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Beyond Penguins

One doc series, two months, 23 critics, war, grizzlies, and the Dixie Chicks

Since the New York Film Critics Circle began its annual film retrospective series at the Museum of the Moving Image eight years ago, documentary production has doubled and then doubled again. Ironically, it was when television developed a taste for "reality," often via abuse of time-honored vérité techniques, that documentary film started attracting a sizable audience. Even a standard nature doc like March of the Penguins would not be denied. And festivals that once solicited nonfiction submissions are now flooded with contenders for the hot-doc crown. The timing is right, then, for the wonderfully ambitious undertaking that is "Critics Choice: Great Documentaries," an almost-two-month-long docket of documentary screenings (January 6 through February 28), each one handpicked and introduced by a local critic, and each one a reminder of documentary's rich and varied heritage.

With its inherent investigations of image, truth, and realism, documentary is almost a more natural fit with the cinematic medium than fictional narrative and, indeed, has recently drawn in directors like Werner Herzog and Spike Lee, only to draw out some of their best work in years. Andrew Sarris, Jan Stuart, Armond White, and J. Hoberman are among the 23 critics celebrating the form in this series, while Barbara Kopple ( Shut Up & Sing, American Dream), D.A. Pennebaker ( Original Cast Album: Company), and Albert Maysles (Salesman) are a few of the filmmakers taking part in post-screening discussions. There are also some tantaliz ing bits and bobs to lure the truly devoted, such as a Technicolor print of 1962's Mondo Cane; a preview of Tony Kaye's exploration of abortion in America, Lake of Fire; and a restored 35mm print of Winter Soldier, the rarely screened 1972 film documenting the experiences of newly returned Vietnam veterans.

Watching a good documentary will often call to mind a few of its peers, other stories, other people—maybe even people you know. Winter Soldier, screening on the opening day of the series with an introduction by Michael Atkinson, resonates with the host of wrenching films now coming out of Iraq and with what film theorist Bill Nichols dubbed "epistephilia," or the pleasure in knowing. Made by a collective of documentarians in attendance at the Detroit hotel where, in 1971, veterans testified on Vietnam War atrocities, the film went undistributed and embargoed for over 30 years, a travesty that recalls the government's ban of John Huston's 1946 unflinching look at traumatized World War II veterans, Let There Be Light.

Vietnam vet Rusty Sachs in Winter Soldier
Milliarium Zero
Vietnam vet Rusty Sachs in Winter Soldier

From Vertov's 1929 meta-city symphony Man With a Movie Camera to Herzog's 2005 opus Grizzly Man, the series' selections illustrate the documentary form's super-stretchy amenability to formal innovation. Salesman (January 20, with an introduction by Matt Zoller Seitz) is considered a milestone in cinema vérité's development, while The Thin Blue Line (Mike D'Angelo's pick, screening January 13), Errol Morris's 1988 investigation into the murder of a Dallas police officer, necessitated a new term—"docudrama"— and led directly to its subject's release after 11 years on death row.

Morris, who thinks of himself as detective-director (and who worked as a private eye in the early '80s), revisited the closed case determined to focus on the spaces between the facts rather than the facts themselves. Honing in on gaps in knowledge with visual correlatives, repetition, and re-enactments, he challenged the idea so central to documentary (and indeed, the law): that image is truth, that memory is fact. The Thin Blue Line is a triumph on every conceivable level, and it reinvigorated (if not reinvented) the documentary mode. Direct descendants such as 1996's Paradise Lost (also screening January 13) are made not necessarily in Morris's mold, but in the deep shadow it casts, the place where plans are hatched.

 
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