Here, in no particular order, are five of my favourite documentaries - each for a different reason.
Ghost Bird (2009 - Small Change Productions, Scott Crocker, producer/director) This tragi-comic documentary had its premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto in spring 2009, and tells the story of the "re-discovery" of the ivory billed woodpecker in Arkasas. Thought to be extinct, the bird's sighting set the region afire with dreams of merchandising tie ins and excited scientists and politicians alike, and the film, in telling the story of this as yet undocumented re-discovery, reveals much more about our dubious relationship with the natural world.
Books of James (2006 - Ho Tam). Ho Tam is a visual artist who's produced many interesting films, and Books of James is perhaps the most ambitious. It tells the story of James Wentzy, an AIDS survivor and activist, and his often melancholy journey through the decades from the heady days of ACTUP activism to slipping off the radar of public consciousness through a fascinating series of visuals based on James' own handwritten and illustrated diary notebooks, along with other footage. A unique concept and vision (see image above).
Fierce Light (2009 - Velcrow Ripper) With a poetic vision and inspiring message, this documentary was released in spring 2009, and deals with the filmmakers personal search for what happens when people combine belief and action. A slew of thinkers and activists, (including celebs like Darryl Hannah and Danny Glover,) lend their voices to what amounts to an inspiring spiritual message with gorgeous visuals. (see trailer below)
Jamesie and the All Stars (2007 - Andrea E. Leland Productions, LLC) Without this surprising film, I would know nothing of Quelbe, a form of swingy roots music indigenous to the Virgin Islands. The African slaves brought over by Danish settlers were forbidden to play their own music or their own instruments, so Quelbe formed with appropriated European instruments and found objects, combining the Euro quadrille with an African beat. The strength of the film lies in its great music and the laidback charm of Jamesie and the other musicians. The songs most often deal with everyday stories and issues, sometimes frankly sexual, as in "Fire in de Water" (or what happens when a woman walks through the reeds on her way to shore..) and sometimes political - one of the musicians found himself in trouble after writing about an out of control pothole situation.
Sicko (2007 - Michael Moore) He's hardly a struggling indie filmmaker anymore, but I had to include one of Moore's popular documentaries. As a Canadian, the words "health care" (so often in our news, so often debated!) make me want to run and hide, so I have to applaud anyone who can take that term and make it into an engrossing and entertaining story. I especially liked the way he slyly casts 9/11 survivors and Cuba into the debate.