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From Brothels to Spelling Bees: Five Documentary Films with Unique Vision 
by Mieko Lindeman August 05, 2005

Whether you are just interested in getting a glimpse into a whole new world or are a passionate non-fiction fan, documentaries never fail to cast their spell. The variety in documentaries is in itself a mind-opening experience, brothels, spelling bees, migratory birds, corporations; the random list goes on and on. While the topics may not even be something you’ve ever given thought to know more about, the inherent drama and quirkiness of everyday life pervades all of the diverse topics, making them interesting and enlightening for all.

“In feature films the director is God, in documentary films God is the director,” observed the classic film director Alfred Hitchcock. Because the real-world dictates the events in the documentary film (or “God” as Hitchcock puts it, rather than a mere mortal), these films contain emotions and storylines that are often far more original and surprising than the average feature film.

They certainly confirm that old saying real life is stranger than fiction (check out Spellbound for an endearing spelling bee competitor who breaks out into a spontaneous imitation of a musical robot). Each documentary on this list may not be enthralling for everyone, but each one is a testimony to the incredible amount of microcosms on our own tiny planet.

Winged Migration

Bird watching goes from a stuffy pastime to an exhilarating roller-coaster-esque ride in this gorgeous film. Migratory birds of all types, from the familiar Canada geese to Japanese snow cranes make appearances with footage that will literally take your breath away. Soaring shots of the treks these creatures make (some as much as 1,000 miles!), capture the strength and desperation of the birds, dispelling the delicate, effortless impression a bird in flight can give.

With little narration, the film allows the bird’s lives to speak for themselves, and soon enough, the bird’s cacophonous squawks and random peeps develop into a somewhat coherent language. You won’t just be watching endless shots of birds in flight of course, flawless production weaves in storylines of child-rearing, outside dangers, and domestication that will tug at heartstrings and build veritable suspense.

Truly a film that brings the lives of the distant natural world within the human grasp, a rare feat. If you have been turned off by the textbook-like air of nature shows before, don’t dismiss this one as a chip off the old block. It is a film about life, hardship, and destiny, the stars just happen to have feathers. Critically acclaimed and highly decorated, it has the quality to overcome the tiny genre of nature documentary to appeal to the thoughtful masses. If you were charmed by March of the Penguins, this film will impress you just as much (if not more).

98 minutes

Also try…March of the Penguins (currently in theatres)

Born into Brothels

Set in the red-light district of Calcutta, the film follows several young children of red-light workers whose lives revolve around the brothel life. Much like other children, they play, primp, and fight over toys and with their parents and friends. The curious and eager eye of the camera reveals the underlying darkness of their lives, as young girls admit they will one day follow in their mother’s footsteps as prostitutes. Young children scream obscenities back and forth with a neighbor about chores with disturbing ease contrasted by their earnest return to speaking with the film crew about having a better life with school and no red-light district.

The delicate balance of being thriving, talented youngsters (armed with cameras and assignments from the filmmakers to capture their views on the world) and having their roots and family in a dead-end life drives the film’s slow suspense, as photographer Zana Briski tries to get the children scholarships into boarding schools to “save them”. Even the over-zealous pity of the British production team for this film cannot overpower the complexities of the children’s lives, as they are forced to look at life in a way many do not until much older.

They are torn between conventions, traditions, strong family bonds, and a pattern of living that they openly criticize and cling to as simply home. It is a full-on look at their lives with ample views of family, daily routine and personal views, not to mention a showcasing of their bona fide photography talents.

85 minutes, Rated R

Also try…Rabbit Proof Fence (based on a true story)

Devil’s Playground

Originally aired by PBS, this documentary of Amish life is an objective look at the interesting rumspringa period in Amish culture. Because the Amish do not believe in baptism of children (having stemmed off the Anabaptists in Europe hundreds of years ago) at age 17 they are released from the routine of their community and allowed to explore the “English world” (meaning the non-Amish one) to let them independently choose the Amish life over the outside world (a decision considered to be a life-long, fully binding one).

Their perception of the English world and freedom seems laughable, as Amish teens hold Amish-only parties where they tap kegs and listen to rock music, many girls still wearing their Amish bonnets. As they engage in mainly hedonistic behavior and enjoy the transportation of cars, it is easy on the surface level to dismiss them as repressed teens. However the interviews with the several teens the film focuses on is touching in the earnest and well-intentioned thoughts of the young men and women at a very grave point in their lives.

The mysterious world of the Amish is a superb point of interest to set this familiar look at adolescence in, though the delivery and film-making is a bit lackluster and disappointing for such a promising topic. Nevertheless it is an enlightening look at free will, family, luxury, and coming of age that will have you wondering to what extent your own life has been dictated by independent choices or family traditions.

77 min.

Also try…City of God


Since its debut, this quirky film has reached heights of popularity that have resulted in nearly mainstream interest and even inspired a Broadway production. The palpable hopes, passion, and drive of precocious, eccentric young spelling bee champs goes beyond bemusement with their zeal to genuine admiration and understanding of their dreams to win the national spelling bee.

As the film follows several young spellers from diverse backgrounds, pampered children with private tutors and nannies, hyperactive asthmatic nerds, a hard-working, grave young girl from the projects, among many other colorful characters the film encounters at the bee, each child’s distinctive personality is presented in a way that fascinates. Perhaps though the main focus of the film, the actual bee, the alien words they must spell, is the best part.

There on the stage as they await their turn at proving themselves their uniformly tense facial expressions transform into familiar stories and personal dramas. The spelling bee goes from ESPN oddity (where it is regularly aired) to suspenseful drama that will have you on the edge of your seat awaiting someone’s inevitable failure and one person’s dream come true.

97 min.

Also try…Best in Show (a fake documentary)

The Corporation

Environmentalists, businessmen, politicians, activists, journalists, writers, workers, and many more tell their side of the story when it comes to dealing with the one of the most pervasive forces of modern times, the corporation. The film unfolds practically, explaining the significance of the corporate world and its influence in every realm it addresses thereafter.

Tongue-in-cheek, the film focuses its point-by-point slamming of corporate actions by treating the corporation as an individual getting a psychiatric evaluation for insanity (because corporations are legally individuals with rights like any real person). The crescendo builds as accusations, rumors, and worries about corporations are examined and given evidence to. It also allows the corporate side to give perspective, notably the sincere and concerned face of Shell oil giant embodied by a CEO who appears in activist footage with his wife, talking civilly with and giving tea to protestors who come to their home.

Undoubtedly a film that holds corporations in the wrong, it is rooted in hard facts, which it amply provides via archive video footage (like the heart-breaking story of a Bolivian community that fights for the rights to rainwater against a corporation) and numerous interviews (of which the film is mainly comprised of). Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, FOX News reporters, corporate execs, Bolivian activists, among many others, all appear. One of the few well-organized, focused, researched, intelligent, and entertaining political films in recent times that challenges viewers to examine the bigger picture.

145 min.

Also try…Roger and Me (a Michael Moore documentary)

Take a Chance on a Documentary

Who knew Amish teenagers could end up dealing crystal meth or that we could ever feel we relate to a migratory bird? Like the real world, these films stir up emotion, make us think, and surprise us in ways fiction never can. So take a break from gun toting bombshells, unfailingly witty conversations, and melodrama in general! Be prepared to furrow a brow, laugh, and even feel inspired at moments that in their neck of the woods are just business as usual.


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