It's only May but already some of the most compelling documentary films of the year debuted recently, from a probing look at citizen media in China to the U.S. recession shattering the dreams of one of the country's wealthiest families.
"You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story," said Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist. His statement could easily apply to documentary films, those non-fiction narratives exposing the truth of an issue by focusing on people with a story to share.
And judging by these three documentaries reviewed below, there are many worthwhile stories to share, thanks to the unflinching eye of bold filmmakers. Some of these stories will make you shudder in revulsion, others will make you want to learn more about their subjects. Most importantly, these documentaries are must-see viewing for anyone in love with finding the real story behind the headlines.
Note: All these films screened at Hot Docs 2012, North America’s largest documentary festivalHigh Tech, Low LifeImagine if you couldn't write the news or conduct journalism as freely as you do now. Welcome to the lives of Tiger Temple and Zola, two ambitious Chinese citizens-turned-reporters. They come from very different generations and backgrounds, but they both seek to uncover the hypocrisies perpetrated by the Chinese government.
Zola moves from produce vendor to celebrated blogger, while Tiger endures police visits when he seeks to report on farmers dealing with devastating flooding (and getting no help from government officials). It's heart-breaking to see how little help these intrepid journalists get when appealing for help. The filmmakers also do a wonderful job in showing us the ugliness happening in China daily, whether deep in cities or on the outskirts of rural areas.
Anyone passionate about citizen journalism or media in general would not only learn a lot by watching High Tech, Low Life but also feel that bubble of anger rise in them. And from anger can spring action.
The Queen of Versailles
Call it a riches-to-rags story. David and Jackie Siegel are on top of the business world when we first encounter them in this powerful film. The Siegels run one of the largest timeshare firms in the U.S., and have plans to move in to America's most expensive home, Modeled on the palace of Versailles.
But what follows in Lauren Greenfield's doc is a tragedy salted with dark humour. The recession strikes the uber-wealthy family, and their plans for a 30-bathroom home soon dissipate. Their taste for excess doesn't waver, though, and we also begin to see how this eight-children family deals with a major pivot in how they handle their finances.
Courtesy Hot Docs
Jackie Siegel, the star of the Queen of Versailles film
Already David Siegel is suing the filmmaker for defamation, but the camera simply captured his cavalier attitude towards single women and his indifference to his own children. Siegel might be upset about what was portrayed, but that's the beauty of Queen of Versailles - Greenfield lets us make our own mind about a family shoved down a few pegs on the millionaire ladder.
Indie Game: The Movie
Maybe you're not a gamer. It doesn't matter when you watch Indie Game: The Movie, all about two teams of indie video game developers trying to make an impact in a competitive industry. You can't help but root for the underdog as they try to get their games developed in time for Xbox Live deadlines. Or in the case of Phil Fish and his Fez game, you desperately want him to clear all the legal hurdles needed so he can complete a game taking over his entire life.
Courtesy Hot Docs
A still from the documentary film Indie Game: The Movie
The characters drive this doc. They are so human and endearing you practically can't help but want to email them with a "good luck!" The directors understand all the minutiae of creating video games from scratch and let us see that process without lecturing us too heavily. Most importantly, Indie Game will get you smiling by the final frame, showing a California beach with a man using a metal detector to find buried treasure, much like an indie game maker is hoping to find his own bounty.