This past week I watched Word Wars, documentary about obsessed scrabble players, many of which don't have job and simply travel around from tournament to tournament taking vitamin supplements, doing Tai Chi, gambing on scrabble games, and hoping to win the big 25,000 dollar prize at the national competion.
It was a fun documentary from the sense that I like Scrabble and these people are freaks. But, of all the "contest" documentaries I've seen this is my least favorite. The reason is, I think a good contest documentary isn't just about the contest, or even the people involved, it's about larger themes.
My favorite "contest" documentary is Spellbound because while it is about the national spelling bee in my eyes it is really about parents and family. You watch the film and it's not just about getting to know the select kids, it's about the ways in which their parents encourage them, prod them, and praise them. There are surprise things to learn about life in the process. I don't know if this was the film makers original intentions, but it is obvious this is how they eventually ended up telling the story (just in the same way Mad Hot Ballroom has side themes about children's perceptions of the opposite sex and marriage at the age of 10).
A documentary is valuable if it tells an important story, one your very interested in, or one that connects to you in a way that helps you understand the world.
Word Wars did not do any of these three things. Documentaries like Control Room told me an important story. Super-size Me told me something I was interested in. And Spellbound or even Genghis Blues connected with me in a way that helped me understand the world.
On a similar but different note, I am very excited to see the documentary that just won at Sundance film festival (awards where given January 28th). The Grand Jury prize and the Audience award went to a film called God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. This movie looks like a really important documentary and a story some of us are familiar with. Plus I love movies, books, etc. that deal with the themes of Africa, then can help us understand what is really going on in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa.