The Best Documentaries of 2010

Your question is hard and tricky. Bear this in mind.

— Salim Hamdan, The Oath

If truth is stranger than fiction, it is also — as revealed in 2010’s remarkable documentaries — more elusive and haunting, more provocative and absolutely less apprehensible. Even as the year’s fiction films toyed with timelines or conjured dreamscapes, a remarkable number of documentaries challenged basic assumptions about structure and representation, faith and truth.

Perhaps the cagiest version of these challenges is offered in the perfectly named, superbly unfixed Exit Through the Gift Shop, which may or may not be “the Banksy film,” as it’s been tagged. Looking sideways and not a little ironically at how art is made and marketed, Exit undermines the very story it tells, asking you to doubt the subjects it produces (filmmaker-turned-street-artist Thierry Guetta, street-artist-turned-filmmaker Banksy) and their capacity to speak honestly. In reflecting on the authenticity of art and the value of politics, it maintains its complex indefinition in a way that two similarly themed films — the less subtle Catfish and more visceral I’m Still Here — don’t manage.

Art is also the initial subject of Waste Land, though it takes a turn soon after it begins, toward investigating the material relationship between artist and subject. If Exit keeps a thoughtful distance from material consequences, Lucy Walker’s film plunges right in, so its ventral dilemma — unresolved — is precisely its after-filmic effects on its subjects, the garbage pickers of Jardim Gramacho who pose for photographer Vik Muniz. When their lives “become” art, they and Muniz must contend with what such art can mean, apart from the people who form and also make it.

It’s possible to argue that Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is also about art, though of a decidedly venal sort, as it digs into the causes and cover-ups of the global financial meltdown. Though it looks a lot like a traditional documentary, with talking heads and explanatory graphics (not to mention a study guide), it also a reimagines what interviews can do, namely, reveal performance even as they proffer it. The strangest part of the “truths” here is how insistently they are delivered by speakers who may or may not believe themselves, not whether they’re actually convincing or how they might comprise an increasingly horrifying narrative.

In a very different way, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer insists on the ongoing performances of other participants in the financial crisis, as they dodge responsibility and seek exposure, claim legal rights and manipulate clients, constituents, and colleagues for a living. Alex Gibney’s film brilliantly points out how performance structures daily experience, as deception and also as principle.

In 12th and Delaware, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing find another sort of performance, as they train their cameras on two establishments located across the street from one another in Fort Pierce, Florida: the pro-life Pregnancy Care Center and the abortion clinic someone calls the “competition,” A Woman’s World. Neither side can compromise on the story it tells, and all the individuals have their own stories. No one feels easy, as clients, counselors, and providers all make hard choices each day. As much as doctors feel threatened by protestors, and as much as protestors feel enlightened and righteous in making themselves heard, the film makes clear that it is the clients — girls and young women — who are regularly traumatized, their internal states approximated by the film’s bleak, beautiful cinematography.

Three more excavations of trauma — Chico Colvard’s Family Affair, Michel Gondry’s The Thorn in the Heart (L’épine dans le coeur), Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home — reveal the deeply entangled relations between family dysfunctions and sociopolitical contexts. Colvard’s film traces his sisters’ experiences with their abusive father, observing their efforts to pull together a semblance of family structure despite — and because of — the incredibly damage done. The film notes the difficulties of circumstance — racism, the strains of gender expectations and abusive family cycles — but maintains an abiding respect for the sisters’ choices and singular strengths, even when they seem incomprehensible, and they embody as well as articulate a remarkable survival.

Gondry’s exploration of his aunt Suzette’s complex, energetic life — as a teacher and parent — opens up questions regarding racism and war, mental illness and fear. As Gondry also interviews her son Jean-Yves, he makes visible as well his own memories, encouraging his cousin to describe and share the Super 8 movies he made as a child, recordings of meals, holidays, and kids at play, “what we did at home mostly.” When Gondry gathers them to watch a cut of his film, Suzette’s eyes tear up, Jean-Yves reassures her, “Everyone cries sometimes. It’s just a fact of life.” The making of the documentary is now another memory, changeable and reiterated.

In Last Train Home factory workers Chen Suqin and Zhang Changhua plan a journey home for the holidays, a ritual that unearths the ongoing pain of their lives and their children’s. When they left Huilong Village 16 years ago, they left their children with their own parents. Now their daughter Qin, 17, is resentful. When she quits school and starts her own factory job, the parents’ sacrifices seem for naught. Lixin Fan’s remarkable film reveals the pain of all parties, as well as the complexities of showing so many different truths. The film features what may be the most stunning moment in a film this year, when Qin turns first on her father and then on the camera, asking, “You want to film the real me?” and so, exposing just how un-real that end must be.

Filming what’s “real” is also the focus of four documentaries about war. War Don Don takes the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s war crimes trial of Issa Sesay as a point of departure, Rebecca Richman Cohen’s documentary considers not only legal mechanisms, but also how the law is refracted in and by media, how media shape their consumption. Literally, the film shows multiple screens and monitors, the various ways Sesay is portrayed by accusers and defenders. Metaphorically, it also looks at the relative meanings of morality, the effects of politics and poverty on judgments and expectations.

Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People examines the complicated intersections of past and present, overlaying them in video monitors and lens, insisting on their effects on one another, on the memories of war’s survivors like Sambath and perpetrators like Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s “Number Two.” As pursues the story of Nuon Chea, seeking admission or at least acknowledgement that his victims were not “enemies of the people,” he records everything, their conversations, his life at home, his long drives to interview killers and survivors. The old man, for his part, never sees as Sambath does, or, you imagine, as you might. The camera remains steady on Nuon Chea’s face as he explains, “We would investigate someone gradually, until we knew his full background. Then we would solve him.” And now you know: there is no solving.

The Tillman Story is also about the lack of resolution. It begins with an astonishing image: Pat Tilman, interviewed for the Arizona Cardinals. He looks uncomfortable, a dashing and familiar figure in our collective consciousness, but also self-conscious, his performance a function of the medium’s limits, as well as the limited purpose — to promote the team, to sell product. “If they knew anything about my son,” observes Mary Tillman, “They wouldn’t have done what they did.” With this injustice in mind, Amir Bar-Lev’s film takes up the case of the Tilman family — with visible and insistent outrage — demanding truth from the government and the military that has made it its mission to repress truth, about the current wars and about Pat Tilman’s fratricide.

The Oath begins as a portrait of former self-proclaimed jihadist Abu Jamal, currently driving a cab in Yemen, parenting his young son, and looking back on the fate of his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, detained at Guantánamo until the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush Administration in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006). Laura Poitras’ extraordinary film turns into a series of reflections on possible truths, documentary subjects, and all manner of performances. It’s the best documentary of the year, never letting you forget the limits of its truth-telling, the performative genius and survival of its subject, the media imagery that creates and undoes him, the governments and war machines that deflect rather than reveal truth.