Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ibtisam Mara'ana

Lady Kul El Arab (2008) by Ibtisam Mara'ana seems like a conventional beauty pageant doc, until the protagonist (a Druze girl who takes the stage name "Angelina") decides to leave the confines of the "Lady of the Arabs" contest to try for the more prestigious Miss Israel. The film follows the fraught complications of family, tradition, and ambition.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega

La Corona (2008) by Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega documents a beauty contest in a women's prison in Bogota, Colombia. A sweet-and-sour duality throughout the short film makes for some complex characterizations and a good sense for life in the prison. Performances, competition, suspense, and tragedy unfold.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Maria Yatskova

Miss Gulag (2007), by Maria Yatskova, documents a beauty contest at a women's prison in Siberia. Although the time period is post-Soviet Union, the prison buildings and pageant judges (above) have a certain totalitarian edge.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Daniel Friedman and Sharon Grimberg

Miss India Georgia
(1997), by Daniel Friedman and Sharon Grimberg, tells the story of four beauty pageant contestants in the Indian-American community in Atlanta. The filmmakers captured many insightful moments and interactions, with a running subtext about tradition and change. I wonder what has happened to the young women and their families, more than ten years later.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Frederick Wiseman

Stanley Marcus in Frederick Wiseman's The Store
model from The Store by Wiseman
customers from The Store by Wiseman

The Store (1983) by Frederick Wiseman (his first color documentary) is an all-access portrait of the Neiman-Marcus department store in downtown Dallas. Retailer Stanley Marcus (top still) sets the ambition to be the best; his customer-is-always-right philosophy is carried out by motivated employees from the boardroom to the backrooms. Marvelous observational sequences, alarming 1980s hairstyles and clothing, and now-almost-quaint old-school conspicuous consumption make the film a delight.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Irena Salina

Oscar Olivera in Flow For Love of Water
Penn Jillette in Flow For Love of Water

Flow: For Love of Water (2008), by Irena Salina, comprehensively covers water wars, water conservation, water bottles, and water theft (also known as "privatization") around the globe. Activists (such as Oscar Olivera, middle still) and the famous (Penn Jillette, bottom still) move the story along.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman

still from Thirst
Oscar Olivera in Thirst
Rajendra Singh in Thirst

Thirst (2004), by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, documents water rights activism in the United States, Bolivia, and India. Effective interviews (community leaders/activists Oscar Olivera and Rajendra Singh, above) and scenes from a variety of meetings and forums give a voice to those opposed to water privatization, with the most dramatic action from the water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia (top still).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Judy Irving

Mingus in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Mark Bittner
Judy Irving

The 16 mm film documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005), by Judy Irving (bottom still), is both a nature doc and an intimate biography of Mark Bittner, who observes and befriends the birds. Parallels between man and bird run throughout the film, with Bittner (middle) sometimes seeming to be describing himself when he's talking about the parrot flock. Spectacular close-ups of birds, multi-layered insights into human and animal behavior, and a kick-ass surprise ending make the film a fun watch.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dziga Vertov

Mikhail Kaufman in Man with a Movie Camera

still from Man with a Movie Camera

Man With A Movie Camera (Человек с Киноаппаратом) by Dziga Vertov is a silent documentary from 1929. The film develops its ideas purely visually, without a conventional story. City scenes, people, and machinery are elements in a tour-de-force of pre-talkies cinematic language and editing. Vertov's brother Mikhail Kaufman plays the part of the cameraman (above); Vertov's wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, was the editor.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tom Davenport

Sister Mildred Barker in The Shakers

Tom Davenport's The Shakers (1974), available at, is a 30 minute marvel. The film sensitively documents a distinctive religious sect at a time when few Shakers remained to carry on their traditions. Folklorist Dan Patterson, who had extensively researched Shaker song, collaborated on the film, which includes fine examples of several Shaker spirituals (Sister Mildred Barker, above).

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Les Blank

Flaco Jimenez in Chulas Fronteras
image from Chulas Fronteras

Les Blank's Chulas Fronteras (1976) is an enduring and timeless document of Tex-Mex border music. The film was made with the guidance of record producer Chris Strachwitz, who also advised Les Blank on A Well Spent Life. Chulas Fronteras's record-pressing sequence with Flaco Jimenez (above) is a terrific example of cutting together a process with music performance.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mimi Pickering

Mike Seeger and Hazel Dickens
Mike Seeger

Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2001), by Mimi Pickering, portrays a pioneering individualist in American music. The film's music and interviews establish the roots of Dickens's career in bluegrass, as well as her strong pro-worker and pro-women musical activism. Mike Seeger (1933 - 2009) is a wonderful presence in the film (see stills, above).

Monday, December 7, 2009

John Cohen

text from The End of an Old Song
Ballad singer Dillard Chandler
Dillard Chandler in The End of an Old Song
still of Dillard Chandler

John Cohen's The End of an Old Song (1972) is clearly a movie made by a musician. The visuals in the film fit perfectly with the unaccompanied ballads heard throughout. Cohen never simplifies the singers, instead investing time to depict Dillard Chander, for example (above) as a three-dimensional person in a modernizing and complex Appalachian community.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bess Lomax Hawes

image from Pizza Pizza Daddy-O

The recent death of folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes brings to mind her documentary films, such as Pizza Pizza Daddy-O (1968). This short 16 mm film is a straightforward documentation of 4th grade girls on a school playground and their repertory of singing games. The film is available to watch at, accompanied by notes and a transcript.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Andreas Koefoed

Andreas Koefoed's 12 Notes Down (2008) is a charming short film about the inevitable: a singer in a boy's choir who has to come to terms with his voice changing. The filmmaker was a past singer in the same choir in Denmark, and his empathy comes through in every frame. A trailer is here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Craig Gilbert

Pat Loud

An American Family
ran weekly on public television in 1973 and made the Loud family into celebrities. I had a chance to see the excellent first two episodes preserved on a blurry VHS copy-of-a-copy and would love to see the rest. But the twelve original episodes of An American Family are officially unavailable, as if they are radioactive and buried in some sort of Fort Knox of closely guarded state secrets. (update: rebroadcasts and web availability)

The producer behind the project, Craig Gilbert, wrote about this granddaddy of all reality shows in two essays. One essay (excerpted here) is in the 2005 edition of Alan Rosenthal's New Challenges for Documentary. The second essay is much harder to find because it's in the now out-of-print 1988 edition of the same book (try your local university library). Both pieces are deeply interesting, with a personal take on the ins and outs of pitching, researching, shooting, and editing a long-form documentary. Gilbert's account of the volatile characters in front of and behind the camera rings true for anyone who has worked on documentary projects. The still image (above) is taken from a "ten years later" TV show which has some clips from the original series.

An alert reader gave me the ISBN number for the first edition of Alan Rosenthal's book, which has BOTH of the Craig Gilbert essays: 0-520-05725-2. Below: the cover of the first edition; the photograph is labeled "Shooting AN AMERICAN FAMILY."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Jim McBride

still from David Holzman's Diary
one man crew setup from David Holzman's Diary
image from David Holzman's Diary
still picture from David Holzman's Diary
David Holzman's Diary
skirt chasing in David Holzman's Diary

David Holzman's Diary (1967), by Jim McBride, is not a documentary -- an actor, L.M. Kit Carson, plays a filmmaker who decides to film his own life and who frequently speaks directly to the camera (top still). The film is a tremendously funny and prescient spoof of filmmaking and "one-man crew" shooting (in the second still, Holzman holds the camera on one shoulder; a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder hangs from his other shoulder). It anticipates the "skirt-chasing" genre (Ross McElwee's Sherman's March is another example) of documentary autobiography -- David Holzman's camera spies on, annoys, chases, and generally objectifies several women.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Robert Kenner

Eric Schlosser in Food Inc
Michael Pollan from Food Inc
animated chickens in Food Inc

Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. (2008) is a completely absorbing and well-made film about our food: slow food, fast food, and horror-show food. Why do Americans eat the things we do, and why is food controlled by certain corporations? Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan provide context; animations provide visual explanations (above). Multiple locations and a variety of voices are edited together to effectively hammer the film's points, so much so that Monsanto, for example, has (rather lame) responses posted on the web.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Aaron Woolf

animation from King Corn documentary
Michael Pollan in King Corn

King Corn (2007) covers the farm-to-plate problems of American food from the standpoint of two young men, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who cultivate a mini-farm in Greene, Iowa. The film shows their year growing a one acre corn crop, interwoven with serious questions about subsidies, chemicals, and by-products of corn. Animated sequences and Michael Pollan (above), among other elements, add to the well-told story.
Creative Commons License
Documentary Starts Here by Nancy Kalow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.