Documentaries for fledgeling documentarians?
August 8, 2009 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Which documentaries to watch?

A friend and I recently, through a bullshit session, hit on an idea for a documentary film. All of the prerequisites, like access, relevance and an audience are there. It's entirely doable. I know where to start with research of the actual topic. Research is my deal. I know how to get that going. What I want to know is, what documentaries should I watch to get a good feel for what makes a good documentary? What films do I need to watch to learn to get a good feel for how to drive the narrative and reach the audience emotionally?
posted by dortmunder to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
I like serial form documentaries, not movie length. Not sure if that's a consideration or not.

Two I've enjoyed recently: The Ascent of Money and A Brief History of Disbelief.

Both have British narrators, so, that might be a consideration too as a schooled English accent can make anything sound high brow.
posted by wfrgms at 11:33 AM on August 8, 2009

I love documentaries so I'll probably forgetting one or two but I thought that these three in particular had very strong narratives, compelling characters, and a real human element:

Brother's Keeper
Capturing the Friedmans
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
posted by dhammond at 11:33 AM on August 8, 2009

It depends on your topic and approach. Is it a discursive one or a narrative documentary? By that, I mean are you making an explicit argument or explicating a historical/social/geographical topic in a grand sweep? There's always going to be an underlying argument in a documentary, but the difference between, say, a Ken Burns piece and one by Adam Curtis or Jonathan Meades or Errol Morris is pretty obvious.

Another place to look is anything produced by Brook Lapping, such as Europe's 9/11. They're described as the "Rolls Royce of documentary makers", and have a very distinctive house style: incredible archive footage and access for interviews with the key players, and a subtle narrative argument that seems to emerge from that material. They get limited play in the US, but their latest ones -- Iran & the West and China's Capitalist Revolution -- are worth seeking out. They have an old-school quality to them: very different from the presenter-centred documentary format ("I'm going on an incredible journey...") that seems to dominate TV production today.
posted by holgate at 11:39 AM on August 8, 2009

Your friend and you wouldn't happen to be high by any chance?

Ha Fucking Ha Mr. Funnyman.

No. We were completely sober at work. It's political, using a rather dramatic local event to get at larger, national issues. I'm deliberately being vague it's because you don't go broadcasting the specifics of good ideas on the internet unless you're a fucking moron. I'm asking about documentaries that tell a story, that have a good narrative arc that they use to get their point, whatever that may be, across to their audience.
posted by dortmunder at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2009

Check out Grey Gardens
posted by kathrineg at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2009

Most of what's important to me is as simple as whether I care about the subject matter. I'm willing to put up with a lot of things I might not like in a documentary, if I can really learn about something. I don't want to be told what I already know, however. I also do not want to listen to a whiny or overly defensive narrative or argument.

Beautiful and/or startling imagery is good. Someone with a nice voice doing the narration (if any) is good. Keep the action moving.
posted by runningwithscissors at 11:49 AM on August 8, 2009

posted by nitsuj at 11:51 AM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you want political, try Michael Moore, he did what you're describing in Roger & Me. Of course, Bowling for Columbine and Sicko are classics as well. Never saw Farenheit 9/11.
posted by kathrineg at 11:52 AM on August 8, 2009

When I was researching documentaries, I found a lot of food for thought in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. It looks like the full movie is on YouTube.
posted by kidbritish at 11:56 AM on August 8, 2009

American Dream

An Act of Conscience
posted by Fairchild at 11:59 AM on August 8, 2009

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen - it truly captures the human emotion without being over the top. It is completely believable and compelling at the same time.
posted by banannafish at 12:02 PM on August 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Kevin Kelly - author, editor of Wired and the Whole Earth Catalog, and a whole host of other cool things - has an excellent free PDF called "True Films" that covers the 200 best documentaries he's ever seen. I would recommend that as a good starting point. You can also find individual True Films entries archived on his Cool Tools site.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 12:10 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just watched Murderball and it's great- really compelling stuff.
posted by emd3737 at 12:14 PM on August 8, 2009

dortmunder, casting the net a little wider in case you haven't searched Metafilter for inspiration, I thought I would also point out The Documentary Blog, previously mentioned in this Metafilter post. There are also archives of BBC and online documentaries that you might want to fish through.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 12:24 PM on August 8, 2009

Kokoyakyu. Most amazing documentary I've ever seen. It's actually playing on hulu right now. Here's the filmmakers website for it.
posted by jsonic at 12:26 PM on August 8, 2009

I highly second Anvil, King of Kong and Murderball. I just recently watched Deep Water (off of the True Films recommendation) and found it both amazing and highly emotional. My wife and I aslo really loved New York Doll about Authur "Killer "Kane the bassist for the New York Dolls, very well done and quite emotional as well.
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 12:28 PM on August 8, 2009

Riding Giants does an excellent job of mixing archival footage and interviews with them what was there back in the day and contemporary footage and interviews. It's a great documentary that covers the history of surf and surfer culture and the specifics of those who ride big waves.
posted by rtha at 12:28 PM on August 8, 2009

Hit post too soon - also see Dogtown and Z-Boys, about the transition and intertwining of surfer and skateboarder culture and history.
posted by rtha at 12:30 PM on August 8, 2009

All of the films of Les Blank. His documentaries aren't trying to be persuasive, though. He documents. Pretty amazing stuff too. Unique cultural niches, many now extinct. Some of his films are available in clips on YouTube.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:35 PM on August 8, 2009

The Fog of War is not only the best documentary I've ever seen, but one of the best films period. It's absolutely stunning in all facets.
posted by The Michael The at 12:38 PM on August 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Here's a great blog by a filmmaker named AJ Schnack, he's very involved in the documentary community. I'm involved in his current project, and it is remarkable the amount of time and footage that goes into the process. Be prepared to film much more than you would think necessary.

My advice is to also make sure you're up to the task technically. Here is a preview for a silly reality film, not really a documentary in the classic sense, that might have a watchable premise. But listen to the poor quality of the audio (set interviews especially) and the project seems tremendously amateur.
posted by shinynewnick at 12:46 PM on August 8, 2009

I love watching documentaries. But I have trouble being attentive if they get too digressive and/or long, say more than 1.5 hrs. So there has to be a good story and overall it should be very focussed if its meant for a general audience.

Deliver Us from Evil and Born into Brothels were two very compelling documentaries. A more recent one that I really enjoyed is Naturally Obsessed. It is amazing that in just one hour this documentary touches on every aspect of the struggles (and triumphs) in the particular field. Beautiful piece of work.
posted by xm at 1:01 PM on August 8, 2009

Hoop Dreams, Spellbound, and Man on Wire still stick with me. And while I'm still not quite sure if I loved it or hated it, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is one of the most powerful documentaries I've ever seen.
posted by keever at 1:15 PM on August 8, 2009

I'm surprised we've gotten this far without a hat-tip to Errol Morris. I'm especially fond of The Thin Blue Line and Fast Cheap and Out Of Control. The latter was so persuasive that the subject managed to be released from prison based on evidence in the documentary.

One caveat with The King of Kong: I found it compelling, and the two protagonists have a great story and are amazingly watchable, BUT it's one of the worst examples of using montages cut to popular music out there. Please don't cut a montage of your characters and their loved ones to "Pictures of You" or a competition to "Obsession" by Animotion, plzkthxbai.
posted by pxe2000 at 1:19 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Frederick Wiseman made his documentary debut with this controversial 84-minute survey of conditions that existed during the mid-'60s at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Made in 1967, the film was subjected to a worldwide ban until 1992 because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it was an invasion of inmate privacy. The film goes behind the walls to show stark and graphic images exposing the treatment of inmates by guards, social workers, and psychiatrists. The title refers to a musical revue staged by inmates and guards. The documentary was cited as the "Best Film Dealing with the Human Condition" at the 1967 Festival Dei Popoli (Florence) and also honored as the "Best Film" at the 1967 Mannheim International Filmweek. The story behind the complicated legal issues raised by this film and the attempts to suppress it are detailed by Carolyn Anderson and Thomas W. Benson in their book, Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies" (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).
posted by aquafortis at 1:29 PM on August 8, 2009

For an example of what not to do, watch The Bridge.

It was way too long, disjointed and didn't deal with the subject matter in a very sensitive way. I got the impression that they felt they had to use every.single.piece of footage they shot - there's a section with a family, and the child mentions something about there being a monster, that adds absolutely nothing to the film. They also drag out the telling of one particular guy's story across the length of the film.

One gets the impression they they wanted to use the subject matter for the shock value, rather than anything else.

The best Documentary I've seen in recent times is Wild China. It shows a side of China that I had no idea existed, combined with beautiful footage.
posted by Solomon at 1:34 PM on August 8, 2009

Darwin's Nightmare--about the environmental and social consequences of fishing the Nile perch in Lake Victoria, Tanzania
Control Room--about Al-Jazeera's coverage of the US/Iraq war
What Remains of Us--about the Chinese occupation of Tibet
Up the Yangtze--about the social and environmental consequences of the damming of China's Yangtze River

And yes, Errol Morris is amazing. If you can get hold of the TV series he did (Errol Morris: First Person), I highly recommend watching the whole thing. The story of Denny Fitch [multi-part YouTube link] alone is worth it. Incredibly moving, but never cheaply manipulative.

[Also: Errol Morris previously on Metafilter]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:41 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Being an avid documentary watcher, I have to second anything and everything by Errol Morris. He's the best we have.

I also recommend Capturing the Friedmans. I also just saw Every Little Step, which followed the making of a Chorus Line and although it was pretty straight forward as far as documentaries go, it definitely hooked me in emotionally.

And I can't believe I'm the first to mention the "Up" series.
posted by Unred at 2:27 PM on August 8, 2009

Seconding A State of Mind and Capturing the Friedmans. Also, I really enjoyed Crazy Love and Up the Yangtze.
posted by click at 2:47 PM on August 8, 2009

Insofar as politically relevant documentary film is concerned, I don't think one can do better than Frontline. Fog of War is also excellent (minus the heavy handed score). Another completely off-topic film I think is great is Comedian. It has a great, parallel format that I found very engaging.
posted by B-squared at 3:01 PM on August 8, 2009

The Staircase is up there with Capturing the Friedmans in terms of maintaining suspense about the main subject's guilt or innocence. Better, in fact.

Grizzly Man is a very lyrical documentary, although it's more a model of a director's restraint in the face of already-great footage by the deceased subject.

Salesman is better watching than Grey Gardens for my money.

And I'm seventhing the Up series.
posted by Beardman at 3:20 PM on August 8, 2009

Lots of good suggestions so far. Off the top of my head ... General Idi Amin Dada, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Day After Trinity, The Times of Harvey Milk 1984. Non-political documentaries would include The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Smile Pinki, and Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. Oh, I almost forgot, if you didn't see it in school already ... Night and Fog.
posted by gudrun at 3:43 PM on August 8, 2009

Watch Helvetica and Objectified both by Gary Hustwit. I was able to attend an advance screening for Objectified in Boston back in May and participate in a Q/A with Hustwit.

These two documentaries films are excellent.
posted by pwally at 4:21 PM on August 8, 2009

I have a suggestion, it will either be way off base or something cool to take a look at...

Man Bites Dog - it's a movie that was shot documentary style. While not a true documentary, it might give you a completely different perspective.

It will definately give you ideas on how to reach the audience emotionally. I suggest it to people who both like & hate documentaries...
posted by sporaticgenius at 4:28 PM on August 8, 2009

Seconding Salseman.

Nannok of the North -- considered the first film documentary.
posted by whiskeyspider at 5:27 PM on August 8, 2009

Man Bites Dog - it's a movie that was shot documentary style. While not a true documentary, it might give you a completely different perspective.

also not exactly a documentary, but really good...Entre les murs
posted by trev at 5:31 PM on August 8, 2009

The Paradise Lost documentaries that HBO did are stunning. (nthing) Dear Zachary moved me like no other film ever has. Also nthing The King of Kong. My boyfriend chimes in with Mr. Death and Capturing the Friedmans.
posted by getawaysticks at 5:51 PM on August 8, 2009

Sorry, more from boyfriend: avoid Michael Moore as he makes it more about him (Moore) then just about the subject itself. He also seconds Errol Morris and Thin Blue Line.
posted by getawaysticks at 5:57 PM on August 8, 2009

Thirding Salesman. It's my favorite documentary ever, and I love documentaries.
posted by Lazlo at 6:34 PM on August 8, 2009

i'd like to recommend Theremin , The Cruise , and How to Draw a Bunny. i'd like to echo many of those mentioned earlier: Brother's Keeper, Mr.Death, Paradise Lost, The Bridge (i liked it), Crazy Love, Grizzly Man (Richard Thompson soundtrack was amazing, too), Jesus Camp, Hearts & Minds, Comedian, Capturing the Freidmans, etc. i also really loved 'Home Movie' and 'Vernon, Florida' - i think those are both Errol Morris documentaries. good luck with your beginnings!
posted by swindlehorne at 6:37 PM on August 8, 2009

For a fine, recent documentary that takes a small, local issue (moving an old plantation house in Raleigh away from the suburban sprawl) and ends up taking on much bigger issues (race in America, Southern memory) I'd recommend Moving Midway. Also, I like how the filmmaker set out with one topic, and let his in-progress research derail and reorient the film. (The ultimate work with that technique is Sherman's March.)
posted by bendybendy at 7:12 PM on August 8, 2009

Nick Broomfield's documentaries are great.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 2:11 PM on August 9, 2009

There are a lot of great suggestions here. Thanks everyone.
posted by dortmunder at 5:11 PM on August 9, 2009

Man on Wire is really great!
posted by cl3m at 1:56 AM on August 10, 2009

Not sure if anyone has mentioned; apologies, if so...

To Be and To Have (so, so quiet and wonderful)
American Movie (absurd, sometimes sad, sometimes heartening)

Nthing "Up the Yangzte" and "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" among others.
posted by knmr76 at 1:30 PM on August 10, 2009

Seconding Grizzly Man, American Movie, and Helvetica. Throwing in The White Diamond.

Also, for music documentaries, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) and The Fearless Freaks.

And, of course, This American Life (the TV show).
posted by buriednexttoyou at 4:09 PM on August 10, 2009

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