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October 9, 2017 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

Best Docos of the Year

The other day I started sketching out a “Best Films of the Year” list. This was as much a precautionary measure for an upcoming Salient issue as a tactical device to dispatch questions along the lines of “what should I watch?” with ease. As it turned out, half of the list were documentaries. This year, at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Doc Edge, and in general, I sought out as many documentaries as I could. In previous years I’ve been able to entertain myself exclusively with dramas, indie films, and blockbusters, but those days are more or less over.

What I can rely on now is people’s need to capture the world and their subjects, and express their ideas. To get an idea, the films here deal with race “then and now,” LGBTQ+ history, meat consumption, documentary ethics, global warming, and magic. Here are are my top seven, listed in alphabetical order:


100 Men — Paul Oremland (NZ)

Paul Oremland set out to capture and present 40 years of gay civil rights, subculture, and history in this highly ambitious, heartwarming, heartbreaking, hilarious film, which has the best premise for a documentary I’ve ever encountered. To structure his film he contacted 100 men, but more specifically his 100 most memorable shags. The film seamlessly shifts between a reflection on Paul’s own life, a speculation on how far gay civil rights have come, and dozens of anecdotes from his subjects.


An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power — Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (USA)

What this new film from Al Gore and his initial release in 2007 both have in common is a wonderful sense of optimism, even in the face of enormous odds. However, after watching the two back to back, it is evident that the world has become a far crazier place. Traversing the globe and informing others as to the effects of global warming has been Gore’s mission for years, and the film pauses to consider how far we’ve come, but also how exhaustingly far we have to go, made all the more challenging by recent developments of more political hurdles.


I Am Not Your Negro — Raoul Peck (USA)

James Baldwin once started a book, documenting the civil rights movement through his experiences with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. He did not get very far before all three were murdered, but the 30 or so pages of notes, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, help form this heartstopping and harshly observant film, directed by Raoul Peck. The research component of the film is immense, with almost the entire runtime coming from historical footage, but the film occasionally places observations Baldwin made about 1950s America over clips from the present day, to haunting effect. He effectively asks white America: what insecurities do you have that led (and still lead) you to create the concept of the “negro”?


Meat — David White (NZ)

I published a review of this many months ago, so I won’t say much more about this film other than it’s an impressive production, right from the philosophy down to its aesthetic. Its four subjects discuss meat consumption from various angles, and throughout the film there is never a moment where it becomes too preachy, one way or the other.


What Lies That Way — Paul Wolffram (NZ)

Ethnographic filmmaker Paul Wolffram returns to the rainforests of Southern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, where he has grown a relationship with the local Lak people over the past 15 years. This time Paul has come with the goal of completing Buai, the initiation into the shaman cult within Lak culture, and a process which blends sorcery, belief, and endurance. Both the people and the process are shot naturally and candidly, the result of incredible trust, and the result is as pure as a documentary can be. The actual period of time in which initiation takes place — four days of fasting — is barely stylistically embellished, leaving speculation open as to what exactly Paul is experiencing, both mentally and spiritually. (available On Demand)


Wilbur: King in the Ring — J. Ollie Lucks and Julia Parnell (NZ)

J. Ollie Lucks set out to make a quirky wrestling biopic about his Dunedin-based university friend Wilbur McDougall, but this quickly evolves into a weight loss journey, which then becomes a dramatic feud between friends. The ethics may be questionable, but overall the film is thoroughly enjoyable as Wilbur becomes increasingly scrutinising of Lucks’ methods with typical New Zealand dry humour. Lucks’ exploitation of Wilbur’s weight problem becomes obvious, which of course becomes problematic. Regardless, the film is fun, and never claims to be accurate, unedited, verité, or anything except a suitably over-the-top portrait of an over-the-top individual.


Quest — Jonathan Olshefski (USA)

This was one of the last films I saw at the NZIFF, when I didn’t think I could be any more emotionally engaged or overwhelmed. Little did I know that I was about to witness a small wonder of a film, which follows a working class African American family in Philadelphia through the Obama years. Intimate and evocative, the filmmakers grant access to the family, and the working class community around them, through all the highs and lows. In the downstairs of the family’s house we see the recording studio where young men are given a sanctuary from their lives, while out on the streets we see the senseless violence that sends shock waves through the communities. It’s raw and powerful, and a fantastic journey of a film.


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