Last year was another excellent year for documentary features. Of the 15 films on my list, my top picks are Free Solo, Watergate, and Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Free Solo (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhalyi, directors) Though Free Solo opened in theaters last September and ran here for several months, I didn’t see it until earlier this month. Even though I read great things about Free Solo, and was urged by friends to see it, I resisted. Not sure why, though I have a fear of heights, and might have thought this could put me in a place I didn’t want to go. But when it was re-released in IMAX earlier this month, I decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did, because it’s a great film. And the dizzying heights didn’t bother me at all. I’d heard of Alex Honnold and knew he was a “free solo” rock climber. They don’t use ropes or any other safety equipment. This seems insane, of course, but watching him in action is something else. His goal in Free Solo is to climb the 3,000 foot sheer granite rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. No one has done this before. Going into the film we know he survived, but it’s a real nail-biter nonetheless. Alex Honnold is a fascinating, perplexing character. We’re inside his head throughout as he talks on camera and in voice-overs. He’s clearly wired differently than most people. Alex is so skillful as a climber that he doesn’t feel like he’s taking risks in what he does, though we also hear of other free solo climbers who have died in this pursuit. It’s a sobering reminder of what the stakes are. Alex is also in a romantic relationship with a woman he met at a book signing, Sanni McCandless. This challenges his single-minded focus on climbing. Jimmy Chin and his filmmaking crew are all experienced climbers, which they’d have to be in order to film this. They’re frequently on camera, participants in the process of the film. I like it when documentaries acknowledge that a film is being made, rather than pretending it’s all happening on its own. This is an exceptionally well-crafted film with a compelling personality at its center. See it if you already haven’t.
Free Solo won Best Documentary at the British Academy Film Awards on February 10th, and has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, to be presented on February 24th. It will be available for streaming via Amazon on March 5th of this year.
Watergate (Charles Ferguson, director) You might think that over the years you’ve heard everything there is to know about Watergate. I know I did. But this new documentary was directed by Charles Ferguson, and we’d seen his excellent film Inside Job at the New York Film Festival in 2010. It was a detailed autopsy of the 2008 financial meltdown, so I figured Watergate would be worth a look. It turned out to be worth more than that. Ferguson takes a vast amount of material — archival footage and interviews with the participants who are still alive — and weaves it into a comprehensive and comprehensible narrative of the entire event, making it seem fresh. Watergate is over four hours long, but there’s not a wasted minute in it. It’s fascinating, though the resonances with today’s political circus are disturbing.
Watergate had a brief run in theaters last Fall and aired on the History Channel. It is currently available on Amazon, broken into several segments.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, director, writer, producer, editor, cinematography) I want to get this right. I saw it twice last year and knew it was an important film. It’s streaming on Amazon, so I watched it again yesterday to refresh my memory. I was startled to find that it hit me much harder this time. This is a deeply personal film for Travis Wilkerson. In 1946, Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S. E. Branch, shot and killed Bill Spann, a black man, in his store in Dothan, Alabama. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is Wilkerson’s investigation into what happened and who these people were. He narrates in a voice that is quiet, calm, measured, and all the more disturbing for that, considering what he says. He’s telling it directly to us, the audience. The first words we hear are these: “Trust me when I tell you, this isn’t a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.” The film that follows more than proves that.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? casts a much wider net than the killing in ’46. The thing I had remembered most strongly from seeing it last year were segments in which we hear Janelle Monae & Wondaland’s song “Hell You Talmbout.” Against a powerful percussive background we hear “Eric Garner. Say his name. Eric Garner. Say his name. Say his name. Won’t you say his name?” As the words are spoken, they appear with a jolt on a blank white screen. Other names are substituted: Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and more. At the time, I didn’t know this was Janelle Jonae’s song or its title. I just knew it felt like a punch to the head. This film is incredibly well-crafted, but it doesn’t sand down any edges to make it easier for us to see and hear. In notes I took yesterday, I wrote that watching it felt like a form of “blunt-force trauma.”
We also learn of Recy Taylor, who was raped by a group of white men in nearby Abbeville, and of Rosa Parks, an NAACP investigator sent to aid Recy. This was 10 years before Rosa became a symbol of the civil rights movement by refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Nancy Buirski had previously covered this in her excellent film, The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017).
S. E. Branch was initially charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Bill Spann, but was never tried. When Travis Wilkerson attempted to find records of the case in the Dothan court house, he came up empty. Nothing remained. It was as though it had never happened. As Travis says at one point, “My great-grandfather murdered that man, Bill Spann. He shot him in cold blood and got away with it.”
Wilkerson interviews his mother and his aunt Jill on camera to see what they remember. They are open and helpful. He has more difficulty trying to contact his other aunt, Jean, who is a politically active white supremacist.
Everything we learn about S. E. Branch just gets worse and worse. Travis tells us that S. E. kept four things under the counter of his store: two sets of brass knuckles, a bullwhip, and a loaded revolver. Later in the film, Travis relates a letter he received from his Aunt Jill with further revelations about his great-grandfather that go deeper and darker than he’d previously known. This is a Southern Gothic horror story, a heartbreaking, haunted movie. It’s filled with details that support this feeling. Some of these might seem random. Travis finds the hospital where Bill Spann died after being shot. In an aside, he tells us that the stain on the front door, which we see on screen, is from when someone blew his brains out while standing on the steps. At another point in the film we see a dead deer, filmed in crisp black and white, lying twisted in a ditch or field, eyeless with hordes of ants crawling over its body. This all feels appropriate to the subject.
From the beginning, there’s a low sound of static that runs throughout, like a needle on a scratchy recording. This adds to the sense of unease that pervades the film. There are also many shots from the POV of a car driving down empty roads, with filters that give an hallucinatory look, with clouds the color of burnt orange, like it’s Hell.
After many obstacles, Travis finally locates the cemetery in Lewisville, Alabama where Bill Spann is buried. As we see shots of the gravestones, we hear him say, “Two families in Alabama. One of them is white, and one of them is black. One of them is the family of a murderer, and one of them is the family of the murdered. One of them is buried in an unmarked grave, and one of them is filming it.”
The title of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is taken from Phil Ochs’ song, “William Moore,” about a 36-year-old white man who was murdered on a highway outside Atalla, Alabama in 1963. He was taking a letter supporting civil rights to the governor in Jackson, Mississippi.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is an essential document. People need to see this. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I urge you to do so.
The remaining films in my Best Documentaries of 2018 list will be covered in Part 2. – Ted Hicks
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?