Ten experimental documentaries for your consideration
[(unofficially, the Peter Watkins fellation station.) i offer as a filler post a listicle i made last summer. i do recommend all these films to everyone.]
10. Culloden (1964), by Peter Watkins
Peter Watkins’s first full-length documentary is radical in both subject and style. We see a dramatized reconstruction of the final pitched battle of Scotland’s Jacobite uprising in 1745, with nonprofessional actors. But these historical people are interviewed and followed around by a handheld camera as if the BBC’s primetime news team had gone back in time — children stare directly into the camera with desolate expressions and British marines carouse in dark tents.
The film is critical of both the brutality of the Scottish clan system as well as the rapacious violence perpetrated by British soldiers on civilians. With a bitter, terse narration (“This is grapeshot. This is what it does to people.”), and chaotic battle scenes, the film presents history from the bottom-up, while showing us how making sense of the past is always a performance, whether it’s visual reconstruction or writing. So many films and television shows use a documentary aesthetic of roving handheld cameras for immediacy and realism. Such tropes give today’s media punch, but fifty years ago we see that Peter Watkins got there first.
9. The Ties That Bind (1985), by Su Friedrich
Su Friedrich’s mother lived and worked under the German Third Reich, survived bombings, and eventually escaped to the United States. In this beautiful piece she creates an oral history in which we hear her mother’s voice over a collage of footage, some original and others sampled from archives and home movies. Su’s questions are not heard but seen on film — literally scratched into the emulsion, and these jittering words add to the film’s tactile intimacy. It adds an extra impact when her written narration brings up the fact that the Allies knew about the train routes to the camps, and demands, one word on screen at a time, “WHY — DIDN’T — THEY — DO — ANYTHING.”
The black and white 16mm photography is as gorgeous as it is haunting. Ultimately the film considers how we remember and forget history with more nuance and depth than you’ll find in any mainstream historical documentary, which seem chiefly concerned with commemoration. Friedrich considers many binding ties: between individuals and history, the present and the past, U.S. imperialism and the fascist regimes of the axis. It’s also a dark reflection on where the superpower is heading in the nuclear age.
8. Tongues Untied (1989), by Marlon Riggs
In one sequence in Tongues Untied, a film on black gay experience and one of the best documentaries of the 80s or 90s, director Marlon T. Riggs gives a talking head interview that is suddenly intercut with extreme close-ups of white mouths yelling racial slurs, black mouths yelling homophobic slurs, with an only increasing frequency. We see how the anti-blackness of American society combines with certain oppressions within the black community and forces Riggs and people like him into silence for safety.
This film is about breaking that silence — with rap, poetry, dance, dramatic monologue, and a whole arsenal of creative performance. Tongues Untied is an enthralling album of queer culture, in both making art and making love, while tackling racist and gay-bashing violence and the AIDS crisis. You will wonder that a documentary with so many “artificial” techniques could be so real.
7. Poto and Cabengo (1980), by Jean-Pierre Gorin
A working class family in Columbus, Georgia, has a pair of twin girls who speak to each other in their own language. This is not uncommon for young twins to do, but this case has persisted longer than normal, and the girls, Poto and Cabengo in their language, are not picking up English.
Jean-Pierre Gorin is a well-known collaborator with Godard, but in this film he strikes out solo to create a portrait of these unusual kids. All the techniques of “anti-documentary” are on display to make sure you never forget that you are in fact watching a movie: black screen, overlays of text, and looping sound bytes. The effect is that Gorin’s material is as wonderfully dissolute and chaotic as the children themselves. He can often barely keep them within the camera frame as they run about exploring the world around them. The sisters are studied by doctors and specialists who try to normalize them, and one earnest scholar describes this as a story of free-spirited individual youth crushed by the system; by the “forces that strangle life at the perpetually final moment of its bright, beautiful flowering.”
6. The Fourth Dimension (2004), by Trinh T. Minh-ha
Ethnography has been central to the documentary genre since it was invented. And along with it developed an insidious history of racism and an imbalance of power between filmmakers and their “subjects”. The staged scenes of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North reflect the director’s condescending romantic fantasies more than how the Inuit people really live and work.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, far and way the most radical artist on this list, offers an anthropology documentary without the imperialism. Various Japanese festivals and dances with their deliberate, graceful choreography are reverently captured by Minh-ha’s camera, with a poetic narration and avant-garde music for piano and voice on the soundtrack. You will marvel at how so much cultural diversity is packed into an island country barely the size of California. Choosing poetry over exposition, dream logic over argument, The Fourth Dimension explores the mix of tradition and contemporary life, of city and country, as it exists in Japan; an extremely unusual and unforgettable experience.
5. Edvard Munch (1974), by Peter Watkins
What if a documentary crew could observe the great Norwegian painter Munch at home and out on the town in the straight-laced city of Kristiania (now Oslo) at the turn of the century? Peter Watkins places Munch in a social context that lets us appreciate just how daring and risky his art was, and how he was viewed as a degenerate for most of his career.
The film’s biggest experiment is in mixing up visual and audio tracks, and the result is a masterful depiction of human subjectivity. When we see Munch in a quiet domestic setting we are assaulted with the raucous noise of a bohemian tavern, and when Munch is hanging out with his anarchic friends and colleagues in said tavern, the berating voice of his father pounds our ears. The narrator also reads off newspaper headlines with each passing year: An anarchist bombing, this or that political watershed, doing more to tie in an individual’s life with the political and sociological patterns around him than many other biographies are willing to do, either filmed or written.
Like Culloden, these are nonprofessionals who look into the camera and are often playing characters of the same class background as their own life. They also candidly air their actual opinions on Edvard Munch’s life and work while “in character”. The effect is alienating and enthralling. This self-reflective practice and the blending of reality and performance would be pushed to the limit in Watkins’s next film, a biopic on August Strindberg called The Freethinker, arguably his most forbidding work.
4. The Watermelon Woman (1996), by Cheryl Dunye
While many African-American actors were on screen in 1930’s Hollywood, they were limited to stereotypical roles such as the “mammy” figure, and were rarely credited by their real names, and instead were given odious racist monikers. In this, the first feature film by a black lesbian, director Cheryl Dunye makes it her mission to track down the real identity of “The Watermelon Woman” the on-screen nickname for a black actress who has captured her imagination.
She takes us on a journey across Philadelphia and the fields of race, gender, and cultural studies with a rich humor that deflates the pretensions of academia. The style is loose and playful, yet the documentary techniques are so well handled that audiences were fooled by and large, and Dunye had to insert a title card at the end to clarify that the Watermelon Woman as a character was fiction. But this is no idle exercise — “The Watermelon Woman” is a sophisticated and fun answer to how to go on when the history of your people has been systematically erased.
3. Brutality Factory (2007), by Wang Bing
Wang Bing is mostly known for his 9-hour epic West of Tracks. While this piece is only seventeen minutes long, it is easily the hardest watch on the list. In the derelict spaces of a factory, like so many of the factories that are closing down as China opens itself to the post-industrial globalized economy, we witness a horrifying re-enactment of an interrogation, one of so many during Mao’s regime and the Cultural Revolution. While West of Tracks followed the lives of the people that history has forgotten, this work takes on issues of representing history where Peter Watkins left off. The past no longer exists, but trauma lives on.
2. RR (2007), by James Benning
We watch documentaries to see evidence from the factual world around us. But set a camera down, let it roll continuously, and simply document a thing and it’s labeled as experimental! James Benning’s “investment in minimalism,” as he once called his style, offers a unique experience that challenges our conventional viewing habits and has carved out a tradition of video art that invites us to slow down for a little while.
RR is a series of static shots of trains, which pass by in their entire length before we cut away to another one. Sometimes a little extra commentary is added, such as when we hear Eisenhower’s famous 1961 speech on the military-industrial complex over a mile-long coal train. The compositions and landscapes are lovely and make for pleasant viewing, but this work is far more than shallow formalism (though it would still be great if it were). We see so many trains that the film ends up being about the image of trains and their place in our collective imagination. We are taken to realms of thought that perhaps only slowness and contemplation can provide.
With the rise of “Slow TV” in European stations and on Reddit, perhaps James Benning’s ideas are finally catching on.
1. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) by Peter Watkins
Viewers expecting a colorful costume drama might be let down when they are confronted by this, a six-hour austere black box theater reconstruction. Peter Watkins’s culminating work is actually about a group of ordinary French people who get together and re-enact the beautiful anarcho-communist revolt of 1871 over a few days and then sit down to discuss the experience. This film touches on all of the experimental ideas on this list and in addition takes the anachronism in the two previous Watkins entries to another level: the communards seize media equipment and take the means of television production into their own hands.
So the film explores not only how we reconstruct the past and our relationship to history, but is also an indictment of the mass media, against which Watkins has been in a long, bitter, and Sisyphean struggle. We see the ruling class with their own cable-news like program, and their disparaging commentary on the Commune is crudely xenophobic. The way the “free” press spins issues in racialized ways is one of the film’s themes that is only becoming more and more relevant.