The Year in Film: Doc Block


An acquaintance who fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq says he has no use for documentaries about President George W. Bush’s bungling of the war on terror. He has not and will not see a single one of the movies made about the tragic consequences of the administration’s rush to drop bombs over Baghdad. He has no use for No End in Sight or Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. “Those movies are for you civilians,” he says, grinning. “I’m sure they’re all good and important, but everyone knows what went wrong — everything went wrong.” Until officials cop to their myriad fuckups, he points out, every well-meaning doc is just another brick in the infotainment wall.

But sometimes we civilians just need a brick to the head. There was no shortage in 2007 of good documentaries about important subjects. Chief among them was Michael Moore’s Sicko, which may not have had the cultural impact of his earlier Bush bashing but actually galvanized red and blue believers alike on the issue of health care. Also released in ’07: Darfur Now and The Devil Came on Horseback, both about genocide in Sudan; The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, about one Iraqi’s wrongful imprisonment in Abu Ghraib; and For the Bible Tells Me So, about the Good Book’s stance on homosexuality. And a couple of guys knocked out of the park a doc about King Corn, otherwise known as the silent killer that makes everything taste swell as it poisons us. You’ll never look at a can of Coke the same way again.

In what was one hell of a cinematic dinner party wish list, Jimmy Carter, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer and Karl Lagerfeld all got their own portraits. Coming in 2008 is Alex Gibney’s Gonzo, about the life and death of Hunter S. Thompson.

Two of the best films of 2007 were docs that played like the stuff of far-out fiction. Indeed, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is being remade as a narrative feature. Then there was Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That, about a 4-year-old girl hailed as the second coming of Jackson Pollock — at least until Charlie Rose came to town and began tossing around the theory that, ya know, maybe her daddy was the painter.

Bar-Lev’s doc is perhaps the year’s most essential true-life tale, not only because it’s a thriller bereft of glib resolutions or because it serves as an excellent corrective for parents who think their kids are geniuses but also because it’s the sole doc of 2007 about actually making a documentary. Bar-Lev initially thought he was telling a feel-good story about a cute little girl and her rise to stardom; instead, he found himself on the other end of the lens, wondering whether he’d been duped and why he was bothering in the first place. By the time the girl’s mother accuses him of betrayal, you don’t know what to believe — and you don’t get more honest than that.

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