The popularity of a documentary film is often based on word-of-mouth. Very few docs get a wide release (or a theatrical release at all, for that matter) or receive much press. Unless it’s the latest Michael Moore film, a massive advocacy film aiming for Oscar recognition or a mass-market oddity like Supersize Me, a documentary is unlikely to get much public attention. Speciality docs about World War 2, boxing, rap feuds etc. will always have a market among people who are interested in those topics. Occasionally, one of them will even transcend its genre and become a broader success, introducing people to a new sub-culture or perspective. Most documentaries, however, get their recognition because people hear about them or see them at festivals and tell others to watch them.
Narrative documentaries, films that tell a first-person story about an individual or event, are even less likely to garner the attention of the public. These are generally films whose appeal cannot be summed up in a sentence, movies that seek to tell a “true story” that is hopefully compelling, entertaining and insightful. This is also where the greatest achievements in the genre are made, where we find films that offer the most tangible, meaningful experiences that documentary making can provide.
Here are three great narrative documentaries you might have missed. Tell your friends.
Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero
Pro Wrestling has been the backdrop for many excellent documentaries, perhaps because wrestling exists as one of the most thankless, self-destructive and anti-establishment performance arts in the world. If you’ve seen Daren Aronovsky’s The Wrestler, then you can imagine the kind of human-interest stories available to a documentarian looking for a subject.
Vampiro, certainly the least well-known doc on this list, achieves something very few films do; it makes you interested in someone you’ve never heard of, who does something you likely aren’t very interested in, namely small-time pro-wrestling.
The film follows a wrestler named Vampiro, ostensibly a legend of Mexican and European Pro-Wrestling, who has been on the circuit for nearly 20 years. Vampiro, whose real name is Ian Richard Hodgkinson, “Billy” to his friends, has had a truly amazing life. Ian’s story includes guns, robbery, the Mexican Mafia, The Guardian Angels, extraordinarily violent wrestling matches and Milli Vanilli.
Like the best narrative docs about a person you didn’t know before, the film unfolds like you’re sitting in a bar, listening to a guy tell an amazing story about himself. Director Lee Demarbre collects an entertaining and insightful group of interviews with friends (and enemies) of Ian’s, and parcels them out in a way that adds to the storytelling dramatically, without ever seeming gimmicky.
Every 15min, the film hits you with another twist to Ian’s story. What is truly remarkable is that there’s no huge moment that the film makers are building toward; no disclosure of some dark, motivating secret that’s propelled his life. Not that there aren’t dark secrets, the film has no shortage of those, they just aren’t part of some grand reveal.
Vampiro is just a great story, told with enormous care and skill. It is a testament to the crafting of the film that the “oh my god” moments are simply revelations about character relationships and personal motivations, or new twists to an already amazing narrative. All of which revolves around a character that you’ve never heard of and don’t know what to think about, but that you none the less care about and are fascinated by. That’s great documentary making.
Probably the most well-known of the three docs here, Bus 174 is quite simply a masterpiece. Directors José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda use a Bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro as a jumping off point to explore the plight of street children and the viciousness of police corruption in Brazil’s capital.
The film presents a story and a structure straight out of a scripted Hollywood film; a desperate, violent and very public hostage taking, perpetrated by a criminal with a story to tell to a rabid media. The “real-time” events of the hijacking are punctuated by intertwining backstories of the individuals involved, as the directors make use of remarkably diligent research to present a whole picture of their subjects. This narrative format is presented with so much authenticity and care, that each time we lurch back to the horrible events unfolding on Bus 174, they garner more and more weight.
Bus 174 accomplishes all the goals it sets for itself. It works as a gripping, tragic first-person narrative, as an advocacy film about urban, post-colonial poverty and as an insightful character examination of several people brought together by a series of tragedies. All of which are tied perfectly, without the slightest stretch in logic or causation, to the hijacking of Bus 174. Few documentary films have ever achieved what Bus 174 does.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
The first thing anyone who’s seen Dear Zachary will tell you is that it is among the most upsetting films you will ever see. Not because of any piece of footage, or visual image, simply because the story that unfolds in Kurt Kuenne’s deeply personal doc is so awful, so unimaginably terrible, that it would seem exploitive were it not true.
The film was made by Kuenne after the murder of his friend Andrew Bagby by his girlfriend Shirley Turner. After Turner announced that she was pregnant with Andrew’s baby, Kuenne began making the doc for baby Zachary as a memorial to his father. Indeed, the films narration speaks directly to Zach, referring to “you” and “your family” throughout. Andrew’s parents and friends are all present in the film and they tell an increasingly desperate, angry and ultimately devastating story that only begins with the loss of their friend and son. Revealing almost anything about the story would weaken its impact, but I doubt anyone could watch this film without being entranced and upset, to say the least.
The film is not technically amazing, as it was not originally conceived as a commercial doc. It has some rough editing and a particularly jarring sound cue at a moment that needs no accompaniment, but it has been smoothed out well enough to tell its story, which is nothing short of incredible.
Dear Zachary is as personal a narrative as exists in documentary film. It is a movie that will leave you feeling drained and angry, but also grateful that the people involved were able and willing to share such a profoundly moving story with you.