opinion / regular

Liking Documentaries Makes You Seem Impressive

Words by Brodie Lancaster, Illustration by Emma Do

If I could change my awful life behavior and replace it with that of anyone else, I would choose to become one of those people who reads newspapers and gourmet food magazines and remembers the contents to talk about it later. I’d be one of those people who watches Q and A and understands the political discussion, rather than just waiting to see if my nonsensical tweets make it on-screen. I’d buy a subscription to the New Yorker and actually read it each Monday, rather than just skimming the weekly newsletter to see if anyone’s written about Amy Poehler or Tavi Gevinson.

While I can’t hold up my end of a conversation about politics or current events, I can spin my shit when it comes to movies and TV. Want to know an opinion on Amy Sherman-Palladino’s post-Gilmore Girls career choices? I’ve got ‘em! Want to know which of my favourite early 00s Saturday Night Live stars featured in a ’90s kids’ movie for a total of 3 seconds? I’ll tell you it was Horatio Sanz in Miracle on 34th Street!

So to compensate for the lulls in dinner table conversation when discussion turns to real-life events (whether it’s actually a lull or just a fuzzy static sound I hear when the topic of federal politics is brought up is unclear), I’ve put together some key documentaries to school yourself on, in an effort to sound more informed than you’ll ever be. After all, what’s a documentary but an entertaining version of the news?

Capturing the Friedmans

Cliffsnotes: a 2003 Sundance hit examining the sexual abuse conviction leveled at Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse.

Why it’ll impress: because it’s not a clear-cut, black or white issue. The grey space in between raises eyebrows and follow-up questions. It’s also a great conversation starter about the evolution of truth seeking in documentary film, as director Andrew Jarecki stumbled across the story when interviewing David Friedman (one of Arnold’s other children) for a documentary about party clowns working in New York.


Cliffsnotes: a 2011 film set in small town America. The film profiles a series of bullying cases from the perspectives of victims and the families of former victims who have taken their lives. Ellen DeGeneres is a major supporter of the film, which was distributed by the Weinstein Company.

Why it’ll impress: it’ll open up a few major conversations; firstly, about the complexities and sensitivities surrounding the hot-button issue of bullying. Secondly, the controversy over the film’s initial R rating — which would’ve ensured none of the school-age children in it should be reaching would be able to see it — will get fists pounded over censorship or whatever. And thirdly, it’ll get people (I hope) separating the idea of a great subject from the assumption that it’s a well-made film.

Amarillo By Morning

Cliffsnotes: the short film follows a group of teenage bull-riders Spike Jonze met while filming a commercial in Houston, Texas in 1997. He follows the kids — who are outcasts in a school full of people obsessed with rap culture — for an afternoon as they indulge in their biggest passion.

Why it’ll impress: it’s a profile of a rarely seen group — that is, teenage cowboys. It doesn’t rely on cheap tricks and never takes advantage of the group’s collective openness.

For extra credit: name-drop Torrance Rises, the mockumentary Jonze made on his alter-ego, Richard Coufey’s community dance troupe preparing for a performance at the 1999 MTV Music Awards. While your dinner companions will have their opinions on Jonze’s seminal films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, you’re sure to stump them when you ask them to compare Jonze’s Coufey to Ricky Gervais’ David Brent.

Don’t Look Back

Cliffsnotes: a seminal music documentary by D.A. Pennebaker following Bob Dylan on his first UK tour in 1965.

Why it’ll impress: you can be a wanker and dissect the ways the film — as a piece of media — criticizes the print and broadcast media at the time. Talk about Dylan’s influence on the way he is presented on screen, and maybe mention the fact that one of the world’s most famous music videos was originally just a scene in the film. Also, Joan Baez is incredible and anyone who doesn’t want to discuss her at length is no one I want to spend time with.