Documentary Now! Review: For the Love of Documentary

TIFF 2022

8 mins read

Documentary Now!
(USA, 68 min.)
Dir. Alex Buono, Rhys Thomas, Micah Gardner
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


Audiences looking for the most insightful love letters to documentary ever crafted won’t find them in a lecture hall, textbook, or collection of essays. (Outside the pages of POV, of course.) They’ll find them in a season of Documentary Now! The series parodying documentary classics returns stronger than ever, ready to tickle doc fans funny bones with in-jokes for folks in the know. The show also offers delightful hooks for comparatively less seasoned viewers to expand their documentary repertoire. Hosted by Helen Mirren for its fifty-third season (or fourth, depending who is counting) Documentary Now! is a spot-on spoof of all the things we love and loathe about non-fiction filmmaking.

The new season, which debuted three episodes at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, should spark much laughter from passionate cinephiles and casual viewers alike. Three episodes screened at this year’s festival, notably in the TIFF Docs programme rather than the TV-guide of Primetime programming, which demonstrates the series’ esteem within the documentary community. These episodes run the gamut of documentary and skewer the old, the new, the mainstream, and the obscure. My Octopus Teacher is riotously (and rightfully) ridiculed, Agnès Varda is lampooned with love, and an obscure British series offers one of the most deadpan hilarious parodies the crew has ever conceived.


“My Monkey Grifter”                                                                           

The first episode, “My Monkey Grifter,” takes to task one of the most polarizing contemporary documentaries: My Octopus Teacher. Documentary Now! sends up Netflix’s Academy Award winner with this laugh-a-minute take on the slickly produced film about Craig Foster’s journey of self-discovering, replete with oddly sexual undertones, by observing an octopus. Fleabag’s Jamie Demetriou stars as a down-on-his-luck hack documentary filmmaker who decides that filming a monkey at the local zoo will teach him how to be a better man, husband, and father. Unfortunately, for him, the monkey is one smart primate and knows how to exploit a sucker’s pain.

This turn of events proves very funny. Documentary Now! doesn’t pull any punches as it sends up Foster’s desire to anthropomorphize his beloved octopus and project his feelings onto it. While Demetriou totally nails the self-serving spirit of My Octopus Teacher’s, this episode will especially delight doc fans with how perfectly it captures the well-trodden “Netflix formula” the doc embodies. “My Monkey Grifter” has the Netflixian signature to a T. Quickly B-roll spliced mixes erratically with some rack focus images that serve as filler for one blandly shot interview. The best laughs of “My Monkey Grifter” are not related to the silly monkey business of the story, but rather the groaners of formulaic filmmaking that Documentary Now! derides. The show is equal parts parody and commentary as it draws laughs from recently introduced aesthetics that are already cliché.


“Trouver Frisson”

A wonderful ode to one of documentary’s singular voices, however, comes in the episode “Trouver Frisson.” Documentary Now! pays tribute to the late, great Agnès Varda as an eclectic elderly filmmaker (Liliane Rovère) tries to recapture the rapturous sensation of goosebumps that sent her shivering during her youth. Documentary Now! offers a well-researched study in Varda’s style, philosophy, and effusive joie-de-vivre as her fictional counterpart encounters strangers on a road trip while in search of goosebumps. “Trouver Frisson” is uncanny in its resemblance to films like The Beaches of Agnès as the Varda-esque figure uses a peculiar mission to open deeply philosophical considerations of life and love.

The show taps into Varda’s late career experiment with lo-fi video, but also her explosion in celebrity during her final years. The image of the filmmaker as “cute old lady” haunts her, and Documentary Now! invites audiences to afford Varda the full esteem her oeuvre deserves. Anything less is a condescending pat on the head.


“Two Hairdressers at Bagglyport”

Finally, Documentary Now! finds one of its best episodes ever in “Two Hairdressers at Bagglyport.” This flat-out funny episode shows the series at its best. Instead of parodying a familiar work from the cannon, “Two Hairdressers at Bagglyport” sends-up a documentary with which even non-fiction aficionados may be unfamiliar. The episode draws inspiration from the obscure 1990s BBC documentary Three Salons at the Seaside, which Documentary Now!’s creators credit star Cate Blanchett for putting on her radar. (Evidently, her hairdresser introduced her to it during the Toronto shoots for the mini-series Mrs. America.)

Blanchett is an absolute hoot playing a daft hairdresser in a salon owned by her friend (Harriet Walter). The episode, which Documentary Now! shot in the very location used for the original work, drolly observes as elderly women in a village visit the local salon to get their hair done. The episode has a great eye for characterization and understated humour. It discerns the small details that transform a character-driven documentary into a rich experience. Blanchett and Walter have a lot of fun together creating fully lived-in performances as the hairdressers. These are quiet, natural performances that relish the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make characters so memorable. Documentary Now! also captures the spirit of public broadcasting with affection, as the episode evokes the lo-fi observational style of 1990s BBC television.

“Two Hairdressers at Bagglyport,” like the best episodes of Documentary Now!, inspires a hunger for more documentary. The many viewers who are unfamiliar with the source material will undoubtedly want to seek it out and compare how it stacks up to the spoof of My Octopus Teacher. If it takes fake documentaries to inspire further interest in the art form, then one can only agree that we need Documentary Now! more than ever.


Documentary Now! premiered at TIFF 2022 and airs later this year.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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