2016 has been a busy year and unfortunately, and for various reasons (one of them being the place where I live, Japan), I haven’t had the chance to see as many new documentaries as I wanted to. On the other hand though, having had access to many documentaries produced in Taiwan through Taiwan Docs, for a couple of months I binge-watched the non-fiction movies produced in the island in 2016 (and 2015), and it was a revelation. Not only it allowed me to discover and explore the complex sociopolitical situation of the area and its recent history, but luckily I also stumbled upon a couple of formally challenging films.
That being said, I can’t really miss what recently has become a sort of yearly custom, so here is my list of the best documentaries I’ve seen in 2016, some of them are from 2015, but released internationally, or at least in Japan, only this year. At the end I’ve also compiled a short list of the best (re)discoveries of 2016. (disclaimer: best should here be understood as “favourite” of course)
8. Quemoy (Chiu Yu-nan)
“Quemoy, the islands adjacent to Mainland, used to be the frontier between Taiwan and China. However, it opens its border for the cross-strait exchanges. The film shows traces of Quemoy people in different generations and builds up a picture of complicated national identity in the boundary island.”
A relatively short movie (just 45′) whose main appealing point is its depiction of the complex geopolitical situation of the area.
7. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog)
6. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)
“This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.”
Both movies are pure Herzog, for better or for worse, I personally adore the man, but the risk the great German director is running in his recent documentaries – especially now in an era when the social media is so pervasive and his persona in the mediascape is sort of overexposed – is that of becoming prisoner of the image forged in almost 50 years of incredible career.
Be that as it may, if you like Herzog, these two documentaries released in 2016 are very enjoyable, Lo and Behold is a better work in my opinion, or at least more appealing to me, and not necessarily for its subject, more for its rhythm and editing. Into the Inferno in some points wanders a bit too much, the segment set in North Korea for instance, albeit fascinating for the unique insights on the country, felt too much like a long digression.
5. Further Beyond
An interesting experiment in meta-documentary and a non banal reflection of what identity and its construction through images and storytelling is. The movie is maybe a bit excessive in its meandering here and there, but some passages are pure digital beauty.
4. A Room of Her Own: Rei Naito and Light (Yuko Nakamura)
Graced by outstanding sound design and soundtrack, the movie captures and beautifully embodies the sense of fragility and ephemerality of life seen through the art of Naito Rei. But A Room of her Own is interesting on many other different levels, partly experiment in non-fiction, partly personal documentary – what brought Nakamura to approach Naito was the severe illness of her mother – and partly a work that explores the intangibility of life, the movie is a very refreshing work of non-fiction, especially when considered in the context of Japanese contemporary documentary. I wish the last part, when four women are gathered on Teshima island, would have been longer. One last note on the photography, in tone with the themes explored by the movie, is really one of the most accomplished aspects of it.
3. 15 Corners of the World (Zuzanna Solakiewicz)
I cheated, I know it’s a movie from 2014, but I watched it this year and it made a big impression on me, so I decided to include it in my list anyway.
15 Corners of the World is a mesmerizing and hypnotic documentary about the Polish electronic-music pioneer Eugeniusz Rudnik and, more importantly, about the visualisazion of sound and its materiality. An incredible visual and auditory experience.
2. Forgetting Vietnam
The latest visual work from Trinh Minh-ha, I’ve written more about the movie here.
1. 3 Island (Lin Hsin-i)
A work that creates a complex and experimental mapping of three distinct geographical Asian areas, interweaving poetry, abstract imagining, historical data and archival footage. If you want, you can read more here.
(re)discoveries (in no particular order)
Asia is One (NDU), read more here.
On the Road: A Document (Tsuchimoto Noriaki, 1964), read more here.
Hospital ( Frederick Wiseman, 1970)
Broadway by Light (William Klein, 19589
The Festival Pan-African of Algiers (William Klein, 1969)