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2011 In Film: Five Breakthrough Documentaries

In the year's most striking documentaries, filmmakers like Patricio Guzman (<em>Nostalgia for the Light</em>) helped push the form's boundaries this year.
Icarus Films
In the year's most striking documentaries, filmmakers like Patricio Guzman (Nostalgia for the Light) helped push the form's boundaries this year.

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest place in the world, a 600-mile strip of land where the absence of humidity allows astronomers to peer at the heavens through crystalline skies, archaeologists to unearth discoveries preserved in the salt and sand — and relatives of those gone "missing" during the Pinochet regime to search for their remains. Patricio Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light offers testimonials from scientists, historians and philosophers alike, but what it also offers is abstract, rapturously beautiful images that evoke the natural wonders of its setting. Through Guzman's lens, the heavens twinkle with stardust, and the desert expanse looks like a vision from another planet.

Like Nostalgia for the Light, the best documentaries of 2011 sought to expand the form, wriggling free of the cut-and-paste template of interviews and archival footage, if not abandoning it altogether. A director known for political docs like The Battle of Chile and The Pinochet Case, Guzman might simply have exhumed the Atacama's terrible past, but in a place that also suggests a special intimacy with the divine, he chose to conjure its spiritual value, too. In that sense, Nostalgia for the Light is a nonfiction analog to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life — both films deal with history, personal or scientific, by reaching first for transcendence.

Yet Guzman's film was not the most experimental documentary of 2011. That distinction belongs to Clio Barnard's The Arbor, a radical yet hugely affecting portrait of a troubled artist and the poisonous legacy she bequeathed to her children and her children's children. The artist in question was British playwright Andrea Dunbar, a preternatural talent who was raised in a grim housing project in Yorkshire, published her first semiautobiographical play at age 15, and went on to write the script for 1987's Rita, Sue and Bob Too! before dying of a brain hemorrhage at only 29. She was survived by three children of different fathers, one of whom would be convicted of manslaughter for her negligence in the death of her 2-year-old son.

Laying out the history of poverty, addiction, domestic violence and sexual abuse that passed through generations in Dunbar's family, The Arbor sounds like a miserablist wallow of the first order. But Barnard uses an experimental technique called "verbatim theater" that puts these horrors in a new context: In place of talking-head interviews, actors lip-sync testimonials from the real people they're portraying. The film also stages scenes from Dunbar's plays on the grounds where she resided. The overall effect is eerie and beautiful, bringing the drama of Dunbar's past into an experimental performance space that smartly expresses the continuity between her life and her work.

Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna died at the age of 34; the documentary that bears his name uses archival footage — exclusively — to tell his story.
/ Universal Studios
Universal Studios
Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna died at the age of 34; the documentary that bears his name uses archival footage — exclusively — to tell his story.

The ingenious sports documentary Senna, about the legendary Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna, went a step further by cutting out interviews altogether. It stands to reason that one of the most celebrated F1 racers of all time — and one of the most roguishly charismatic — would also be one of the most heavily documented. So director Asif Kapadia seized on the challenge of constructing an entire biography out of existing footage, stringing together home movies, news coverage, scenes from his most famous races, and shots of the exuberant Brazilian masses to capture both Senna the man and Senna the public figure.

Kapadia should be praised first simply for making Senna coherent without leaning on interviews or titles to fill in the context. It may amount to one long montage sequence, but the film feels like an uncanny re-creation of the driver's career as it unfolded, casting him as a rebel both on the track — where his wild tactical maneuvers unnerved his more calculated French rival Alain Prost — and off, where he bristled at the sport's compromised governing body. His tragic death in 1994 is rendered with particular grace, largely because the lack of commentary allows us to witness the poignant scene of his funeral as if we, too, were mourners.

Not to be outdone, director Errol Morris, the name perhaps most associated with innovations in modern documentary — his The Thin Blue Line can be credited/blamed for staged re-creations — returned with Tabloid, a deliriously (and deceptively) entertaining yarn. Shifting gears from political documentaries like The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, Morris offers a zany subject in Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who lit up the British tabloids when her infatuation with a Mormon missionary took a lurid turn. Flying all the way from California, she and a co-conspirator kidnapped the missionary and brought him back to her "love cottage" for a honeymoon that may or may not have been coerced.

Morris delights in splashing the screen with tabloid headlines and playing McKinney's story for all it's worth — a startling twist about a recent appearance in the news is too juicy to spoil here — but Tabloid isn't as far removed from The Fog of War or The Thin Blue Line as it appears. Weighing two radically divergent takes on "The Case of the Manacled Mormon" from competing papers, as well as the conflicting testimony of McKinney and other witnesses, Morris makes a larger point about the elusive nature of truth, and the ways in which our minds are subject to distortion and delusion.

Though it's not nearly as formally radical as any of the four documentaries above, Steve James' The Interrupters is nonetheless a significant challenge to the scores of advocacy docs that each year promote a cause without reflecting seriously on it. In lesser hands, The Interrupters might have been a thin promotional video for CeaseFire, a Chicago organization that works to disrupt youth violence, often by employing former gang members to help mediate disputes. But as he demonstrated with Hoop Dreams, his touching profile of two inner-city high-school basketball talents, James is a filmmaker capable of tempering deep compassion with the understanding that big problems are often intractable.

What stands out about The Interrupters — aside from mesmerizing personalities like Ameena Matthews, the reformed daughter of a notorious Chicago gang leader — is James' admission that despite the best efforts of CeaseFire operatives, failure is sometimes unavoidable. James and his crew put themselves in the middle of enough tense street scenes to make the risks of mediation clear, and even the success stories are more like tenuous truce than a permanent peace. It's the persistence that matters: The Interrupters makes a stirring appeal to activists, but with the proviso that it ain't gonna be easy.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.