As we are currently living through what film and television aficionados have come to dub the “Golden Age of Television,” it is easy to become wrapped up in six to eight seasons of 15 hour-long episodes. Yet, I am writing here to make a case for a genre that I believe has been thriving, despite a serious neglect by the film and television community.
While you will not be able to delve deep into the psyche of a master politician or high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook, documentaries provide a glimpse into the window of the lives of real people, events and cultures. Documentaries provide a return from caricatures created by Hollywood back to some of the more mundane, un-sexy if you will, basics of our society.
Aside from ‘mainstream’ documentaries such as Making a Murderer, Blackfish, Amanda Knox and Super-Size Me, I have a few I think are worth watching:
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2009)
This documentary takes you deep into Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg Tennessee, and follows contestants through their struggle to compete in and finish a 100-mile course with a 54,200 feet vertical climb. The course was designed by Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, a runner himself, in 1986 and is a trek through the wilderness of Tennesee, even at one point taking contestants underneath the infamous Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (location of the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray Dr. MLK Jr.’s assassin). Since its inaugural year, only 17 participants have ever finished, and some years no one finished.
If you ever wondered just how far the human body can be pushed, this documentary is for you.
Into the Inferno (2016)
For the geologist, I would recommend checking out Into the Inferno, a film directed by Werner Herzog which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival back in September and was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film takes viewers exploring active volcanoes with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer and Herzog as they travel to Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iceland and North Korea. It’s the unique blend of cinematography, science and journalism that brings out the adrenaline- junkie in all who watch, while also emphasizing the pure beauty of nature. It is without a doubt a well-orchestrated symphony of not only explosions, but also the intense cultures which shrouds each volcano.
The Short Game (2013)
Produced by Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, and directed by Josh Greenbaum, this documentary follows eight fierce child competitors from around the world as they face the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship. The film traces the athletes’ training six months prior to the big day until they finally reach the coveted green at Pinehurst, NC. From the struggles of parents who only want the best for their kids to tournament day challenges that each kid faces, this film demonstrates the power of practice and hard work when it comes to sports (or anything in life, really). I would go so far as to say this is definitely a hole-in-one you do not want to miss.
The final film I recommend to you is the very fashion forward, individualistic Iris. Albert Maysles strikes again with another beautiful documentary (see Grey Gardens) focused on the eccentric fashion icon Iris Apfel. Apfel is notorious for her unusual shopping strategy which entails anything from roaming into an African clothing store in Harlem to vintage shops up and down the East Coast. Known best for her extra-large and extremely round bifocals, Iris and her style have even graced the window display installation at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche in Paris this past spring. Regardless of whether or not you love fashion, this documentary highlights the genius of a woman who has refused to live her life any other way than her own.
Thus, before you get deeply lost in a Netflix series over spring break, assuming you are not on a beach somewhere, I recommend you browse through the documentary section and check some of these films out. For while we may need an escape from reality every now and then, it may also be worth taking the time to escape into the world that is all around us.