The best documentaries of 2016: cinematic nonfiction in the year of nonfact

As the world lurched into the new Post-Truth Supremacy, documentary film artists got busy layering on ever more levels of formal awareness and hall-of-mirrors complexity. Was this artsy irrelevance, irresponsible obfuscation – or our best shot at chasing the white rabbit of truth around the media maze?

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Robert Greene
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Cameraperson-cum-director Kirsten Johnson at work in her Vertovian essay-portrait Cameraperson – the best documentary of the year?

Cameraperson-cum-director Kirsten Johnson at work in her Vertovian essay-portrait Cameraperson – the best documentary of the year?

In 2016 reality collapsed.

The rotted legs of the stilt house, under attack for so long, finally snapped like toothpicks and our collective shelter of shared experience crashed into the ocean. On 22 June, Brexit was a fringe campaign fueled by political distortions; the next day Europe, as we knew it, was over. Five months later, on a wave of fake news, outright lies and political mirage, the United States elected the consummate phony-authentic performer in Donald Trump. Half of Trump’s voters believe Hillary Clinton was actually involved in a pedophilia ring, while half of Clinton’s voters wrongly believe Russian hackers directly tampered with vote totals to elect Vladimir Putin’s Moscovian Candidate. Facts are dead. We’re all now bunkered away in self-constructed silos at the bottom of the sea.

The now-ubiquitous concept of ‘post truth’ isn’t new, of course, and the modern history of political image-making reveals as much. Before the anti-reality of George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy used television lighting to become president and Ronald Reagan famously wondered how a president could not “be an actor”. Whereas Reagan was a product of Hollywood fantasy, Trump is the child of reality television – that tabloid-happy, petulant cousin of documentary film. Much has been made of news journalism’s culpability in the rise of Trump, but what about the role of the documentary community? JFK was the first subject of Direct Cinema, of course, and Reagan the necessary foil to Michael Moore’s era-defining documentary performance. Is Trump in a similar yin/yang relationship with the current era of cinematic nonfiction?

If the reality television boom arguably helped audiences accept the complex dialectic between truth and fabrication at the heart of documentary, and if that acceptance helped fuel the rise of lines-blurring films like The Act of Killing, The Arbor and Nuts!, then might it be said that Trump is a work of hybrid nonfiction? If post-truth culture can be seen as the final revenge of postmodernism, might we practitioners and theoreticians of the glorious instabilities of documentary cinema – the ecstatic “thousand lies in the service of the truth” camp – be somehow responsible for the fractures Trump exploited?

Donald Trump takes charge at the 2016 Republican National Convention

Donald Trump takes charge at the 2016 Republican National Convention

Maybe this is absurd and unnecessarily self-loathing (and more than a little self-aggrandising). Documentary, after all, hardly has the market share to be characterised as bearing significant influence on the kinds of mass movements that get presidents elected. But if Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault and the postmodernist gang can be even circuitously blamed for Trump and the post-truth era, so might the more outré movements of documentary. The play between truth and lies, after all, is our obsession.

I take the question of ‘blame’ very personally and will return to it in a moment. For now, this much is clear: in 2016, filmmakers from all over the world seemed anxious to reveal what, exactly, our cameras were doing inside the virtual-reality bubbles in which we now find ourselves. In a world where 93 million selfies are taken worldwide each day, and a culture of everyday performance has permanently altered the way subjects relate to cameras, Mehrdad Oskouei embraced the moment by showing a scene where a group of imprisoned Iranian girls grab his boom mic to transform their dreary meal room into a Got Talent-like stage in his stirring film Starless Dreams. Meanwhile, this New Nonfiction Hyperawareness informed works from Avi Mograbi’s Between Fences to Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, while in Helmut Berger, Actor, director Andreas Horvath enabled subject Helmut Berger to push grotesquely past the cliché of ‘masturbatory’ self-consciousness.

With Facebook Live broadcasting events from the Turkish Coup to Philando Castile’s murder – thus changing how we imagine documentary cinema as an interlocutor of reality – filmmakers from experimentalists like Roberto Minervini to journalists like Ezra Edelman sought new forms to make relevant work. Minervini, with his The Other Side (seventh on my list last year), uses radically oblique fictional manners and structures to put a documentary mirror on America’s unseen, from lost souls to militia-ready Trump voters, while Edelman, with his much-lauded O.J.: Made in America, blows apart what Peter Watkins once called the ‘monoform’ (like Abbas Fahdel’s 5½ hour-long Homeland: Iraq Year Zero last year) by packing nearly eight hours with enough context, character and story to make clear the strange realities that turned the ‘race-less’ O.J. Simpson into the face of African American agony. Edelman’s film is essentially about the making of a post-truth world.

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Challenging the edifices of reality has long been a goal of filmmakers, but in 2016, with movies like Vitaly Mansky’s hijacked North Korean autobiography Under the Sun (or even Nathan Silver’s mostly fictional meta-film Actor Martinez), everyone seemed downright desperate to finally bury cinema’s myths of authenticity, echoing, to some degree or another, the work of late master Abbas Kiarostami. The message from many films in 2016 seemed clear: don’t believe everything you see, or at least, don’t think what you see is real. By obsessing to such a degree over our own processes and subjectivities, by reconfiguring the self-reflexive as a starting point rather than goal line, films like José Luis Torres Leiva’s El Viento Sabe Que Vuelvo a Casa, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson or my own Kate Plays Christine sought to revel in and ultimately narrativise the long-discussed human limits of representing reality. There is nothing new about meta-documentaries, but their sudden ubiquity is telling. If the history of documentary cinema can be looked at as one long, Quixotic quest to properly display Truth onscreen, much of our work in 2016 suggested the jig is up and the game finally lost. For many, the era of post-truth documentary is manifest.

Which brings us back to the question of blame: has our endless picking at the sweater helped make the ugliest holes? As we adventurous documentarians continue to push for new ways to challenge basic assumptions of truth in our work, are we really no different than Republicans who are now using the term ‘fake news’ as a slur against actual, objective, reportable facts? Some who saw my film Kate Plays Christine seemed to think so. In her scathing review in the November 2016 issue of Sight & Sound, Erika Balsom called the film a “confidence trick”, though most of her issue was with execution, not ideas. Still she threw this sharp elbow and it landed:

After a summer in which Donald Trump and Nigel Farage ushered in an age of post-truth politics on both sides of the Atlantic, is it still necessary or compelling for filmmakers who depend on the frisson of the real to insist that we cannot believe in what we see?

Meanwhile, on the blog It’s Just Movies, Bev Questad laid in even harder:

Don’t mess with me, Robert Greene… when newscasters on every major American channel are skewing news to opinions rather than reporting, as if the viewer can no longer figure things out from the events and facts, I am just fed up with subjectivity. I want the Cronkite truth.

These critiques hit me square in the jaw. Are my films and the work of filmmakers I admire and want to champion contributing to the dangerous erosion of a fact-based society? Without facts, political lies become relativised and fascism normalised. Without a collective, basic understanding of agreed-upon facts, power is incontestable and a primary goal of art is fatally neutralised. Of course “the Cronkite truth” is really a myth, but I understand the frustration with our current media landscape that Questad is expressing. And is Erika Balsom correct when she slams my work by saying “the best [in docufiction] delight in contamination in order to lead back to truth, not to eradicate its possibility”?

Kate Plays Christine (2016)

Kate Plays Christine (2016)

These questions haunt me and they should haunt every filmmaker interested in working with the “frisson of the real” as we move forward in these troubled times. These uncertainties of truth are, of course, inescapable in documentary and the only way forward is to work with the often-exhilarating instabilities of the form. I remain steadfastly sceptical that documentary can do anything more than any other art form with regards to representing reality. We have no special key to unlock the real. That doesn’t mean I want to make glorified ‘fake news’. Truth, with the requisite capital T, must indeed remain the goal, even if we documentarians can only reveal it sideways by conjuring something otherwise unknowable with our images and edits.

In this era of selfies, journalism crises, camera ubiquity and hyperawareness, self-reflexivity is merely a necessary starting place. Our job is to honestly explore these issues, scrupulously work with our unwieldy materials and open pathways of perception. There is no higher purpose for nonfiction cinema than to provide experiences that help viewers think and feel through the media manipulations that help shape our increasingly phony, progressively dangerous un-realties. To paraphrase filmmaker and friend Dylan Redford, who wrote to me after reading a draft of this piece, the issue is with audiences feeling tricked; seeding doubt empowers viewers, trickery alienates. We filmmakers need to find tools to communicate the multiplicity of truth and to activate thinking, which was my goal with Kate Plays Christine. Trickery is cheap, scepticism is power.

We need to embrace the questions our complex work begs, and there were many great filmmakers in 2016 that knew this. It’ll never be easy; art is for questioning, not answering. To quote a slaughterhouse worker near the end of Hassen Ferhani’s Roundabout in My Head, when discussing potential titles for the film that he’s appearing in and that you’re watching and that he knows you’re watching and that you know he knows you’re watching:

“We do not lie, but we don’t come upon the truth.”

What follows are 25 individual films or groups of films that I saw in 2016 that best represent the state of this art-in-flux. If films are grouped together, it’s to highlight their thematic or formal similarities, not to diminish their individual significance. I hope this will enlighten not annoy. As in years past, this list is based on what I watched, with no concern for theatrical release.

 

25. Lost and Beautiful

Pietro Marcello, Italy

What happens when you’re making a documentary and your lead subject dies? If you’re singular Italian maestro Pietro Marcello, your film morphs into a stupefying, bizarre, magical allegory. A project that began as a portrait of beloved farmer Tommaso Cestrone morphed into something curious after his untimely passing. Call this movie an Italian neo-neorealist/dream logic/theatre of the absurd docufiction-like thing. I’m not sure I even loved it, but in a year where so many nonfiction images felt like dried leaves, Marcello’s fantasia stirred, flummoxed and remained with me.

 

24. John’s movies: Los Angeles Plays New York / The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods / Temporary Color / How to Act on Reality TV

John Wilson, USA

In Los Angeles Plays New York, which finally screened at the 2016 New York Film Festival after years of self-censorship, sub-microbudget/genius/Kaufmanesque filmmaker John Wilson made an legally problematic self-portrait as he tried to exact real justice as a fake plaintiff on the knockoff court show Hot Bench. In The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods Wilson stumbles into the absurdly sublime at a Las Vegas product convention, and in Temporary Color he wanders off the job making a behind-the-scenes film for the Ross brothers to document the hunt for a pair of escaped convicts and the great nervous energy of our times. In How to Act on Reality TV, Wilson’s signature style – nasal, amateurish, anxiety-ridden, prankish, affecting, brutally funny – found its perfect subject in Robert Galinsky, head teacher of ‘Reality TV performance’ at the New York Reality School. These are all essential, stupid movies.

 

23. Brothers

Aslaug Holm, Norway

At turns sentimental, heartbreaking and frustrating (just some of the inflated, contradictory emotions one feels while watching their own children grow up), Aslaug Holm’s poetic, affecting, subtly self-lacerating diary of her two young boys growing into young men has all the pathos of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, to which it is inevitably compared, with one major additional element: it doesn’t take the consequences of filming someone for their entire childhood for granted.

 

22. Peter and the Farm

Tony Stone, USA

When US critic Glenn Kenny wrote that Tony Stone’s first documentary Peter and the Farm is “good in spite of itself”, I think I know what he meant. The camera often moves in odd, overly theatrical ways; moody music comes in awkwardly and fades quickly; and sometimes it seems like the crew hardly knew what they were doing. In one memorable moment, a crewmember is heard wondering aloud how they were going to cut his voice out of a scene we just watched, which, of course Stone included for self-aware effect.

It all works for two reasons. One, Peter is a compelling, sad, cantankerous subject and carries the film like a legitimate movie star. Two, the warts-and-all filmmaking style reads as earnest and caring. We watch this film with empathy because the filmmakers made it with exuberance, concern and love for their endlessly complicated subject and friend.

 

21. Helmut Berger, Actor

Andreas Horvath, Austria

How’s this for self-reflexive? Andreas Horvath films iconic Austrian thespian Helmut Berger masturbating on camera (twice), declaring his romantic love for his documenter and saying that his film has destroyed his life. Horvath and Berger yell and fight and watch each other watching each other. Helmut Berger, Actor takes relevant documentary questions of exploitation and performance and pushes them to their grossest climax possible. And within the nut lies a strange kind of sincerity.

 

20. Project X

Laura Poitras, Henrik Moltke, USA

Speaking Is Difficult

AJ Schnack, USA

+ The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

Brett Story, Canada

+ Depth Two

Ognjen Glavonić, Serbia / France

Landscape is psychology and these four very different films illustrate the limitless power of pointing our cameras at our surroundings. Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke’s short Project X, made for the former’s essential production house Field of Vision, turns a nighttime drive from a business park in Maryland to a secret NSA building in Manhattan into a bone-rattling sci-fi thriller.

A.J. Schnack’s Speaking is Difficult, also made for Field of Vision, uses only 911 emergency calls of recent American mass shootings and straightforward images of the everyday spaces in which these nightmares have happened to make a sober and upsetting (and sadly ever-expanding) protest film.

In The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Brett Story powerfully rethinks America’s over-incarceration problem as a kind of mass disease that you can read in the scenery.

And with the captivating Depth Two, Serbian filmmaker Ognjen Glavonić creates a chilling psychological thriller from evocative present-day landscapes and narrated stories of the Yugoslavian War. In each film, images of the world resist easy understanding, but allow access to wells of emotional truth.

 

19. Lovetrue

Alma Har’el, USA

Three unrelated, complex tales of love and loss rendered in Alma Har’el’s inimitable, musical style. Har’el’s cinema is free and full of poignancy. She conceives of shots and manufactures moments, but her camera has the irrepressible inquisitiveness of a nonfiction adventurer and her images are unmistakably human.

 

18. I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck, USA

Raoul Peck takes an unfinished manuscript by civil rights icon James Baldwin and turns it into a grand, fractured, deeply personal contemplation of race and the USA. Baldwin was there, standing next to Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Medgar Evers, but he survived the civil rights battles and a palpable sense of survivor’s guilt permeates every word. His pain is instructive; Baldwin’s signature refined rage leaps through time and smacks us right in the face.

 

17. The Dreamed Ones

Ruth Beckermann, Austria

Two actors read forlorn letters from postwar German-language poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. They take smoke breaks and flirt and read some more. Sometimes it gets awkward. Maybe they don’t know each other so well? That’s all we see: actors, microphones, reading spaces, behaviour. The letters cover over 20 years and lifetimes of passion and regret. Slowly, the past and present collapse and compress. Ruth Beckermann’s deceptively simple cinematic idea abounds with unexpected layers of emotion.

 

16. Fraud

Dean Fleischer-Camp, USA

+ Balloonfest

Nathan Truesdell, USA

Balloonfest (2016)

+ The Event

Sergei Loznitsa, Belgium / Netherlands

The archival verité mode is popular, but these radically different films unearthed genius by placing the mysteries of found material into the present tense. Dean Fleischer-Camp took hundreds of hours of home videos uploaded to YouTube and fashioned a fictional chase thriller and frightening study of our collective consumerist fever dream. My friend Nathan Truesdell made a perfect movie by finding the surrealist poetry and hidden horror in 1986 telecasts of Cleveland’s ridiculous releasing of a million balloons into the air.

Meanwhile Ukrainian master Sergei Loznitsa (who also made the film Austerlitz this year, which I haven’t yet seen) uses footage captured by eight cameramen covering protests of the failed 1991 putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet government to take a delicately affecting frieze of lost Russian optimism. When Putin pops up, waves of present tragedy rush through the material.

 

15. Those Who Jump

Moritz Siebert, Estephan Wagner, Abou Bakar Sidibe, Denmark

+ Between Fences

Avi Mograbi, Israel / France

The global refugee crisis is nearly unfathomable, so how we do document it? Countless filmmakers have answered the call, making countless portraits of immigrants in various stages of suffering.

Something is often missing, however, from the more straightforward accounts. Not these two; Those That Jump sees directors Moritz Sibert and Estephan Wagner hand over a camera to Abou Bakar Sidibe, a Malian trying to scale a massive fence between Morocco and Spain, while Between Fences sees director Avi Mograbi using a Theater of the Oppressed workshop to articulate the unseen torment of refuges at a controversial holding facility in Israel.

Those That Jump is a homeless movie from the perspective of Sidibe, an individual refuge with his own experience, while Between Fences is a political intervention from Mograbi, an outsider trying to help. Both films exhibit a level of self-awareness that speaks to the inherent difficulty of creating images of such a massive calamity and both films foreground their subjects’ humanity through the empowering act of videotaping. As Sidibe says, “I feel that I exist when I film.”

 

14. The Illinois Parables

Deborah Stratman, USA

The Illinois Parables (2016)

Chicago-based artist Deborah Stratman has been using her 16mm camera to hunt down meaning in exterior and interior spaces for going on 30 years now. In The Illinois Parables, she tells 11 obliquely affecting stories, located at once in the past and present, of human dramas that played/are playing out in her home state. Celluloid impressions are photochemical ghosts of American transgressions reanimated and re-playable. The final image is rising away to see it all but never seeing it all.

 

 

13. All These Sleepless Nights

Michal Marczak, Poland

Some filmmakers take blurring the lines between documentary and fiction as their big ambition. Michal Marczak doesn’t even see the lines. For his Sundance Best Director award-winning latest, Marczak paid his main subjects, Michal Huszcza, Eva Lebuef and Krzysztof Baginski, to enact semi-scripted versions of themselves. He invented his own camera rig and re-recorded much of the dialogue. Marczak’s cinema is not so much nonfiction as hyper-real, yet you’ll find few films with this much documentary insight into The Way We Live Now.

 

12. Contemporary Color

Bill and Turner Ross, USA

+ Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

Jonathan Demme, USA

When society is a poisoned spectacle, what does it mean to find pleasure in modern spectacle-intensive concerts? Are the beats and bright lights, when captured as choreographed documentary images and edited together, merely opiates, or is there something beyond the awe?

I usually don’t list films that I worked on, but the Ross brothers’ Contemporary Color is such a singular vision, despite it being the product of a grand collaboration, that I had to include it. I shot a few of the scenes, alongside filmmakers like Jarred Alterman, Jessica Oreck, Sean Price Williams, Michael Palmieiri, Amanda Rose Wilder and others (with the brothers Bill and Turner holding cameras, as well), but ultimately this kaleidoscopic concert film, brilliantly edited by Bill, about the staging of David Byrne’s gloriously odd idea to combine experimental pop music and color guard, could only be made by the Rosses.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Demme’s Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is as colourful and fun as a candy-coated hallucination. Pleasure isn’t apolitical; in a year where the garish gold and showy jingoism of Trump’s Republican National Convention provided the unmistakable image of rising fascism, the human weirdness of the Ross brothers and Byrne and the joyous invention of Demme and Timberlake felt like dance dance revolutions.

 

11. Starless Dreams

Mehrdad Oskouei, Iran

Mehrdad Oskouei goes inside an all-girl detention facility on the outskirts of Tehran and makes a movie that finds enough air to breathe within the stifling walls. The girls’ stories are uniformly heartbreaking, but Starless Dreams is no parade of misery. Like much of the best nonfiction cinema this year, Oskouei knows how to open up routes toward true empathy and understanding by including his own processes and disappointments. It’s a film that thinks and feels and asks us to do the same.

 

10. The Human Surge

Eduardo Williams, Argentina / Brazil / Portugal

Eduardo Williams’ ingenious feature debut feels like a movie happening ten minutes into the future. Languorous takes of semi-scripted situations play out in real settings with real people, all for the benefit of a living, breathing human holding a recording device. Then the movie moves into another country and/or plane of existence and then another and then one more and somehow it feels like the world makes more sense. This is the newest wave: formal freedom, palpable human experience and haunting hybridity by way of a hyperaware post-post-Godardian agreement between audience and filmmaker. Yeah it’s a movie, and you’re a viewer, but the experience remains cosmic.

 

9. O.J.: Made in America

Ezra Edelman, USA

Let me tell you the story of O.J. Simpson. No, not just that part, the whole thing. No, the whole thing. Ezra Edelman’s often operatic, occasionally textbook attempt to fully contextualise the quintessentially American tragedy of the football and advertising icon turned murder suspect turned vessel for black grievance turned self-parodic cautionary tale indeed tries to tell us the whole story, and the grace of that attempt is almost enough to call O.J.: Made In America a great film. What keeps the epic multi-part series from feeling like just another binge-y true-crime number is the intelligence and sobriety of Edelman’s storytelling. You can’t look away, and what he shows you is clear-eyed and invaluable.

 

 

8. Behemoth

Zhao Liang, China

+ Dead Slow Ahead

Mauro Herce, Spain / France

+ Roundabout in My Head

Hassen Ferhani, Algeria / France / Lebanon / Qatar

The problem with filming workers with nice expensive camera equipment is the obvious power imbalance. Put down your camera and help them out! However, super-capitalistic cultures all across the world are currently burning through unseen humans at unprecedented rates. How do we show these people without resorting to misery porn? For these three films, the answer lies in formalism. Hassen Ferhani’s Roundabout in My Head turns an Algerian slaughterhouse into a living theatre space for surprisingly personal expression and Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead makes the leisurely violence of a massive freighter the stuff of a sci-fi nightmare.

The best of them is Zhao Liang’s monumental Behemoth, which fuses an aesthetically audacious vision of Chinese coal mining with Dante’s Divine Comedy, conjuring the dehumanising scale and eternal struggle of the people versus the machine.

 

7. O Futebol

Sergio Oksman, Brazil

Perfect cinema is a rare thing. Sergio Oksman reunites with his father and they drive around and talk about football for 68 minutes. They try to make it to a World Cup game but they don’t quite get there. They hardly say what’s actually on their minds, but there’s a lifetime of unspoken feelings, so it seems like it’s going to be okay. Scenes feel subtly directed, but realities are inescapable and it’s all achingly perfect.

 

6. Lemonade

Jonas Åkerlund, Beyoncé Knowles, Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso, USA

I don’t need to defend Beyoncé’s thrilling visual album/confessional/historical pastiche as a work of cinematic nonfiction, but there’s at least one undeniably documentary element: Khalik Allah’s powerful, gritty images of New Orleans. Like his work in Field Niggas (19th on my list last year), Allah creates portraits that ring of rare immediacy and depth, which fit perfectly into the luminous vision of African American heartache and power conjured by Beyoncé and her collaborators. We will be telling our grandkids where we were when we first saw Lemonade.

 

5. No Home Movie

Chantal Akerman, Belgium / France

Chantal Akerman, a true hero of mine, made many different kinds of home movies, often radically transforming quotidian domestic spaces into theatres for strangely uncanny psychological explorations. Her final film, No Home Movie, a personal look at the Belgian director’s relationship with her dying mother, which was completed before Akerman committed suicide in October 2015, is a fitting last chapter of her career and life. A kind of sequel to her 1977 diaristic experiment News from Home, the film is a lucid meditation on intimacy and distance. Every lo-fi-video frame quivers with an escapable sense of grief and loss. My heart still aches.

 

4. HyperNormalisation

Adam Curtis, UK

In his latest piece of madcap montage journalism, Hypernormalisation finds Adam Curtis on his customary mission to recombine political and historical narratives into intricate, expressionistic webs of understanding.

This time Curtis tells stories about the rise of the Internet, the mirages of Gaddafi and the strange case of Trump to try to explicate exactly how the hell this current post-truth, post-rational world got made. He continues to use the not-yet-fully-defined space of BBC iPlayer to expand his style, but Curtis hasn’t created something so politically urgent since The Power of Nightmares. If you want to know how we got into this mess, how we’ve all been convinced to go along with it and what nightmare possibilities the future might hold, tune into Channel Curtis ASAP.

 

3. Under the Sun

Vitaly Mansky, Russia / Germany / Czech Republic / Latvia / N. Korea

As he tells us plainly, Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky agreed to North Korea’s terms: they would help him direct his film, they would control all the scenarios, they would work with his actors and they would approve all representations. Only then could he make his movie about the life of a schoolgirl. This was to be another state-approved hagiography, but Mansky smuggled out something different. He shows the managers of North Korea’s special brand of post-truth messaging dutifully flattening and reshaping reality, but what makes Under the Sun one of the best films of the year is the way Mansky teases out, through lingering takes and a sense of humanistic surrealism, the numbing heartbreak behind the veil. No film in 2016 was more lucid on the dangers and possibilities of cinema.

 

2. Fire at Sea

Gianfranco Rosi, Italy

In Fire at Sea, the soul of our global civilisation is cleaved into two halves, irreconcilable yet forever linked. An Italian boy goes blind on the island of Lampedusa while thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees die trying to make it ashore. The boy is at once innocent and a product of Western ideology, his charisma and charm belying a poisonous privilege. He’s losing his ability to see the world, while no one can see the immigrants trying to find a better life.

Gianfranco Rosi wants to see them and wants us to feel and understand something more about them than what we get from the headlines. Rosi might be the best documentarian in the world, and that’s not just because he shot the profound, metaphorical, utterly breathtaking Fire at Sea essentially by himself. He still believes in a cinema of contradictions, irresolvabilities, poetic recombinations, art from reality, human understanding from observation and montage. He believes in documentary.

 

1. Cameraperson

Kirsten Johnson, USA

Kirsten Johnson (in close collaboration with editor Nels Bangerter) made the best movie of the year from fragments of other movies, finding the essence of documentary cinema in scraps and diaries. No film has more eloquently revealed the provisional, flawed, hopeful, expansive, manipulative, righteous human endeavour called documentary filmmaking. Johnson lays everything on the line to articulate that troubling and continuously replenishing thing about making nonfiction films that all of we filmmakers feel but can’t quite say ourselves.

For viewers, Cameraperson tries to answer lingering suspicions and hopes to help them understand images better. Johnson has given us a poem for the ages; so let’s end this with words from our first television president, John F. Kennedy spoken on the occasion of Robert Frost’s passing in 1963, mere weeks before his own death:

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth, which must serve as the touchstone to our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.

 

Special mentions

Dawson City: Frozen Time

Don Juan

Do not Resist

Extremis

Fragment 53

Hooligan Sparrow

How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras

Into the Inferno

Thy Father’s Chair

El Viento Sabe Que Vuelvo a Casa

 

In the February 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

Watching the watchers

Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson’s poetic, meditative exploration of the moral pitfalls and complex artistry of nonfiction filmmaking, reflects on the lessons she’s learned over the past two decades as one of the pre-eminent cinematographers in American documentary. By Sophie Mayer.

 

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