By one measure, 2023 was a very tough year in documentary. The first indications of what lay ahead came in January at Sundance, where the usual panoply of films entered the arena in hopes of earning awards and the ultimate prize – distribution.

But streamers and other major distributors showed no inclination to loosen their purse strings and many acclaimed Sundance titles languished for months without distribution deals – King Coal, Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, The Disappearance of Shere Hite among them. Bad Press never did get a distribution deal. Netflix, after spending handsomely at Sundance in recent years, didn’t buy any docs at the festival (it did acquire American Symphony at Telluride).

As the year advanced, the acquisition pace remained sluggish and smaller distributors found themselves in a buyer’s market, landing films that in previous years would have gone to bigger entities. On the continuum of feast and famine, it’s been mostly famine.

But by another measure – the quality of documentaries being made – 2023 has been a great year. Exceptional films premiered at festivals throughout the year from Sundance to Cannes, Telluride and TIFF. Judging by the standard of artistic merit, and not distribution, nonfiction filmmakers pushed the boundaries of the medium in notable ways and made important statements on the war in Ukraine, authoritarianism, the dilemma of women in patriarchal culture, and America’s structural racism – both its strangulating force and the ways in which African Americans defy its ugly influence.

Looking back on the year, easily 25-30 documentary films thrilled me with their creative vision. Some went on to earn a place on the Oscar feature shortlist, while others missed out for reasons that are open to speculation (were they too long, too daring?).

Below, I highlight 10 documentaries that have stayed with me, my cinematic companions over many months. Are they the best of the best? The truth is, if I sat down to compile a top 10 list on a daily basis, it would vary every time. So many films merit inclusion.

These are the 10 I feel compelled to highlight as 2023 nears its end. In alphabetical order:

Apolonia Sokol, protagonist of 'Apolonia, Apolonia'

Apolonia, Apolonia. Director Lea Glob shot her film over a 13-year period (an achievement in itself) documenting the emergence of artist Apolonia Sokol, who has been compared to a young Frida Kahlo. What’s remarkable about the film is the feeling of being immersed in Apolonia’s world, as if we were among the coterie of people – friends and lovers – drawn by the gravitational force of her personality. Suspense grows as prominent men in the art world circle this fresh young talent, encouraging Sokol to commoditize her gifts for their benefit. Echoes of Mephistopheles and Faust.

Apolonia’s journey can be seen as a bold attempt to assert the female gaze – to define herself and her work on her own terms, not in relation to male prerogatives and demands. As such, it’s a feminist story that applies to women everywhere who are straightjacketed by patriarchy.

'Beyond Utopia'

Beyond Utopia. Madeleine Gavin succeeds in refocusing our view of North Korea – away from the geopolitics of nuclear arms and the pronouncements of supreme leader Kim Jong-un to the human level: how ordinary people struggle to survive, and in some cases escape the daily horror of life in the world’s most politically isolated country.

I emerged from a screening at Telluride thinking the film should immediately be awarded an Oscar nomination. It managed to interweave North Korea’s “backstory” – i.e., how the Kim clan took over as the communist country’s hereditary rulers – with surreptitiously recorded videos showing the harsh reality of life for the millions of people unlucky enough to be born there, as well as a thrilling attempt by one family to escape from North Korea to China and thence to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and eventually South Korea. It’s as exciting as anything a Hollywood narrative film could deliver.

‘Bobi Wine: The People’s President’

Bobi Wine: The People’s President. To know Bobi Wine – the Ugandan pop singer turned opposition leader – and his family is to love them. Bobi, his wife Barbie and their four kids charm with every glimpse into their private lives in Kampala. But what stuns the viewer is Bobi’s willingness to surrender the comfortable life of a music superstar for a larger mission, bringing true democracy to a country ruled for more than 35 years by a brutal dictator, Gen. Yoweri Museveni. Bobi and his family have everything to lose, and little prospect of gain given that Museveni enjoys total power, not to mention the support of the U.S. and the European Union (the Biden administration gives Museveni’s regime $1 billion in annual aid).

It’s an exceptional achievement by directors Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp (both Ugandan natives) to make an international audience care so deeply about a place that’s typically ignored by the world’s news media. Bobi Wine makes one want to don the red beret of Wine and his political movement and join their inspiring fight for freedom.

'The Eternal Memory'

The Eternal Memory. There are plenty of documentaries that nonfiction enthusiasts approve of in the abstract but when it comes to actually watching them, they choose to turn away (I wonder if that wasn’t the case with Ondi Timoner’s 2022 documentary Last Flight Home which examined her father’s decision to end his own life under California’s End of Life Option Act). Here, director Maite Alberdi dares to tell a story inextricable from Alzheimer’s, another topic many people would prefer not to confront. But she tells it as a moving love story between Chilean couple Paula Urrutia and Augusto Góngora who remained deeply bonded with each other even after he was diagnosed at the age of 62.

Alberdi doesn’t attempt to gloss over the challenges, even horrors of Alzheimer’s (Góngora experiences visceral terror, sometimes pleading “to go home” even as he lives in the house he built with Urrutia). But the film brings a kind of comfort by offering a new definition of memory, not as something held uniquely within an individual but shared among loved ones and friends, memory that persists past the point of death, or the point when Alzheimer’s has erased a person’s ability to access their own archive of experience. This is true as well for the collective memory of a country like Chile, where the right-wing Pinochet regime’s attempt to write political opponents out of history (to “disappear” them) ultimately failed.

'Four Daughters'

Four Daughters. Documentaries that involve actors in the storytelling process often meet with skepticism from nonfiction traditionalists, so it has been encouraging to observe Kaouther Ben Hania’s film break through, earning its place on the Oscar shortlist. Ben Hania explores the story of Olfa Hamrouni, a working-class Tunisian woman who raised four girls and saw the eldest two swept up into the Islamist fanaticism of ISIS. Olfa and her two youngest daughters appear in the film, with actresses portraying the missing siblings; Hind Sabri, a star of Arab cinema, embodies Olfa in select dramatizations of the family’s past.

What Ben Hania offers viewers is something that goes well beyond the usual sit-down interview so common to documentaries, where a subject patiently recounts some significant personal experience. Here, something fresh opens up as Olfa and her youngest daughters endeavor to explain to the actors what was going on in their lives – and why the older girls fled to ISIS – so the performers can then “get into character” to depict those moments. Something new and compelling opens up in that process, which would have been lacking in a more expected approach. I’m not sure documentary cinema has ever seen three women as compelling as Olfa, her daughters Eya and Tayssir. Sabri, in particular, proves equally captivating.

Poet Nikki Giovanni in 'Going to Mars'

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. Directors Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster go way beyond the traditional biographical documentary in their film about the famed poet, activist and leader of the Black Arts movement. Yes, we learn about Giovanni’s upbringing and other biographical details, but the film is really a blast off into the cosmic thought of the titular protagonist, who conceives of a universe beyond the crushing gravity of structural racism.

There are thrilling moments as a young Giovanni goes toe-to-toe with James Baldwin, more than holding her own opposite the colossal intellect who, for all his brilliance, comes across as curiously patronizing and perhaps blinded by patriarchy. Giovanni uses sharp-edged humor repeatedly to slice through narratives we rarely pause to question like why, for instance, Rudolph didn’t tell Santa to take a flying f**k when the jolly old soul belatedly sought a bailout from the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Dominique Silver in 'Kokomo City'

Kokomo City. D. Smith’s directorial debut stuns from the first frame as she plunges into the trans experience, specifically depicting Black women who have done sex work. In the film’s opening scene, Liya Mitchell sets an incredibly candid tone by sharing the story of entertaining a client who came to her home for sex. After she discovered the man was carrying a gun, they scrambled over the weapon, a fracas that Smith recreates in a brilliantly directed sequence – two bodies tumbling down a flight of stairs in a fantastically chaotic fight for survival.

Smith’s film isn’t a polite stroll through trans lives, but a challenge to the Black community to see their embarrassment over trans people of color as a reflection of an age-old desire to fit into white societal norms. I suspect Kokomo City didn’t make the Oscar shortlist because it discomfited Documentary Branch members who can be rather conservative in their tastes, despite their ostensibly liberal-leaning politics. And Smith’s final shot – protagonist Dominique Silver in an open robe displaying her nude form with unapologetic artistry – may have made them choke on their popcorn.

'In the Rearview'

In the Rearview. Maciek Hamela’s film consists almost entirely of footage shot in a minivan that transported Ukrainian civilians fleeing Russia’s invasion. As the filmmaker drives young, old and in between to safety across the Polish border, his passengers recount in straightforward but riveting ways what they left behind: family pets, possessions, their homes, their lives.

The narrow frame of the film recalls a small number of other documentaries like Pawel Lozinski’s The Balcony Movie, which that director shot entirely from a vantage point overlooking his street in Warsaw. Hamela doesn’t artificially ramp up the poignancy of the testimony, by underscoring it with music or other unnecessary techniques. In its deceptive simplicity, the documentary makes an implicit argument for why the Ukrainian people should not be abandoned to the Russian bear.

'Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros'

Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros. Director Frederick Wiseman turns 94 on January 1 and it’s astounding to see him engross an audience, with his latest film, as assuredly as he has ever done. Menus-Plaisirs, measuring four hours, examines the restaurant operation of the Troisgros family in France, who across several generations have demonstrated remarkable dedication to their exacting craft. There is a symmetry to the way the Troisgros carefully prepare cuisine of the highest caliber to the director’s own meticulous approach assembling a whole from many, many ingredients. Père Michel Troisgros and fils César and Léo debate the minutiae of dishes, and the sons compete to obtain the best produce from farmers markets; a white-gloved attendant sets tables with the rigor of a martinet; kitchen staff weave around, over and under each other as they dice, de-scale, whip and sauté, inexplicably avoiding collision and catastrophe.

Wiseman edits all his films as well recording audio in the field and overseeing the cinematography. “The decision about what to shoot is always based on a shifting combination of judgment, instinct, and luck,” he has written. “After six to twelve weeks, I typically have eighty to a hundred and twenty hours of film from which a film has to be edited… The first thing I do is look at all the material and make an initial evaluation. I use a classification system based on the Guide Michelin: one, two, or three stars.” What he accomplishes through his process, in more than 40 films now, boggles the mind.

Occupied City

Occupied City. Wiseman’s was not the only documentary of the year to reach or exceed the four-hour barrier. So did Occupied City, directed by Oscar winner Steve McQueen. Neither of those films made the Oscar shortlist, which may be chalked up to their running times; there’s no telling how many Doc Branch voters simply didn’t want to engage with docs of that length.

McQueen pulls off an incredible feat, making a film about history without a single frame of archive. His subject is his adopted city of Amsterdam, which was occupied by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945. Instead of the expected array of black and white newsreel footage from that era, his film is made up entirely of present-day shots. A narrator evenly points out locations, seen today, where Nazi outrages were committed 80 years earlier. The film is based on a book written by McQueen’s wife, Bianca Stigter, which took a similar approach to mapping Amsterdam almost street by street and square by square (Stigter wrote the screenplay for the film).

Occupied City pairs well with Stigter’s 2021 film Three Minutes: A Lengthening, a 69-minute-long documentary in which the visuals consist uniquely of 180 seconds of a home movie shot in a village in Poland in 1938. The footage — slowed down, blown up, parsed — shows Jewish life in the town of Nasielk on the even of its destruction. Both films take a bravely original approach to making sure the brutal reality of World War II and Nazi atrocities is not forgotten.

'Smoke Sauna Sisterhood'

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. To my mind, no documentary film this year took a more original approach in its storytelling. The film by Estonian director Anna Hints takes place mostly within the darkened confines of the smoke sauna, an ancient tradition in Estonia whereby those who enter the heated cabins sweat out toxins of a physical and psychic nature.

The documentary eschews typical narrative structure – it is a collection of personal testimonies from women who address past traumas and experiences, working through the ways in which a patriarchal society has impacted how they view themselves and their bodies.

In the smoke sauna, no one is clothed. In the nude, the women come clean. There is no judgment in the space, and photography — simultaneously painterly and natural — emphasizes the inherent beauty of women. This is a subtle response to a society predisposed to define women based on their attractiveness and usefulness to the opposite sex.

Hints (though the viewer has no way of knowing it is her) tells her own story of surviving a vicious rape in which she was threatened with death. Her film is a healing experience for the participants, and equally healing for many who see it.

'Stamped From the Beginning'

Stamped From the Beginning. No one in the entertainment industry rivaled the productivity of Roger Ross Williams in 2023: He directed and co-wrote his narrative/fictional debut, Cassandro; made Love to Love You, Donna Summer (co-directed by Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano); co-directed the docuseries The Super Models, and co-directed and executive produced docuseries The 1619 Project. To top it off, he directed the Netflix documentary Stamped From the Beginning, which synthesizes the history of the transatlantic slave trade, the brutality of America’s slavocracy, the failures of Reconstruction, the evil of Jim Crow, and the ways in which African Americans have triumphed despite hundreds of years of dehumanizing treatment.

Stamped adapts the bestseller by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the nonfiction opus that measures over 600 pages with notes. It’s a monumental undertaking and Williams succeeds through a dynamic visual presentation that includes sequences initially filmed on green screen and then animated to dazzling effect. Williams, winner of an Academy Award for Music by Prudence and Oscar nominated for Life, Animated, has created an essential film that stands alongside Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro as definitive statements on how racism permeates American life.

'To Kill a Tiger'

To Kill a Tiger. Director Nisha Pahuja follows the story of Kiran, a 13-year-old girl, and her family in a small village in India, who dared to demand justice after Kiran became the victim of a brutal sexual assault by three young men. The context of the documentary is the disturbing reality that most sexual crimes in India go unreported. The reasons for that become apparent as To Kill a Tiger unfolds: Ranjit and Jiganti, Kiran’s father and mother, come under enormous pressure from their neighbors to abandon the prosecution and marry off their daughter to one of her attackers. They meet with indifference or hostility from government and law enforcement officials in a position to help them with their case. But they press on even as their lives comes under increasing threat from angry villagers.

Pahuja, who was born in India and raised in Canada, conveys the plight of the family, and enlists our sympathy in their struggle, yet she avoids any temptation to dismiss the villagers as backward. It’s a complex portrait of a culture that may have reached a turning point; the film itself, by showing the courage of one family in the face of a brutal sexual crime, can play an important role in that society’s evolution.

The astute reader will have noted my top 10 list includes more than 10 films. Ascribe that to the typical failing of journalists, who are notorious for being bad with numbers. In truth, many more films could have, should have gone on this list (and might have depending on whatever day I sat down to write) including The Pigeon Tunnel, Anselm, The Disappearance of Shere Hite, The Mother of All Lies, Lift, Lakota Nation vs. United States, 20 Days in Mariupol, King Coal, Pianoforte, and Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy.

The vicissitudes of the acquisition market notwithstanding, it’s been an outstanding year for documentary.

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Source: DLine

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