13 posts categorized "Docudrama"

May 07, 2013


Bloody SundayAlthough originally produced for British television in 2002, Paul Greengrass’s vivid depiction of a violent turning point in the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland was released in theaters in the States. The Sundance and Berlin film festivals showered awards on the docudrama for its persuasive vérité style, which depicts a January 30, 1972 attack by British army paratroopers against 10,000 Irish demonstrators in a civil rights protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland. Fourteen protestors were killed and 14 more were injured; British soldiers suffered no injuries or casualties. The 1998 Bloody Sunday Inquiry ordered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the most expensive investigation in British history.

Greengrass based his terse, episodic screenplay on Don Mullan’s acclaimed book “Eyewitness Bloody Sunday” (1997). Drawing on his early career spent directing episodes of the investigative British television program “World in Action,” Greengrass deploys an arsenal of shooting and editing techniques to place the audience in the flow of the film’s roughly 24-hour timeline.


Sound from radio transmissions between British military officers preparing for confrontation segues into a stream of hand-held camera sequences that expose the two sides in an infamous street battle. Loose camera pans and impulsive zooms capture the naturally lit action in a gloomy urban district where barbed-wire barricades and roadblocks were commonplace. A young Catholic couple kisses and parts ways by the light of military vehicle headlights. This is what military occupation feels like — brutal, dangerous, and mundane.

Each scene begins in mid-action and cuts away with a sustained blackout fade that keeps the audience off balance. The audience’s eyes are temporarily closed. Like the Irish, we don’t know where we will wake up next in the conflict. Our uneasy frame of reference is that of an itinerant bystander grasping at whatever semblance of reason we can read into the absurdist narrative of military oppression.

Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) is a charismatic Member of Parliament of Northern Ireland and civil rights leader charged with leading the march. Like the local priests, Ivan is on a first-name basis with many citizens, whom he treats as his own flock of “peaceful” protestors. However infectious his idealistic, and fearless, belief in the potential power of a demonstration to effect change, there are plenty of young men who think differently. An Irish Republican Army leader dispatches orders to his comrades from behind the wheel of his car while chatting with Cooper.


Major Steele (Chris Villiers), a British Army commander, instructs his war-painted Charlie Company troops to teach the locals a lesson. Picking up “200 hooligans” is their stated mission. Back at the Army’s headquarters Maj. Gen. Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) focuses on “winning the propaganda war” when he isn’t modeling the aggressive attitude he expects from his crew of trigger-happy goons.

When all hell breaks out, as we know from history, the audience is thrust into the middle of an orgy violence against innocent civilians that makes clear why Bloody Sunday served as “a moment of truth and a moment of shame” that “destroyed the civil rights movement” and gave the IRA its “biggest victory.”

Bloody-sunday (1)

Rated R. 107 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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February 12, 2013


Caesar Must DieHere’s the set up. Real-life Italian prisoners in Rome’s high-security Rebibbia prison rehearse and stage an abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” for an audience of friends, family, and prison guards. Conceived by co-directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani ("Padre Padrone" — Berlin Film Festival 1977 winner) as a reality/theatrical statement on Italian self-identity, and the lasting relevance of Shakespeare’s political play "Julius Caesar."


The docudrama reveals the personalities of convicts using a play to displace their inner struggles and reinvent the walls that contain them. The film is a high-wire act with a very small net. Filmed largely in black-and-white, the movie establishes its characters during auditions where naturally gifted inmates give breathtaking and hilarious performances of an assigned sketch scene.


Each Italian face is familiar and yet every animated gesture is fresh. We sense thousands of years of Italian culture pouring out from convicts doing time for everything from murder to various Mafia activities. Blood temperatures rise in keeping with the play within the film. Context is everything. The talented prisoners exhibit a wide range of emotions in playing their theatrically-bound roles. You can't help but wonder how much this dedicated and loyal group of men could add to society if given the proper support.


Shakespeare’s overriding text provides the surprisingly adept “actors” with an ongoing inner and outer dialogue regarding loyalty and betrayal. “Caesar Must Die” is an unconventional docudrama that engages its audience in a dialogue about the similarities between politicians and criminals, between actors and non-actors, and between observers and leaders. If you’re looking for an adventurous thought-provoking film, “Caesar Must Die” more than fits the bill.

Not Rated. 76 mins.

3 Stars

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February 01, 2013


Touching the VoidThe docudrama genre has rarely been so well served as it is by director Kevin Macdonald’s groundbreaking rendering of the remarkable true story of two young British mountainclimbers’ near-death experience scaling a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Based on mountainclimber Joe Simpson’s book "Touching the Void: The Harrowing First-Person Account of One Man's Miraculous Survival," the film features in-depth interview accounts with the actual climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) in conjunction with breathtaking reenactments using stunt climbers and actors (Nicholas Aaron, Ollie Ryall, and Brendan Mackey) on the Siula Grande and on locations in the Alps. One highlight is Joe Simpson's reenactment of a sequence from his terrifying experience on the mountain.


Besides being based on one of the most captivating tales of survival one can imagine, the film gains credibility from sequences filmed in the exact locations where the events took place. Tearing a page from the Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”) school of documentary filmmaking, Macdonald uses a similar interview system, allowing his subjects to open up directly to the camera as if looking the audience in the eye like a trusted confidant. Macdonald’s inclusion of Richard Hawking, the man entrusted to watch over base camp until the climbers’ return, proves an enormous benefit to the film, partly due to Hawking’s sincere yet lively demeanor.

Touching the void

Macdonald’s concentrated use of close-ups in the snowy reenactments conveys the bizarre mix of emotions on display despite the layers of protective clothing that cover the subjects. The filmmaker’s rigorous reenactments put the viewer inside the physical and mental weeklong nightmare that Joe Simpson and Simon Yates endured.


Fascinating, intense, and steeped in the riveting determination of one man’s will to live, “Touching The Void” is a startling film that rattles your nerves and sends a cold chill deep inside. Simon’s meticulous explanation of his conscious and subconscious thought processes during his ordeal illuminate his singularly straightforward personality. The fact that he never felt compelled to pray speaks to his uncompromising commitment to truth, and to surviving a situation that few people could or would walk away from if they found themselves in a similar predicament.


"Touching the Void" towers above the rest of that rarest of all film genres, the docudrama.

5 Stars

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

COLE SMITHEYA small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon, and receive special rewards!



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