The best experimental documentaries

The best experimental documentaries

The first movies ever created were documentaries which were by their very nature experimental. They were essentially recordings of everyday life as it actually was. When we watch movies today, we initially perceive them as live representations rather than as narrative structures; just as we would initially perceive these late nineteenth-century artifacts. Documentaries are the forerunners of modern film. Without them, we wouldn’t have all the different kinds of films we love today.

Despite growing in popularity over the years, documentaries’ effect and their significance are still shamefully undervalued. Documentaries that break the fourth wall; straddle the boundary between fiction and truth, and reflect on the nature of film itself are even more underestimated. The true-crime documentary is of course just as carefully made as any Hollywood blockbuster. The more interesting documentaries, however, occasionally bring attention to their own form. They are less concerned about educating the audience or sparking discussion. It’s more about showcasing the fluidity of cinema and proving that genre is a false construct. The best experimental documentaries ever produced include some of these concepts.

City Hall

Frederick Wiseman, a master of documentaries, would never describe himself as an experimental filmmaker. He has produced more than 40 documentaries in his decades-long career (nearly one every year). The director uses one of the most streamlined, pared-down approaches to cinema verité. There are no voxpops and no narration of any type; only lengthy scenes that play out from beginning to end. But despite a blatant lack of originality, Wiseman’s movies are grand, sweeping, and captivating. And the reason for this is probably the fact that so few people genuinely make movies like he does.

One merely needs to watch Wiseman’s most recent movie, City Hall, which focuses on Boston’s municipal government building. Without a break, the film continues for four hours (by no means Wiseman’s longest). It is undoubtedly not for everyone, but for viewers with adequate patience, it offers many rewards and fantastic characters. Wiseman asks us to discover the entertaining inside the real, and it is abundantly present. Just as narrative films will urge us to discover the real within the entertaining.

The Owls

Cheryl Dunye is most well known for her romantic comedy The Watermelon Woman; a movie about a video store clerk who investigates the strange legacy of an actress called Fae Richards. Even though the film skillfully combines documentary elements with its fictitious plot, The Owls, one of Dunye’s later films, may better suit the definition of experimental documentaries. The Owls, an acronym for Older Wiser Lesbians, is a mostly made-up story about a reunion of old friends and a terrible crime.

The tale is interesting enough, resembling a Long Island-based middle-class Knives Out. But what makes it most fascinating are the story’s occasional breaks. They show interviews with the performers and Dunye herself who also appears in the movie) about the production of the movie. It’s a straightforward juxtaposition between the real and the fake, but it’s powerful, captivating, and fascinating. It causes you to reflect on the nature of what you’re seeing. It is more of a film about a film that is enclosed in a larger film than it is a film within a film.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

British documentarian Adam Curtis’ style veers widely between the scholarly and the artistic, as well as everything in between. His most recent endeavor is a six-part miniseries made for the BBC that will take your mind on a true head trip. Curtis creates a magnificent tapestry of dystopian and stranger-than-fiction sagas from throughout 20th-century world history. All the footage is taken from discovered film and his somber narration recalls a nightmare version of Ken Burns. Curtis’ skills at combining music and graphics are possibly more memorable than the tales he shares or the points he makes.

The work contains a number of ridiculous and magnificent episodes where the narration entirely disappears. Leaving us only to witness bizarre, anachronistic montages set to music by Nine Inch Nails, Aphex Twin, and Burial. Curtis is undoubtedly a serious individual who is passionate about history and wants to share his thoughts. But he also possesses a quirky, wicked sense of humor. Curtis’ distinctive creative sensibility is one of the things that draws you to his wildly original and experimental documentaries.

The Exquisite Corpse Project

The term “exquisite corpse” refers to a common technique that allows writers and artists to work together to create fragmented, stream-of-consciousness-style art. They can each sketch a separate bodily part to produce a monstrous Frankensteinian creation. In a narrative setting, Writer #1 might write 10 pages, and Writer #2 might follow suit after just having viewed the last page of Writer #1’s work.

The Exquisite Corpse Project is guided by this type of narrative concept. A group of five comics, including Raphael Bob-Waksberg of Bojack Horseman and Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything, are given the “exquisite corpse” task by their filmmaker buddy Ben Popik. If they succeed, he will produce and direct the resulting film. With consequences that are both puzzling and entertaining, what initially appears to be a documentary progressively transforms into the artists’ invented tale. It offers a wonderful view into the creative process and displays the results of that labor, just like The Owls did. Anyone who enjoys absurdist stories and sketch comedy should watch this.

My Girlfriend Candice

There are probably no bad movies in Casey Neistat’s vast video collection. The world-renowned YouTuber made a video every day for 18 months. He is possibly responsible for transforming ordinary daily events into epic filmmaking and vlogging and video essays into a cinematic art form. His short experimental documentaries are bite-sized works of art filled with joy and unrelenting love for New York City.
My Girlfriend Candice, a road movie that follows the love affair at the center of his life, is the ideal fusion of his defining characteristics. These are incisive editing, melancholy romanticism, and caustic narration. This true account, a modern National Lampoon’s Vacation, is upbeat and full of astonishing self-awareness but also permeated with profound grief and nostalgia. As well as verbal and nonverbal admissions of guilt. One scene, including a short romantic comedy captured on three iPhones, resembles a Wes Anderson-directed music video for OK GO. Although you may disagree with Neistat’s worldview and find him difficult to deal with at times, this is also a big part of what makes his work so unique and fascinating.


Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami is the prototypical hybrid docufiction movie but also so much more. It tells the true tale of a con artist who tricked a family into thinking he was a well-known film director. Even though the film starts out as a conventional documentary, Kiarostami will eventually cast real-life actors to reenact the story’s events, playing themselves. This makes it a compelling story in and of itself. It’s a bizarre, personal, character-driven drama that goes beyond its ostensibly high-concept premise. It more blurs the line between truth and stories about that reality than it does between fiction and fact. Even while the stories we tell about events aren’t always as accurate as the events themselves, may they not be at least as real?

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