The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘Filming “Othello”’ (1978)
Made for television, “Filming ‘Othello’” is generally regarded as Orson Welles’s last completed piece of directing for the screen, and it’s a deceptively modest swan song. Not simply a making-of documentary about his 1952 film version of “Othello,” it offers a compendium of Welles’s reflections on cinema and on theater, on Shakespeare and on tragedy in general. It begins with Welles, who for the majority of the program addresses the viewer directly, speaking in praise of the Moviola, the editing machine that to him represents “the last stop on the long road between the dream in a filmmaker’s head and the public to whom that dream is addressed.” (His rich recitation of lines like that is a large part of the movie’s charm.)
During the first section, he recounts how that particular rendition of “Othello” — Welles made others — came together despite chaotic financing, and how, as he puts it, “circumstance itself had a lot to do with the determination of our style.” Because of how the production was shot, he says, it happens all the time in the finished film that an actor moves “between two continents in the middle of a single spoken phrase.” A lack of costumes at one point led to the decision to stage the murder of Roderigo in a Turkish bath (which was actually a fish market).
About half an hour in, Welles switches gears to show a lengthy lunch conversation that he had with Micheal MacLiammoir (who played Iago) and Hilton Edwards (who played Brabantio). The three met during Welles’s days at Dublin’s Gate Theater, which MacLiammoir and Edwards founded and where Welles began acting professionally. The connection adds to the feeling of “Filming ‘Othello’” as a kind of career-surveying valediction. The men’s discussion of Shakespeare’s themes (is “Othello” about envy or jealousy, and how are the two related?) provide context for Welles’s lengthy, seemingly off-the-cuff recitations of verse when “Filming ‘Othello’” returns to being a solo show. Toward the end, Welles also excerpts a lively Q. and A. that he gave after a screening in Boston. “My definition of a film director is the man who presides over accidents,” he tells the audience, “but doesn’t make them.”
‘Little White Lie’ (2014)
Lacey Schwartz, the director of “Little White Lie,” grew up thinking that her biological parents were both white. That was not necessarily the impression that strangers had. In the film, Schwartz recalls being mistaken for an Ethiopian Jew at her bat mitzvah. Girls in high school would inquire about her race. Schwartz says that she didn’t check a box on her college application, but that based off a photograph, Georgetown admitted her as a Black student. And it was in college that she started to seriously question the story she had been told growing up: that she took after a great-grandfather.
With probing, Schwartz’s mother, Peggy, admitted that Lacey might have been the product of an affair with a man named Rodney Parker, who was Black. Lacey knew him, and so did some of her family members, including Robert, the father who had raised her. In this documentary, the filmmaker tries to unravel — well, all of that: her own feelings about her racial identity and her need for others to acknowledge them; the years of denial by family and friends that prevented them from even speaking about something so retrospectively obvious; and her relationship with her parents. The first time she pushes Robert to acknowledge her Blackness, she comes away feeling dismissed by him. Then again, who could blame him for being curt? For Robert, Lacey was, as a family friend suggests in the film, living proof that Peggy had been unfaithful. Peggy puts things a little less delicately: “The fact is, if the man with whom I had the affair hadn’t been Black, none of this would have come out.”
“Little White Lie” raises fascinating questions about the nature of family, and the impact that keeping secrets can have even years later. Lacey sits down on camera with one of Rodney’s other daughters but doesn’t feel a connection. The film ends with her wedding (to Antonio Delgado, now New York’s lieutenant governor), by which point it seems that Lacey has at least partly reconciled her ideas about who she is.
‘The World Before Your Feet’ (2018)
In 2011, a former civil engineer named Matt Green set out to walk every public block in New York City, leaving out highways but adding in plenty of bridges, parks, cemeteries and beaches, according to the methodology on his website. Near the end of “The World Before Your Feet,” a documentary from Jeremy Workman (a son of the Oscar-montage ace Chuck Workman), he estimates that he has another 500 or 1,000 miles to go — which technically puts him close to the finish line. But with a backlog of posts, he confesses that he feels more like he’s “somewhere in the middle of the project.” In late 2022, four years after the movie was released here, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he was still at it. “The whole point of it is to do it, not be done with it,” the paper quoted him as saying.
Workman might easily have portrayed Green as an obsessive figure worthy of Werner Herzog. Instead, the movie takes a gentler approach, seeing Green as a determined amateur historian who takes time to take in — and understand — sights that most of the rest of us don’t notice, whether he’s appreciating the city’s plant life or decoding the dot marks on storm drains. He catalogs certain oddball trends, such as churches that used to be synagogues and barber shops that use the letter “z” instead of “s” to form a plural.
It is a privilege for Green to be able to spend his life this way (although his journeys have interfered with other pursuits, like relationships). In the film, he estimates that he lives on $15 a day, and he has no home. Rather, he crashes with various friends and strangers, often watching their pets. The movie shows him comparing notes with Garnette Cadogan, another devoted walker and writer. Cadogan, who is Black, says that he takes care to dress in a certain way to appear nonthreatening. Green, who is white, has the luxury of being able to stroll without concern.
Still, the sheer breadth of his project is inspiring, as is his determination to learn about obscure New York area figures like Charles Minthorn Murphy, whose grave he visits in the film. Murphy is credited by Guinness with being the first cyclist to ride one mile in less than one minute. At this rate, Green may set records of his own.