The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 21, 2011

Lisa Brown: Documentaries often overlooked but just as compelling

By Lisa Brown
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — In response to a request to put together the Library’s “staff picks” display for November, I selected an often-overlooked genre: documentaries.

I can’t remember the first documentary I watched, though it was probably one of those nature movies that the Walt Disney studios cranked out years ago, such as “The Living Desert” and “The African Lion.”

However, I can pinpoint the film that made me a serious fan of the documentary format: “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s 1985, eight-hour epic about the Holocaust. When I was a teenager, PBS aired “Shoah” over several nights. I found it riveting and heartbreaking.

My favorite documentaries are still those to which I have a strong emotional reaction. Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bowling for Columbine”) is one filmmaker who never fails to elicit a reaction from me.

He’s a polarizing figure, and people either love him or hate him. I happen to like his work, though I am fully aware that what he puts up on screen is his vision of the world.  

Films that change the way I think, or at least challenge my belief system, tend to stick with me. “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which I saw my sophomore year of college, helped me truly understand the prejudice that many people encounter because of their sexual orientation. I was elated when the library purchased it earlier this year.

I especially love films that start out depicting one story and then go off the rails, heading in a completely unexpected direction, such as “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which at first focuses on the graffiti artist Banksy and becomes something else entirely.

Every winter I return to Columbia, Mo., for True/False, a documentary film festival that will be in its eighth year in 2012. This well-attended film festival attracts filmmakers from around the world. Many of the documentaries screened are fresh from Sundance, several are premiered, and some even go on to win Oscars and other major awards.

True/False is four days of documentaries, mingling with the filmmakers and their subjects and endless discussions with friends while sucking down coffee and cocktails. It’s nirvana for documentary fans.

The films that I selected for the November “staff picks” display are personal favorites from the library’s collection. Among them are:  

~ “Murder Ball”: Guys in wheelchairs play rugby. It is awesome. You won’t feel sorry for these athletes.

~ “To Be and To Have.” This sweet, understated French documentary details a year in the life of a teacher at a one-room school in rural France.

~ “The Way We Get By.” I devoted an entire column to this film a while back, and I love it so much that I try to watch it every year. The admiration I feel for the Maine Troop Greeters, volunteers who welcome U.S. soldiers home, is profound.

~ “Grizzly Man.” Werner Herzog’s look at the life of Timothy Treadwell, the amateur naturalist and self-styled advocate for grizzly bears. Much of the film features Treadwell’s own footage. The last few minutes of “Grizzly Man,” when Herzog just plays audio of the final moments of Treadwell’s life, are chilling.

~ “Grey Gardens.” This 1970s documentary features “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who live in a decaying East Hamptons mansion. Their squalid surroundings and co-dependent relationship made me squirm, but there are genuinely funny and touching moments. This film has gone on to inspire fashion, a Broadway musical and an HBO movie.

~ “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” My favorite documentary title ever. Two nerds go head-to-head to become the world-champion Donkey Kong player. It’s hilarious and kind of sad.

~ “We Shall Remain: America Through Native Eyes” and “Circus.” Two fine documentary series from PBS.  

~ “Vidal Sassoon: The Movie,” “The September Issue,” “Good Hair,” and “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” What can I say? I love films about hair and fashion.

~ “The Parking Lot Movie.” The entire film is about one parking lot in a college town and the characters who have worked there over the years: musicians, poets, philosophers. If you’ve ever lived in a college town, you’ll recognize these types.

For the complete list, or to check out many other documentaries that didn’t make the cut, stop by the Joplin Public Library.


Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant of the Joplin Public Library.