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March 09, 2020

Lights, Camera, Fiction: The Best Literary Documentaries on the Internet

Text by Vivek Tejuja

Verve’s Culture Editor and resident bibliophile recommends his favourite documentaries on the lives of writers

Often, what fascinates me more than reading a book, is to understand how and why it was written. To take it a step further in that case, I love to know about writers’ lives – their loves, their feuds, their passions and obsessions, and how they anguish to put the written word on paper.

Off-late, there’s been a rise in what you call the ‘literary documentary’ – be it the life of an author, editor, or even just a book. I am always on the lookout for such documentaries, as they add an extra layer of intrigue and joy to the primary pleasure of reading the writers’ works.

Here are some of the literary documentaries that I have enjoyed over the years, and where you can watch them as well.

Joan Didion: The Center will Not Hold
This documentary details the life and times of Didion in a way that no book can, in my opinion. It speaks of her ongoing literary career, her marriage, the losses in her life, and how she has learned to cope. The documentary covers her life from the Seventies (including the Tate-LaBianca murders, about which she also wrote an essay in The White Album) and touches upon how she lost her husband and daughter.  The documentary left me shaken up: what happens when you are faced with losses? Your center gives way and you are left without an anchor. The wounds that are visible and even the ones that aren’t are  depicted viscerally in the film.
You can watch it on Netflix India.

What to read by her: Play it as it Lays, The White Album, and The Year of Magical Thinking.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
This documentary chronicles the life and times of Vidal, his commentary, and the impact it had on art and politics. It has interviews with Tim Robbins, Nina Straight, and the likes of Hitchens to decode the man Vidal was. While I loved watching this documentary, I found it necessary to apprise myself of the American political system to understand it better. It’s an enjoyable watch for his opinions on writing and on Truman Capote, with whom he had a long-lasting feud.
You can watch it on Netflix India.
What to read by him: The City and the Pillar, The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, and The Golden Age.

Talking Writing: Naveen Kishore in Conversation with Mahasweta Devi
This twenty-five-minute conversation will perhaps change the way you approach writing and the way you write. The bit that had the most impact on me is when she says that you write in the language in which you dream. It hit me hard because I dream perhaps in Sindhi or Hindi or even Punjabi sometimes, but I write in English. The documentary touches on Bengali – the language she wrote in and what happens in the process of translation, which to me was fascinating. Mahasweta Devi’s honesty about her craft and how she never rewrites is endearing and makes you want to put pen to paper. A refreshing must-watch.
You can watch it on YouTube.
What to read by her: Breast Stories, Mother of 1084, and The Queen of Jhansi.

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Maya Angelou entered my life when I was eighteen and I didn’t even know that I needed her, and there she was speaking to my inner self with her words. I was grappling with my sexual orientation, on the verge of coming out, and her books gave me the courage to do that. This film is about her life, the racism she faced, her books, and most of all her resilience and strength in the face of any turmoil. The documentary is titled from one of her poems, and here is a bit of it to show you how powerful her writing is.
You can watch it on Netflix India.
What to read by her: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, and The Heart of a Woman.

Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel García Márquez
How did a boy from a backward town on the Caribbean cost become a Nobel Prize winning author, that won the hearts of millions all over the world? How did he change the way we viewed reality and imagined? Gabo the film (as Márquez was fondly called) has all the answers. His books hold a very special place on my bookshelf. I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and being so grateful to him for having written it. Some books change the tapestry of your life, and this one made me dream in technicolor. Everything in life was magnified, and it taught me the power to escape through fiction. The documentary in turn spoke directly to me because it details the process of how he wrote his books, and ultimately, what literature meant to him.
You can rent it on Vimeo for about 4 dollars.
What to read by him: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Of Love and Other Demons

 

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