Doc Talk is a bi-weekly column about documentaries and the issues related to non-fiction cinema.
Typically I like to tackle important issues and themes concerning documentaries, such as the ethical concern with filmmakers getting too close to their subjects and the question of whether or not non-fiction works should be excused from the MPAA. But given that tomorrow is Thanksgiving I figure I'll give you something a little more easily digestible this week. And nothing goes down easier than a list.
Thanksgiving is, more than anything, a time for family, and more and more documentaries are presenting us with interesting families as subjects. Why not spend your holiday watching one of them as a reminder of how minor your own family's dysfunctions truly are? Actually not all the families I list are necessarily dysfuntional, but I think all have some sort of heavy drama, otherwise they wouldn't have a film crew following them around.
I've tried to include only titles currently available to rent or see in the theater, even if that theater is in a museum or classroom. But I hope you one day have an opportunity to also visit with the excluded clans of new films 'Kati with an I,' 'The Arbor' and 'Circo,' and other as yet undistributed works. Also, I'm only qualifying families of more than two people documented, so unfortunately no Beales of 'Grey Gardens,' and qualifying only films that center primarily on one family, so unfortunately no Gateses and Agees of 'Hoop Dreams.'
In no real particular order (who can rank families?):
1. The McElwees ('Sherman's March,' 'Time Indefinite' and others)
Seeing as Thanksgiving is a holiday originally based on historical events that has become a celebration of family, 'Sherman's March' might be the most appropriate documentary to watch. It was originally to be about historical events but became a more personal exploration of director Ross McElwee's family and his pursuit of a possible addition to the clan, wife-wise. His subsequent autobiographical films feature his eventual bride, Marilyn Levine (they're dating in 'Something to Do With the Wall' and marry in 'Time Indefinite,' which also deals with deaths in the family), and their son Adrian. 'Bright Leaves' is also a great doc about family roots.
2. The Friedmans ('Capturing the Friedmans')
Another very fitting film, sadly, given that it was on the day before Thanksgiving that Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse were arrested on charges related to acts of pedophilia, tearing the family apart.
3. The Borchardts ('American Movie')
Thanksgiving also figures literally into 'American Movie,' about a guy trying to make a low-budget horror film with bits of support and lots of skepticism from his family, including financier Uncle Bill who gets a special turkey-day bath.
4. The Lumieres ('Baby's Dinner')
Next, let's get one of the very first documented families out of the way. Cinema pioneer Auguste Lumiere (one of the famous brothers; Louis is credited as director) appears in the 1895 short 'Repas de Bebe' with his wife, Marguerite, and their newborn son, Andree, as the parents feed the little guy. As you can see above, it's only 44 seconds long, so consider it an appetizer ahead of any of the rest of the lengthier films.
5. Nanook's "family" ('Nanook of the North')
The wife and children in Robert Flaherty's 1922 classic may not have actually been Nanook's (nor was this the real name of the titular Inuit), but for as much as we're to take 'Nanook of the North' as at least a re-enactment of truth the group remains the historical "first family" of documentary.
6. The Louds ('An American Family,' 'An American Family Revisited' and 'Lance Loud! Death in An American Family')
Unless you have a bootleg VHS copy you're probably not going to be able to spend Thanksgiving with the historical "first family" of reality TV, which back in the '70s was still just considered part of documentary. 'An American Family' is officially unavailable on home video but your local university or museum might have copies of the 12-part series, which broke ground in dealing with divorce and homosexuality. I know NYC's Paley Center has it, but they're closed on the holiday.
7. The Crumbs ('Crumb')
Everyone's favorite eccentric documentary family is that of comic artist R. Crumb, who goes home and visits with his disturbed brothers, Max and Charles, and of course his mama Beatrice. There's also the other side of Crumb's family, as we're treated to interviews with his ex-wife and current wife and see the children of both marriages.
8. The Blocks ('51 Birch Street,' 'The Kids Grow Up')
Taking inspiration from McElwee, Doug Block turns his camera on his family for more than mere home videos. Tackling both sides of the spectrum of family, in 'Birch Street' he focuses on his parents while his latest, 'Kids,' is about his daughter. Well, both films are mostly about Doug.
9. The Geises ('Janie's Janie')
A little seen short from 1971, 'Janie's Janie' is a significant part of feminist cinema as it follows single mother Janie as she struggles to take care of her kids after kicking out their father and talks about how she married at 15 to escape her own abusive dad. Like 'An American Family,' this might be a little hard to find, but it's out there. I saw it a few days ago.
10. The Moshers ('October Country')
One of the directors of 'October Country' is a member of the Mosher family, yet the connection is barely made. It's not a first-person doc and the focus remains primarily on his mother and sisters, who are stuck in a painful cycle of teen pregnancy and abusive relationships in Upstate New York.
11. The Petersons ('The Staircase')
Another series, this one a mini, 'The Staircase' follows the murder trial of Michael Peterson, charged with killing his wife. Throughout the film, Michael has the strong support of his kids, including his adopted wards.
12. The Wards ('Brother's Keeper')
Another family marked by murder is documented in 'Brother's Keeper,' about the four rural-dwelling Ward brothers, one of whom is found dead one morning, another who is charged with the crime.
13. The Bells ('Bigger Stronger Faster')
Another fraternal set figures in Chris Bell's semi-autobiographical expose of his own and his two brothers' steroid use.
14. The Tillmans ('The Tillman Story')
One brother is famously killed in the line of duty. Another almost humorously swears a lot at his funeral. Their mother fights hard to learn the truth about her son Pat's death from friendly fire, covered up in the name of propaganda, in Amir Bar-Lev's new doc.
15. The Olmsteads ('My Kid Could Paint That')
Bar-Lev's prior film was 'My Kid Could Paint That,' about a young art prodigy. Or is her father the one really painting the works being sold for big bucks in her name?
16. The Wesselman-Pierces ('Catfish')
It's still best to say as little as possible about 'Catfish,' but I think I can at least note it has a painting prodigy angle like that of 'My Kid Could Paint That.' Also, in addition to the mysterious Wesselman-Pierce/Pierce clan, the movie also involves the Schulmans, one of whom is co-director and another who is the main subject of the underrated and misunderstood doc.
17. The Wiebes ('The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters')
The main focus of 'The King of Kong' is on Steve Wiebe's attempt to take the crown of high scorer of Donkey Kong, to the dismay of villainous gamer Billy Mitchell. But don't forget Wiebe's wife and kids, who are often neglected in favor of his arcade goal.
18. The Scorseses ('Italianamerican')
Yes, Martin Scorsese once made a first-person documentary about his own family, specifically parents Catherine and Charles, as they talk about being Italian immigrants and discuss Catherine's Italian cooking.
19. The Marxes ('The Unknown Marx Brothers,' 'The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell' and others)
While it's true that many famous families have had documentaries focused on them, I can't think of any family I'd want to spend the holiday with more than Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Gummo and their respective wives and children.
20. The Piersons ('Reel Paradise')
In 'Reel Paradise,' directed by Steve James ('Hoop Dreams'), indie film guru John Pierson and wife Janet (now producer of the SXSW Film Festival) make a pilgrimage to Fiji with their kids as the family becomes operators of the island's only cinema for a single year and drama ensues when daughter Georgia begins to get serious with a native boy.
21. The Toms ('My Flesh and Blood')
In the audience favorite 'My Flesh and Blood,' Jonathan Karsh follows Susan Tom, a woman who has eleven adopted children, most of whom are disabled. We mostly see only five of these kids due to time constraints of a feature-length film.
22. The Wohls ('Best Boy' and 'Best Man')
A handicapped family member is at the center of Ira Wohl's 'Best Boy,' about his retarded cousin Philly and the aunt and uncle who are getting too old to take care of their son. 20 years later they were documented again for the sequel 'Best Man.' See also the unrelated newer film, 'Monica & David,' made by the cousin of a handicapped girl about her marriage to a a fellow sufferer of Downs Syndrome.
23. The Klein-Clouds ('Off and Running')
Forget the overrated fictional family in 'The Kids Are All Right.' For a real and more interesting look at a family headed by lesbian parents, 'Off and Running' is the better alternative. And there's no worry of a plot-device sperm-donor since all the kids are adopted, though the eldest does seek out her real mother. See also the new adoption-centered film 'Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You, Mommy)' once it's released on DVD.
24. The Bagbys ('Dear Zachary')
No family I can recall in the history of documentary has had as heartbreaking a story as the Bagbys, which in Kurt Kuenne's 'Dear Zachary' begins with the murder of Andrew Bagby and continues with the posthumous birth of his son, Zachary. To be honest, this likely isn't the best doc to watch on Thanksgiving unless you enjoy bawling through your holidays.
25. The Zhangs ('Last Train Home')
Of course I have to include my favorite documentary of this year, but 'Last Train Home' is also very fitting since it involves a Chinese family reunited for the annual New Year holiday, the only time migrant-worker parents Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin get to see their daughter, Qin, and son, Yang. Eventually Qin also heads to work in the city, breaking the Zhangs up even more. I don't want to lead people to believe Lixin Fan's film stands to represent the typical family of modern China, or even more specifically the typical migrant-worker experience, as some may have assumed. 'Last Train Home' is merely yet quite grandly so one of the best family dramas put on film in years, and it just so happens to be technically a documentary.