When Sight & Sound sent out their invitation to contribute to their best documentaries poll, I’m afraid I bottled out, and sent this response.
Thanks for inviting me to contribute to Sight & Sound’s best documentaries poll. I’m afraid the task has defeated me. There are certainly some films which come to mind immediately, starting with classic titles like Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a City, and Vigo’s A propos de Nice—if you’ve written about documentary history, you start thinking chronologically, but the result would be ten or a dozen films for each decade. I’ve already got a list like that—I give it to my students—but it’s not what you want. Yet it includes a good number of little known gems—for example, Les Raquetteurs by Groulx and Brault, Marisol Trujillo’s Prayer, Jorge Furtado’s Island of Flowers—which for me encapsulate essential aspects of documentary. Should these be dropped in favour of bigger numbers, like, I don’t know, Pennbaker’s Don’t Look Back, Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo, Paul Leduc’s ABC del Etnocidio, or Moretti’s Dear Diary? OK, that’s ten titles already, and I haven’t even started.
Sometimes I found myself thinking of directors, not individual films, and then I often couldn’t decide which of their films to single out. This was true of Joris Ivens, Humphrey Jennings, Santiago Alvarez, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Jean Rouch, Fred Wiseman, Emile de Antonio, Patricio Guzman, and Eduardo Coutinho. There you are: ten directors should yield ten films, but I can’t make it work like that. Perhaps A Valparaiso is the most poetic side of Ivens, but which of Alvarez would best represent his own special form of political poetry? There are half a dozen candidates (Now, LBJ, 79 Springs, etc.). With Jennings I can’t decide if it should be Listen to Britain or Fires Were Started. In the case of Resnais, history says Night and Fog, but this leaves out two of the most perfectly crafted documentary shorts ever made, Les statues meurent aussi and Toute la mémoire du monde. Marker presents the same problem on a larger scale, and Letter from Siberia, ¡Cuba Si!, Le joli mai and Sans Soleil all seem to me essential films. And so on.
Then I can’t help thinking of things I’ve missed out, like the very paradigm of the compilation genre, Basilio Martín Patino’s Canciones para despues de una guerra, Murray Lerner’s From Mao to Mozart, Marilu Mallet’s Unfinished Diary, Yoav Shamir’s Checkpoint, a bunch of North American independents, let alone people working here in Britain—the new film by John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project, would seem to me a strong candidate. You also say that television can be included, and I haven’t been there yet. It’s hopeless. As the writer Patricia Hampl once put it, documentary is like ‘a big, frayed umbrella, with a motley crew sheltering under it’, and for me this makes the task you’ve set impossible: the field is too diverse, one is not comparing like with like, and that’s the very nature of documentary, indeed the joy of it.
With apologies and best wishes,