This is a personal selection of some of the best documentaries I have watched over the years. If you manage to watch any of them I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. If you have any of your own best docs to watch, please add them to comments. I love to watch a documentary!
1. Eyes On The Prize
I first saw this documentary in the late eighties on the BBC. I was mesmerised by it. Probably the definitive account of the Civil Rights Movement in America, it’s in two series. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954–1965 charts the early years of the movement. Episode one begins with the horrific murder of Emmet Till in1955. A fourteen year old boy, who when visiting the south from Chicago was too friendly with a white woman in a grocery store. For that he was beaten to death. This is a very disturbing story but one that has to be seen, Emmet Till’s murder was the spark that lit the fire of the movement.
Eight more hours were broadcast in 1990 as Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965–1985. It looks at the disillusionment with peaceful protest and the rise of the Black Panthers.
My personal opinion is that it’s one of the best documentary series ever made. Thats why its number one out of ten great documentary films. It had several different directors, and was produced by Henry Hampton of Blackside Productions.
2. Why We Fight
Eugene Jarecki’s 2005 documentary Why We Fight begins with an excerpt from the final speech of president Dwight D Eisenhower. Given on national TV, he warns the nation of the growing influence and danger of what he termed the Military Industrial Complex. His call to curb the alliance between the military and the defence industry fell on deaf ears and the United States has been involved in the business of war ever since. Why We Fight examines why the American Empire has embarked on a series of wars by interviewing the veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, experts on US foreign and military policy and journalists who have followed the conflicts. There is a very moving scene where a man who lost his son in 911 explains how he believed the rhetoric of the government in the early days of the war and his gradual realisation of the lies he was being told.
Eugene Jarecki has made some stunning political documentaries, The House I Live In, Reagan and The Trials of Henry Kissinger. His brother Andrew also makes documentary films – of a very different style – Capturing the Friedmans is well worth a view.
3. The Dust Bowl
No list of documentary films would be complete without mentioning Ken Burns. The Dust Bowl is one of my favourites. Made in 2004, it’s four episodes examine the impact of the Dust Bowl on the United States during the Great Depression. It’s a harrowing story. I had no idea of what the dust storms were like – whole days went by in darkness because of the huge clouds of dust in the sky. A man made disaster, it really is a warning from history to treat our earth kindly.
Ken Burns charts American life and history beautifully, from The Central Park Five to a three part series on Prohibition he unearths injustices and gives the viewer an real understanding of historical events.
4. Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words – The Life And Work of a Legendary Actress
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words – The Life And Work of a Legendary Actress was made by Stig Björkman this is a very moving and interesting film about the legendary Swedish Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman is a welcome respite. What a life! Three marriages, four children, a career in films that spanned six decades, winner of three Oscars and also a success in theatre and television. Her life story is told by excerpts from her diaries and with clips from her extensive home movies. Her children also talk about her and their lives with her. One thing that really comes across is her modesty and self effacement. She was willing to move on and start a whole new life several times in her life – and performing always came first. A breath of fresh air in these celeb laden days.
5. The Century of The Self
There is nothing British documentary maker, Adam Curtis has made that I don’t think is wonderful!! Many of his documentaries I have watched over and over again, gleaning more knowledge with each replay. They are polemics packed full of information, illustrated with film clips and news reels. Everyone’s a winner! The Century of The Self made in 2002 traces the history of the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. Its a complex story of how we as a society have become obsessed with our desires and it explores the various ways that governments and corporations have used Freud’s theories. A little known figure in 20th century history is Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays but he was important in shaping modern capitalism and politics. Curtis shows how Bernays has had a huge impact with his use of Freud’s analysis in advertising and PR. Other top docs from Curtis are The Mayfair Set, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap: What Happened To Our Dream of Freedom.
6. I Am Not Your Negro
James Baldwin was a black, gay novelist, poet, essayist and activist. He died in 1987. I Am Not Your Negro , made in 2016 is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. Narrated by Samual L. Jackson the film uses Baldwin’s reminiscences to explore racism in the United States of America.
I have to add another documentary with this one and that is John Akomfrah’s film about Stuart Hall. Made in 2013, The Stuart Hall Project is an exploration of cultural historian Stuart Hall’s ideas and work.
7. Paris Is Burning
Paris Is Burning is a 1990 American documentary made by Jennie Livingston. I love this movie – it makes me want to get up and dance. The people she meets are so stylish and interesting. They are captured forever on celluloid, but one wonders what happened to them as the AIDS epidemic took hold in America. Its a very moving film that looks at sexuality, race, class and gender with an warm generous eye.
8. The Spirit of ’45
But back to Britain and a very different time. The Spirit of ‘45 is a 2013 documentary film by director Ken Loach. Renowned for his gritty dramas that often use real people instead of actors and tell stories from the underbelly of society in this he looks at what might have been if the post war dream of equality and fairness had been allowed to continue. Radical changes took place after the Second World War when a Labour government intent on change was voted in by a landslide. Full of archive footage and interviews the film looks at the poverty in Britain before WW2 and the ideas for a welfare state that blossomed during and after the war. Nationalisation of key industries and the development of the National Health Service, all great achievements which were later undermined by Thatcher and successive governments.
9. Ordinary Miracles The Photo League’s New York
Ordinary Miracles The Photo League’s New York, made by Danial Allentuck this is the fascinating story of The Photo League which thrived in New York between 1936 and 1951. Many of its members became leading exponents of documentary photography. Many went on to become war correspondents in WW2, the leagues members documented America often showing the other side of the American Dream. The communist witch hunts, which gathered pace after the war were to be the leagues downfall. Its a wonderful film illustrated with the photographs of the leagues members. Well worth watching.
10. Paula Rego Secrets And Stories
Paula Rego Secrets And Stories. This captivating film directed by her son Nick Willing gives us an insight into the world of renowned painter Paula Rego. Born in Portugal in 1935 she grew up in a misogynist fascist dictatorship and then moved to London where she studied at the Slade. I was never a great fan of her work but over the years it grew on me and watching this film made me look at it all over again. Willing uses home movies and family photographs and interviews to paint a vivid picture of his mother’s life.
Here are some highly recommended documentaries that didn’t get into my ten great documentary films list, but are really good.
Beautiful Losers by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard is a film that focuses on artists such as Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Steven Power, Chris Johanson and Shepard Fairey.
Become A Microscope by Aaron Rose, a short film about artist, educator and nun Sister Corita Kent.
Another great art film is The Cool School by Morgan Neville. About the art scene in LA during the fifties and sixties focussing on the Ferus gallery and curator Walter Hopps.
And no list of documentaries would be complete without mentioning Alex Gibney, he has made so many films and they are all really interesting. I think my favourite would be Finding Fela.
This was compiled by Felix H. Wilkinson. Find out more about Felix…