Five Starter Books about Documentary to Check Out

Studies in documentary film have boomed in the last two decades. What used to be a shelf-ful of books about the form now number in the hundreds, maybe even thousands. Both single volumes and publisher series, including Minnesota’s Visible Evidence series and Wallflower Press’s Nonfictions series, go behind the screens and investigate the subject in new and interesting ways.

With so many titles to choose from, it might seem overwhelming on where to begin. The following list offers five accessible titles to check out.

Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University and long involved in the documentary community, provides an essential overview in this compact volume. Aufderheide charts an overview of the form’s key debates, including questions of reality, truth-telling, objectivity, bias, and ethics. Instead of a chronological order, she structures the book by themes in order to explore subgenres such as propaganda and nature films.

Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed.

Introduction to Documentary serves as the primary textbook for documentary film studies. Focusing on documentary theory, criticism, and history, revered scholar Bill Nichols provides an accessible toolbox for how to think critically about the documentary genre through questions such as documentary voice, documentary modes, and representations of political and social issues. Nichols, who has written and edited multiple other volumes, connects theory with practice through chapters devoted to starting your own documentary and exploring ethical questions about documentary production.

A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd ed.

Documentary remains a challenging subject to plot as a chronological history, but Betsy McLane’s book overcomes that obstacle by providing a clear, coherent, and accessible narrative. Focusing mostly on U.S., Canadian, and British documentary, McLane covers the form’s contexts and changes throughout the decades from the iconic Nanook of the North in the 1920s through the emerging forms in the 21st century. Each chapter provides period films to check out as well.

Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told

In Documentary Case Studies, Chapman University professor Jeff Swimmer goes behind the scenes of Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated documentary features to learn more about twists and turns in the production process. Grounding each chapter in extensive interviews and writing in an accessible voice, Swimmer touches on issues such as choosing participants, working with difficult participants, respecting communities, and juggling finances. Films explored include The Act of Killing, Gasland, Man on Wire, Restrepo, Spellbound, and Sound and Fury.

100 Documentary Films

Barry Keith Grant and Jim Hillier compile, as the volume title states, 100 documentary films. For each title Grant and Hillier pen a brief and lively essay that offers some background and introduction. The titles range across the form’s history, from the 1920s through the early 2000s. The titles also represent multiple countries around the world.

Five 1930s Documentaries to Check Out

The 1930s saw significant changes in documentary production practices and purposes. During this decade, the development of sound brought both voiceover narration and talking heads. John Grierson’s visions for documentary and their purposes flourished in the United Kingdom, while propaganda flourished in other parts of the world. And just as new conventions were being established, mockumentaries were already making fun of the emerging forms.

Here are five documentaries from the 1930s to check out.

Housing Problems

Directed by Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, Housing Problems examines the problems facing slum-dwellers in Stepney, London, England and proposes a solution. While a voiceover delivers the “official” perspective, this documentary short also provides interviews with the slum-dwellers themselves — an innovation at the time. Located in their homes, these residents talk about general disrepairs, vermin infestation, and even children’s deaths. New housing becomes the miracle solution that brings dignity as well as new appliances and natural gas, which is fitting considering the film’s sponsorship by the British Commercial Gas Association.

Night Mail

Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail follows Royal Mail delivery on a train journey from London to Glasgow. It shows mail collection, deposit, and sorting on the trip. While simple in premise, Night Mail represents a more experimental form for documentaries at time. The narration, whose rhtythms align with the train’s at times, was written by poet W.H. Auden.

Triumph of the Will

Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will (Triumph Des Willens, German) shows both the height and the horror of Germany’s Nazi Party during the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. She captures the soundless fury of Hitler’s speeches and the collective’s responses. Elaborate staging, crane shots, and precise editing evoke both art in its form and fear in its application.

The River

Like Night Mail, Pare Lorentz’s The River traipses the line between art and propaganda. The river in question is the Mighty Mississippi and people’s attempts to contain it. Poetic narration and on-location visuals, including flooding damage, evoke the power and beauty of the river. A score by Virgil Thomson adds a sense of majesty to this film.

Land Without Bread

Luis Buñuel was ahead of his time with Land without Bread (Tierra Sin Pan). The film shows the extreme poverty of the Hurdes region in Spain, people who reportedly knew nothing about making bread. The film mocks the travelogues of the time, particularly through the voiceover narration and its staging of sequences, including a goat plummeting to its death and a donkey being stung to death.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Antarctica Documentaries to Check Out

Antarctica remains one of the few underexplored areas of our planet. Its startling beauty and mystery belie dangerous cold and other perils. Neither stops explorers from traveling there, nor do they stop documentary makers from going with them.

Check out these five documentaries about the southern-most continent.

Encounters at the End of the World

Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World offers breath-taking scenery while exploring the wonders and dangers underlying it. Herzog interviews people working and living at McMurdo Station. As Herzog learns their stories and the natural wonders of the continent, he develops meditations on insane penguins and human extinction.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

While Herzog is the ultimate outsider, Anthony Powell brings an insider’s access to his Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Ten years in the making, this visually stunning documentary shows what it’s like to live on the continent that sees 24-hour days in summer and 24-hour nights in winter. Instead of focusing on the scientists like other documentaries, Powell tells stories of the people who keep the stations running, from communications specialists to domestic help.

Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South

Scientists are the heroes in Dena Siedel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South. A group of them take a month-long boat trip along the Antarctic coast, studying climate change and its effects on penguins, whales, krill, and ice. They conduct their studies using expensive and sophisticated equipment, and these experts then explain the studies and their relevance.

Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance

Sir Ernest Shackleton planned a journey to traverse the southern continent — an 1,800-mile trek of mostly unexplored territory in the early 1900s. Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance delves into the history of the expedition, focusing particularly on the final leg to and across the South Georgia Island. This documentary uses interviews with experts and descendents, archival footage of still and moving images, and oral dramatizations from the explorers to bring the story to life.

Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent

Jon Bowermaster’s Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent follows a more modern journey on the seas near the continent. Traveling by sailboat, kayak, and small plane, the documentary features the expected stunning icy visuals alongside more quirky human experiences, such as preparing meals on a rocking boat and exploring a Russian Orthodox church. First-person voiceover offers insights into the expedition, climate change, and human impacts.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Comedy Documentaries to Check Out

Comedy is an important part of culture. Humor allows expression of controversial and taboo ideas in ways that some audiences can accept. Jokes bring hidden issues to public attention in ways other genres just can’t.

Documentaries take comedy seriously. Well, documentaries take most everything seriously, but that doesn’t mean the form never shows its sense of humor.

Check out these five documentaries about comedy.

Comedian

Comedian goes backstage to explore the nerve-wracking world of stand-up comedy. Christian Charles’s film follows twin narrative arcs of the novice comedian and the established comedian. The novice comedian, Orny Adams, struggles with landing gigs and telling a rewritten joke on a late-night talk show. The established comedian, none other than Jerry Seinfeld, places himself back on the club circuit to develop his new material. While the two comedians offer career contrasts, they both face similar struggles.

The Aristocrats

With the aristocrats joke, the humor is not in the punchline but in the telling. And the more offensive the telling of the joke, the better. Directed by Paul Provenza, The Aristocrats features 100 comedians from Billy Connolly to Whoopi Goldberg telling their version of this classic vaudeville joke. Check out Full House star Bob Saget’s rendition for a particularly vulgar take. This film is not for the thin-skinned.

Old Jews Telling Jokes

The title captures the topic, simplicity, and delight of this web series directed by Sam Hoffman. A senior Jewish person is idenitified by name, sometimes occupation, sometimes location, and birth year as they tell their joke. Some jokes are short and sweet, such as this one about the urologist, while others require a longer telling, such as this one about the Lone Ranger’s fate. They also cover food, religion, Jewish mothers,
and the more risqué.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers (1933-2014) was a giant in female stand-up comedy, a pioneer who inspired generations of female comics. In 2017, she landed at number six on Rolling Stone’s best stand-up comics list. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows the workaholic comedian for a year, during which she packs her calendar with gigs from acting in a play to appearing on a reality show, not to mention the occasional stand-up appearance.

The Muslims are Coming!

The Muslims are Coming! is a concert documentary and road trip that features several Muslim comedians traveling around the United States to generate conversation about Muslims, to challenge Muslim stereotypes, and to entertain audiences. Directed by and starring Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, the film follows these comedians as they offer free shows in places such as Birmingham, Tupelo, and Murfreesboro. Commentary from established comedians, imams, and other experts rounds out this film.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Sport Documentaries to Check Out

Sport has been a subject of documentary since Edison’s and the Lumieres’ 1890s experiments. One of Edison’s first pieces is a boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. In the 1930s Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia showcased atheticism in the guise of propaganda. Today, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has propelled sport documenatary to new popularity.

In no particular order below are five sport documentaries to check out.

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, chronicles the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. The film captures Ali at his heights of skill and charm, and it captures the fans’ fervor of the event. Though financial issues kept the film in production for more than 20 years, that delay didn’t inhibit any of the film’s power when it was finally released in 1996.

The Endless Summer

Bruce Brown‘s The Endless Summer follows two 1960s surfers as they attempt to catch waves on coasts around the world: New Zealand, Tahiti, and South Africa, to name a few. The surf rock soundtrack offers an easy-going feel, and the voiceover narration provides light-hearted humor and fun in its wry observations on the surf, surfers, and local cultures.

Tokyo Olympiad

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympaid is an Olympic achievement unto itself with its scale and length. Filmed during the 1964 Olympics, Ichikawa’s catalogue captures details grand and small, from entire races to anguished faces. The careful editing results in a musical composition that glides through the Olympic experience.

Murderball

Murderball offers an edge-of-your-seat look at wheelchair rugby and the competition between the U.S. and Canadian teams in the 2004 Paralympic Games. Players such as Mark Zupan and Scott Hogsett break down the stereotypes of sport, masculinity, and ability with brutal honesty and biting humor. The result is entertaining and uplifting.

Hoop Dreams

If you watch only one sport documentary, make it Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. The almost-three hour film follows two Chicago teens recruited to play ball in suburban high schools as they pursue their dreams to play pro ball. They face multiple obstacles along the way — financial and familial, physical and psychological — as they aim for spots on college and, later, NBA teams. The thrilling gameplay at the Illinois state championships is among some of the best shot and edited game footage in any sport documentary.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.