Thursday 30 August 2012

The Imposter and Other Documentaries That Mess With Your Head

Think all documentaries are boring BBC affairs narrated by David Attenborough? Think again. There are hundreds of incredible documentaries out there, examining subjects as diverse as American children competing in spelling bees, a British man struggling to understand why his girlfriends always leave him and the hikacking of a bus in Rio De Janeiro (Name each film and you get a sticker).

However, what I find particularly interesting about documentaries is how they are supposed to depict nothing but reality and yet, often show distorted views of the truth, manipulating the viewer (that's us!) into believing their version of reality. But is this such a bad thing?
With the release of The Imposter in cinemas, I wanted to take a look at some of the best documentaries out there that mess with your head but remain fascinating throughout. 

The Imposter

The Imposter is the real life story of a 13 year old boy who is kidnapped from his family in 1994, only to supposedly turn up again three years later unharmed. The problem is, the boy seems to have changed completely in those 3 years and yet the family still take him back with open arms.
The reason this film has been so successful is due to the suspenseful way which the director handles the subject matter. Rather than give the game away up front, Bart Layton withholds the big reveal until the end to create more of an emotional impact on the audience. The sense of unease that this creates in the build-up is compounded even further by the twists and turns that constantly lead the viewer astray from the truth. If you think you don't like documentaries, then watch The Imposter.


Now this one really is an uncomfortable view. Catfish tells the story of two brothers who are supposedly filming a documentary on the art of an 8 year old prodigy. As they communicate with the girl over the internet, one of the brothers begins to develop a romantic relationship with the girl's older half-sister. However, evidence soon appears that implies this family are not all they say they are.
To say more would spoil the dramatic twists follow but the reason I have included this documentary is that since its successful release, many people have challenged the authenticity of the film. Issues include people questioning how the brothers managed to luckily film so much relevant material, along with why did they begin filming so obsessively that early on. However, whether it is fake or not, Catfish is another brilliant documentary which I guarantee will mess with your head.

Capturing the Friedmans
This documentary is my personal favourite of all time (alongside Tarnation), and was nominated for an Oscar in 2003. Capturing the Friedmans began as a documentary on clowns in New York during the 1980s - random I know - but soon shifted focus onto an investigation of child molestation by two members of the Friedman family. Throughout the film, home videos of the family are included, who bizarrely wanted to document the horrendous impact such accusations would have on their lives.
Now what is absolutely amazing about this film is the way in which the director Andrew Jarecki reveals evidence of the case that makes you believe one thing, only to completely turn that on its head in the following scene. The effect is very much like that which the rest of the family experienced, unsure of what to believe as the case developed further. The aim here on the directors part was to disorientate but not to deceive, as many of the facts did remain elusive in real life. Capturing the Friedmans is an incredible example of the power that documentaries can have on the viewer.

Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir is very unusual in that it is an animated documentary from Israel. The film focusses on the director Ari Folman's experiences of the 1982 Lebanon War, searching for memories he had forgotten as a soldier fighting at the time. Waltz With Bashir was extremely well received critically and won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film among other awards in 2008.
Now the fact that the film is both a documentary but also animated is in itself problematic, affecting the extent to which the events depicted could be true. Technically, Folman and his team could have drawn anything they wanted. However, isn't this also true of reconstructions which are so frequently designed and then filmed for use in documentaries? And the point of this film is not to accurately show the events of the 1982 Lebanon War but to follow Folman as he recollects his part in the fighting and struggles to come to terms with his past. The abstract nature of some of the film's more subjective scenes brilliantly shows Folman's perspective as he relives the war and while this is certainly not a traditional documentary, it is easily one of the best to have been released in the last ten years. 

Exit Through The Giftshop
Onto the last film now and this documentary focusses on a man called Thierry Guetta, who becomes obsessed with street art after discovering that his cousin is part of the scene. The film is directed by Banksy, himself a famous street artist, who deliberately remains anonymous throughout by covering his face and altering his own voice on camera.
What's interesting about Exit Through The Giftshop is that upon its release, many critics started speculating that the film might be fake, but as a prank rather than a deliberate falsification (unlike Catfish). Banksy has denied these accusations outright but certain events in the documentary seem almost too unrealistic to be true and again, there is the issue of why did Guetta film so much material of himself, although he could just be obsessed with his video camera. I recommend that you watch Exit Through The GiftShop and decide for yourself whether the film is actually authentic or not. Either way, it's a great one to watch.

I hope I have been able to convince those of you who deride documentaries that actually, there is more to them then just close-ups of frogs in their natural habitats. Furthermore, I hope that the next time you do watch a documentary, you'll think a bit more carefully about whether what you're seeing is genuine or whether the film makers are trying to mess with your heads. Not all of them are of course but its good to know!
If you like my choices or can think of anymore I should have included, please comment below, +1 us, share on facebook and twitter, blah blah blah. It does help though! The views are going up daily but we need more! Thanks. Nuff said.


  1. Thanks Dave. I love Catfish and Exit through the Giftshop (more confirmation that you're right) off to put the others on my lovefilm list.

  2. I knew them, I'd like my sticker please. Great post by the way.