It’s hard to pinpoint why I enjoy watching documentaries about jerks so much. Perhaps it’s because it makes me feel better about myself and my own choices. Maybe it’s just perverse fascination. Or, perhaps, there’s a part of me that wants to see those people be punished, if only to confirm that there is some justice in the world. Regardless, I find documentaries about generally awful people to be engrossing. In fact, I actively seek them out, and as such I’ve seen a good deal of them. There are lots of potential options I kept off this list because it was already long enough, and right now I feel like kind of an asshole myself for subjecting you to 3,000 words you could very easily do without. However, even if no one else on Earth wants to read this the creation of this list caused me to go back and revisit all of these wonderful and troubling films, and that alone justifies the time I spent writing it to me. If you share an interest in watching awful people being awful I urge you to seek these films out, and even if you don’t they’re great documentaries in their own right. These films are frustrating and even emotionally trying at times, but for me they’re more than worth it at the end for the questions they raise, the discussions they inspire and the entertainment they provide. Let’s begin:
In 1994, 13 year old Texas resident Nicholas Barclay disappeared. Three years later he showed up in Spain, except now his eyes were brown instead of blue, he spoke with a French accent and he had a completely different personality. The trailer for the film makes it seem like a mystery. Is this man really Nicholas Barclay? What happened to him to make him so unrecognizable, so emotionally distant? The film makes it clear from the start that there is no mystery involved, at least not when it comes to this aspect of the story. The man is not Nicholas Barclay. He’s a con artist who manipulated the family of a missing child just so he could feel important and loved. Of course, there’s much more to the story than that, but regardless of the revelations presented later in the film it’s hard to not feel sick as the man speaks dispassionately, or even proudly, of the ways he tricked the boy’s family. The man is mentally disturbed, there’s really no question about that, and the film suggests that childhood traumas might have impacted his mind in problematic ways, but a monster is a monster regardless of the way they are formed, and it’s the man’s complete lack of remorse for his actions that clearly defines him as a monster in my eyes.
Overall, The Impostor contains one of the strangest true stories I’ve ever heard. There are aspects of this story that would seem implausible to the point of absurdity in a fictional context. No one in this story thinks rationally. They’re all driven by something: fear, paranoia, desperation, anger… Sometimes you just want to reach through the screen and shake them to try to wake them up and make them take a hard look at the world around them. At other times you feel compassion for them and just want all of the pain and insanity to stop. Overall, The Impostor really is a film about the complexities and mysterious natures of cruelty and kindness. It’s a film about trying so hard not to lose faith that you end up losing it all.
The Unknown Known
Errol Morris is, without a doubt, my favorite documentarian out there. Indeed, his Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is my favorite documentary, though others of his like The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven aren’t far behind. In 2003, Morris won a richly deserved Oscar for his masterpiece The Fog of War, which details a remarkable interview with former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, the man at least partially responsible for, among other things, dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Morris doesn’t pull any punches with McNamara, and what emerges is a portrait of a flawed but deeply human figure, one who had to make some horribly impactful decisions which very clearly haunt him to this day (though he knows his ailing conscience doesn’t exonerate him). In 2011, Morris released another long form interview with a former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, under the name The Unknown Known.
It feels like a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War, or at least a companion piece, but though it’s a truly great documentary in the end it’s far less satisfying. McNamara emerged from the Fog of War looking like a human. On the other hand, Donald Rumsfeld emerges looking like a politician. Whereas McNamara was, for the most part, honest and direct, Rumsfeld is slippery. Every time Morris tries to pin him down Rumsfeld squirms away. Even when Rumsfeld almost apologizes he’s still deflecting, saying things like “history will judge me,” never once losing his composure. Overall it’s a fascinating portrait of a keen political mind, a man who probably could have been president if things had worked out a little differently, but if you don’t like Rumsfeld now you certainly won’t like him when The Unknown Known comes to a close.
Troy Duffy’s story is so ideal that it almost seems like a dream. A bartender with aspirations to be a filmmaker, Duffy wrote an action/comedy called The Boondock Saints which promptly started a bidding war between multiple major film studios. In the end, Miramax ended up buying it for a cool $450,000. On top of that, Miramax bought the bar at which Duffy worked and made him the co-owner. But that wasn’t all. Despite the fact that Duffy had absolutely no filmmaking experience Miramax allowed him to direct the $15 million production. They even agreed to let his terrible band, The Brood, perform the film’s soundtrack. Duffy was handed everything he’d wanted and it still wasn’t enough. Though it is difficult to watch at times, Overnight is a absorbing portrait of one man’s extreme narcissism, which is so deeply ingrained that he ends up alienating just about everyone he comes across. For much of the film Duffy is straight-up abusive. Overall the film teaches us an important lesson: if you give a power hungry person what they want they’ll just want more. There’s no such thing as satisfaction for people like Troy Duffy, and that makes them dangerous, or at least really, really annoying.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Co-directed by and featuring the anonymous street artist Banksy (with his face in shadow of course), Exit Through the Gift Shop is the story of a man named Thierry Guetta who, for many years, carried a camera wherever he went, recording every detail of his life. Eventually, Guetta leans that his cousin is a noted street artist named Invader and, fascinated, he asks his cousin to introduce him to some his peers, which Invader promptly does. And, since Guetta’s already been filming his entire life anyway he almost unconsciously begins making a documentary about street art. Guetta continues to film footage for years, amassing hundreds of hours of tapes with no concept of what the final product will be. Eventually, Guetta begins taking part, helping others compose their street art, before he attempts to become an artist himself.
The fun of the film is how it slowly reveals that everybody in the documentary completely hates Guetta. At first, all of the artists seem nostalgic about the time they spent with him and seem to speak of him fondly, but it eventually becomes clear that they all find him repulsive, saying that he took their honest form of expression and perverted it for profit. In the end, the film becomes so absurd that it’s hard to believe its real, though the filmmakers swear it all really happened this way. Regardless, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a hilarious and complex meditation on the act of self expression.
The King of Kong
A number of people have claimed that The King of Kong somewhat misrepresents Billy Mitchell, the deeply egotistical former world champion of Donkey Kong. However, even if there’s more to Mitchell than the film presents, and there almost certainly is (because it is obviously impossible to encapsulate every aspect of a person’s personality into an 80 minute film), it’s hard while watching The King of Kong to imagine an alternate reality in which he’s not a deeply disagreeable person. Mitchell set the record for the most points earned during a game of Donkey Kong and Centipede in the 1980s and now, decades later, he still counts his video game high scores as his proudest achievement. In 2005, Steve Wiebe lost his engineering job and, directionless and lost, purchased a Donkey Kong arcade machine to help pass the time. He soon became obsessed with the game, eventually beating Mitchell’s score
The rest of the film is a frustrating and entertaining game of cat and mouse as Mitchell tries to discount Wiebe’s achievement and hold on to his crown. I left my first viewing of The King of Kong simultaneously happy, aggravated and bewildered. The best documentaries feel stranger and more complex than any fiction, and this one is no exception. People who complain that the stakes are too low in the film are missing the point. For these two people Donkey Kong is everything. Giving up their high score means surrendering their pride, their masculinity and their self-worth. Yes, there are stakes here, and they are more than high enough to make the film worth a watch.
My Best Fiend
I’ve always been interested in Werner Herzog more as a person than as a filmmaker, but I think he’s done his best work as a documentarian. My Best Fiend is a lesser work in some ways, but nevertheless it is an intriguing portrait of a very odd friendship. Herzog made five films with Kinski, including Augirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo which stand as probably the most enduring work of either man. Kinski was an actor who could conjure up great emotional power, and though he was prone to overacting he really was the perfect collaborator for Herzog, who was often known for going far over the top as well. But after watching this film, and reading Conquest of the Useless, Herzog’s beautifully written journal about the making of Fitzcarraldo, I had to ask myself whether or not it was worth it. There was little doubt that Kinski was insane, or at the very least disturbed. He was prone to flying into violent rages at a moment’s notice, and Herzog would sometimes feel that he had no choice but to respond violently as well. Neither man is blameless, as Herzog acknowledges, but for both men their artistic collaboration simply mattered more than any disagreement they might have, no matter how intense it might be. Overall, My Best Fiend is a great companion to Conquest of the Useless, as well as Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a compelling documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, and it’s certainly worth a watch for anyone interested in film. And if you’re not interested in film why are you reading this anyway?
The second Errol Morris film on this list, Mr. Death is a portrait of a very strange man named Fred A. Leuchter. As a young man, Leuchter had the rare opportunity of watching a prisoner be executed in an electric chair and die before his eyes. What he took away from the experience was that the chair could use some improvements. At first, it’s possible to see some good in Leuchter if you’re willing to hunt for it. Sure he builds machines that kill people, but he says that he does it to make the process more humane and efficient; causing the man strapped to the chair less pain and, in his words, avoid “torture.” Still, there’s obviously something off with Leuchter, who speaks about people being “cooked” with an odd dispassion, not blinking an eye. And that’s the thing about Leuchter: he just doesn’t care. The man is proud of his work. He says that most people wouldn’t have the stomach to do what he does, and yet someone has to do it. As such, he feels no remorse. In fact, there’s a section of the film where we watch him assemble a makeshift electric chair, smiling all the while. So Leuchter is deluded and at least somewhat sociopathic, but is he evil? Well, only the first half hour of the film features Leuchter building electric chairs. After that the story shifts to his mission to prove that the holocaust never happened.
Morris’ first version of the film was met with confusion, as many people thought that his attempt to avoid judging Leuchter made the film seem like it was supporting holocaust denial, which was of course never the filmmaker’s intention. Because so many people were taken aback he felt that he had to add in a talking head into the film to basically say “no, guys, the holocaust definitely happened and this man is an idiot” which I personally think detracts from the film a bit by force-feeding us Morris’ view of his main subject, making it feel more biased that his usual work. Don’t get me wrong, I love the film and it’s more than worth watching. I just think it’s a bit flawed in that regard. For the record, Morris actually agrees with me, saying that he thought those aspects of the film should not have been necessary, but that he added them because he felt pressure to do so from audiences. Throughout, Leuchter is presented as a fool, a man who fell into his career not because he had the expertise to carry it out but because he had the stomach for it. In fact, his electric chairs were so poorly made that not a single one is still in use today. Leuchter was no expert, and he certainly wasn’t qualified to report on the veracity of the holocaust. Regardless, some people still watch Mr. Death and walk away with a validation of their sick beliefs. There is, in fact, an almost complete version of the documentary currently on YouTube posted by an apparent holocaust denier. Tellingly, the last ten minutes of the film are not included.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
There isn’t much to say about this film beyond the fact that it made me furious. It’s one thing to hear about an event like the collapse of Enron on the news. It’s another entirely to see it broken down and dissected to this degree. Essentially, the film takes an event which I regarded with nothing more than a minute amount of curiosity and gives it a human face. It makes you consider the lives of all of the people who Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling screwed over and left with nothing while they fled with tens of millions. Most of the Enron executives discussed in the film, including Ken Lay himself, come off like monsters, but the heart of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is in its investigation of Jeff Skilling, which adds a great deal of complexity to the narrative. At one point during the film Skilling is called a “tragic figure” and I’m inclined to agree. He grew up socially isolated, a balding guy with glasses who had a knack for math, in short what some people would call a “nerd”, and over the course of his time at Enron he transformed himself into his vision of a man’s man, reveling in the masculine atmosphere of the company he helped create and transforming himself in the process. The company allowed him to start again, to be loved and admired and even idolized. It gave him a chance to find out what he’d been missing.
Of course, in order to cling to his new identity Skilling had to keep Enron alive, despite the fact that the business was hemorrhaging money left and right. The devious and ultimately destructive ways way that he, Lay and Andrew Fastow kept the fantasy of Enron afloat make up the meat of the film. I walked away amazed that they were able to carry out their deceit of the American public, and indeed the world, for so long. It all seems so absurd, so obvious, but greediness can certainly cloud one’s judgment. In the end this is a film about greed and what it does to the human mind. It is also a film about the disturbing nature of the all too commonly parroted phrase “I was just following orders.” However, in the end the film is mainly about what it takes to live in denial, to hold on to an impossible dream against all odds. Of course, as we all know, this is one dream that soon came crashing down, and a lot of people suffered. But the film doesn’t even let Enron’s lower-level employees off the hook, discussing in detail how many of the company’s traders were also fully and knowingly complicit in some of Enron’s dark schemes. In the end this film is so chilling not so much because of what happened, but because of why it happened, and why it will happen again.