Two years ago, a bitter-sweet documentary about the backing singers behind stars like Jagger, Sting, Springsteen and Bowie won the Oscar for best documentary. Not only did the Morgan Neville doco, 20 Feet from Stardom, beat The Square, about upheavals in Egypt's 'Arab spring', it also beat The Act of Killing, about the murderous political realities in Indonesia in the 1960s. It was the story of vocalists in the shadow of fame that won the day instead.
A new doco from Neville, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, will open this year's Stronger Than Fiction film festival, Canberra's own and now in its fourth year. On the program are 13 films, all sourced from overseas—and they screen just once.
Simon Weaving, co-director of the festival with Deborah Kingsland, told me how they made it happen.
"Deb and I watched a lot of films from Sundance in January onwards," he says.
"It's a new batch of films. … We pick between 12 and 15 really smart, cinematic films with great stories that we know will work for Canberra audiences. The other really good thing about the festival is that we get some wonderful Q&As going." There are five over the four-day festival.
The Music of Strangers will open the festival on July 28. It explores the musical collective that celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought together in 2000. The original idea was to incorporate the best musicians in their field from the cultures located along the historical Silk Road, from countries like China, India, Syria, Armenia, Iran and Spain. Now, the ensemble brings musicians, composers and artists together around the world in a quest for a universal language of music.
Is everybody ready for the first documentary feature on Janis Joplin? In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg brings the Joplin story to the screen, told in the singer's own words through letters to family and friends. How surprising that it has taken so long for a doco that is just about her, the Texan with the raw and uninhibited style who was one of the top blues singers of the 1960s.
Music has a part to play in some other documentaries screening at Stronger Than Fiction, like The Queen of Silence and the Matthew Passion Stories. And also Sonita, about a feisty 16-year-old Afghan refugee living in Tehran whose brother has arranged her marriage. She resists, gaining strength through her music.
A European co-production, Free to Run explores a rather different source of endorphins, running. The running movement that was once a marginal activity reserved for men has now become, in the words of the festival program, 'a worldwide passion'. This unusual study suggests there was, however, more to the right to run than we were ever aware of.
A film from New Zealand will demonstrate that endurance can mean different things to different people. Tickled, delivered with that particular Kiwi humour, is a study of the 'sport' of 'competitive endurance tickling'. Funny or sinister? It is a bit hard to say.
The film that won the Golden Bear for best film at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Fire at Sea, looks at the migrant crisis through the eyes of the people of Lampedusa, the southern-most island of Italy, a little more than 100 kilometres from Tunisia, and the first staging post for migrants entering Europe. "This is cinema, the most exquisite piece of cinema," says Weaving.
Jim: The James Foley Story bears witness to the life of freelance war photojournalist Foley, captured and so publicly executed by ISIS, and considers the state of international conflict reporting in today's media market.
"This is about Jim but it goes beyond, and touches on the meaning of life," says Weaving.
"It's really powerful. No wonder it won the audience award at Sundance this year. At a time when values can be a bit soft, and bendy and anything goes, here was a man who was very clear about what he stood for…it was clear that it gave him such incredible strength and he was able to share that strength (with fellow captives)."
It's been said at some point by one of the greats of documentary filmmaking, Errol Morris (who made the classic doco The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988), that you have to at least try to find the truth, even if you cannot guarantee it. He's also said that the beauty of documentary filmmaking is that you just don't know where your story is heading. From the outset, how your voyage is going to end is unknown.
Stronger Than Fiction features one of those classic investigation films that Morris would have had in mind. Zero Days is a search for truth in the clandestine world of cyber warfare by renowned documentarian, Alex Gibney, following the development and spread of a computer virus that closed down industrial control systems across the world in 2012. It will be a fast-paced and unsettling experience, we can be sure. Gibney is responsible for some of the best documentaries in recent times, like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and the Oscar winner, Taxi to the Dark Side.
Another of the world's best, and also most prolific, documentarians, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man and many more) features in the festival. He has made a meditation in his inimitable style on the internet, projecting the impact of the digital environment on our lives into the future in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. A kind of companion piece to Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that projected into our pre-historic past?
Besides all this, Stronger Than Fiction offers a bit of live theatre too. Aspiring filmmakers with an idea for a new doco can pitch it to an industry panel at the Doco Pitch Slam, and get instant feedback. The slam, standing-room only, features at the festival every year.
Stronger Than Fiction screens at Palace Electric Cinema from 28-31 July