Andrew Wiseman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and Conference Director of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC). In the lead up to the AIDC’s 30th anniversary event next week, Andrew shares five of his favourite films from the DocPlay catalogue.
Winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, this 2008 riveting film reveals the story of a driven and hypnotically eccentric wire walker and ‘dancer in the clouds’. Obsessed by the desire to walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, Philippe Petit appears to weave a spell on his accomplices as he enlists their aid to achieve his quixotic and mesmerisingly dangerous feat. Director James Marsh sets it up a like a thriller but it is a thriller with a wonderfully poetic thread, both visually and through the voice of Petit, as he explains his mission to daily defy the forces of gravity and to constantly rebel. Tellingly, this impish maverick responds to the question as to why he attempted the genuinely death-defying crossing above the streets of Manhattan – “I didn’t have a why – there is no why!”
A Special Prize winner at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, I love this work because of its ability to captivatingly meld style with content. Wim Wenders and co-director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (the son of the film’s main participant) weave the camera through layers of black and white and colour and embrace soulful and meditative voice overs to tell the story of how the Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado has used his lenses to delve into the extremities of the human condition. And although Salgado often focuses on human suffering - the range of his work, his humanity and his desire to use his images to provoke us to consider the plight of the most vulnerable on the planet, create a searingly memorable body of work. The moral complexities of photographing those in distress are never far from the surface in a film that demands to be seen a second time.
Mid way through this beautifully observed documentary by director Wim Wenders, one of the key participants, a member of the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club, sings, “I was the love of your life once, so very long ago, But now I’m part of the past and I can’t agree with that.’ For me, the statement encapsulates a sentiment that pervades the whole film – love and defiance. Love of land, of place and the love of music as a means to stitch together the ages of a life.
Structurally, the film tells the story of how Ry Cooder brings the members of The Buena Vista Social Club back together many years after the height of their careers for a series of concerts, culminating in one night at Carnegie Hall. With great tenderness and affection, Wenders weaves portraits of the group with recent footage of Havana, rehearsals and concert footage. The lyrics of the songs are often tormented and sad and yet the cumulative effect of the wall-to-wall music is wonderfully life-affirming and resolute. This is a musical love letter. Towards the end of the documentary one of the musicians says, ‘Music is beautiful’ - it kind of says it all about the film and the people in it.
Australian director Scott Hicks spends a year documenting the life and creative approaches of a famous composer - Philip Glass - and he does it really well. Hicks accomplishes the agonisingly hard task of revealing the creative process because he has clearly created a great trust and rapport with his subject. Glass opens up in his engaging and whimsical manner about the power and influences on his work and how they shape the ‘currents’ of his thinking. The connections to his music between other art forms, especially poetry and painting, and the role of place and artistic confidence are brought to the fore with a filmic style that is at once quite casual but leads to real intimacy for the viewer. “Creativity is like a river running underground – you don’t know exactly where it is but you know it’s there.” So says Glass to Hicks, a fellow artist, and there is a sense in this documentary that filmmaker and participant share a genuine common bond which paves the way for a memorable work about a highly memorable artist.
Director Liz Garbus has crafted a riveting portrait of a Chess Grand Master – it is a disturbing portrait of a tortured chess genius and his rise to fame and his decent into paranoia and madness. The title accurately portrays the director’s intent – to reveal a prodigy and his obsessive and unremittingly combative approach to his chosen discipline and to life itself.
Although the film covers Fischer’s whole life, its depiction of the contest with Boris Spassky at the 1972 World Championship in Iceland, distils, with great drama Fischer’s eccentric behaviours and conspiratorial mind-set. With access to Fischer’s mentors and friends and with the aid of beautifully intimate stills, Garbus provides a striking insight into the ramifications of brilliance.