Based on: Tell Me Who I Am by Joanna Hodgkin, Alex Lewis and Marcus Lewis
Cinematography: Erik Alexander Wilson
I recently reviewed a number of documentaries here, but it was only during a catch-up of Netflix films did I watch the harrowing family drama, Tell Me Who I Am (2019). Now, in my younger days I was naive enough to think documentaries were a representation of the whole truth and not a mediated version of events. There was fiction on one side and documentaries on the other. It’s a documentary so it must be true and must not be questioned.
That isn’t to say that the events of this incredible story are not true. No, my point is that Tell Me Who I Am (2019) is, while based on a true story, structured like a classic Hollywood thriller akin to something Hitchcock may have produced. Conversely, I was gripped throughout by the mystery, suspense and a gut-kicking reveal halfway through. Do not read anything about this moving family story beforehand, as going in with NO knowledge will make it all the more powerful.
The film is structured in the classic three act fashion. Firstly, we find Alex Lewis describing events of an accident he had when 18. The incident led to him totally losing his memory. The only thing he remembered was he had a twin brother, Marcus. His mother, father, friends, their farmhouse, the privileged background and their dogs were all forgotten. Like a film noir protagonist he was left in the dark as to his whole history. With the help of Marcus, he slowly begins to learn about his past and rehabilitate for the future. Thus, at first one feels this is a story of an individual overcoming near-tragedy and rebuilding their life moment by moment. However, it becomes something much more than that. I shall say no more.
Shot through talking heads, photo montage and reconstruction, this is an exquisitely edited and filmed documentary. The twins, Alex and Marcus are framed in close-ups, with pale backgrounds and shadowed foregrounds. As we move back and forth between their respective sides of the story, one is slowly pulled into the incredible events that confirm truth is more horrifying than fiction. By the resolution I was shook and deeply affected by the film, with still some questions left unanswered. Ultimately though, Tell Me Who I Am (2019) is a satisfying and very emotionally charged story about searching for truth amidst familial conflict, betrayal and a longing for redemption.
Obviously, I watch a hell of a lot of fiction films and television shows. Every now and then I try and catch up with some documentaries about actual events, people and serious matters. Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds, but sometimes it’s important to explore the “truth”.
Having said that, some documentaries contain highly constructed narratives with as much, if not more drama than fictional works. Indeed, very often truth is much stranger than fiction. Thus, here are six documentaries I have watched recently. As some of these reviews deal with serious issues, I have dispensed with the usual marking system, so as not to trivialise them.
******CONTAINS FACTUAL SPOILERS******
BRITAIN’S CHILD DRUG RUNNERS – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4
Dispatches is a long-running documentary series which examines hard-hitting issues in society and the world as a whole. This particular episode sought to shed light on the gangs which lure teenagers into their drug running crimes. Children, some as young as eleven, are used to run “County Lines” delivering and selling drugs. The programme was fascinating and showed how the children’s, parents, police enforcement and society in general is being tragically affected by this problem.
CATCHING A KILLER (2019) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4
Murder documentaries are like rats in the city, infesting our TV screens and streaming platforms. Some of the true-life ones can be lurid and trashy, however, this one from Channel 4 was moving and of high quality. The series focuses on ongoing investigations and follows police as they investigate the crime and gather evidence. This particular episode profiled a retired gentleman who relatives believed had died of natural causes. It soon became clear that the victim had been cruelly conned and manipulated by a charming, but devious killer.
FOR SAMA (2019) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4
This incredibly moving and harrowing documentary took you into the heart of the Syrian conflict. Filmmaker and journalist, Waad Al-Kateab began filming in 2011 and continued for many years as her home in East Aleppo became a bomb site full of loss, destruction and death. Despite this she met her husband, a Doctor, and gave birth to her daughter, Sama. Choosing to stay amidst the explosions and blood was not only an incredible commitment to the story, but also a testament to the bravery of those lives impacted by war. I don’t know much about the Syrian war, and obviously this is just one side of what is a very complex matter. Yet, despite all the pain and suffering on show, one must admire the resilience of those involved and I am not surprised the film has gone onto to win many awards.
MARRIED TO A PAEDOPHILE (2018) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4
This salacious sounding documentary is not as exploitation based as it would appear. Focusing on three families who lives have been torn apart because the man of the family had downloaded child pornography, it explores the aftermath of this serious crime. Interestingly, the documentary featured the real voices of the people involved, but with actors playing their roles. It’s an intriguing subject as the wives and children of these men are left to deal with not just shame and guilt, but vindictive neighbours and broken relationships.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (2018) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4
This is genuinely one of those stories you would not believe, unless perhaps it was in a science fiction cloning drama or something. The documentary film examines the past and present lives of triplets who were given up for adoption in the early 1960’s. The issue was none of them, or their adoptive parents, were told of the others existence. Thus, years later when they meet each other aged 19, through sheer coincidence, they have one hell of a surprise. The first half of this documentary is very engaging and positive as the trio, Bobby, Eddy and David reunite and become celebrities, appearing on chat shows and magazine front pages in 1980’s America. The second half of this incredible film then darkens somewhat as the truth as to what actually happened is revealed. It is truly astonishing to watch!
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOUR (2018) – NETFLIX
Having watched and reviewed the recent film release, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)here, I decided to head over to Netflix and check out the earlier documentary about American TV legend, Fred Rogers. Like the feature drama, this highlights the strength, wisdom and kindness of a great man, determined to instil worth and warmth into children’s lives. It’s a finely constructed documentary with an intermingling of footage from Rogers’ television shows, historical interviews with the man himself, plus friends, family and people he worked with paying tribute to a fine human being. The film asks, “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” My answer is a definite YES!
I thought I would make an effort to watch more documentaries over the last few months. Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, show-runners and filmmakers etc. but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth”.
Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting reality or the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed narratives with as much if not more drama and turns in their tales than fictional works.
I wasn’t the only one who was gripped by Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) or HBO’s exceptional The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Moreover, I’ve always been an avid viewer of the work of dogged filmmaker Nick Broomfield, the disarming talent of Louie Theroux, and at his best the polemical Michael Moore. However, you always have to be aware that what one is watching has been manipulated and finessed to tell a story or a certain agenda; thus truth is not always absolute and should always be questioned.
Nonetheless, the documentary film or programme remains an important tool to confront existential, sociological, historical and political events and issues. It also tends to be a lower budgeted medium – compared to fictional works – with which to illuminate and entertain an audience. So, here are some documentaries I have been watching of late.
Crime documentaries are big business and along with historical Nazi dramas fill up the TV screens and online. Netflix has some well-presented and often controversial documentaries, one such is AMANDA KNOX (2016), which interviewed many of those involved in the despicable murder case of Meredith Kercher a few years back. This intriguing documentary lifts the lid on a case where the media and Italian legal system are on trial as much as Knox herself.
With the Nazis in mind, the BBC documentary AUSCHWITZ: THE NAZIS AND THE FINAL SOLUTION (2005) is a horrific examination of wartime atrocities which probes the means with which the Nazis tried to wipe out all the Jews. This is a challenging yet incredible mix of interviews, dramatic re-enactment and detailed research on the evil death camp Auschwitz. While not an easy watch it is a brilliantly devised series which illustrates the blackest stain of one of humanity’s darkest periods in history.
From World War II to a very contemporary conflict Netflix presents THE WHITE HELMETS (2016), which over a hard-hitting forty minutes profiles the heroism of the eponymous rescue workers striving to save civilians from conflicted Aleppo and Syria on the whole. The short film won an Oscar but having done some research online the other side of the argument suggests this is a propaganda piece and does not represent the real work of this group. All I can say is someone somewhere is blowing the hell out of Syria and it is a bloody tragedy because people are dying! Indeed, whichever side the White Helmets are on the filmmakers show the insane destruction of war and suffering occurring for reasons that are beyond my understanding.
For something far more heart-warming I recommend the majestic film THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016). It documents the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl from Mongolia, as she attempts to become the first female eagle hunter in her country. Beautiful vistas and soaring eagles amidst the snow are to the fore in a very sweet tale of a young lady facing up against years of cultural chauvinism and prejudice, for something she loves doing.
More harrowing though is the well-constructed Killer Whale documentary BLACKFISH (2013) which highlights the cruelty to these beautiful creatures in captivity and the alleged corporate greed of SeaWorld following the deaths of trainers at the park. It also illustrates, in my opinion, the idiotic folly of human beings who think it is wise to get in the water with gigantic aquatic hunters. We are imprisoning animals for our own apparent entertainment and killing ourselves because of it. Idiots!
More human lunacy can be found in the harrowing film VIRUNGA (2014) set in the Congo where director Orlando von Einsiedel stabs at the heart of darkness and finds Soco International and civil war damaging the natural beauty of Virunga National Park. It’s another sad indictment on humanity as the people who live there and the animals, notably the Gorillas, find their habitat is surely being destroyed in the name of greed and insane mercenary bloodlust.
Taking the nature documentary in the direction of horror is Morgan Spurlock’s brutal film RATS (2016). This sickeningly impressive doc takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the globe with gruesome scenes of rat-catching, scientific experimentation, baiting and butchering of rats. Most disgustingly the eating of rodents in Vietnam is considered a delicacy. Gross!
Arguably the most powerful of the documentaries I watched was Ava DuVernay’s polemical and politically charged 13th (2016), a film which slams years of Government policies in regard to incarceration. Indeed, the evidence presented shows systematic lobbying from big business to turn the prison system into a means of enslaving the less socially advantaged. The mass rise of inmates in jail from the 1970s to now bares out this fact and the harsh stories within the documentary too are shocking. 13th is a savage indictment against the United States Government treatment, over the years, of black and Hispanic communities, and while it’s very one-sided, the points it is well researched and makes are incredibly powerful.
An altogether less incendiary and academic approach comes via Noam Chomsky’s interviews represented in REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM (2015) where the ultra-intellectual argues lucidly that a half-century of policies have been designed to favour the most wealthy at the expense of the majority. It’s thought-provoking and makes you wonder if this real life “They Live” style of social domination by the rich is truly real or just a dreamt up socio-liberal political conspiracy. To me, and I am not particularly bright when it comes to such matters, believe it is capitalist Darwinism at its worst and the wealthy and powerful are simply protecting what they have to the detriment or the less socially advantageous. Bastards!
I have to say that I admire the bravery of many documentary filmmakers, especially the ones who get right into the nitty gritty of the action. One such filmmaker Matthew Heinemann and his film CARTEL LAND (2015) has a lot of bottle going to Mexico and the US border to film events relating to the drug trade, criminality and nefarious Cartel factions and Government groups. Heinemann and his crew deserve praise for bringing these incredible events concerning an ongoing bloody civil war which seems to have no end in sight.
America is a continual goldmine for fascinating documentaries and Louis Theroux has proved time and time again he is a dab hand at gently poking a stick into some of the darker areas of humanity. Two such BBC documentaries he made are LA STORIES (2014) and THE CITY ADDICTED TO CRYSTAL METH (2009) where Theroux’s unassuming style examines the lives of people and animals affected by drugs, paedophilia, death and social decay. I like Louis Theroux as he isn’t afraid to ask important questions and his work gets into your psyche, without ever smashing you over the head with a definite agenda or tunnel-vision polemics.
The comedian Russell Brand presented a more vigorous approach when challenging the UK government’s ‘war on drugs’ policy by finding out how other countries are tackling their problems of drug abuse. RUSSELL BRAND – END THE DRUGS WAR (2014) was an passionate crusade by Brand to treat drug addiction as a disease and not a crime and he made some excellent points in carrying his case to legal and Government figures.
For some lighter viewing I also watched an informative documentary about filmmaker, actor and theatre genius called: MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING WORK OF ORSON WELLES (2014), which entertainingly ran through the career highs and lows of Orson Welles. Meanwhile, I AM YOUR FATHER (2015) was a likeable tribute to the man who WAS Darth Vader in the original Star Wars franchise – David Prowse. However, the film was ruined by the Spanish director crow-barring himself into the film and also trying to create some drama out of Prowse being gazumped by George Lucas for the shooting of Vader’s death scene. Prowse had a great career and I found the attempts at controversy were unnecessary and the film should’ve concentrated on the man in the suit himself.
Last but not least if you love filmmaking docs you must watchLOST SOUL: RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014). This documentary charts the journey of director Richard Stanley and his attempts to bring classic novel The Island of Dr Moreau to the silver screen. With a massive budget and filming taking place in Australia it all starts to go wrong for Stanley as tropical storms hit the set and the money men at the studio lose confidence. Add the crazy Marlon Brando, difficult Val Kilmer and hedonistic extras to the mix and you get a box office turkey burning in front of your eyes. Both funny and tragic it reveals the folly of filmmaking yet sadly also seemed to finish Stanley’s promising directorial career.