Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film

“Documentary 101” now available as e-book


Happy to announce that my book, “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film”, previously available only in paperback, has now been released as an e-book in all formats—in most cases selling for the low low price of only $4.99. All these sites allow you to “look inside” at the first 40 pages. See below for the links.

My publisher has done a great job on the e-book conversion, allowing readers to land on any of the over 300 reviews by clicking on the title in the table of contents.

In my Categories list to the right, the “Documentary 101 Samplers” offer highlights from a more varied cross-section of the book, along with film stills only seen there.

Cheers, Rick Ouellette
(Reel and Rock readers: I am now on Facebook if you’d like to connect with me there)






Documentary 101: the e-book

Happy to announce that my book, “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film”, previously available only in paperback, has now been released as an e-book in all formats—in most cases selling for the low low price of only $4.99. The list of the various online outlets is below; all of these sites allows you to “look inside”, usually meaning a peek at the first 40 pages that before now was only available on my author page of the publisher

BookLocker has done a great job on the e-book conversion, allowing readers to land on any of the over 300 reviews by clicking on the title in the table of contents.

In my Catergories list to the right,the “Documentary 101 Samplers” features highlights from a more varied cross-section of the book, along with film stills only seen there.

Cheers, Rick






Salem Film Fest: So many docs, so little time


The weeklong all-documentary Salem Film Fest, running from March 6-13, has a great and remarkably diverse line-up of films, with 37 features and almost as many short subjects. I was able to see several of them last week and even if I can’t get back there in its last two days, will have a sizable checklist for future viewing choices.

I feel a little silly that before this year I was largely unaware of this supercool event that takes place in my hometown of Salem, Mass. and that is barely a half-hour’s drive from where I live now. It’s been gong on for seven years and during that whole time I was writing a book called “Documentary 101.” Actually, considering the 420-page ordeal, maybe it’s not that surprising. In conjunction with the festival I took a “Discovering Documentary” class taught by Erin Trahan, co-editor and publisher of the online film magazine, The Independent. An all-day class (at the Montserrat College of Art in neighboring Beverly) the week before was followed by an inclusive SFF full day pass on a Saturday accompanied by panel discussions etc. Any non-fiction film buffs in my neck of the woods take notice for next year, it was great! And as for the Salem Film Fest, what a first rate program, accompanied by a welcoming vibe, all centered on the town’s historic Essex St. pedestrian mall. Looks like March may be the new October for the Witch City when it comes to attracting attention…

Of the film’s I did see, the opening night presentation of “A Fragile Trust,” profiling the plagiarizing New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, was a treat. Filmmaker Samantha Grant was in attendance (as were most directors of the selected films, it seemed) and during the Q&A, one person compared it to Errol Moris’ Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” as a mea culpa coup of sorts. Robert McNamara’s defensive testimony in “Fog” of his dubious high-level role in escalating the Vietnam War may have more gravity. But Blair’s high-profile case, which caused an erosion of confidence in journalism at a time when traditional news could least afford it, is no small potatoes. Blair’s rampant ego, blended in with lingering mental health issues and substance abuse, led to a prominent scandal and his presence in the film as a less-than-reliable interviewee was fascinating stuff. (“Where does the illness stop and the gaming begin?” wondered one of the talking heads). A show of hands at the Q&A revealed about half thought the film made them at least somewhat sympathetic of Blair, while the other half were left with disdain. Another example of the engaging power of the documentary form, although I have to agree with my sister Pam, who I watched it with it with, Grant should tone down that cue-happy soundtrack music. If you get a chance, check out “A Fragile Trust” when it airs on PBS on May 5th.

On Saturday, I saw the charming “Tokyo Waka” by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, about the 20,000+ jungle crows that inhabit one of the world’s biggest cities. The poetic flow of this work reflected both the natural world’s interaction with the built environment and the Japanese people’s philosophy of everyday life as seen in relation to this enigmatic, iconic bird. Also got to check out the vibrant “Everybody Street” (directed by photojournalist-filmmaker Cheryl Dunn) about notable photographers who have worked the streets of New York City through the decades. Tellingly, most of the folks behind the camera (like Joel Meyerowitz, Jill Freedman, Bruce Davidson and the Serbian-born Boogie) are as least as fascinating as the diverse multitudes they take pictures of, and that’s saying something. Like “Waka” this is a sidelong portrait of a great city as a whole.


Among the entries I circled in the program for future viewing: “Dear Mr. Watterson” about the creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip; “Rich Hill”, a look at the de-population of large swatches of heartland America thru the example of one Missouri town; and relatedly, “The Human Scale”, Andreas Dalsgaard’s new film on the urban challenges facing a world where 80% of the population will be living in large cities by 2050. And as a fan of music docs, I hope to soon be seeing “Elektro Moskava” (pictured above) and it’s tale of Russia’s vital historical role in the development of electronic music. Sounds like it would make a great double feature with 1995’s “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” about Russian-born Leon Theremin who invented the self-named first electronic instrument. Theremin, who was the toast of Manhattan in the pre-war years, mysteriously disappeared (and rumored to be a kidnap victim of the KGB) before turning up a half-century later in Moscow, making a trip to NYC in his last years to be re-united with his protégé Clara Rockwell. I always sensed there were other stories where that came from.

You can still see the entire festival line-up at Happy viewing!

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is now available as an e-book in all formats for only $4.99, more details in next post.

“Documentary 101” sampler, Part Five


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.


Several notable rock festival documentaries—”Woodstock”, “Monterrey Pop” and “Gimme Shelter” being the most famous—not only capture the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. But in the half-generation that preceded those events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike… Director Bert Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. The concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.”
(Jazz on a Summer’s Day, 1959)


best boy

It would be difficult to imagine a documentary style more personal than the one behind the Oscar-winning “Best Boy”. Director Ira Wohl followed his fifty-two-year-old developmentally disabled cousin Philly for three years, during which he gained a measure of self-reliance and entered the outside world for virtually the first time. It was Wohl himself, convincing Philly’s loving but elderly parents that their son should prepare for the time when they were not around anymore, who prompted this move to greater independence. Pearl and Max, are the very image of stoic, uncomplaining people of modest means who got along playing the hand that was dealt them. “If God wants to punish someone, he should only punish them with retarded children,” Pearl says, but even this comment seems free of bitterness.
(Best Boy, 1979)


one day sept

When Munich was chosen as the site of the 1972 Summer Olympics, World War II was not that far in the past, and neither were the sour memories of the 1936 “Hitler” Olympics in Berlin. So the event organizers were determined to show the world the modern liberal-democratic face of West Germany. But instead of the “Olympics of Serenity,” they got a globally televised nightmare when Palestinian terrorists invaded the athletes’ village, kidnapping and eventually killing eleven Israeli sportsmen. In his riveting film about the tragedy, director Kevin MacDonald views it as a watershed moment in mass media and as a momentous debacle of West German incompetence. For many Americans, when all those cameras turned away from the competition to focus on the sudden hostage story, it would be their first close-up view of international terrorism.
(One Day in September, 1999)



Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcaraldo” was the based-on-real-life story of an eccentric impresario whose goal in life is to build a grand opera house in the deep Amazon backcountry and have Enrico Caruso sing there. In the script, Fitzcaraldo is faced with navigational difficulties in the pursuit of that goal and decides to have his hired hands haul his three-hundred-ton steamship up and over a mountain ridge to a parallel river. Herzog hired local men as extras to do just that, spurning the idea of doing a process shot, bringing the art of cinematic realism to a new extreme. The easygoing Les Blank was just the man to coolly record the monomaniacal impulses of both Fitzcaraldo and Herzog (“I live my life and I end my life with this project,” the director tells us at one point) and deftly examines the dizzying heights and desperate depths that such an attitude will lead to. “I don’t want to live in a world where there are no lions anymore,” Herzog says at one point. Yet with the coming age of demographic targets, played-down-to audiences, test endings, and the like, it is little wonder that those of Herzog’s ilk found it ever more difficult to foist something like the beautifully crazed fever dream of Fitzcaraldo onto to the public. But as Herzog puts it, “all these dreams are yours as well.”
(Burden of Dreams, 1982. Werner Herzog is pictured on the set of “Fitzcaraldo” in a photo taken by Blank’s trusty editor and sound recordist, Maureen Gosling)

sky above

Almost two hundred years after Captain Cook discovered New Guinea, French explorers set out for the same island, most of which has changed little since the Stone Age. Although director and expedition leader Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau contemplates the different eras as he stares out the jet window (“distances have lost their meaning”) this is no week at the beach. His group is to bisect the island on foot, a distance of 450 miles (150 of them uncharted) and an area still replete with headhunters and virtually impassable jungle growth. Gaisseau’s journey into “blank spots on the map” is memorable; the team deal with dense masses of undergrowth, monstrous rivers, and days spent nervously negotiating the island’s formidable central ridge, which tops off at 12,000 feet. Just as risky and unforgettable are their meet-ups with indigenous warrior tribes little changed since the days when Cook and his crew beat a hasty retreat from the island.
(Sky Above, Mud Below, 1961)