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Wednesday 6 May, 2020

Is it just us or does introspection seem to come hand-in-hand with isolation? A little less social activity means a little more time to take stock of our lives and our relationships. 

So, we’ve been thinking about filmmakers who put their own lives at the centre of their films to help them figure out the world around them. Throwing out the idea of being a distanced, objective observer, the personal documentary maker has to be both brave and vulnerable, whether they’re reassessing their history or documenting their present. 

In this selection of personal or autobiographical docs to watch online, filmmakers make sense of the world by turning the camera on themselves and their loved ones.

51 BIRCH STREET Dough Block / 2005 and  STORIES WE TELL Sarah Polley / 2012

Two filmmakers reaching into the depths of their parents’ marriages, exploring the narratives that hold our family lives together, and coming to terms with the realities - complex and nuanced as they are - that they discover. 

While Doug Block was an established cinematographer and personal doc-maker when he began working on 51 Birch Street, Sarah Polley was an actress and fiction director, acclaimed for her films Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011) before she turned the camera on her own family in Stories We Tell

For Block, his mother’s death (followed within months by his father re-marrying) was the catalyst for his film, whereas Polley, whose mother died when she was just 11, had taken years to reach the point where she was ready to start understanding the half truths and coverups she had always lived uncomfortably with. 

Although the tones are strikingly different, 51 Birch Street and Stories We Tell make excellent companion pieces, both coming alive through the creative application of home movie footage - Block was even a very early consultant on Polley’s film. You can read an interview with him on both films here, but to avoid spoilers wait until after you’ve seen both.

And do see both. As the very personal can somehow become utterly universal, Block and Polley, while focussing only on their own families, speak to greater truths about the impossibility of knowing your own parents and the family narratives we all hold onto… and eventually have to let go of.

Watch 51 Birch Street on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Watch Stories We Tell on Amazon PrimeYouTube, Google Play and iTunes.


MUM AND ME Sue Bourne / 2008

Focusing on a parent in a wholly different way, filmmaker Sue Bourne had always made documentaries about other people’s families until she turned the camera on her own for Mum and Me

Over three years, she filmed her visits with her mother, Ethel, who was living with Alzheimers in a nursing home in Ayr, south-west Scotland - often accompanied by her daughter, Holly.

Love and laughter abound in this portrait of three generations of Bourne women. First broadcast in 2009, Mum and Me was a counterpoint to a lot of portrayals of Alzheimers, showing not just the ravaging realities of the disease, but also moments of joy and humour as the women make the most of what they still have. 

Watch Mum and Me on the Real Stories YouTube page

UNREST  Jennifer Brea / 2017

Jennifer Brea picked up her camera and started to document her life at the point that, as a Harvard PhD student in her twenties, her body started to fail her. 

A diagnosis of M.E. (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) didn’t do too much to help her understand her often debilitating condition, as so little is known about it - and so much conjecture and misinformation has passed through the media to the general public. 

Confined to her bed most days, Brea begins to reach out to others with the condition, connecting with families all over the world as she works to expose and challenge the stigma attached to the illness.

Unrest is a touching and powerful document of Brea’s condition, of the toll on her relationship with her husband, and her fight to challenge the world’s opinion of this brutal and still misunderstood condition.

Watch Unrest on Google PlayYouTubeAmazon Prime, and Netflix.

A DEAL WITH THE UNIVERSE Jason Barker / 2018

Definitely one of the most frank, personal and emotionally open documentaries on this list, Jason Barker’s look back at his attempt to conceive as a transgender man is filled with beautifully earnest hand-cam footage.

A long-standing part of the BFI Flare Film Festival’s team, Jason clearly dealt with this both exciting and terrifying moment in his life as any out-and-out film fan would: by documenting every single minute of it on a humble home-movie camera.

The result is a brilliantly poignant and universal discussion of gender, love and hope, as well as the more unique complications of trying to achieve a life-long dream of parenthood without losing an equally important and hard-earned new gender identity.

Watch A Deal With The Universe on the BFI Player as well as YouTube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.

STRONG ISLAND Yance Ford / 2018

Combining the personal with the public to devasting effect, Yance Ford investigates the murder of his brother, William Ford, who was shot dead in 1992, near the family home in Long Island, aged 24. 

Described as ‘a film characterised by raw emotion and calm anger’ (Charlie Phillips, The Guardian), Strong Island pieces together the murky facts of the case, surveying the terrible damage that grief and injustice inflict on a family, and also reclaiming William’s life and reputation. 

Watch Strong Island on Netflix.

THE ALCOHOL YEARS  Carol Morley / 2000

Raising the bar for putting yourself in deeply uncomfortable positions, Carol Morley returns to Manchester, where in the early 80s she had spent five years in a blur of alcholic partying. Tracking down people who knew her during her riotous youth, she asks for, and receives, some brutally honest answers on how she behaved and how she was remembered. 

"In Morley’s search for her lost self, conflicting memories and viewpoints weave in and out, revealing a portrait of the city, its pop culture, and the people who lived it." The Alcohol Years

Watch The Alcohol Years on the BFI Player.

TAXI TEHRAN Jafar Panahi / 2015

Jafar Panahi refuses to let the Iranian government’s attempts to force him to stop making films get in the way of doing exactly that.

Having been both arrested for many months and banned from making films for 20 years, he came in at number three on Time Magazine’s ‘Top 10 Persecuted Artists’ in 2011, but that has never stopped him making sense of his life through a camera, and he has always found a way.

Taxi Tehran is one such cunning example, where the world-famous director redefined himself as an unassuming taxi driver, most definitely not making a film from the taxi’s CCTV cameras - firmly fixed on both himself and his passengers throughout this “non-film.”

The result is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek documentary, that at once feels both as though it were totally happenchance and a really funny, really staged love letter to Tehran.

Watch Taxi Tehran on the BFI Player as well as YouTube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.