Fascinating, Reflexive Documentaries About Filmmakers


North America’s largest festival of new Japanese film returns for its 10th year. Japan Society’s Japan Cuts features screenings and in-person appearances by some of the country’s greatest filmmakers. Amongst this year’s highlights is the work of Love Exposure director Sion Sono, who will see two films premiering at the festival. A reflexive documentary will also screen, The Sion Sono. From Japan Cuts:

Directed by Arata Oshima, son of rebel filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, who had praised Sono’s early work before his passing, this documentary gives insight into the man, the poet, the painter, the scriptwriter, the husband and the boy who will eventually grow up to be the Sion Sono. Lineage, history and the past meeting the present are themes in this film in which Oshima connects the dots in Sono’s creative life by taking the camera to the site of his upbringing and following the production of his most recent film The Whispering Star, also screening at this year’s Japan Cuts.

Here are several other fascinating documentaries about filmmakers, featuring the filmmakers themselves, discussing their lives and careers.

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014)

“It was very therapeutic, I think, actually, while we were making it, for both of us, in a way. It brought us closer in that sense that we were now using each other in a way that we had never done before.”

From critic Peter Martin:

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn is Liv Corfixen’s exploration of creativity from a domestic perspective that is in flux. Despite the fact that we, as an audience, know how Only God Forgives turns out — love it or hate it, it’s a provocative, unpredictable movie — it’s not altogether certain that Nicolas Winding Refn, Liv Corfixen, and their children will ever be the same again.

Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (2002)

“I invented my youth, my family, my relationships with women and with life. I’m a born liar.”

From Roger Ebert:

Fellini, we learn, sometimes gave no direction at all, expecting his actors to intuit his desires. At other times (seen in footage of the director at work), he stood next to the camera and verbally instructed his actors on every move and nuance. This was possible because he often didn’t record sound, preferring to sub the dialogue later, and some of his actors simply counted, ‘one, two, three,’ knowing the words will be supplied. It is clear that Stamp and Sutherland did not enjoy the experience, and so much did Fellini treat them like his puppets that at one point Sutherland says ‘Fellini’ when he means his own character.

Burden of Dreams (1982)

“If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that.”

From Senses of Cinema:

Herzog’s approach to filmmaking is rooted in his desire to access a particular kind of truth – not the facts of an event, but the deeper emotional resonances. There is a line in Fitzcarraldo that intimates his complex attitude toward authenticity: a missionary Fitz meets laments, ‘We can’t seem to cure the Indians of the idea that our everyday life is only an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams.’ Clearly a devotee of this notion himself, Herzog considers it his absolute duty to attempt to provide access to this nebulous realm via film. Like Fitzcarraldo – and Sisyphus – Herzog in Burden is the flawed, eccentric hero, hell-bent on pursuing an impossible goal. Unlike Sisyphus, however, Herzog successfully pushed his burden (the Molly Aida) to the top of the hill – and managed to capture it on film. In Burden of Dreams, Blank provides critical insight into the price of that bitter victory, crafting a portrait of the artist at the epicentre of the chaos that both disturbs and inspires.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

From critic Scott Tobias:

Because of the money and stakes involved, studio movies tend to be so completely worked out in advance that shooting them is about executing a creative vision rather than discovering one. But for Francis Ford Coppola, at least on his phantasmagorical 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, filmmaking is an open-ended process, beginning with questions that he hopes the movie will answer. In adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness as a grand metaphor for the Vietnam War, Coppola felt he had to go along with his hero’s terrifying journey upriver, even if it meant living with the possibility that he wouldn’t find those answers, and the film would fail colossally. Call it courage or hubris, but for Coppola to haul a production of this size to the Philippines without knowing its artistic destination is an invigorating sort of madness — and one that’s indelibly imprinted on the finished product.

Billy Wilder Speaks (2006)

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”

From critic Nathan Rabin:

Though well into his 80s at the time of filming, Wilder is exactly what his films would suggest: a hilarious, irrepressible, salty, candid storyteller full of wisdom but completely unpretentious. Speaks is little more than a flatly filmed interview with clips, but the endlessly delightful Wilder provides all the spectacle, humor, and excitement any film could ask for.

The Beaches of Agnès (2008)

“I am alive, and I remember.”

From critic J. Hoberman:

The beach is not only a superb location in which to frame an individual, but the place where people confront the infinite or discover traces of the past washed up onshore. Varda equates those who gaze at the sea with Ulysses; she herself is often dreaming of home. The artist re-creates childhood tableaux using old family photos; redeploys footage documenting her first meeting with her Greek relations; and revisits homes of her youth in Brussels and the Mediterranean port Sète, where her family relocated during World War II and where, at 26, she made her first movie, the low-budget neorealist experiment La pointe-courte. Other film locations are recalled, notably Los Angeles (“such an intense pleasure to live there”). Associates drop by or are recalled: Jane Birkin appears in several guises (including as Stan Laurel); Chris Marker materializes in the form of his trademark cartoon cat; and Jim Morrison is evoked. But mainly, the movie is benignly haunted by Demy.

De Palma (2015)

“Here’s the thing about directors’ careers: We don’t plan them out.”

From Variety:

Acolytes of Brian De Palma’s flavorful, flamboyant filmography hardly need reminding of his acrobatic ability as a visual storyteller; what they’ll learn from De Palma is that in front of the camera, he’s a pretty marvelous raconteur, too. The septuagenarian director provides an exhaustive but exuberant film-by-film account of a career spanning nearly half a century in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s delicious documentary portrait — skimping neither on candid self-effacement or irreverent wit as he recalls such professional triumphs as Carrie, such dispiriting misfires as Mission to Mars, and the wealth of knowledge gained and opportunities lost in between. Elegantly linear in its setup, and reflecting at least one of its name helmers in its overriding mood of buoyant good humor, De Palma reps several Christmases come at once for fans, though it’s playful and perspicacious enough to engage all film-biz aficionados.

Scorsese on Scorsese (2004)

“My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”