Feature films are supposed to be entertaining, while documentaries present us with grim reality. But the best documentaries often introduce us to extraordinary and intriguing people -- and sometimes go places even the filmmakers didn't anticipate. Here are some documentaries with a few unexpected twists.
Watching a movie doesn't usually make me want to fill up my car with items for the Goodwill, unless that movie is The Queen of Versailles. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield started out wanting to tell the story of billionaire David Siegel and buxom third wife Jackie's quest to build the largest and most expensive house in the country. In the middle of filming, though, the housing crisis nearly wiped out Siegel and his predatory timeshare business. To their credit, the couple (who also have seven children and numerous un-housebroken dogs) continued to allow Greenfield access to their downfall, and are oddly likeable in spite of their excesses and appallingly bad taste.
Similarly, in Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki started out filming one kind of movie which turned into quite a different one. While researching material for a film about children's entertainers in New York, including a well-known, but peculiar clown named David Friedman, he discovered that Friedman's father Arnold and brother Jesse had been convicted of child sexual abuse. He ended up focusing on the Friedmans, and the ambiguities of their case due to overzealous and suggestive interrogation of possible victims, who came to the Friedman home for computer lessons.
Less ambiguous is the story told in The Thin Blue Line. Director (and former private investigator) Errol Morris wanted to make his documentary about prosecution psychiatrist James Grigson, also known as Dr. Death, whose testimony in over 100 cases resulted in the death sentence. Morris became interested in one of Grigson's more egregious victories, the murder trial of Randall Dale Adams, a drifter wrongly accused and then convicted of the murder of a Dallas police officer. The film generated so much publicity about the case -- astonishingly, Morris obtained a confession from the real killer -- that Adams was eventually exonerated after eleven years of imprisonment.
This year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, (also available in blu-ray) focuses on the search for '70s Detroit singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, whose music bombed in the U.S. but was wildly popular in South Africa, unbeknownst to him. He was so beloved that two of his fans decided to explore the rumors that he died on stage in a grisly suicide. During the research phase of the film, Rodriguez was discovered to be alive and well in Detroit, working hard and raising a family. Ever elusive and humble, he didn't attend the Oscars because he didn't want to take credit for the movie's success.
For his documentary Undefeated, Tennessee native and filmmaker Rich Middlemas was interested in someone with another kind of talent - 6'2, 300-lb Manassas High School football player O.C. Brown. Quick and agile for his size, Brown got the attention of college scouts after his YouTube video went viral. The real story for Middlemas, though, turned out to be the team itself. Located in one of the poorest sections of Memphis, the school's football coach Bill Courtney led the Manassas Tigers to academic and athletic victory after years of dismal performance in both areas.
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