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The best documentaries of 2017

It’s been a good year for documentary storytelling – make sure these films are on your list if you haven’t seen them yet

Throughout 2017 we’ve seen widening social divides as our beliefs become more entrenched, and the stories we see and share become increasingly tailored to our interests. Political unrest has been catalysed by erratic, and frustratingly binary approaches to nuanced social, economic and international issues, and, while some journalistic institutions have been attacked, undermined for the way they seek to challenge authority, others have begun to thrive in a new age of misinformation. Throughout it all, a host of insightful and necessary documentaries have catalogued these changes, reflecting this new set of preoccupations back at us, working to inform viewers about the changing status quo whilst simultaneously providing a platform for marginalised communities to raise their voice above the din. As the year draws to a close we’ve shortlisted some of our favourites, covering everything from protest to prostitution, voyeurism to voguing. 

KIKI 

Nearly three decades since Paris Is Burning first debuted to widespread critical acclaim, Kiki explores New York’s modern-day ballroom scene - only this time, the story is told from the perspective of the community itself. The first feature-length debut from director Sara Jordenö, Kiki is a dynamic coming of age film about agency, resilience and the transformative power of self-expression to bring together New York’s disenfranchised LGBT youth-of-colour. Following members of the scene as they prepare for and perform at balls in and around West Village’s Christopher Street Pier, the documentary is as much a discussion of the ball’s social function as an alternative family structure, as it is a celebration of the creativity and energy of queer culture.

MARSHA P JOHNSON

David France has spent much of his adult life preserving, sharing and celebrating the defining moments of LGBT history. His seminal 2012 documentary about the AIDS epidemic, How To Survive A Plague, picked up awards at film festivals across the globe, including a Sundance, Emmy and Oscar nomination for it’s insightful, heart-rending depiction of the resilience of the queer community during an epidemic that would claim the lives of tens of thousands of men and women by the end of the 80s.

His latest feature chronicles the extraordinary life and death of the Marsha P Johnson, ‘Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement,’ veteran of the Stonewall riots, muse to Andy Warhol and founder of the first trans-rights organisation. Revisiting a case he first looked into whilst working as a reporter at the Village Voice, France catalogues the chain of events that led to Marsha’s being found floating dead in the Hudson River in the summer of 1992. With unprecedented access to Marsha’s closest friends, family and contemporaries - including STAR co-founder and fellow gay power pioneer Sylvia Rivera - alongside previously unseen archival footage, The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson packages an important historical account of one of the LGBT community’s greatest icons as a gripping noir thriller.

However, the film was hit by controversy after filmmaker Reina Gossett alleged that France stole her research for the project.

GET ME ROGER STONE

Before Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway or Alex Jones there was Roger Stone - the youngest person called before the Watergate grand jury, a lifelong conservative and self-proclaimed ‘dirty trickster.’ Stone has shaped political history from the sidelines since Nixon. A master of controversy, corruption, special interest lobbying and media manipulation, his 50 year career reached a new chilling climax with the election of his so-called prime cut of ‘political horse flesh,’ Donald Trump, in September 2016. Over the course of its 92 minutes Get Me Roger Stone offers a fascinating, if disturbing glimpse into one of the masterminds behind America’s newly fragmented, rage-fuelled socio-political system.

NOBODY SPEAK

Documentary writer and director Brian Knappenberger has spent close to two decades making compelling, insightful films about the places in our culture where technological innovation rubs up against our civil liberties and human rights. His latest feature, the Sundance award-nominated Nobody Speak, takes a hard look at the influence of powerful conservative moguls on our public and political discourse. Ostensibly, Nobody Speak explores the peculiarities of the Hulk Hogan/Gawker sex tape scandal and subsequent lawsuit.

As the trial unfolds however, it’s revealed that Hogan’s suit is being bankrolled by PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel - a man who has, at various points, rejected the notion of structural racism and white privilege, described date rape as ‘belated regret' and argued against women's suffrage. From this somewhat salacious beginning, the film twists and turns its way through a fascinating expose of America’s wealthy and the lengths they go to, to silence those who challenge them. From this one court case, Knappenberger charts the rise of Trump, his rejection of those who challenge his beliefs and the emergence of a 'post-truth' world where the powerful look to undermine their opponents with a coordinated campaign of misinformation and deception.

RISK

Shot over six years by Laura Poitras - the Academy Award-winning director of Edward Snowden bio-doc, Citizenfour - Risk offers a complex character study of Julian Assange in the lead up to a high-stakes election year and its controversial aftermath. Presenting a unique portrait of power, betrayal, truth and sacrifice, Risk catalogues the contradictions of Assange and Wikileaks, as the organisation begins to split and fracture under the stress of ideological and individual inconsistencies.

CASTING JONBENET

This intelligent and original true-crime documentary holds a mirror up to the genre, exposing viewers’ voyeurism by casting actors who are obsessed with the gory details of the crime they’re helping to reenact on screen. Blending fictionalised retelling with real-world case details and archive footage, Casting JonBenet is a sly and stylized exploration of one of America’s most sensational child-murder cases, the unsolved death of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. Not simply another macabre examination of an unexplained death, the film instead spotlights the media speculation, public attention and moralising hysteria that’s hard-baked in to our fascination with this type of family tragedy.

VOYEUR

Voyeur follows noted author, journalist and celebrity profile writer Gay Talese as he reports one of the most controversial stories of his career: a portrait of a Colorado motel owner, Gerald Foos. For decades, Foos secretly watched his guests with the aid of specially designed ceiling vents, peering down from an observation platform he built in the motel’s attic. Journaling everything he saw in startling detail, Foos spent decades documenting one thing: strangers having sex. Talese’s insatiable curiosity leads him to turn his gaze to a man accustomed to being the watcher, exploring a tangle of ethical questions: How distinct is the line between a peeping Tom and a prying journalist? And how, as consumers of this journalism, might we be complicit in this voyeuristic act?

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only thirty completed pages of his manuscript. In his incendiary new documentary, master filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished. The result is a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words and flood of rich archival material. I Am Not Your Negro is a journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter, questioning the very definition of what America stands for.

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