Sky Atlantic Documentary Films: Season 2

Following its successful debut, Sky’s celebrated Documentary Films, which launched in November, returns with four more documentaries from award-winning filmmakers for a second season. For No Good Reason, The Unknown Known, Blood Brother and Small Town Big Story (aka Jesus Town, USA) each received their UK premieres on Sky Atlantic this June. Here’s a breakdown of what you missed:

For No Good Reason

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Sky Atlantic Documentary Films kicks off its second season with an intriguing, honest and vivid portrait of seminal British artist Ralph Steadman.

As a celebration of Steadman’s career, For No Good Reason chronicles the illustrious artist’s rise from ambitious cartoonist who wanted to change the world to the last remaining original Gonzo visionary whose art has changed the way many view it. It’s a thorough and candid documentary that delivers bundles of detail without ever feeling sluggish or overwrought. It offers insight into the meaning behind his most famous pieces, describes his political motivations and, gives a glimpse into his artistic process.

As you’d expect Steadman’s unique artwork is the centrepiece for the entire film, but the director, Charlie Paul, also contributes with unique animations that match the energetic anarchism of Steadman’s illustrations to ensure his documentary isn’t just delivering information, but also a stunning visual treat.

Unsurprisingly, the most memorable moments are where focus switches to Steadman’s dysfunctional partnership with frenzied, wildcard writer Hunter S Thompson. Rather fittingly, Johnny Depp – who has played the infamous Gonzo journalist twice in adaptations of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary – leads the interview and makes no attempt to steal (or even share) the spotlight. This refreshing approach and off screen friendship with Steadman, which is reminiscent of Keanu Reeves brilliant efforts in Side By Side, creates a natural tone and encourages Steadman to share anecdotes of their wild adventures in explicit detail.

It’s a fascinating, compelling and humorous documentary, there’s no good reason not to see it.

The Unknown Known

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Confrontational documentarian Errol Morris follows The Fog of War, a critically acclaimed portrait of former US Secretary of Defence Robert S McNamara with The Unknown Known, a dull, insipid profile of Donald Rumsfeld. It’s tedious, redundant and wasteful, but the director isn’t at fault for its glaring shortcomings.

Rumsfeld, the megalomaniacal former Secretary of Defence who served twice from 1975 to 1977 and 2001 to 2006, ruins any chance of a worthwhile documentary with textbook evasiveness. His infuriating stonewalling leaves us without answers to pressing questions, explanations of his motives for invading Iraq or insight into his tenure during one of America’s most controversial presidential terms. Morris is unable to get under the skin of the superficial smirk and his shameless posturing, but their empty conversation does provide a unique documentation of Rumsfeld’s remarkable psychosis.

With a subject who deserves to be the subject of an intensive investigation and a filmmaker who would ordinarily be the man to conduct it, The Unknown Known had all the makings of a great. Sadly, only one is present, with Morris’ Interrotron wasted on a vacant stare who deflects his questions with a treacherous grin.

Blood Brother

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On the surface, Blood Brother appears entirely well-intentioned as we follow a disillusioned young man, Rocky Braat, who leaves his dysfunctional home life to care for HIV-positive orphans in India. Sadly, the original intentions and important humanitarian message are soon obscured by Braat’s irritating narcissism that pervades the entire film. The free-spirited American’s journey of self discovery will certainly resonate with some, but his incessant attention-seeking will only leave you wondering where the poor Indian children are in all of this.

Small Town Big Story (Jesus Town, USA)

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Every year, for the past eighty-eight years, the residents of Lawton, Oklahoma come together to perform a grand Easter pageant; a re-enactment of The Passion of the Christ. It’s the longest running Passion Play in the US that, at its height, drew enormous crowds of 200,000. In recent years, audience numbers have dwindled, but the participants remain as devoted as ever. However, there’s a major problem with their latest production, Jesus is retiring.

Clearly attracted to this unique situation, directors Julian T Pinder and Billie Mintz create a documentary that chronicles the townsfolk’s efforts and specifically focus on who will be chosen to replace Jesus. The unlikely choice is Zack, a podgy young postman with a penchant for Whataburger and a deep secret that threatens to jeopardise the entire production – he recently converted to Buddhism.

While the directors have created a gentle and kind-hearted documentary that gives an honest portrayal of a rural community in a peculiar corner of America, it stretches the material far beyond its means. Despite their efforts to inject melodrama at every possible moment, Jesus Town, USA is a tiring experience that struggles to maintain interest over the course of even the briefest runtimes. Sadly, the lives of the people involved aren’t nearly as interesting as its creators believe and even the hilarious notion of a Passion Play with a Jesus who isn’t Christian is unable to keep it afloat.

And so ends the second season of Sky Atlantic Documentary Films, one that has been very disappointing compared to the first – both in terms of quantity and quality. Nevertheless, Sky’s initiative to give these documentaries their UK premieres remains a valuable one. Hopefully, there will be more on offer next time around.

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