A recent Variety article made the dubious claim that the success of HBO’s The Jinx, the six-part miniseries about accused multiple-murderer Robert Durst, will usher in a golden age of documentaries. Anyone who has attended SXSW Film in recent years could tell you that the documentary form is alive and well and has been for some time. This year was no exception; here are five standouts from 2015’s nonfiction slate.
If you spent any part of your childhood in the ‘70s, chances are you remember Evel Knievel as the real-life superhero of the era, a myth fueled by the best-selling stunt-cycle toy based on the star-spangled daredevil. As this retrospective on Knievel’s life and career makes evident, Knievel was an anti-hero at best, and one perfectly suited to the Watergate era, as almost every one of the daring feats that made him famous ended in failure. Produced by Johnny Knoxville, who made his name performing ever-more absurd Knievel-inspired stunts on Jackass, Being Evel is rich in entertaining archival footage, with the Bizarro Woodstock circus surrounding the Snake River Canyon jump as a particular highlight.
In 1982, two friends from Mississippi began a project that would go on to consume every summer of their youth: a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their effort gained notoriety in the early 2000s when geek overlord Harry Knowles showed it at the Alamo Drafthouse, but the fan film wasn’t quite complete as the young filmmakers had never been able to shoot a crucial scene in which a plane explodes. More than three decades after beginning their fan film, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala reunited to shoot the final scene with a $58,000 budget raised on Kickstarter. This documentary by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen covers both the original production and the reunion, but it’s the DIY ingenuity of the ‘80s kids that’s most engaging. The later shoot lacks that innocence and plays more like Strompolos and Zala polishing their reel in hopes of getting work in Hollywood, although there is one stunning moment near the end that could have turned a celebration into a tragedy.
Best of Enemies
In 1968, struggling third-place television network ABC tried something different during their coverage of the presidential race: they hired right-wing pundit and National Review founder William F. Buckley and ultra-liberal author Gore Vidal to debate issues nightly during the Republican and Democratic conventions. Their mutual distaste fueled lively exchanges that proved to be as much about their personalities as the issues of the day, with both men demonstrating mastery of the literate insult until Buckley finally lost his cool and dropped a homophobic slur on Vidal. This documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville draws a direct line between what Buckley and Vidal started and today’s yammering blowhards of cable news, but it’s clear the intellectual vibrancy is long gone.
The Look of Silence
Two years ago, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, in which surviving members of ‘60s Indonesian death squads reenacted their horrific crimes on camera, was the talk of SXSW. This year Oppenheimer returned with a follow-up film that is just as harrowing in its own way. His cameras follow Adi, an optometrist who travels from village to village giving eye exams to the now-elderly participants in the slaughter. Adi, whose older brother was killed by the death squads, calmly but unflinchingly questions the men about their actions and their feelings about what they did. He is consistently met with rationalizations and blame-shifting as the men who happily recount their evil deeds continue to live in denial that they did anything wrong. Adi’s courage is as remarkable as the unapologetic venality of those he fits for glasses, and his frustrated efforts at closure are ultimately heartbreaking.
To the residents of the Texas border town Eagle Pass, the people of Piedras Negras, Mexico are neighbors, partners, and friends; nothing separates them but the mighty Rio Grande. When the drug cartels start dropping bodies in Coahuila, however, the already onerous federal presence along the border increases, resulting in a shutdown of the crossing that links the two towns. Directors Bill and Turner Ross focus primarily on two men affected by border politics: Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster, who opposes the idea of a wall between the countries (earning him the enmity of anti-immigration groups) and cattle rancher Martin Wall, who relies on the border crossing to earn his living. Western is no polemic, however; there is no narration and no talking-head pundits appear to explain their views. Instead, the Ross brothers have pieced together an Altman-esque portrait of a community, deeply evocative of a way of life that’s changing by the day.