Documentaries used to have the reputation of being the cinematic equivalent of a bran muffin, meaning they were meant to be good for you. But the most intriguing documentaries take viewers into subcultures and worlds they would probably never see. More often than not, these films tell stories that are stranger than fiction.
In 2015 there has been a spate of nonfiction films that have featured bizarre characters and unusual subjects. From the Angulo brothers in “The Wolfpack,” who learn about the outside world through movies, to “The Yes Men are Revolting,” about the merry activists/prank-stars who conduct hoaxes to expose corporate greed, the trend in documentary film has certainly shifted away from “bran muffin” and more toward “you can’t make this shit up!”
Here are a handful of the wildest, weirdest, and most wonderful documentaries to play in cinemas, film festivals and on demand this year.
“The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young”
Opening with a credit that reads, “We are going to try to tell you the truth,” followed by the statement, “The truth is malleable,” this fantastic doc depicts the 2012 Barkley Marathon, an endurance test so grueling that the 40 (among hundreds of) applicants who are selected to run it receive a letter that reads, “Sorry to inform you that you’ve been accepted.” Paying $1.60 and handing over a license plate from their home state for entry, contestants must complete a 130-mile, five-loop course with the equivalent of a 12,000-foot climb and descent through the mountains of Tennessee. In 60 hours. To complete the race, which involves intense hiking on an unmarked trail, entrants must rip out pages of books like “Doomed” and “The Human Zoo” as proof they completed each leg. And speaking of legs, most runners have theirs ripped to shreds by the course’s dangerous brambles. However, those contestants who call for “Taps” after hiking down “Quitter’s Lane” have a camaraderie with the remaining runners that is infectious. Yes, the dropouts tend to the blisters of those sorry athletes who are determined to finish. The Barkley Marathon is the brainchild of co-founder Lazarus Lake, who based the race on James Earl Ray’s failed escape through the local mountains. He named parts of the course “The Pillars of Doom,” “Son-of-a-Bitch Ditch” and “The Bad Thing,” proving he may be a sadist, but he has a sense of humor. This documentary may be as wacky as the race itself, but the life lessons about pain and observations about competition are invaluable.
“I Touched All Your Stuff”
The title of this unbelievable but true story comes from a practical joke played on Chris Kirk, whereby his housesitter covered every object in his apartment with aluminum foil. His books. His shoes. Even his coins. Kirk recounts this anecdote to the filmmakers, Maíra Bühler and Matias Mariani, as he explains how he “touched all the stuff” owned by his girlfriend—a mystery woman known only as “V”—because she wasn’t entirely honest with him. Kirk may not be entirely honest with the filmmakers because he’s talking to them from a Brazilian jail, where he has been incarcerated for crimes undisclosed. “I Touched All Your Stuff,” brilliantly uses computer files, interviews, photographs (the ones of V are all deliberately blurry) and music to tell Kirk’s story. Viewers who go down this rabbit-hole may not discern exactly what happened, but it is impossible not to be impressed (and unsettled) by this strange but true investigation.
This WTF documentary depicts the “foot fight” that happened when John Wood lost his left leg for the second time. In Maiden, North Carolina, Shannon Whisnant purchased at auction a smoker left in a storage unit. However, the smoker contained amputee John Wood’s leg. Claiming “finders keepers,” Whisnant felt he was entitled to Wood’s leg, and exploited his discovery for cash and celebrity. Wood, however, just wanted his leg back. He'd lost it in a plane crash that killed his father and was saving the muscled and fleshed limb for a memorial. However, Wood succumbed to addiction and became estranged from his family as a result of the accident and its aftermath. John’s mother says, “It’s a funny story born of tragedy,” and filmmakers Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel nimbly tell this tale of what one interviewee calls, “fuckery and shenanigans.” The strangest moment may involve Wood trying to keep his leg at a local Hardee’s, and the strangest character may be the women who is going to peel the skin off the preserved leg “like beef jerky.” There is considerable humor as the case is settled on a very special episode of “Judge Mathis,” but the heart of what is really going on with the two protagonists is what makes “Finders Keepers” so distinctive.
A sneakerhead is someone who “forgoes paying their rent so they can own a pair of shoes they will never wear.” In the wildly entertaining “Sneakerheadz,” directors David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge explore this fascinating subculture of enthusiastic people who collect, design, and curate—because resell is an ugly word—sneakers. Now, these are no ordinary gym shoes. A Nike Dunk “Pigeon” from 2005, which has a $69.95 retail value, can sell for $5,500; the Buscemi luxury sneakers can start at $900; and someone paid $100,000 for Michael Jordan’s “flu shoes.” If you want to know about collabs, deadstock and quickstrikes, you need to see “Sneakerheadz.” But be warned: you’ll also see hoarders like baseball player Jeremy Guthrie, who has a vault in his house as a form of “collection protection,” whereas other sneakerheads, who live at home, have their “dad and his 2x4” keeping their sneaks safe. So valuable are some of these limited-edition kicks, that kids will camp out for days waiting for them to go on sale, and collectors will fly to Japan. But if you really want them, sneaker pimps, known as “swag concierges,” can help you find a pair. Yet, as the subjects of “Sneakerheadz” indicate, the art of the hunt is part of the fun. There are, however, downsides to this subculture, and the film does devote time to violence around collecting, and the estimated 1,000 deaths a year that have resulted over people being killed for sneakers. Friendly and Partridge’s documentary celebrates those collectors who are defined by what they wear. In fact, they are so obsessed and so addicted, one collector admits he can’t wear wingtips.
“The Seven Five”
Back in 1993, Michael Dowd, a New York City cop, testified that while he was an officer in the 1980s, he committed crimes including theft, extortion, racketeering, engaging in drugs for personal use, and trafficking in drugs. With crack in its heyday, it was a tough era for crime in New York. Or, as Dowd’s partner, Kenny Eurell, candidly describes Brooklyn in the 1980s, “Welcome to the Land of Fuck!” Dowd, a “crook in a cop uniform” explains how he would enter a house containing a 55-gallon drum of marijuana, guns and a duffle bag full of cash, and walk out with the cash. In the fabulously entertaining “The Seven Five,” Dowd and a colorful rogues gallery of colleagues, dealers, DEA agents and Internal Affairs guys recount stories of the extent of Dowd’s corruption. One plum example has Dowd getting shorted by a dealer he is protecting only to have the dealer put a hit out on Dowd. But the powerful Dowd pulls him over and puts an end to that. “The Seven Five” includes a tense car chase—but in this documentary, it is the cops being chased by the criminals! Dowd and Eurell eventually get on the payroll of Dominican drug dealer Adam Diaz, to advise him on narcotics officers in the area, and supply Diaz’s men with bulletproof vests. By the time Dowd—who reportedly (and not surprisingly) did more coke than he sold—recounts a last-ditch kidnapping and murder plan, he also admits he is “shocked” he got away with what he did for as long as he did. Viewers' jaws will drop as well at what transpires in “The Seven Five”—especially when a stunner of a late-act twist is revealed. This doc is a Martin Scorsese movie in the making.
“In the Basement”
Ulrich Seidl’s disturbing documentary “In the Basement” shows what various Austrian men, women and couples do in the privacy of their homes. These activities, depicted in a series of artfully arranged tableaus, range from domestic chores like laundry to a would-be opera singer operating a shooting range. One man has a collection of all the mounted animals—from antelopes to warthogs—he has killed and eaten (save the baboon). Another gentleman hangs out in his cozy basement, where he plays the trombone next to the water heater and feather-dusts his portrait of Hitler, which he calls the “most wonderful wedding present” he received. Seidl is deliberately non-judgmental toward his subjects, in part because they are able to be their true selves in their basements. Take, for example, the plus-sized, hairy gentleman who cleans a bathroom shower and toilet seat with his tongue for his dominatrix. She hangs weights on his penis and shows off her sex toys, including one alarmingly called “The Humbler.” In contrast, a female masochist recounts stories of abuse in between episodes of her being flogged. “In the Basement” is all very creepy and/or kinky, and Seidl’s mostly static camera documents these hilarious or horrifying scenes with an unblinking eye.
“The House Is Innocent”
Nick Coles’ short film might have received only limited exposure on the festival circuit (where is won some awards), but this terrific documentary shows how dark humor can help with healing. In November of 2010, Tom Williams and Barbara Holmes purchased 1426 F Street in Sacramento. The home was the property of Dorothea Puente, an elderly woman who made the news in 1988 for reasons best left to be discovered by viewers. Needless to say, the house was “notorious,” but as a designated historic home, it could not be torn down. Williams and Holmes are a delightfully witty couple, posting clever comic signs around their property (and hanging a police-line shower curtain in their bathroom as a bad joke). Coles captures their “spirit” well in his highly amusing short that shows how the worst situations can be transformed into something better if folks have the right frame of mind.
“Welcome to Leith”
Leith, North Dakota, is a sleepy little town. Its three square miles are home to 24 residents (including the children). So when this private, secluded patch of rural America—dubbed by one wag as where they shoot the B roll for “The Walking Dead”—gets a new resident, it’s a big deal. It’s a bigger deal when that resident is Craig Cobb, a white supremacist who purchases 12 parcels of land with the hopes of moving in more “white civil rights activists,” like Kynan Dutton, a Nationalist Socialist, who dreams of opening a restaurant and helps Cobb plant swastika flags in the yard. The townspeople, which include one African-American man, are feeling increasingly threatened, and take to carrying guns as protection and creating laws that will force Cobb out of town before he forces them out. “Welcome to Leith” is a riveting, unsettling film about how we hate that which threatens who and what we love. There are some very intense city council meetings, where Cobb antagonizes Leith residents by showing his true colors, and some very ironic moments, such as when Cobb gets his DNA test results on the “Trisha” show—and learns that he is not 100% European.
The Palio is a horse race held every July and August in the Piazza del Campo in picturesque Sienna, Italy. It pits districts—with names like the Unicorn, the Porcupine, the Wave and the Tower—against one another. The district battles have been going on since the 1400s, based on boundary disputes or historical insults. The Palio is the chance to claim honor and glory, but the jockeys get the wealth if the region’s horse wins. Moreover, the riders don’t even have to be on their horse at the end of the 90-second race. If they lose, however, they might get beaten up. “Palio,” by director Cosima Spender, is a gorgeous film about not the race but the “game,” which involves “legitimate corruption,” as jockeys can pay off other districts or perhaps stack the deck in their favor, a “strategy” employed by one celebrated victor. To (try to) keep things fair, bodyguards protect the jockeys—who are not to be trusted—in the days leading up to the race to prevent bribery or other malfeasance. This means the riders must win with their balls (skill and cunning) and their nerbo, a whip made out of a dried ox phallus. “Palio” presents this remarkable world, full of costume and pageantry, and the racing scenes are simply breathtaking.
“Meet the Patels”
Almost every single person has had to cope with the “When are you getting married?” question. But few have made a film about this as charming and as poignant as Geeta and her brother Ravi Patel. Ravi is almost 30 and his parents want him to get married. Moreover, they want him to marry a Patel. (It’s not incest, Ravi explains, but an Indian caste thing.) So his sister Geeta films his “journey”—albeit with bad lighting or getting the boom mike in the shot, which is all rather amusing. Ravi’s cute but concerned parents offer advice and support during his “world tour of dating.” They pass along biodatas (resumes for matchmakers); encourage him to attend “wedding season,” where potential brides and grooms can meet at other people’s nuptials; and even send him to the Patel Matrimonial Convention (which is exactly what it sounds like!). Ravi’s keen sense of humor during all this forced courting will appeal to anyone tired of the dating scene (or being with their own family during the holidays). “Meet the Patels” is a scrappy, endearing “home movie” to watch with (or very far away from) one’s own parents.