The last few weeks have offered a slew of notable documentaries: Rivers and Tides, The Stone Reader, Stevie, and Winged Migration.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing the highly entertaining documentary, Spellbound (2002), which follows eight children as they compete in regional spelling bees and culminates with their face-off at the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. The film manages to sketch their individual personalities and their relationship with their families while offering some cultural analysis along the way. America has been obsessed with the concept of the spelling bee — the personal competition, the social ladder, the apparent combination of will and success, the illusion of control. The film hits on these themes with a light touch but showcases its admirable adolescents at their most awkward and endearing.

Spellbound reminded me of another recent documentary involving children, Nicolas Philibert‘s wonderful To Be and To Have (2002), which New Yorker Films has acquired and plans to release in August. The film records the interactions between a retiring teacher and his various students in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. Philibert is a French filmmaker whose observant and heartfelt work (including 1992’s In the Land of the Deaf and 1996’s Every Little Thing) has garnered notoriety in the last few years. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston just completed a retrospective of his films and the Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently exhibiting the series with another one planned for Chicago in June. Keep an eye out for the series in your area. In the Land of the Deaf is available on video in the US. Francophiles who can play European DVDs can check out the Philibert box set from France (Region 2).

Documentaries have a difficult time getting distribution in the US, particularly ones which attempt to explore new forms or methods of inquiry. But non-fiction films offer a wide diversity of subjects and styles — from third-person historical overviews to filmic records to first-person personal essays. Some films (like Kiarostami‘s Close-Up or Mani Kaul‘s Siddheshwari) offer a tantalizing combination of fiction and non-fiction, creating a dissonance which encourages the viewer to reflect on the nature of truth and the filmmaking process itself. I’ve recently created a new page on the site showcasing the documentary genre with a list of key works. I’ll be updating the page with capsule reviews, so let me know what you think and feel free to suggest additional titles.

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