On Twitter, I recently posed three questions about documentary viewing:
- What’s the first documentary you remember ever seeing?
- What’s the first documentary that really impacted you, affected you in some way? How so?
- What is your favorite scene in a documentary?
The answers ran the gamut. They included a who’s who of documentary directors, some neat surprises, and a range between.
The following post rounds up some of these answers. If you’re not sure where to start with documentaries, this list provides some good places to begin.
Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple has made a long career of documentaries about social issues and individual portraits. Harlan County, USA gets in the trenches and on the picket lines with striking coal miners. The film resonates even today.
Herzog directs not only documentaries, but also fiction films. He writes books, composes operas, and creates so much more. His approach gives his documentaries a distinct character that both engages and challenges. The opening scene of Into the Abyss, which features a death row inmate’s story and stories of those around him, grabbed one person’s attention. For another, Grizzly Man changed the way they thought about documentaries. Another mentioned Lessons of Darkness, which offers beautiful cinematography of an awful landscape.
More notable directors are mentioned below.
Several mentioned older titles that often go unmentioned in contemporary documentary discussions. One was The Great American Cowboy, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 1974. Another was Budo, a 1970s documentary about Japanese martial arts. Still others mentioned were If You Love This Planet from 1982 and The Seasons, directed by Artavazd Pelechian.
While many know that Hollywood director Frank Capra helmed the Why We Fight series, he also directed Hemo the Magnificient, an animated educational film about the circulatory system. Mel Blanc, the famous voice actor, lent his voice to this film.
Roberty Flaherty’s Nanook of the North also came up.
Several people mentioned the importance of PBS, the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service, and the documentaries it broadcasts as some of their first experiences and their significant experiences. Prior to the widespread access to cable and later online streaming, PBS provided one of the few ways to access documentary content consistently.
Series such as NOVA, Wild Kingdom, and Eyes on the Prize came to mention. Ken Burns’s The Civil War inspired viewing of Baseball, which inspired one filmmaker to go on and make their own sports documentary.
In Roger & Me, Michael Moore chronicles the downfall of Flint, Michigan, following General Motors withdrawing from the community. His quest in the film is to meet Roger Smith, the GM CEO, and hold his accountable for the city’s problems. He connects with some unique and sad people along the way. Several people mentioning the film noted its humor amid a devastating backdrop.
A few also mentioned Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.
How do you begin to describe a film as amazing as Hoop Dreams? The film is both a sports film and an a deep cultural examination — not that those topics can ever be separated. Nick Geidner, director of Land Grant Films and the upcoming The Library That Dolly Built, describes the film’s impact on him this way:
Hoop Dreams and it changed my understanding of what kinds of stories you could tell with video/film.
— Nick Geidner (@ngeidner) April 2, 2020
#Howtodieinoregon was the film that I watched right before applying to and attending @svasocdoc. The storytelling and relationships between the characters and filmmaker are so intimate; I wanted to create something like that. https://t.co/jn5YnrcoB3
— Sarah Rachael (@SarahRachael) April 6, 2020
Elizabeth Rynecki, director of Chasing Portraits the film and writer of Chasing Portraits the book, mentions three that guided her production:
Rape of Europa made me realize there was interest in films about Holocaust era looted art, My Architect because it’s about Kahn’s search, loosely speaking, for his lost legacy, and Stories We Tell because I was fascinated by her on screen relationship with her Dad.
— Elizabeth Rynecki (@erynecki) April 6, 2020
Several others also mentioned Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, which almost seamlessly blends recreations with other footage.
An Inconvenient Truth, a warning about climate change, provides a different kind of inspiration:
An Inconvenient Truth when I was in high school. I had always been an environmentalist as a kid, but I remember that one specifically fuelled my fire and gave me some grounds to argue upon. It helped me better understand the way the world works, at the time.
— Shelby Thevenot (@shelby_thevenot) April 6, 2020
The observational style remains a popular one for creating engaging and enduring films. Frederick Wiseman had an impact:
High School by @ZipporahFilms (Frederick Wiseman). First doc I studied in college and showed me that even in a verite format, a filmmaker can still make editorial decisions that comment on & frame the events as depicted in the film in a way not necessarily borne out by reality.
— Jason Charnick (@TheRealCharnick) April 6, 2020
Many, many suggestions referred to the films’ compelling stories. What follows in this section is an alphabetical listing with a bit of description for each one.
American Movie follows Mark Borchardt’s quest to make his horror film. The Atomic Cafe is a compilation film of military film archives about the cold war and nuclear weapons (“Duck and cover” is one of the famous songs included in the film). Blackfish is a gripping documentary about the ethics of keeping orcas in captivity and using them for entertainment. Black Tar Heroin tells stories of people addicted to heroin and its effects on their lives.
Bridegroom tells the tragic story of a gay couple and the impacts the death has on the surviving partner. You should just watch Brother’s Keeper. Bus 174 examines a four-hour hostage situation broadcast live, the motivations for the hostage-taking, and the outcomes of the event.
Dark Days visits a homeless community living in abandoned New York City tunnels. Gideon’s Army is a powerful documentary about public defenders struggling to help their clients within a justice system stacked against them. Man on Wire is a portrait of Philippe Petit and his wire walk between the Twin Towers.
No list like this would be complete without one mention of Ross McElwee. His Sherman’s March is a deeply personal meditation on life and love. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is nine-hour of interviews with survivors, bystanders, perpetrators, and others involved with the Holocaust. Stop Making Sense is a concert film of a performance by The Talking Heads.
Two Towns of Jasper examines race relations in a Texas town following the brutal murder of a local black man by three white men. Two different crews — one black and one white — made the film. The Times of Harvey Milk creates an intensely moving portrait of the first openly gay politician in the United States.
Who Killed the Electric Car? is an investigation into how industry quashed the first iterations of those vehicles.
This description of a documentary scene was particularly moving:
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. Most of it is a fairly standard history doc, but the final 12 minutes or so when Theremin is reunited with a friend who he hasn't seen for 70 years is pretty amazing (the scene is intercut with footage of the two of them from the 1920's).
— Garret Harkawik (@GarretHarkawik) April 6, 2020
While sometimes the films stick with us, sometimes the experience of watching them does, too, as Charles Cassady Jr. shares here:
Vague childhood memory of a Thor Heyerdahl docu-adventure, probably "The Ra Expeditions" in #theatre. I mainly recall projector bulb slowly burning out while #audio continued. We really thought it was part of the #movie, long slow fade to black on the ocean scenery.
— Charles Cassady Jr. (@Cassxdy) April 2, 2020
What documentary would you add to these mentions? Please share in the comments below.