Best of Houston: The 10 Best Houston Documentaries
Houston Ship Channel: Deep Water Centennial
Houston is one of the most unique cities in the country, certainly the most diverse. This naturally leads to having a bunch of people and places with stories waiting to be told in documentary film. In order to celebrate the folks that just made their Kickstarter goal in order to fund a film about Numbers, today we give thanks to some of the other great docs that have preceded it.
10. Houston Ship Channel: Deep Water Centennial I'm a public works nerd. Did you ever wonder who is up watching the history of concrete on the History Channel? That's me, and if it's you too you'll love this. The Texas Foundation for the Arts put together an hour-long documentary on the Houston Ship Channel to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its opening. It's a fairly basic account, but the importance of the Ship Channel is often overlooked on a national scale and it's nice to see someone making its story more accessible. Plus, it's completely free online as well.
9. Thunder Soul In the 1970s Kashmere High School fielded an all black funk band that was as good as anything that was on the contemporary charts. Led by director Conrad "Prof" Johnson they became a national phenomenon and their recordings continue to inspire musicians and DJs to this day. Jamie Foxx narrated this look back at the group when they reunited after 30 years to pay homage to Conrad and all that the Kashmere Stage Band managed to accomplish as an unstoppable soul juggernaut.
8. Tarnation Calling Tarnation a documentary is maybe a stretch. Personal video diary might be closer to the mark. Director Jonathan Caouette chronicled his life through dozens of video cameras as he grew up in Houston with his mentally-ill mother, finally editing them together as an adult into an award-winning film. Caouette will return to Houston at the end of March for the SWAMP Salon where he will discuss "Building A Strong Film Culture in Houston" with other members of the local film scene.
7. Bert - A Documentary Houston was poorer when it lost artist Bert Long to pancreatic cancer. The multi-talented painter, sculptor and performance audience left behind a career as a high end chef to ramble the world learning and growing as an artist. John Guess, Jr. compiled a loving look at the artist near the end of his life, leaving a moving picture memory of one of our city's most beloved contributors to the arts.
6 Lord of the Universe Probably the most famous Houston documentary follows an event that was supposed to change the world. In 1973 Prem Rawat was called Guru Maharaj Ji, and was the teenage leader of the exploding religious movement Divine Light Mission. In order to bring his message to the masses he planned a three-day event at the Astrodome that would encompass prayer and music and would supposedly usher in a thousand years of peace. Things did not work out quite like that and Top Value Television captured the whole thing on a fleet of mobile cameras. The result is a hard look at some of the desperate alienation of the fading flower children looking for meaning.
5. Jandek on Corwood I can't speak for cooler people, but I'd never even heard of one of our most famously experimental and eccentric musicians until I rented this Jandek documentary from Cactus Music (Oh how I miss their video rental wall). It's a wonderful film that accomplishes the humanization of a man a lot of people were not even sure had ever been seen in public before. Jandek has been less reclusive since the film's release, but the mystery of him remains almost as intriguing as his music.
4. Screwed in Houston As it stands when the history of music from Houston is written our city's contributions to rap that will probably loom largest. Vice TV highlighted the rise of chopped and screwed music, purple drank and the enduring legacy of our unique and innovative Third Coast rap legacy. For fun, the whole thing is available for free online, and of course an entire segment is dedicated to the late and dearly missed DJ Screw. It's a must-watch primer for anyone interested in part of modern Houston cultural history.
3. Third Ward TX At the turn of the century Third Ward was rotting away until a group of artists started Project Row Houses. Andrew Garrison chronicles how homes were renovated to house art galleries and shelter provided for single mothers through a combination of artistic initiative and community outreach. Though it's an obviously uplifting story, Garrison does a great job in keeping it from appearing sickly sweet, nor does he paint the developers who followed the neighborhood's revival with grand plans as one-dimensional villains. It's a nuanced and sincere look at what it means to save a community.
2. This is Our Home, It Is Not For Sale Jon Schwartz's 1985 look at the turbulent history of the Riverside terrace neighborhood is mighty long, clocking in over three hours. It's worth it though. The community was originally a haven for rich Jewish Houstonians that were not welcomed in River Oaks. In the 1960s it began to attract wealthy African-Americans, which in turn also attracted a highly-visible bomb attack at the home of the first black family to move in. There's the tension between the white and Jewish residents who fled Riverside in fear, the will of other to create a stable, integrated society, and the stand against encroachment from development on all sides that threatened the identity of the neighborhood.
1. The Cantinera That's "The Cantina Girl" for our English-only readers. Ruth Villatoro spent five years filming undercover in Houston bars looking for the stories of young women caught in sex trafficking. Liliana was first put to work in cantinas at 13 years old, by her mother, downing 30 beers a night as a line of men formed outside. Villatoro actually constructed her own special hidden cameras for the filing so as to remain unobserved by the clubs. It's dark, sad fare that shines a light on one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the city.
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