The London Film Festival 2015‘s third and final part of our coverage sees Helen M Jerome reckoning we were truly spoilt by the high quality of the Documentaries, some of which took us deeper into the souls of their subjects, thrust us into new places and even challenged our existing views.
And after you’ve read about these docs, you’ll see we’ve kindly marked your card for the festival films you simply must not miss, and the actors and directors who’ve made their own mark this year in our DVDfever Awards Round-up!
Eight years in the making, David Sington’s The Fear Of 13 chose a single subject, Nick Yarris, who has spent 23 years on death row as a convicted murderer. This is a risky strategy, as entire sections are just Yarris speaking direct to camera, complemented with bits of drama reconstruction. Fortunately, Yarris is an excellent anecdote teller, so we lean forward to hear about his escape and exploits on the run. As the years grind on, we discover how prison routines, hierarchy and silence take their toll. But Yarris is rarely daunted, deciding to start educating himself, gaining a wider vocabulary and reading a thousand books in three years, eventually ‘finding himself’ and even gaining a measure of happiness on death row. It’s hard not to like him, even as we explore his misspent youth of stealing cars to fund his growing meth habit. But he always sticks to his plea of innocence, clutching onto the hope that fresh evidence will turn up, decades on from the crime. I won’t give away the outcome, but you’ll definitely want to watch this until the end.
She may be one of the most famous teenagers in the world, but in Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala, we see the inspirational Malala Yousafzai is equally at home watching the Minions, giggling at school, and addressing the United Nations. She’s even undaunted when taking phone call about the Taliban aiming to kill her if she returns to Pakistan. There are some graphic sequences of the brutal, cowardly attack on her and her friends, and her subsequent time in hospital. Without any footage, Guggenheim revisits Malala’s youth in impressionistic style, using animated, dream-like paintings to recreate her childhood, and even the story behind the name her father chose for her. Her brothers and parents chip in with their own views, but we get most insight about this remarkable young woman from her own self-effacing words.
My Love Don’t Cross That River, from Moyoung Jin, is a study of an extremely elderly Korean couple. Utterly devoted yet mischievous after over seven decades of marriage, they are nevertheless acutely aware of their mortality. Heartbreakingly lovely.
There’s a current vogue for biographical films that plunder freshly-discovered archives of iconic movie stars, much of which have been gathering dust in vaults until recently. Who knew that Sweden’s screen queen made her own home movies throughout her career? In Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, director Stig Bjorkman has gathered this glorious footage, together with letters to her friends, evocative stills, and contributions from her four children, and created something rather special. We learn that she took films more seriously than life, and that according to her daughter, Isabella Rosselini, director Alfred Hitchcock “taught her to lighten up”. Splendid stuff.
Working with hundreds of hours of audio recorded by Marlon Brando, director Stevan Riley does a similar job of getting us closer to the subject, in Listen To Me Marlon. But in Brando’s case, we also hear his most intimate confessions when he’s going through therapy, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about this troubled, charismatic, emotional yet introspective leading man.
What makes Steve McQueen: The Man And Le Mans different, is that it focuses on the one abiding passion project for racing driving aficionado McQueen. Hugely flawed, just like its star, this is the film he’d always wanted to make. But the production team neglected to develop any real plot, so the endless hours of race filming at Le Mans unbalanced the shoot, which overran in time and budget, and got through two directors. The huge archive that Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna have plundered tells its own story of McQueen’s obsession, and their fresh interviews with the star’s first wife Neile Adams, son Chad, and fellow racing drivers add further depth to the narrative. Le Mans has become something of a cult classic among racing fans, and this doc makes a great companion piece.
Not exactly a Hollywood star, but definitely an icon of his age, stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel makes a fantastic subject for Daniel Junge’s Being Evel. And this is the rise and fall, literally, of the daredevil who crashed the celebrity circuit with self-promotion and bravado. Plus a flashy red, white and blue outfit to get the patriots purring. Lots of talking heads and archive footage make up this biodoc, which is a passion project for fan Johnny Knoxville, who is one of the producers, but must also dream of Being Evel.
Motorcycle Diaries filmmaker Walter Salles is a big fan himself, of fellow director Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenang. Salles, himself, follows Zhangke (whose latest feature, Mountains May Depart, was also in the festival) as he strolls around with one of his actors, occasionally getting accosted by folk who recognise him. And Salles takes Zhangke back to the locations familiar from his films, interspersed with clips, building up a picture of his dedication, enhanced with interviews with his family, including his wife and longtime muse Zhao Tao.
Hot on the heels of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear doc, comes My Scientology Movie from John Dower, with Louis Theroux. There’s lots to chew on here, but as always with Theroux, quite a lot of cheeky humour too. When they quickly realise that they’re not going to get access to any key characters, they film their casting sessions with actors wanting to play these parts, and get them to deliver their church members’ original words. And they’re assisted by one of those who made it out of the church, Marty Rathbun. The twist in the tale is that the Scientologists themselves start to film Theroux’s crew, adding another surreal layer to an absorbing film.
Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands has a family background that impels him towards the truth of the Nazis and their children – and their attitudes towards their fathers. My Nazi Legacy, from David Evans, focuses on two Nazi sons, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter, with very different views. Sands even accompanies them to the scene of their father’s crimes, Lviv in Ukraine. Which is the same place where only one out of Sands’ eighty ancestors who were there in 1939 survived by 1945. Frank has faced up to his father’s past, but von Wachter is in denial still. But will Sands help them – and himself – come to terms with the past?
Though it feels like an intimate drama, Roberto Anjari-Rossi’s debut feature A Legacy is an effortlessly atmospheric documentary. We watch just two central figures, Chilean granny, Rosalia, and her granddaughter, Laura, living together and just getting by, with Laura aching to break the mould and become a car mechanic, and Rosalia still clinging to old superstitions and spells.
Go to page 2 for more great documentaries, plus The DVDfever Awards!