My Favorite Documentaries: Burden of Dreams


First, a note to readers of last week's Sherman's March column: thank you! The comments have been fantastic, including almost 50 recommendations for documentaries. As a documentary junkie, I thank you for the fix -- and please continue to suggest your favorites in the comments!

This week I'll look at Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, a documentary from 1982. Special thanks to commenter Anthony Jr. for recommending this one -- I have it in my collection, but hadn't watched it in a long time.

Burden of Dreams follows German director Werner Herzog (another favorite of mine) as Herzog shoots his film Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle, and is constantly beset with problems. As Herzog faces each challenge, he maintains an unflappable (and at times bizarrely funny) stoic attitude, remaining completely committed to making his film. Herzog suggests early in the film that he is a man who lives for his dreams, and his dream during this documentary is to make Fitzcarraldo.

Much, much more (including video clips from YouTube) after the jump.

Herzog faces severe setbacks: his base camp is burned to the ground by angry locals, the production loses both its main actors (Jason Robards and Mick Jagger -- the latter left to record "Tattoo You"), a local war breaks out and forces the film to move over 1,000 miles to a new location, natives employed on the film crew are attacked by the warring tribes, and much, much more. One of my favorite parts of the film is about 49 minutes in, when the filmmakers show native workers eating lunch and discussing the wild warnings they've heard about working on the project. Watching these natives -- their body language, their manner of speaking, how easily they laugh together -- shows something universal about humanity. It doesn't matter that they're natives in Peru, deep in the jungle. They're people, and even at a remove of 25 years and an entire continent, I recognize them as totally cool people -- I'd love to hang out with them.

Here's a clip showing Herzog's monologue about the "obscenity of nature":

This documentary is about overcoming obstacles, about the Peruvian natives, and very much about Werner Herzog -- a man who seems almost unbelievably driven to achieve his dream. Much of the joy in this film is in watching Herzog narrate his struggles with a deadpan Teutonic delivery. He seems at once brilliant, driven, and possibly a little nutty. The subtext here is the simple question: why does Herzog suffer so much for this project? Watching the film, you'll get an answer from Herzog. You will understand what's important to Herzog, and see how he's operating at a deep level -- his life is truly dedicated to making films. This guy is hardcore.

Here's another clip from the movie, another snippet of an interview with Herzog commenting on the jungle ("We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth, and overwhelming lack of order"):

Further reading: Criterion Collection essay, Les Blank's page on the film, and a Guardian Unlimited review. Or you can rent it from Netflix, rent it from Blockbuster, or buy it from Amazon (warning: it's spendy!).