May 30, 2021

Essential Doc Reads: Week of May 24, 2021

From 'High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.' Episode 1, “Our Roots” (dir. Roger Ross Williams). Courtesy of Netflix

Essential Doc Reads is our curated selection of recent features and important news items about the documentary form and its processes, from around the internet, as well as from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy!


The New York Times’ Osayi Endolyn writes about the new Netflix limited series High on the Hog (Dir.: Roger Ross Williams), which she calls a “long overdue nuanced celebration of African Americans and their food.”

Black joy has always been politicized in the United States, because Blackness was codified to justify social oppression and extreme, race-based wealth. Our rest, happiness and desire for leisure are interrogated and policed across all aspects of American culture. As the imprint of our overwhelming past remains in every aspect of our society today — as with the uprisings we’ve observed in response to the killings of Black people by police — claiming joy at every step is not just our right. It is our salvation.

Ahead of the release of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Jia Zhangke speaks to Hyperallergic’s Jordan Cronk about his film, which he considers to be the third in his “Artists Trilogy.”

In terms of the grand narrative, the “official” version of history is pretty much the same for everyone, at least in terms of how people understand the big historical junctures. However, I do think what’s missing in the grand narrative are the details. Everything is stated in such an abstract or statistical way. That’s why I think films like this are very much needed. You can’t feel abstract or statistical histories. There’s no impact — it’s meaningless. What’s missing are visceral connections with history. 

Another delightful interview between Field Notes’ Devika Girish and Jia Zhangke appears on the latest issue of the publication. The issue also features Ashley Clark’s interview with Matt Wolf on his avant-garde 2008 documentary, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell; Mackenzie Lukenbill’s essay on video works from the AIDS epidemic and their resilient fight against being forgotten; and Giovanni Vimercati’s revelatory profile of Cecilia Mangini, the first female documentarian in Italy, among others. 

An unorthodox communist, Mangini conceived of documentary cinema as a means to broaden our understanding of reality; to extract what its official chronicles withhold. Objectivity had no place in her cinema, for she had learned early in life that the exalted term actually excluded many points of view. When she picked up still photography in the early 1950s she was told that it wasn’t suitable for girls: women weren’t supposed to walk and look around. Public space belonged to men. 

The latest Film Comment podcast reminded us of Kaleem Hawa’s New York Review of Books essay on the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Palestine Film Unit, from October 2020.

The initial films highlighted material elements of Palestinian disenfranchisement and death, modeling the aesthetics of other anti-imperialist movements at the time, like those in Cuba, Vietnam, and Angola. PLO fighters were notably inspired by their Vietnamese comrades—the fedayeen, or guerrillas, in fact, traveled to Vietnam to learn resistance tactics from the Vietcong, some even taking noms de guerre such as Abu Khaled Hanoi.

IndieWire’s Steve Greene spoke to the team behind 1971: The Year Music Changed Everything—directors Asif Kapadia and Danielle Peck, and music supervisor Iain Cooke. 

“You have to trust your instincts and trust the process of how much time and money you have to put into research and getting a brilliant team and giving them the time to find material. The directors, to be able for them to travel around the world to interview people, talk to as many people as possible. When you speak to one person, they may connect you to another five people. Someone somewhere is going to have a cupboard full of material that no one’s seen,” Kapadia said.  

Over at POV Magazine, Madeline Lines shifts her gaze to another musical great: the band Fanny, one of the very first all-female rock bands, which is also the subject of Bobbi Jo Hart’s newest documentary, Fanny: The Right to Rock.

“It was Alice, a drummer of Fanny, who said that the record company didn’t know how to market them,” says Hart. “They were more than just this ‘all-girl band.’”

“Half the band was Filipina-American and half the band was gay. The record label never mentioned it. I never found one article in my research that mentioned that,” says Hart. “It was super important to me to delve deeper and to show the depth and complexities of these human beings, as much as I could in an hour and a half.”

From the Archive, Summer 2013 issue: "Unsung Heroes: Twenty Feet from Stardom Hails the Singers behind the Hits"

"It changed how I hear music and hopefully it changes the way others will. I spent a couple of years while working on this with the radio on, suddenly hearing vocals in songs I've heard a thousand times and realizing just how they were constructed and how important those background vocals were. Being able to take a song and share it anew—I love that. It just adds so much more depth to things we take for granted."


Amazon Acquires MGM for $8.45 Billion


The Oscars Announce New Dates and Eligibility Rules


The Grammys Announce New Rules


A Revised Code of Professional and Ethical Conduct for HFPA


Daytime Emmy Nominations are Out


Telly Awards Announces Winners for 2021


Amazon Picks Up Val Kilmer Documentary


Filmmaker Sophy Romvari Launches Curated Shorts Platform


Neon Drops Ailey Trailer


Dave Chapelle Documentary Will Be Closing Tribeca