the documentaries that ruled 2015

The year’s finest non-fiction films left us with complex questions and unfathomable truths to wrestle with.

by Michael-Oliver Harding
17 December 2015, 9:50am

A harrowing portrait of vigilante groups on opposite ends of the U.S./Mexico border (Cartel Land), an exhaustive survey of the celebrity-baiting Scientology movement (Going Clear) and 80 minutes with a beloved nonagenarian fashion icon showing no signs of stopping (Iris). Looking back on what has been a banner year for nonfiction storytelling, the common denominator appears to be filmmakers' desire to unpack rampant dichotomies of the good/evil, left/right, rich/poor and real/imaginary varieties. To that end, the eminently quotable German filmmaker Werner Herzog once said that documentaries are feature films in disguise, because they "create a deeper form of truth, which is not fact-related."

The year's finest achievements in documentary did just that: explore the personal triumphs and tragedies of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, the Angulo brothers, Laurie Anderson, Adi Rukun and an array of Harlem outcasts, while leaving us with complex questions, uncomfortable theories and truths to wrestle with. While a palpable sense of sadness permeates our selection of documentary faves, they all hint at a remarkable triumph of the human spirit. Whether they be brothers banding together to transcend their physical confinement, musicians whose poignant lyrics live on to inspire those left behind, or a young filmmaker baptizing bleary-eyed urban outcasts with the sacred light of his camera in a powerful plea that #TheirLivesMatter, these documentaries all grapple with the million-dollar questions of human existence. In the words of artist Khalik Allah, 2015 saw the following filmmakers carry out much-needed "camera ministry". Consider us both #grateful and #blessed.

1. Field Niggas
The most powerful film about urban outcasts since Marc Singer first brought to light a self-sustaining community of tunnel dwellers in Dark Days, Field Niggas is the ridiculously good debut of 30-year-old photographer/filmmaker Khalik Allah. After childhood trips to Harlem spent avoiding the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, a grown-up Allah returns to the area with his camera, wanting to look beyond initial assumptions and capture the after-dark comings and goings of the intersection's poorest residents, which he likens to modern-day "field slaves" (something Malcolm X first evoked in a 1963 speech). Runaways, addicts, the homeless and even local police are shot in Allah's hyper-saturated, quasi-spiritual glow, with the self-taught filmmaker slowing down his gorgeous visuals and layering them atop an asynchronous soundtrack of poignant, circumstantial and disturbing conversation fragments. The result is unlike anything you've seen: unsettling, impressionistic, immersive and enlightening. Steering clear of a predictable 'poverty porn' treatment, Allah uses his camera as a Herzogian healing mechanism, sharing much of himself in the process and engaging in a wide range of metaphysical, worshipful and warm-hearted exchanges with those who bask in his light. By the time Allah suspends his film's hypnotic flow to include the Eric Garner police murder video, our collective outrage at the bleak, slave-like conditions he has documented is undeniable. While the conscious filmmaker makes no claim to holding the answers we're yearning for, he blesses a number of #LivesThatMatter with his camera, making for moments of pure cinematic catharsis.

2. The Look of Silence
The companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer's nightmare-inducing history lesson The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is a less flamboyant, even more sobering (if that's possible) snapshot of human cruelty. While the first film introduced us to the remorseless Indonesian death squad leaders responsible for their country's 1960s genocide, the aging perpetrators enthusiastically reenacting their slayings in the style of their favourite gangster flicks, Look turns its attention to the victims. Specifically to Adi Rukun (not his real name), a soft-spoken optometrist and younger brother to Ramli, executed before he was born. Under the guise of giving the killers eye exams, Adi pays them a visit and asks them to explain how they could carry out such senseless violence. It's a courageous project that gives agency to Adi and to an entire country forced into silence - as exemplified by the many anonymous Indonesians who worked on both films. Meanwhile, those not held accountable continue to reminisce about the good ol' days of carnage while threatening Adi that history has a way of repeating itself to those who can't lay it to rest. The glimmer of hope here being that instilling fear is generally a last line of defence…

3. Heart of a Dog
No one could mistake Lolabelle, Laurie Anderson's beloved rat terrier, for your run-of-the-mill pooch. This multifaceted canine played concertos, painted and took up sculptural pursuits at the request of her master, an acclaimed multimedia artist, performer, and musician in her own right. Using the death of her pet dog as a jumping off point to explore subconscious states, Anderson's Heart of a Dog is an engrossingly experimental meditation on grief - at once philosophical, funny and tearjerker-y. Shot mostly on mobile phones and weaving together voiceover bits and memory fragments in a Chris Marker-esque, stream-of-consciousness style, Anderson's essay is lyrical and navel-gazing in the best of ways. Her track record of mourning - her mother, the aforementioned Lolabelle and her Velvet Underground hubby, Lou Reed - opens the floodgates to deeper ruminations on life and loss. The film's beautiful send-off to Reed's Turning Time Around is one of those indelible cinematic moments guaranteed to give you the feels.

4. The Wolfpack
It's one thing for first-time filmmaker Crystal Moselle to bump into a show-stopping pack of lanky, long-haired, suit-clad siblings strolling down First Avenue. It's another to strike up a tight-knit bond with these Ray-Ban-sporting teens, given that the seven Angulos in question (six guys, one girl) have spent their entire lives confined to a four-bedroom Lower East Side apartment. Their overprotective (okay, paranoid) Peruvian father was afraid his kids would be "contaminated" by the Big Apple. Studio scribes couldn't dream up such haunting, stranger-than-fiction family dysfunctions, yet Moselle is progressively allowed into the Angulos' fascinating microcosm. Given their hostage-like predicament, the homeschooled bruhs turn to movies and get really crafty and creative. All film buffs, they painstakingly restage scenes from their all-time favourite Scorseses, Tarantinos and Nolans - cobbling together Dark Knight armour using yoga mats and cardboard scraps, for instance. While there's a troubling cloud of ambiguity weighing the whole thing down (i.e., why did father Oscar suddenly relinquish his iron-like grip?), it's the Angulos who make this Sundance prizewinner an absolute must-see. Articulate, ultra self-aware, charismatic and wise beyond their years, it's as if they'd been rehearsing for their 15 minutes their whole lives.

5 = Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck & Amy

From youthful promise to dizzying stardom to tragic demise, two biographical portraits took wildly inventive, collage-like approaches to charting the lives of their mythical musical pillars. Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck presents a smattering of impressive childhood artwork, cassette tape diaries and home movies of the sensitive alt-grunge icon, whose painful upbringing in Aberdeen, Washington prompted him to become an outstanding outsider scribe, lifelong feminist and advocate for society's misfits.

Asif Kapadia's box-office- smashing Amy eschews tired doc tropes by avoiding all talking heads, relying solely on audio interviews to move the chronology along, while letting the jazz great's raw lyrics float across the screen in diaristic fragments. Whether it was the beehive and eyeliner or the flannel shirts and cardigans, Amy and Kurt were both reluctant fashion rebels who sang from the heart, yearned for connection and struggled with fame and addiction in the heyday of tabloids (Cobain) or the ascent of the blogarazzi (Winehouse). Yet as sensitive and inventive as these docs may be, Morgen and Kapadia's kaleidoscopic portraits nevertheless feed into the longstanding mythology and perverse fascination with the "27 Club". Watching as the familiar narratives of self-destruction and untapped greatness play out makes their posthumous on-screen presence quite distressing, to say the least.


Text Michael-Oliver Harding

the Wolfpack
The Look of Silence
kurt cobain
Heart of a Dog
Field Niggas
michael oliver harding