As the days grow increasingly shorter and we approach Christmas and the New Year, it’s time to cosy up by the fire and review the year that was in documentary. 2011 has been a vintage year for the form, with many great directors returning to the genre, as well as young talent breaking though at both festivals and the box office. This was also the year Reeling the Real was established and began providing you with insightful reviews, interviews and coverage related to all things documentary. What follows below is a review of some of the best of the year.

Cold and miserable January is always uplifted by the Sundance Film Festival, America’s celebration of all things independent, and stands as a great opportunity for aspiring documentaries to find an international audience. We were treated this year to many fantastic films but ultimately we were left with two stand out features from the festival, Senna and Project Nim.

James Marsh’s follow up to Man on Wire was a heartbreaking review of the life of Nim, a chimp that became part of a controversial experiment to try and teach the animal sign language. Asif Kapadia’s breakthrough hit Senna looked at the great formula one racing driver, expertly using the wealth of recorded footage from his illustrious career to craft an exceptional look into the mind of a sportsman who risked all and sadly lost his life in the pursuit of greatness.

Two of the great directors of New German Cinema, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, both took the surprising direction of premiering 3D documentaries, a tool that has seemingly been monopolised by blockbuster movies. But fear not as the two proved that 3D cinema can be used beyond creating cheap tricks and genuinely push the medium in exciting new directions. Cave of Forgotten Dreams looked at the over 30,000 year old artwork left by early man in the Chauvet caves of Southern France. Herzog’s probing camera, combined with the fullness produced by the stereoscopic image, really brought to life the wonders of the caves, a sight that otherwise the majority of us would never have been able to see. Pina also used 3D cinema to examine artwork, but this time used the camera to capture the kinetic beauty of modern dance. Wender’s elegy to the life of Pina Bausch used the 3D camera to bring the complex choreography of her Tanztheater to life in a fascinating and unique way.

In a year of continued economic turmoil and mass dissent from people across many nations, documentaries kept a finger on the pulse of current world events and highlighted the many global problems we are facing today. Inside Job examined how the cavalier attitude of the banking sector led to the current economic disaster we are in, and Countdown to Zero provided us with a stark warning over the dangers of nations having nuclear arms in the 21st century. Adam Curtis returned to our televisions with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a fascinating investigation into how computers have influenced the way we think the world operates. Whilst not always hitting the mark, Curtis’s audacious series provoked us into thinking about how we see the world, and to challenge our current conceptions.

The year ended with the king of the documentary form, Errol Morris, returning to his journalistic roots in Tabloid, an examination of Joyce McKinney and the sex scandal that caught the attention of an entire nation. Morris’s touching film went beyond the case to look at the nature of truth and truth-telling, a theme that has been present in his previous work. My review praised the film, and stated that McKinney was shown in a positive light, though this did not stop me from being accused by her of libel for my observations. Since I was first told of her intent to sue I have received no further correspondence regarding legal action, and can only assume that McKinney has decided not to pursue the matter any further.

Aside from that slight hiccup, the website has kept itself out of trouble and has gone from strength to strength. Keep checking the site as we bring you more great reviews, interviews, features and films from the documentary world in 2012.

Watch this space!

My top 10 documentaries of the year:

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Countdown to Zero

Fambul Tok

Inside Job

Living in the Material World


Project Nim



Alfred Joyner

Reeling The Real is a website dedicated to the discussion of all kinds of moving image including documentary, film essays, archive re-use, artists' moving image and more.

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