Documentaries Outshine Bleak Features

The current state of feature films may be as bleak as it has ever been. But the art of the documentary movie remains vibrant. Here are three I recently enjoyed.

White Horse — As the nuclear plant meltdowns in Japan were in the headlines, I came across this modest black & white 18-minute documentary on HBO that made its human emotional consequences palpable. It follows a refugee from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster as he returns to the home he left as a child. The bleak landscape left behind feels chilling as the filmmakers return with Russian Maxym Surkov to the Soviet era apartment block he left behind as a child. They climb the stairs to Surkov’s childhood home, the decaying building makes an apt metaphor for the devastation the meltdown wrought even beyond the effects of radiation. His pain is wrenchingly affecting as he inspects the looted apartment of his youth and finds small remaining remnants of his youth. A poster of a white horse on the wall of his boyhood bedroom provides the film’s title and serves as a symbol for the lost innocence and childhood of the former Chernobyl resident. Though short and simple, the film is redolent with drama and emotion that make the potential dangers of nuclear power compelling by the tragedy’s effects on just one human soul.

Joan Rivers — A Piece Of Work — Much as I have found Rivers funny over the years since her days as a housewife comedian appearing on The Tonight Show, something about her was increasingly irritating to me. It’s a testament to both her and the filmmakers that this account of a year in her life at age 77 warmed me to Rivers in an indelible fashion. It documents the still-working star on the far side of her peak of fame as she deals with her increasing irrelevance and loneliness, showing the person behind the persona with touching grace.

The brash, bold, irreverent and wacky humorist becomes a genuine person who feels and suffers like the rest of us behind the comedic guise, making this a moving portrayal of a pop culture icon in decline.

Dolley Madison — I am not a big fan of documentaries that attempt to dramatically recreate history with actors, being more a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of guy. But this PBS American Experience film about the wife of President James Madsion who all but birthed the role of First Lady in our culture and political landscape is an exception to the rule. In part it succeeds by only using her own words for the dramatic dialog, and through the strength of actress Eve Best who portrays her. Plus it’s a story rife with early tragedy and social ostracism that grows rich with warmth and eventual triumph as Dolley develops a full and dynamic partnership with Madison, her second husband who was 17 years her senior, and defines a wife’s role in the White House in a critical time in our nation’s history. One might not be able to call Dolley Madison the first American feminist, but she certainly proved how women could rise to dynamism and be a loving wife and mother many decades before the term was coined.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2011


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