Not Sure Where to Start with Documentaries? Try These

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.

Key directors

Several key documentary directors were mentioned frequently among the replies, including Barbara Kopple, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris.

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.

Errol Morris is another known for his unique approach and style. The Thin Blue Line, about a miscarriage of justice, received frequent mention, as did his quirky Vernon, Florida.

More notable directors are mentioned below.

Older titles

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.

PBS impacts

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.

Most popular

The most popular titles mentioned were Roger & Me and Hoop Dreams.

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:

Filmmaking inspiration

Others cited films that inspired them as well. How to Die in Oregon is one such title for Sarah Rachael Wainio:

Elizabeth Rynecki, director of Chasing Portraits the film and writer of Chasing Portraits the book, mentions three that guided her production:

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:

Observational style

The observational style remains a popular one for creating engaging and enduring films. Frederick Wiseman had an impact:

So did Albert and David Maysles with their Salesman and Grey Gardens. Charlotte Zwerin was a co-director on Salesman, and Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer were co-directors on Grey Gardens.

Compelling stories

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.

Capturing the Friedmans will blow your mind. The Corporation uncovers the problems of corporations legal entities. The Cove examines dolphin-hunting practices in Japan.

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.

Scene grabber

This description of a documentary scene was particularly moving:

Last words

While sometimes the films stick with us, sometimes the experience of watching them does, too, as Charles Cassady Jr. shares here:

What documentary would you add to these mentions? Please share in the comments below.

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