The British Film Institute recently asked 340 critics, programmers and filmmakers to name the best documentary films. They published their results. Yet many of the films on the list, including the top two on the filmmakers’ list—Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil—are not what we think of as typical documentaries: informative, formally barren, striving for objectivity and peopled by talking-headed experts. They are instead subjective, personal and as exhilarating as the best of their narrative cousins. If the standard documentary strives for the equivalent of reportage or monograph, these films are more akin to personal essay or poetry.
This got me thinking about recent documentaries, of which there’s been a glut, the majority of which keep the typical documentary formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does bind their success to the topics they explore and the efficiency with which they do so. Pleasant exceptions to the trend have been Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Robert Greene’s Actress and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, among others. Like Vertov and Marker’s works, these documentaries have taken left turns off the beaten path and demonstrated that documentaries aren’t just a dumping ground for facts. It’s sometimes a shame that we have so many genres of narrative films (even that term is tricky because many documentaries also have narratives and some fictional films don’t) but group everything non-fictional under “documentary”.
Anyway, the point of this post is to highlight the work of one American filmmaker, Jessica Oreck. She has directed three feature-length documentaries so far:
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009)
Working backwards through history, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo explores the mystery of the development of Japans love affair with bugs. Using insects like an anthropologists toolkit, the film uncovers Japanese philosophies that will shift Westerners perspectives on nature, beauty, life, and even the seemingly mundane realities of their day-to-day routines.
Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (2013)
One year in the life of a family of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland. A study of hard work, hard earned leisure, and an intricate bond between man and nature.
The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014)
A descent into Eastern Europe’s haunted woodlands uncovers the secrets, fairy tales, and bloody histories that shape our understanding of man’s place in nature.
We live in a global village. Support your local documentarian.