synonymous with “boring,” let it be so no longer. The films themselves may or may not have changed, but what is striking about this past year is the newly generous perception of, and increasing appetite for, non-fiction film on the part of theater and festival audiences. Like ugly ducklings turned into swans, documentaries are starting to get the attention they deserve. “People are really drawn to the kinds of stories documentaries tell,” Nathaniel Kahn, director of “My Architect,” observes. “I think that a lot of mainstream fiction story telling doesn’t leave you with a whole lot at the end of the evening.” He admits, “I’m awfully happy to have made this film at a time when people want to go see documentaries in theaters.” Herewith is a taste of some of the notable non-fiction films making the festival and theatrical rounds this fall:
In his first feature “My Architect,” Nathaniel Kahn travels around the world, and Philadelphia, to learn more about his father, the late architect Louis Kahn. The elder Kahn designed some of the most important buildings of his time, but was never able to build a single, solid family. He had three children by three different women, and was something of an absentee father. Son Nathaniel studies Louis’ personal and professional legacy, and comes to terms with his father’s shortcomings. Shot over several years, “My Architect” movingly traces the artistic growth of the father, and the emotional growth of the son.
Another entry in the warts-and-all biography category is John Dullaghan’s treatment of the grizzled cult writer Charles Bukowski in “Bukowski: Born Into This.” Dullaghan draws on an extensive archival record, and interviews with Bukowksi’s friends, lovers, and readers (who were often one and the same), to piece together the writer’s turbulent life. Bukowski, who worked in the post office and wrote in his off hours (shades American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar), comes across as an oddly lovable, if seriously flawed, old galoot.
Would that the same could be said of Robert S. McNamara, the subject of Errol Morris’ seventh film, “The Fog of War.” Biography becomes a lesson in 20th-century American foreign policy, as octogenarian McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, and one of the authors of the Vietnam War, unapologetically expounds on why he did what did. “The Fog of War” is one of this remarkable director’s most compelling works. And of course, it is not a reach to consider McNamara’s machinations in light of his contemporary counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, who Morris described in a Q&A session at the New York Film Festival as a “McNamara manqué.”
American hubris of a different sort is examined in Paul Devlin’s “Power Trip,” the story of electrical supply and demand in the post-Soviet Republic of Georgia. “Power Trip” follows the travails of an American company as it tries to supply electricity and turn a profit in the chaotic republic. Devlin, a network sports editor by day, builds a story that is dramatic, gripping, and timely. (After all, blackouts and brownouts are all the rage these days.) “Power Trip” illustrates how electricity is the precious and precarious lifeblood of industrial society.
Social and political upheaval is the subject of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a political thriller on par with the best works of Costa-Gravas and Frankenheimer. The Irish team of Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain were very lucky flies on the wall of Venezuela’s presidential palace during the spring of 2002, when a group of business and military leaders temporarily wrested control of the country from president Hugo Chavez. Bartley and O’Briain’s cameras witnessed the coup from the inside, capturing some of the most remarkable verite footage of recent years.
Nathaniel Kahn notes, “I think that a lot of these documentaries go way deeper, and give you something that is lasting.” Documentaries such as these may push appreciation of the medium even further into the mainstream, to share theater space with fiction films. Director Paul Devlin is hopeful: “I think the ideal situation is when you don’t even distinguish between the two, and who cares if it’s fiction or non-fiction. That would be the ideal, and we haven’t reached that yet, but that’s the goal, right? That’s where the road hopefully leads, if things work out well. And hopefully we’re on that road now.”