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What I'm Watching: Ten creative documentaries that will leave you feeling inspired!

I've put together another list of some of the what I feel are the best hidden documentary gems out there to help spark your enthusiasm for life and all things creative. As I mentioned in the first post of this series, looking for positive and uplifting things to watch can be an absolute minefield, trawling through wave after wave of traumatic content. So with this list I hope to circumvent that process for you all so you can dive head first into some creative escapism.

Beyond the Visible Hilma Af Klint a documentary by Halina Dyrschika

An incredible and inspiring documentary about a far too little known and pioneering female Swedish artist, Hilma Af Klint. A true originator of abstract art Hilma Af Klint was creating abstract work years before traditional 'art history' says it was 'officially' born. So often the written record, invariably written by certain men wanting to control the narrative, has done it's best to ignore female artists like Af Klint but this powerful documentary does an incredible job redressing that. It certainly made me see Kadinsky in a whole new light! Her work is exquisite, powerful and utterly sublime and I'm more than a bit excited to hear about the upcoming exhibition of her work at Tate Modern in 2023, here's hoping the world is a bit more steady so I can visit it!

You can rent and buy the film across Apple, Amazon and I think in some locations on Vimeo too.

Sign Painters a documentary film by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

A charming and fascinating look at the history and future of sign painting in the US. Everywhere we look we're surrounded by signs and this beautiful film helps you take a moment to step back and appreciate the artistry and skill that has gone into to these everyday artworks. When something is created to 'sell' and advertise we sometimes devalue the creativity and design skills that have created it. The work in this documentary is utterly exquisite and the insights from those practicing the art takes you on a wonderful and inspiring journey. A definite must watch for any typography nerds and lovers of letters!

I think it's only available to view on the official website but it is FREE so that's an extra treat!

The B-Side Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography a documentary by Errol Morris

A look at the life and work of portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman who in 1980 found her medium the Polaroid Land 20 x 24 camera, an incredible camera that produces exceptional large format photographs in an instant. Elsa takes filmmaker Errol Morris through her archive and her wit, talent and musings on life are an utter joy throughout. Another often overlooked female artist Dorfman's work is a fascinating look at the extraordinary ordinary. Always taking two photos in a portrait session Elsa's 'B-Sides' are the pictures her clients didn't want, which make for a fabulous archive. If you're looking for gentle, profound and uplifting watch this is perfect.

Available on Netflix and elsewhere which you can find on the official site.

Ailey a documentary by Jamila Wignot

A powerful exploration of groundbreaking dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, astonishingly but perhaps unsurprisingly this is the first documentary looking at his work . Full of incredible archive footage of Ailey throughout his career you get a real glimpse of how innovative and barrier smashing his work was and is. In parallel the film also follows the journey of hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris as he creates a new dance piece inspired by Ailey's life, to be performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Born at the height of the Great Depression in the racist segregated south Ailey found solace in dance, creating dynamic and life affirming pieces "expressing the universality of the African-American experience through dance." As you can imagine as a gay black man in the early part of the 20th Century life wasn't easy, let's face it, it's not exactly a walk in the park now! But the sheer life force and presence in his dances is a joy and a complete and utter inspiration.

Available across most platforms

Stripped a documentary film by Dave Kellett

A witty and revealing look at the world of comic strips. Funded through a Kickstarter campaign this documentary features interviews with over 70 comic creators including Jim Davis, Bill Watterson and Cathy Guisewhite, all offering their thoughtful and often hilarious take on life. I always love seeing how other creatives work and this is like a glorious feast, particularly fascinating is the transition of comics from their traditional home in newspapers to the new age of web comics. The schedule of comic strip artists is quite relentless I certainly don't envy the be creative on demand approach that a weekly strip requires and can only doff my creative cap to their incredible work.

Available on Apple.

Extraordinary Ordinary People a documentary by Alan Govenar

A thoroughly uplifting and eye opening exploration of the incredible creative talent across the US. In particular this film showcases recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts. This is what I would call an art lovers dream, there's everything from circus artists, dancers, musicians and woodcarvers to delight in. The arts is often the first thing looked at when certain people want to cut public spending and attacked as an 'unnecessary luxury' it's so important that programs like this across the globe are supported. Not only do they give opportunities to people from all backgrounds to be free to have their creative voice heard they connect people together through a love of art, which is always a good thing. It's also important to note that the arts gives back more than twice the amount it receives to the economy so it's good business sense too!

Available from Apple (where it's available as a 99p rental) and Amazon.

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story a documentary by Alan Govenar

This one is an absolute must for movie fans! Prepare to be utterly blown away and possibly surprised by the work of Harold and Lillian Michelson. Harold, a storyboard artist and Lillian, a film researcher, left their quite considerable and wonderful mark on some of the most iconic films in cinema history, working with Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Stanley Kubrick to name just a few. In many cases their work fundamentally shaped the resulting film and their names deserve to be far more widely known, if you think of a seminal film in the history of the silver screen, odds are they worked on it. A beautiful and moving portrait of their lives and careers together this film is a treasure.

Available on Vimeo.

The Music of Strangers Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensembles a documentary by Morgan Neville

One of the things I truly cherish about the arts is it's ability to cross boundaries and break down barriers, be they socio-political, geographical, language or other. At the heart of everything we all feel and experience the ups and downs of life. So when someone expresses the deepest part of themselves through their art it connects to our own and brings people together in the most fundamental of ways. With this film you follow the incredible work of Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, a group of amazing musicians from across the world who collaborate and celebrate the universal power of music. Follow them across the globe as they 'explore the ways art can both preserve traditions and shape cultural evolution.'

Available on quite a few platforms I think but here are the UK Apple and Amazon links.

The Way to Andina a documentary by Arlen Parsa

Time for another musical adventure with this documentary! Take a long lost opera add a great grandson with just enough gumption to try and put on a debut performance and you end up with this witty and moving film. 'When Arlen discovers his Colombian great-grandfather left behind a long lost opera that's never been performed, he knows what he has to do... He just doesn't know how to do it.' An ambitious and potentially foolhardy undertaking by filmmaker Arlen Parsa makes for a wonderful nights viewing! Want to know if the opera is any good? Why not check out the film for yourself.....available from the website.

The 100 Years Show a documentary by Alison Klayman

This one is a bit shorter than the others but really worth it. Another story of a ground breaking female artist being over looked, thankfully though the fabulous Carmen Herrera was 'discovered' in her 70s and saw huge success in her lifetime. Her work has been bought by major art institutions like MoMA and Tate Modern and is now recognised as the precursor to many modernist styles. From the time of her youth in Cuba Carmen painted and her bold, vibrant use of colour is a colour lovers dream. Here filmmaker Alison Klayman lets Carmen tell her story, which can have you mildly fuming at times, especially when you hear about how galleries responded to the fact she was a woman! But her story is one to cherish and celebrate that although it may have taken far too long she received the accolades she deserved. "Her story is just one example of the many great artists whose accomplishments were overlooked because of their gender, ethnicity or nationality. "The 100 Years Show" demonstrates the power of artistic vision to sustain itself."

Available on Vimeo.

Well that's it for now folks my ten creative documentaries for you to dip into when you feel in need of a life affirming creative pick me up! I'd also like to give a quick mention to Seventh Art Productions collection of Exhibitions on Screen a wonderful in depth look at various exhibitions over the years, with a fabulous combination of biography and an actual look at the exhibition itself. Special mention goes to their Matisse from MoMA and Tate Modern and The Impressionists- and the Man Who Made Them. If you've got any documentary recommendations yourself I'm always on the look out for more so e-mail them to me


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