The best of 2015 in cinematic nonfiction

Amidst the clamour of reality media, these docs speak deeper.

Robert Greene

Web exclusive

Laurent Becue-Renard’s Of Men and War: ‘a film of boundless empathy’ 

Laurent Becue-Renard’s Of Men and War: ‘a film of boundless empathy’ 

Most of us take in hundreds of complexly enacted nonfiction images a day: Snapchat pics, Instagram selfies, Vine loops, YouTube rants, etc. In 2015, documentary performances were nearly ubiquitous and we broadly understood them to be compressed expressions of staged and authentic selves, framed for maximum likes. But what happens to the idea of ‘authenticity’ in this age of social-media performance? You know your friend isn’t that happy, but you ‘heart’ her picture anyway, agreeing to support her act, hoping, of course, that she will give you the same validation.

Authenticity has long been a kind of higher calling for documentary filmmakers, a grail to be sought after and vigorously protected if found. The more authentic your work as a documentarian, the closer you come to truth, and everyone knows the history of nonfiction cinema from Flaherty to Oppenheimer has been one long quest to pin down this frisky thing called ‘truth’. The sense of the authentic has been presented as a kind of tithe to viewers, desperate proof that the pursuit was noble rather than absurdly futile.

So what do we do if the old idol might be dying? How relevant is documentary cinema when we’ve all become nonfiction performance artists?

In 2015, once again, some of the most horrible things we witnessed were nonfiction images. (WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES IN LINKS.) Police dashboard cams, survivor videos, photographs of dead refugees, the cell phone footage of a mad man; this was a year in which we were all forced to see and then process tiny documentaries of extreme violence. A black, unarmed teenager is gunned down in Chicago. It’s recorded and becomes a hit mini-movie, going viral and stirring revolt or reinforcing racist stereotypes, depending on the audience. Repeat. Sadly, the market is saturated.

Where does this predicament leave filmmakers?

The abundance of everyday nonfiction images seems to have warped reality itself, at least for me, and so I now find myself more demanding of the documentaries I consume (and make). Amidst this over-mediation, in a world where Shia Labeouf can stage something like #ALLMYMOVIES and get high fives, it seems crucial that we documentarians use the tools we have to interpret actual events and fabricate new ways of seeing from what we capture. It’s not enough to retransmit the world back to our viewers. Everyone does that already every day. Filmmakers need to push considerably past trying to reproduce reality and start using the elasticity built into the nonfiction form to decode and liberate truths from the noise of over-mediated experience.

Anyone who takes a selfie can understand that all documentaries are at least semi-fabricated, and with this potential viewer awareness comes the opportunity for aesthetic risk-taking. What we do with this freedom is key, of course. 2015 saw the worldwide release of Joshua Oppenheimer (and Anonymous’) masterful The Look of Silence (which I included on my list last year), a deeply profound piece of boundary-pushing political cinema. Oppenheimer is equal parts formalist and activist and the former expands the possibilities of the latter. Oppenheimer remains ethically constricted by the severe realities he wishes to bring attention to, but the vessel he builds carries sounds and images meant to challenge and stir, rather than simply inform or reproduce reality.

Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that a film of fantastic cinematic freedom – the late great Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person – finally made its premiere in 2015 after 41 years on the shelf. It’s probably not accurate to credit our current cinematic climate with the liberation of this near-masterpiece, but it felt right all the same. In a year where heroes Albert Maysles and Chantal Akerman released films as they made their sad exits from our world, it was good to hear ol’ Les’ voice again, reminding us that there’s nothing remotely new about expressive, artfully wild nonfiction cinema.

(Side note: bringing up Maysles and Akerman also makes clear the total subjectivity of my list. It may sound silly, but I’ve been just too dejected to watch either of Maysles’ recent releases, Iris or In Transit. I’ll get to them as soon as I can watch them as movies and not funeral processions for a hero. I’m also still reeling over the sudden, tragic loss of Akerman, which is partly to blame for my waiting to see her No Home Movie until 2016. My stage of grieving hasn’t yet reached the ‘still need to watch for my column’ phase.)

This past year saw some inspired movement towards the kind of cinematic freedom that these late heroes (and others, like Haskell Wexler) spent their lives fighting for. Sure, what might be insultingly called the reactionary arm of documentary is alive and kicking, giving us frustratingly conventional movies like Meru or Hot Girls Wanted, and downright upsetting developments, such as the snubbing of The Look of Silence by the BAFTAs, but plenty happened in 2015 to set my unclean heart afire. For one, my good friend Eric Hynes started a column called Make It Real, with emphasis on the word ‘make’, in order to describe and critique the methods by which today’s documentary filmmakers construct their interpretations of the real world and express their aesthetic liberties. Hynes’ sharp voice remains among the most potent and useful in documentary criticism.

Elsewhere, friends Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook made hay when they launched the short documentary series Field of Vision, which has produced a number of provocative works of 21st-century cinematic journalism. Meanwhile, fiction filmmakers seemingly took cues from their documentary brethren to create movies like Sean Baker’s much-lauded Tangerine, which feels as baked in the real as any work of nonfiction. Perennial hero Adam Curtis expanded his palette with the BBC iPlayer-launching Bitter Lake and even Paul Thomas Anderson got into the doc-act with the aurally inspired Junun.

Among the films I saw in 2015, works like João Pedro Plácido’s lovely Volta à Terra, Eryk Rocha’s impressionistic Campo de Jogo (Sunday Ball) and Phil Collins’ adventurous Tomorrow Is Always Too Long demonstrated just how abundant the cinematic nonfiction bounty is across the world. Experiments in form abound; chimeras are almost the norm, rather than the exception. Whether or not this ubiquity of artistically inclined work means we’re getting more great movies is up for debate, but I nevertheless remain inspired and challenged daily.

In 2015, I shot and edited my next film, helped shepherd the release of Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant, contributed editing for Nick Berardini’s Killing Them Safely, and started my post as Filmmaker-in-Chief at the new Murray Center for Documentary Journalism as the University of Missouri. As I have every year since picking up my first camera in the late 90s, I lived and breathed nonfiction film. I also used Instagram a lot and consumed many of your social-media performances, a lot of which I favourited. More than ever, documentary is being.

So this list, now in its fourth year of taking up virtual space, might best be read as a kind of breathless love letter scribbled by a nonfiction lifer. These are the movies that made me crumble, jump up in elation or that got me through a rough night of editing. These are the documentaries that, in my opinion, most seized our unique cultural moment and demanded that I put down my iPhone and watch them, debate them, exalt in their aesthetic and ethical complexity. Just take a look and consider the sheer breadth of great work. Then feel free to get back to your regularly scheduled selfie.

Note: this list reflects my own year of viewing new work, not what was theatrically released in 2015.


Heart of a Dog (2015)

25. Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson, USA

Among the lovely analogies expressed in experimental music legend Anderson’s irresistible, arch-poetic tome of love, death and memory, one particularly evocative one comes when she describes the translucent stuff that floats in our eyes as “prisoner cinema”. Indeed, in times of significant loss, the human mind searches for and projects filmic forms and Anderson’s playful, elegiac, formally adventurous film might best be described as a gorgeous manifestation of this very idea. After her beloved rat terrier died, Anderson received the sage advice to try “to feel sad without actually being sad”. This is what movies like Heart of a Dog help us do. The heartbreaking kicker comes with a dedication in the credits that magnifies the sense of loss, not just for Anderson but for all of us.

Read Frances Morgan’s report on Heart of a Dog and Laurie Anderson’s London Film Festival stage talk


The Rules of the Game (Les règles du jeu, 2014)

24. Rules of the Game

Patrice Chagnard & Claudine Bories, France

A drab employment-counselling centre becomes the unlikely stage for an amusing, ironic and subtly heart-rending look at French youth stuck between hope and failure. A procession of millennials try to learn the art of getting a job and their responses to the institutional conventions being trumpeted make clear the sometimes tense relationship between social demands and youthful listlessness. One of the young job seekers is Lolita, the hilarious, pathetic, potentially violent, valiantly insubordinate anti-heroine who may just be one of the best documentary characters of all time.


Night of the Demon (1957)

23. Fear Itself

Charlie Lyne, UK

+ Stand by for Tape Backup

Ross Sutherland, UK

+ Copycat

Charlie Lyne, UK

+ Paint Drying

Charlie Lyne, UK

My friend (and S&S contributor) Lyne had quite a year. He produced and edited Ross Sutherland’s absorbing Stand by for Tape Backup, directed the pathos-rich short Copycat and created the 10-plus hour, Kickstarter-funded BBFC ratings protest film Paint Drying, which has made a stir by forcing examiners to literally watch paint dry for a whole day to bring attention to what Lyne considers their unfair cost practices.

He also directed his sophomore essay Fear Itself for the BBC iPlayer, which meditates on horror movies to dissect why we love to be scared. Whereas Lyne’s hero Thom Andersen went more academic with his archival documentary The Thoughts That Once We Had and films like Asif Kapadia’s undeniably affecting Amy used archival and found images to create conventionally escapist tapestries, Lyne and his collaborators are more interested in our interaction with pop culture images. Like Rodney Ascher’s almost-great The Nightmare, Lyne is fascinated by what scares us, but he’s more focused on the collective dream world that movies concoct and how we viewers collaborate with the images to exploit our own anxieties. “Maybe when we indulge the things that scare us, we stop being the innocent victims of fear,” says actress Amy E. Watson in voice over. “And become co-conspirators.”

Lyne’s work is still developing, but he and his filmmaking partners’ perspectives are fresh and exciting.

Read Thirza Wakefield’s review of Fear Itself


Exotica, Erotica, Etc. (2015)

22. Exotica, Erotica, Etc.

Evangelia Kranioti, France

Premiering at the 2015 Berlinale, Exotica, Erotica, Etc. is Greek-born, France-based visual artist Kranioti’s radical debut feature, which combines breathtaking seascapes, romance, ethnography, allegory, pyscho-poetry and frank sexuality to create a innovative kind of baroque, melodramatic nonfiction essay. Kranioti’s cinematographic eye and fondness for abruptly switching narrative and thematic gears make this a work of mesmeric beauty and thrilling structural freedom.


Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (2014)

21. Those Who Feel the Fire Burning

Morgan Knibbe, Netherlands

Knibbe’s debut feature turns the European refugee crisis into an audacious, ethically knotty ghost story, simultaneously giving us a uniquely poetic look at an ongoing socio-political catastrophe while also, like the best work of journalism, bringing us to locations and showing us the deeply traumatised faces of people the mainstream news media too often looks past.


20. Field of Vision shorts

Various, USA

Short-form filmmaking is clearly in the midst of a sustained renaissance. For years now, festivals around the world have been packed with vital work that runs under an hour. Movies like Kitty Green’s simple but affecting The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul or Pia Borg and S&S contributor Edward Lawrenson’s Abandoned Goods create in less than 40 minutes the kind of sustained mood and narrative drive that few features can conjure.

In this climate organisations like the Guardian, Vice and the aforementioned Field of Vision series hosted at the Intercept have emerged to give us some of the most exciting nonfiction of 2015. The work done under the Field of Vision banner has been particularly inspired, with movies like Dustin Guy Defa’s playful God Is an Artist, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s euphoric and complex Peace in the Valley and Kirsten Johnson’s masterful The Above demonstrating that the short form is where some of the very best filmmaking is happening. With these and other pieces, Field of Vision is forging a new path for documentary journalism that has the potential to change the way we perceive news-driven work.


Field Niggas (2014)

19. Field Niggas

Khalik Allah, USA

Allah’s provocatively titled Field Niggas is all about expressing unheard voices. This documentary/photography/audio hybrid not only gives platform to the often-voiceless inhabitants of Harlem but also heralds the arrival of a powerful, gifted, ambitious new filmmaker. Fractured and impressionistic, Field Niggas is that rare movie that shows us new forms can indeed be invented and that ‘documentary’ is a uniquely elastic carrier for urgent, vital ideas.


Tired Moonlight (2015)

18. Tired Moonlight

Britni West, USA

West’s first feature is a strange and delicate mix of experimental fiction, observation and bad poetry that is as fun as it is unclassifiable. Burnt-beautiful and flowing like a kinky creek, this 16mm portrait of the filmmaker’s hometown in Montana is a reminder that cinema can and should be the territory of the individual artist making deeply personal, innovative reflections on the world she knows best. No film in recent memory demonstrates more beautifully that the divide between micro-budget fiction and personal documentary is often meaningless.


Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

17. Listen to Me Marlon

Stevan Riley, USA

The portrait Marlon Brando deserves, which, of course, is saying a lot. As weird and singular as it is emotionally involving, Riley’s film takes movie and other archival clips, newly shot material, confessional audio from the man himself and a wonderfully strange Max Headroom-esque digital Brando bust and crafts an epic psychic dive into the mind of most beautiful/problematic actor we’ve ever known.


Western (2015)

16. Western

Bill Ross, Turner Ross, USA

My good friends the Ross brothers’ third film, like their previous two (45365 and Tchoupitoulas), is a patient and poetic study of a place that plays like an understated work of great literature. Taking place on the US-Mexico border, in a town called Eagle Pass, Texas, Western conjures the images and symbols of the old shootout genre from which it gets its name, yet remains dutifully tethered to the real world. Musical and graceful, at once an entrancing narrative and a focused observational portrait, Western confirms the Rosses as being among the most important filmmaking teams in the world.


Democrats (2014)

15. Democrats

Camilla Nielsson, Denmark

Nielsson’s Tribeca Film Festival-winning look at Zimbabwean politics is a miraculous feat. Even setting aside the dangerous lengths the filmmaker and her team went to over three years to capture their slowly unfolding, immensely complex story, Democrats would be a praiseworthy achievement just on the strength of its handling of character and specificity. No recent documentary has given me a better, more urgently cinematic frame in which to understand another country’s political ups and downs – and the social performances and power structures that help forge them.


Breaking a Monster (2015)

14. Breaking a Monster

Luke Meyer, USA

This tender rock ’n’ roll odyssey of teenage African American metal band Unlocking the Truth and their white, old-school manager Alan Sacks is finely-tuned and clear-eyed where many music documentaries are fatuous and self-aggrandising. Veteran filmmaker Luke Meyer (Darkon) finds just the right observational moments to visually articulate the kids’ strange trip through the music industry, while the badass trio of seventh graders that make up the band are at once sweetly rambunctious and wiser than everyone else onscreen.


The Wolfpack (2015)

13. The Wolfpack

Crystal Moselle, USA

Moselle’s Sundance-winning pop doc about a group of forcibly locked away siblings is at turns thrilling, ethically complex, frustratingly naïve, distinctively moving and knowingly surreal. The seven Angulo kids spend their time trapped in their parents’ tiny Manhattan apartment, reenacting scenes from their favourite Hollywood movies. A friendly filmmaker infiltrates their secret world and, in essence, helps them escape by exploiting their story. This process is laid bare if you care to see it and the film encourages its viewers to meditate on the power of cinema as both a vehicle for ecstatic imagination and instrument of complex social intervention.

Read Michael Atkinson’s review of The Wolfpack


Arabian Nights: Volume One – The Restless One (As mil e uma noites, 2015)

12. Arabian Nights

Miguel Gomes, Portugal

A voluminous burst of something close to unmitigated cinematic freedom, Gomes’s politically charged, three-part, 381-minute epic describes itself with text onscreen as having “acquired a fictional form from facts” and that’s good enough for me. Long stretches of this monster are documentary (while even longer stretches are gleefully opaque, dense, absurd, boring, stupid or electrifying). But ultimately Arabian Nights might be the clearest expression of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘every film is a documentary’ adage since the French master’s own work in the late 1970s and 80s. I find it most satisfying to view Gomes’ film-thing as an almost ridiculously thorough nonfiction self-portrait of cinematic structures and ideas, laid bare in a specific place at a particularly sensitive moment in that place’s political history.


(T)error (2015)

11. (T)error

Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe, USA

Cabral and Sutcliffe’s debut feature is equal parts riveting cinematic narrative and stunning work of investigative journalism. The film tells the story of the funny, menacing and pitiful Saeed ‘Shariff’ Torres, an FBI informant with a troubled past who begins to track a man his bosses think is a potential domestic terrorist. That the film even exists is a miracle of serendipity; that it becomes such a complex, exasperating and gripping experience is due to the intelligence and resourcefulness of the filmmaking.


The Chinese Mayor (2015)

10. The Chinese Mayor

Zhou Hao, China

A nearly unprecedented glimpse into local Chinese politics, Hao’s film is subtly self-aware, low-key and quietly devastating. With unique access, Hao and his camera follow Datong mayor Geng Yanbo as he attempts to work against the system, amidst controversy and constant setbacks, to reimagine the civic experience of one of China’s most polluted cities. When the mayor’s ambition meets the realities of his largely poor and often desperate constituents, the camera is improbably present, granting us an essential ground view of a man and a society at the mercy of China’s political realties.


Taxi (2015)

9. Taxi Tehran

Jafar Panahi, Iran

Panahi continues his fugitive cinema, now five years and three movies into his 20-year ban, with results that remain inventive and altogether inspiring. Playing the role of taxi driver, Panahi orchestrates and captures a series of semi-staged pick-ups with various citizens of Tehran, each encounter serving as a reminder of the political conditions under which he continues to make art. What Panahi creates is an act of defiance at its most affable and subtly provocative, where the camera as an object is given a deeply meaningful sense of physicality. What happens to this object, then, is a twist that resonates like a cruel violation.

Read Trevor Johnston’s review of Taxi Tehran


Homeland (Iraq Year Zero, 2015)

8. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero

Abbas Fahdel, Iraq

Homeland: Iraq Year Zero is a two-part, five and a half-hour home movie that, if seen as widely as it should be, could serve as a crucial historical corrective. Filmed over roughly 18 months in 2002-03, the film consists of two self-explanatory halves: Before the Fall and After the Battle, in which Fahdel documents the daily life of his own family. In part one, the anecdotal becomes poetic and profound as the family prepares for possible war. In part two, the on-the-ground details of life in year zero make painfully clear what most coverage of the situation only hinted at with broad strokes: the Iraq War was an overwhelming human disaster. While showing casual catastrophe, and using a truly heartbreaking technique of revealing with text onscreen the fates of characters that we come to know, Fahdel goes well beyond the cliché of putting a human face to war.


The Other Side (2015)

7. The Other Side

Roberto Minervini, France/Italy/USA

Minervini’s cinema could be considered a new kind of realism, where documentary observation, collaboration with subjects to create semi-fictional characters and filmmaker intent collapse into a striking whole. Minervini’s Louisiana is our America, as seen through the eyes of an outsider, somehow more vividly real than real. The filmmaker finished up his Texas trilogy with the lovely, ascetic Stop the Pounding Heart and then immediately veered into darker territory. The ‘other’ in the title seems to refer both to the film’s two halves (part one is a disquieting look at drug addicts trying to make sense of their tattered lives while part two is a frank and subtly unnerving portrait of an armed militia) but it might also refer to the invisible America that many of us in the States are generally only vaguely aware of. Minervini’s goal isn’t simply to shed light but to transform; the ‘other side’ is at once a mirror and the frighteningly vivid animation of a wilfully repressed American psyche.


The Pearl Button (El botón de nácar, 2015)

6. The Pearl Button

Patricio Guzmán, Chile

Legendary Chilean documentarian Guzmán has found with his 19th and 20th films (2010’s Nostalgia for the Light and his latest The Pearl Button) a new cinematic language to approach the same story he’s been working on since The Battle of Chile in 1975: the political psyche of his nation. Driven by an almost childlike curiosity and a very serious need to continue uncovering the half-buried secrets of dictatorship, Guzmán combines science, metaphor and narrative ingenuity to create a kind of metaphysical history lesson about the relationship between water, the cosmos and political turmoil in Chile. A film of wonder and dread, where the ‘language of water’ helps us better understand of the language of impunity, The Pearl Button is a contemplative stunner.



In Jackson Heights (2015)

5. In Jackson Heights

Frederick Wiseman, USA

This portrait of one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the world is Frederick Wiseman at his most compassionate. Not unlike his earlier Belfast, Maine, Wiseman’s latest finds the Big American Idea in the details of a very particular place, creating a mini city symphony of generational change, socio-political struggle and everyday life. Wiseman commits his images and sometimes-lengthy scenes to portraying the folks who populate Jackson Heights, New York with a deep sense of human dignity. His lifelong project to help us understand ourselves by taking a hard look at the institutions we build and operate feels opened here, creating a surprisingly sweeping and emotional experience.


I Am the People (Je suis le peuple, 2014)

4. I Am the People

Anne Roussillon, France/Egypt

Roussillon’s debut is an act of cinematic humanism that views the tumultuous events of Egypt’s recent past by observing a family living far from Tahir Square. Villagers work, make bread to eat and then sharply debate the potential consequences of Mubarak’s fall and the political future of Egypt, a revolutionary drama that plays out on their television sets. Few films have so delicately placed world-altering political upheavals in the context of real people’s lives. Roussillon’s eye for unexpected beauty and her easy, playful, sometimes feisty relationship with her subjects make this one of the most radical, rigorous, quietly surprising debuts in recent memory.


Spartacus and Cassandra (2014)

3. Spartacus & Cassandra

Ioanis Nuguet, France

Add Spartacus & Cassandra to the list of great movies about children. Nuguet’s look at two Romani street kids is anything but typical poverty porn or issue-driven storytelling. Built on clear-eyed, present-tense observational moments and unabashed visual lyricism, the film forgoes easy sympathy for a tough-earned affection and thought-provoking moral complexity. A late scene where the younger sister Cassandra tells her parents that she’s choosing her own path over their troubled life is complicated and universal where many films could be caricaturing. That Nuguet ended up adopting the children, which you don’t see onscreen, only magnifies the emotional complexity of a deeply affecting film.


The Visit (2015)

2. The Visit

Michael Madsen, Denmark

A profound work on the nature of perception, Madsen’s The Visit takes the tantalising science-fiction question of ‘what would we do if aliens invaded Earth?’ and turns it into a treatise on the limits and possibilities of observing reality in documentary cinema. Madsen is an oddly arch iconoclast, showy and a bit overbearing at times with dominating voiceover and silly touches such as the inclusion of his signature on the title screen. This persona is productive, however, and his pursuit of ideas is thrillingly uninhibited. One provocative invention is to situate us viewers as the visiting aliens, an aesthetic and narrative manoeuvre that allows Madsen to fuse fantasy and journalism in a new way. Ultimately the film becomes about how we imagine our internal and external realities and how we can record and project these collective cultural dreams into the universe. In a sense, cinema is the visit to our own minds.


Of Men and War (Des Hommes et de la guerre, 2014)

1. Of Men and War

Laurent Becue-Renard, France/Switzerland

A film of boundless empathy and a perfect companion to Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) above, Of Men and War is a spare, rigorously conceived, emotionally dense look at a California treatment centre for PTSD-afflicted veterans of the Iraq war. Bécue-Renard and his camera are invited into the room as a component of the psychological treatment for a group of deeply wounded, very proud men. These damaged warriors struggle to cope with and contextualise their psychological trauma by telling awful battle stories – to each other, to their counsellors, to themselves and, through the camera, to us. The exchanges are tense and revelatory and the images are unadorned and direct. That the camera is accepted is key; the sharing of what happened in war is the method by which these men are attempting to move past their horrifying experiences and we, the viewers of the footage, are part of their process of opening up. Bécue-Renard also leaves the treatment room to bear witness to the effects of war on the men’s families. Years in the making, Of Men and War is a staggering achievement, a fusion of observational and therapeutic cinema and my pick for the best movie of 2015.


Ten special mentions (in alphabetical order)

A German Youth

Almost There

Don’t Breathe


Read Adam Cook’s Toronto Film Festival review of 88:88

Elephant’s Dream

God Bless the Child

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Of the North

Read Nick Pinkerton’s Camden Film Festival review of Of the North


Very Semi Serious


In the February 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

A year in documentary: 2015 roundup

From Sheffield Doc/Fest to Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX and Amsterdam’s IDFA, the past year saw nonfiction cinema on the move. By Nick Bradshaw.

  • 2015 in review

    2015 in review

    Our roundups and overviews of the year’s highlights in cinema, covering new features and DVDs, documentary and animation.

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