Creativity Will Out: Seven Arts Documentaries To Watch


Artistic creativity cannot be stopped.

As we practice social distancing during the coronarvirus pandemic, here is a large handful of documentaries — all available for streaming on Amazon — that remind us of the breadth of the creative imagination.

The artist and Chinese immigrant who gave the Disney classic “Bambi” its signature visual style. New York’s early graffiti and hip hop artists of the 1980s. The female teenage art prodigy who became Marie-Antoinette’s official portraitist. A photographer whose blindness becomes her art. And the Austin artist who makes compelling, enigmatic collages from book and paper scraps.

Circumstances through the ages may change. And so does our creativity. — Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, editor

American Masters: Tyrus (Pamela Tom, 2015, 78 min.)

Tyrus Wong, who immigrated to America as a child in 1919, melded classical Chinese landscape painting with 20th century modernism that gave the Disney animated classic “Bambi” its spare, haunting look.

Indeed “Bambi” is one of the few Disney animated films to bear the hallmark of an individual artist. Yet for decades few knew of Wong’s artistic signature on it.

This inspiring and sensitive documentary charts Wong’s life from his impoverished childhood through the racial bias he endured for decades and the chronic lack of recognition he received even as he defined the look of so many movies.

Wong joined Disney in 1938, starting as an “in-betweener” creating dozens of slightly different drawings placed in between Mickey Mouse’s major poses. For “Bambi,” Wong painted impressionistic, Song dynasty style landscapes for the little deer’s world, so impressing the Disney art director that Wong became the film’s “conceptual designer.”

Later at Warner Brothers, Wong created story boards and set drawings for films such as “Mildred Pierce,” “Key Largo,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Giant,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Auntie Mame,” “Rio Bravo,” “The Music Man,” “Harper,” and “The Wild Bunch.” But you won’t find his name in the credits on the screen.

Though Wong lived to be 106 (he died in 2016) it wasn’t until he was in his 90s that he began receiving recognition for his many contributions to the film industry.

More Art Upstairs (Jody Hassett Sanchez, 2018, 77 min.)

Grand Rapids, Michigan is home to ArtPrize, an international competition with large cash prizes granted by both artist juries and public votes. Any artist from anywhere working in any medium can participate, and for 19 days the projects are exhibited in a variety of venues scattered throughout the Midwestern city. Jody Hassett Sanchez’s entertaining documentary takes a look at the annual event that attracts nearly 1500 submissions and half a million visitors.

Some entries prove quite serious like a large painting commemorating the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. But then there’s a former convent painted bright pink inside of which are female performers on giant swings.

To gain public votes, some of the artists engage with passersby; others don’t. We hear the plainspoken public pronouncements on the quality of the art, and those of the official artworld jurors.

The winners of $500,000 in prize money? In some cases, you’ll be surprised but not in all.

Note to Austin viewers: Grand Rapids Art Museum Director Dana Friis-Hansen (former director of the Austin Museum of Art) is briefly spotted in a crowd scene.

The Fabulous Life of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (Arnaud Xainte, 2018, 94 min.)

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun painted her way into the inner circle of Louis XVI’s court at Versailles. Immensely talented in creating flattering likenesses of Louis XVI’s queen Marie-Antoinette, and other members of French aristocracy, Vigée Le Brun received handsome prices for her work. But her close association with the royal family eventually proved dangerous with the onset of the French Revolution.

Daughter of an artist, Vigée Le Brun exhibited a flair for drawing at an early age and by her early teens was earning her own money through commissions.

While not a docudrama, this documentary does feature actors reenacting some moments in the artist’s life. And throughout the film we see many of Vigée Le Brun’s exquisite paintings. She avoided the cosmetic fashion of powder on her subjects’ faces, and instead we see color in their cheeks and liveliness in their eyes.

Shoulder the Lion (Patryk Rebisz & Erinnisse Rebisz, 2015, 73 min.)

A photographer whose visual impairment dissolves into total blindness. A musician whose progressive tinnitus makes him leave his band. An artist-turned-boxer whose head injuries cause extreme memory loss. All three creative people featured in this visually and aurally imaginative documentary have turned loss into a different way of practicing their art.

"Shoulder the Lion"
Graham Sharpe in “Shoulder the Lion”

Graham Sharpe still composes songs and plays acoustic guitar for himself but can no longer perform with other musicians because of the incessant noises in his head. Alice Wingwall studied architectural history and sculpture, but with the onset of visual degeneration she turned to photography, actual settings or miniature sets arising from her mind’s eye. Katie Dallam is an artist who tried to discover another identity through boxing. In her first and only match she lost use of the left hemisphere of her brain. Learning everything over – eating, talking, walking – she returned to her art.

Throughout “Shoulder the Lion,” we are immersed in approximations of what these artists’ losses might be like including piercing electronic sounds that simulate tinnitus.

This is a densely layered, beautiful film with a hopeful theme.

Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983, 68 min.)

Admittedly I am an apologist for the graffiti artists who in the early 80s brightened many a gloomy New York City day with vibrant colors, powerful compositions, dynamic lines, evocative quotes, cartoon characters, and inventive lettering sprayed onto boring subway trains passing through grey neighborhoods

Tony Silver’s “Style Wars” won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 1984 Sundance Film Festival and later played on PBS.

"Style Wars"
“Style Wars”

Although Silver includes some scenes of break dancing (with special emphasis on Crazy Legs) and rapping, his main emphasis is on graffiti, especially the big “burners” found on the exteriors of subway trains.

Silver didn’t meet all the important graffiti artists, but he did interview Seen, Kase-2, Skeme, and others, who have had varying degrees of success in the intervening decades.

With numerous shots of trains rolling by and early 80s wild style graffiti, and with musical choices so evocative of the period — raps by Sugarhill Gang, Trouble Funk, Rammellzee, and of course Grandmaster Flash — revisiting this milestone in the recorded history of hip hop is truly heart-warming.

The Secret Life of Lance Letscher (Sandra Adair, 2017, 95 min.)

“There’s a really good leg,” proclaims artist Lance Letscher as he leafs through a pile of vinyl album covers seeking images for his newest collage. The Austin native collects thousands of books, magazines, flyers, catalogs, newspapers, and other printed material to make his often large-scale, always complex collages. From a distance Letscher’s collages have an immediate impact. In close they reveal dozens of possible narratives and unexpected meanings.

Director Sandra Adair takes us gently into the tumultuous life and creative mind of Letscher through interviews with friends, relatives, collectors, gallerists, and the artist himself. As editor of 18 of Richard Linklater’s feature films, Adair perfectly understands an art based on cutting up bits and pieces of visual material to turn into something whole and meaningful. And Austin composer Graham Reynolds is the perfect choice to compose music for this documentary with his ability to vary from chaotic to harmonic.

Paradise Found: The Wonder of Islamic Art (James Blumel, 2012, 102 min.)

Beginning with Mali’s stunning Djenné mosque made of mud, British art critic Waldemar Januszczak guides us on a journey through numerous countries where Islamic architecture and art have flourished for thirteen centuries.

Januszczak suggests that all Islamic art contains the “atmosphere of paradise,” an earthly representation of what the afterlife will be for the faithful. And mischievously he begins with an unfamiliar rear view of one of the most famous buildings in the world – the Taj Mahal.

Janusczak then guides us through numerous other examples of awe-inspiring Islamic architecture and decorations: Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque; the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Instanbul; and in Damascus the world’s earliest surviving mosque, completed in 715. Samarkand presents itself as a gleaming city of shimmering turquoise-tiled domes. Iran reveals a stunning 200-foot-tall brick tomb as well as the beautiful structures of Isfahan, built by the “pleasure-seeking, free-thinking, rule-breaking” Safavids, the first Shiite rulers of Persia.

Januszczak joyfully achieves two goals of art criticism: he provides an historical context for what we are looking at and uncovers stylistic links and evolutions.


Chale Nafus
Chale Nafus
Born in Dallas during World War II, Chale Nafus attended public schools, spent summers on his sister’s ranch in the 1950s, learned Spanish from school friends, and dreamed of getting out of Dallas. After studying at SMU, the University of Texas at Arlington (B.A., English), La Universidad Autónoma de México, and UT Austin (M.A. English/RTF), Chale began a long college teaching career at Texas Southmost College (Brownsville), La Universidad de Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Kingsborough Community College (Brooklyn), and finally Austin Community College (1973-1998). At the latter he founded the department of Radio-TV-Film. For 13 years (2002 –2015) Chale was the director of programming at the Austin Film Society.

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