The five best documentaries you’ve never heard of

Still from This Film is Not, dir. Kirby Dick

Toronto’s very own Hot Docs Film Festival is on the horizon. In preparation of the event kicking off next month, Hot Docs has announced the entrants in its Special Presentations category: a showcase of high-profile, award-winning and star-studded documentary selections.

In honour of these films, here are a few more incredible documentaries you might not have heard of.

5. Street Fight (dir. Marshall Curry, 2005) 

Still from Street Fight, dir. Marshall Curry

Focusing on Cory Booker’s 2002 campaign to dethrone the long-incumbent mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Street Fight manages to accomplish the impossible task of making a 16-year-old story about municipal American politics as nail-biting and infuriating as following your local election.

What initially seems to be a tried-and-true underdog story of a mayoral David and Goliath slowly unfolds into an uncomfortable look at the rampant corruption and debauchery that had long since sunken their hooks into Newark. Booker’s opponent has no intention of being civil, attacking his character, heritage, and even loyalty to his country (accusing him of being a Taliban supporter among other slanderous declarations), eventually escalating to threats, sabotage and even violence.

Curry makes excellent use of the already-stellar source material, allowing viewers to become invested in the fate of Newark’s highest office regardless of their background or interest in politics. Street Fight was nominated for multiple awards in its year of release but has slid into relative obscurity in the time since, which definitely lands it a spot on this list.

Most Memorable Scene: Newark police assaulting Curry’s documentary crew and breaking their equipment in broad daylight and full view of the public.

4. This Film is Not Yet Rated (dir. Kirby Dick, 2006)

Still from This Film is Not, dir. Kirby Dick

A tale of creativity and the anonymous bureaucrats who sought to stifle it, the appropriately-titled This Film is Not Yet Rated is an exposé on the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) rating board and how its prejudiced, borderline-puritanical values system caused untold grief for filmmakers throughout the ages.

The film uses a searing wit to approach an issue that most moviegoers probably don’t even think about, and makes its thesis easy to digest through liberal yet straightforward statistics, animated infographics, and interviews. If you’ve ever wondered how much of an impact a film’s rating has, Dick answers that deftly: Hollywood pictures live and die on their rating, which determines their distribution, eligibility for certain awards, and marketing budget, among other things. So the amount of power wielded by the MPAA’s anonymous yet curmudgeonly ratings board is worrying, to say the least.

One particularly eyebrow-raising moment comes when Dick and his crew discover that the MPAA is harsher on homosexual content than its heterosexual equivalent (no doubt owing to the fact that the ratings board contains multiple members of the clergy), which an MPAA spokesperson defends by stating “We don’t create standards; we just follow them.” It’s moments like this that add to the film’s humorous yet skin-crawling rhetoric, and by the time the credits roll you’ll realize you suddenly feel contempt for a group of people you didn’t even know existed.

Most Memorable Scene: The documentary team hires a private investigator to unmask the identities of the rating board’s members.

3. Tower (dir. Keith Maitland, 2016) 

Still from Tower, dir. Keith Maitland

“Animated” is probably the last word to come to mind when thinking about documentaries, but Tower proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that even a heavily-animated film has a place in the staunchly fact-based genre.

The film combines archival footage with gorgeously rotoscoped animation to recapture the harrowing events of the 1966 University of Texas shooting, in which gunman Charles Whitman ascended the university’s tower and held the campus hostage for more than 90 minutes. The massacre concluded with 16 dead, and three dozen wounded in what was at the time a shocking, unprecedented event.

Maitland conducted more than 100 interviews while developing the film, and the depth of his research shows. Tower is presented with such sensitivity and thoughtfulness that you’d assume he was there when it happened. Its slick presentation lends a modern aesthetic to story that’s more than half a century old, and only adds to the inherently gripping truth of the matter.

Most Memorable Scene: The first victim is shot, signalling the start of the horrific affair.

 

2. Tickled (dir. David Farrier & Dylan Reeve, 2016)

Still from Tickled, dir. David Farrier & Dylan Reeve

A masterclass in escalation, Tickled is a film that starts small but rapidly spirals into a paranoia-fuelled true crime thriller, all because of one unusual event.

It all kicks off when journalist David Farrier submits an inquiry on an event called “competitive endurance tickling,” feeling it to be relevant to the quirky beat he’s working. When his request to the organizer is met with a threatening cease & desist, he dives headfirst into a seedy world of blackmail, extortion, and esoteric fetishes on a quest to unmask a malevolently kinky kingpin.

Much like its subject matter, Tickled offers a staggering amount of depth to viewers, and the twisty tale it weaves will suck you in like a black hole and keep you hooked until the final nerve-wracking minutes. It’s not a film I expected to enjoy nearly as much as I did, but it’s one I’d recommend to anyone in search of an unconventional yet impressive piece of documentary filmmaking.

Most Memorable Scene: After what seems like eons of digging, Farrier and Reeve finally uncover the identity of the fetishistic blackmailer who’s ruined the lives of multiple men.

 

1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (dir. Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

Still from Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, dir. Kurt Kuenne

I’ll say this upfront: this movie will make you cry. Whether it’s from sadness, frustration, or abject rage varies from person to person, but regardless, Dear Zachary is not the kind of film you want to watch if you’ve got somewhere to be for the rest of the day.

The heartbreaking premise is that after filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s best friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, is murdered by Bagby’s pregnant ex-girlfriend, Kuenne sets out on a cross-country trip to gather tributes and memories from the deceased’s friends and family and catalogue a sort of cinematic scrapbook for the son he would never see born.

Meanwhile, Bagby’s parents are forced to stomach a civil relationship with their son’s murderer (who fled to Canada and is allowed to walk free while awaiting extradition) just so they have a shot at obtaining custody of the only grandson they’ll ever know: a little boy named Zachary.

The results are as soul-destroying as you can imagine, but what sets this documentary apart from the others is its cultural significance. Dear Zachary casts a scathing light on the inefficiency of the Canadian justice system, and incited such a pushback that it actually affected legal change eventually.

If you can bear the film’s achingly tragic subject matter, you might just find that this is one that’ll stick in your mind long after you finish watching. Dear Zachary etches itself into your consciousness, refusing to be forgotten just as Kuenne refused to let people forget about Bagby.

Most Memorable Scene: The awful yet inevitable ‘twist’ that’s revealed near the end of the film.

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