I do love documentaries, and will watch just about anything that grabs my attention, from history to biography to any of the arts. Over the weekend I had the opportunity to watch two new examples, and they were instructive and jarring, beautiful and troubling.
Critic Roger Ebert, lover of movies and irascible celebrity film reviewer alongside Gene Siskel for so many years, is the focus of Life Itself (2014), a remarkably well done documentary that covered both his life and the fight against cancer, that left his face disfigured but didn't halt his drive or even production until the very last day of his life. I will admit that it was hard viewing the flapping maw that was once his chin (as well as the episodes of suction, but is is good that the reality of the battle be seen. I was amazed by the power and love of his wife Chaz, who he married at age 50. The documentary seemed very honest, and didn't seem to sugar coat his life, pointing out that he could be a curmudgeon and, well, prick, sometimes. But it showed that he was much more than what we often saw on the small screen, diverse in his talents, caring in his relations with his adopted family, and perhaps even affectionate for his sparring partner (who died in 1999). Sometimes the adjectives of "brave" and such applied to a person battling for their life can be overdone, but he seemed to keep good humor and willpower even as he struggled with pain and physical deterioration. The film certainly changed the way I thought of the man, and much for the better.
Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014) was a beautifully presented and informative exploration of historical and contemporary African American photographers, from the early days of the media, through the struggles of Reconstruction and Civil Rights, and up to modern support and expansion of black photographic art. The film is full of absolutely stunning pieces, many of which I had seen before, although there was quite a bit new to me. I have for a long time been somewhat familiar with a few black photographers, especially Richard Samuel Roberts, whose beautiful work is covered in A True Likeness (both the book and an ETV documentary). The documentary mixes a little of the producer's family's amateur work with the photography by and of important black leaders and individuals. Simply amazing work that I hope spurs viewers to look up and view and even visit exhibitions of the work of former and current photographers. It will empower, enlighten, and engage; I think it would be a good film to show high school and college students.