FACE IT: A Banner Year for Documentaries

I have seen a batch of documentaries in the last few weeks -- coming your way soon, no doubt -- and they remind me once again that the folks behind them may be our finest and noblest filmmakers.
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I have seen a batch of documentaries in the last few weeks -- coming your way soon, no doubt -- and they remind me once again that the folks behind them may be our finest and noblest filmmakers. Here are dedicated men and women who find stories they feel must be told, and they usually have to raise money via credit cards, family and friends, the occasional foundation, and lately, that godsend for do-gooders, Kickstarter.

Rory Kennedy, the daughter of Robert and Ethel, certainly doesn't have trouble raising funds... but neither does she need to work for a living. Yet, she has made a remarkable documentary titled Last Days of Vietnam -- just presented the Audience Award at the Nantucket Film Festival. This searing and exciting telling of the final exodus from that war (one she acknowledged her "Uncle Jack" began and her father later ran for president promising to end) is both an indictment and warning about entering wars with no possible victory. It includes interviews with heretofore unknown Americans who did everything possible, in the end, to help the people whose lives they had essentially destroyed.

Kennedy confesses she, like so many, thought she knew how that war ended, but she shows us new facets, mostly thanks to archival film she was able to attain. "There were so many heroes in those last 24 hours," she says. "I feel humbled to have been able to tell their stories."

Then there is The Supreme Price, Joanna Lipper's doc on the brave and tenacious women trying to bring fair leadership to Nigeria. Lipper teaches a class at Harvard on how to use film to bring about social change. She certainly succeeds with this one, catching a crucial moment in that explosive country where 200 girls have been lost, at best.

Another African story being told in a new documentary is Soft Vengeance, about one Albie Sachs, a white Jewish man who has been an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa for some six decades. His story is truly amazing and inspiring: here was someone who did not need to stay (in fact, he left the continent for a while), let alone fight and put his own life at risk. He was the target, finally, of a bombing in which he lost an arm. The filmmaker, Abby Ginzberg, is an American lawyer, long interested in social justice. When she re-met Sachs in 2009 in South Africa, (they had each been anti-apartheid activists in their own countries for years) she knew this would be her next project.

"The guiding principle throughout the three or four years it took to make the film was this was Albie's life but it was my film," Ginzberg told me. "I made it with the hope it would resonate with audiences in both the U.S. and South Africa, because Albie has paid some significant price for his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, including 168 days in solitary confinement, loss of an arm and sight in an eye. He is an important spokesperson for reconciliation."

Another new doc is The Internet's Own Boy, the harrowing and heartbreaking story of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old whiz kid/hacker/free access advocate who took his own life rather than face indictment by a hovering Justice department. Like many others, I recalled the story somewhat but -- the tech world feeling far removed from my daily life -- never really focused on the details. Yes, this doc, directed by Brian Knappenberger, has a clear point of view, but it is very difficult not to move to that side and mostly, to feel for the friends, family and fans who loved and miss that boy.

Two docs that deal, tangentially, with the performance world, are also deeply moving and surprising. Holbrooke/Twain: An American Odyssey, directed by Scott Teems, is a beautiful, black and white chronicle of the actor who has been doing a one-man show on Mark Twain for 60 years: determined, as Sean Penn says in the film, "that we are not going to forget this guy." Neither will anyone ever forget, or look at, Holbrooke the same again. When this one is over, we understand why he feels Twain must be remembered, and we have witnessed the sacrifices and joys of the actor's life. Holbrooke, now 89, was at the opening night of the AFI Documentary Festival in Washington and was truly moved by the resounding standing ovation he received at the end of the film.

Finally, there is Life Itself, a lovely and often painful look at the life -- and slow death -- of influential film critic Roger Ebert. Directed by Steve James, this one is packed with often surprising material, including Ebert's respect from the most important filmmakers of our time, and his late-in-life marriage to a black woman he'd met in a recovery program.

After viewing these, one can't help feeling that even more than in narrative features these days, documentaries seem to be telling the better tales and giving us, frankly, more interesting people to watch. "The beauty of long-form documentaries is you can create more complex characters," says Rory Kennedy. Amen.

Who are the heroes here? Maybe the American ambassador who refused to leave Saigon until he was absolutely forced to. Or perhaps the woman who died speaking out for women's rights in Nigeria, or the daughter who has taken up the mantle. Maybe the white South African who got his law degree at 21 to help Mandela and others, maybe the man who never became cynical in his love of films. Perhaps the actor who lost two marriages and almost his children in order to keep Americans aware of one of its sagest wits. Maybe even a young man who died downloading for a cause that one day will be deemed correct.

No, the heroes are those men and women who spent years, and all the money they could find, to tell their stories.

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