Documentaries that tell a great story while giving you a slice of life?
July 11, 2016 11:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for narrative-driven documentaries that give you a sense of life at certain places and times, perhaps centered around a central figure or event but weaving in and out of the societies in which they existed.

"OJ: Made in America" and "Cartel Land" are two recent documentaries I've seen that gave me this feeling. They weren't just transcriptions of local events or collections of disjoint interviews: each told a fascinating, dramatic narrative and helped me understand what life was like in those milieus. "Senna" was also really interesting, though I wish it focused a bit more on the stuff going on in Brazil as opposed to just the figure. Notable in each example is a lack of a voiceover: the stories are mostly told via interviews (or occasionally through text interstitials) and archival footage. The director's voice comes through in the editing. Any suggestions?
posted by archagon to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Waltz with Bashir?
posted by speakeasy at 12:23 AM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not sure this meets your criteria, but I love this thing: Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny
posted by smcameron at 12:46 AM on July 12, 2016

You might like Jiro Dreams of Sushi
posted by Mchelly at 5:13 AM on July 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

This documentary doesn't go into the larger cultural milieu, and there's no "main character" but Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida looks at this specific Florida town at a specific point in time. It's one of my all-time favorites. You can't make up these characters.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:21 AM on July 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh and Werner Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World is a kind of slice-of-life of the residents of Antarctica. SO much more fun than it sounds. :)
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:22 AM on July 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Paris is Burning (1991, link to trailer with some weird image stabilization going on), with the caveat that I haven't watched it in a long time and am not sure how its handling of its LGBTQ subject matter is viewed from a contemporary perspective. (Like any documentary the film itself is an artifact of the time in which it was released, but my memory of it is that it's quite moving and sympathetic.)
posted by usonian at 6:42 AM on July 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

Holy crap - DEFINITELY Paris is Burning - good call usonian.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:47 AM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bill Cunningham New York for sure. Also, +1 for Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
posted by jbickers at 7:06 AM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

A few years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival I saw Twelve Angry Lebanese and it has stuck with me. It's about a group of illiterate prisoners in Lebanon working on a production of the play Twelve Angry Men. It's not on Netflix, but if you have an arty video rental place in your neighborhood you might be able to find it.

Also Paris is Burning is amazing.
posted by brookeb at 7:57 AM on July 12, 2016

You might also check out The Green Prince. About the son of a Hamas leader who is recruited to become a spy for Israel. The story is told by the man who recruited him and the recruit.
posted by brookeb at 8:01 AM on July 12, 2016

The story of the weeping camel, a German documentary released in 2004. This short film peeks narrowly (although in some depth) about a people who live in active communication with their deep history. The viewer gets a bonus, insight into why music is, and what it can do. I was moved and impressed. After watching this, I had this strange notion that I knew some stuff that wouldn't connect to my vocabulary.


About Mongolian eagle hunters. This story centers around one young man's induction, which is both a high honor and an ancient tradition. You might have to keep hitting the back button , so that you can pick up the narrative thread you dropped by engaging with the scenery.

Clickbait alert: you may follow links to several videos exist about these people, for example: Recently, a 13 y/o Mongolian girl made history by becoming the world's first female to take up this tradition.
posted by mule98J at 9:22 AM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

And finally you might look into Secret of the Wild Child, which is about a young woman, Genie, who was completely socially isolated by her monster of a father until she was thirteen years old. Genie became a subject of study by psychologists and linguists because Genie never acquired language as a toddler.

The documentary really illuminates a wealth of conflicts of interests butting up against a child welfare system that was completely unequipped for dealing with the unique situation..
posted by brookeb at 9:27 AM on July 12, 2016

You might also find The Queen of Versailles interesting.
posted by TwoStride at 9:32 AM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've never managed to catch it, but I hear Killer of Sheep is amazing.
posted by praemunire at 10:04 AM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Man on Wire may fit this criteria. There's a very strong early-70s late 60's holdover vibe running through the whole movie.
posted by cnc at 12:40 PM on July 12, 2016

Here's what I can think of off the top of my head.

The entire UP! Series is amazing.

The King of Kong

Capturing The Friedmans

Drunk in Public

Children of the Pyre

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Whores' Glory
posted by crayon at 4:09 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest The Last Train Home. It not only gives you a real slice of life as it follows one family, but it's also visually poetic.
posted by jammer at 6:35 AM on July 13, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, everyone! Adding Kevin Macdonald's "Marley" to the list. It's excellent!
posted by archagon at 4:27 PM on July 15, 2016

Response by poster: (And Buena Vista Social Club would probably be similar, but I haven't seen it yet.)
posted by archagon at 4:28 PM on July 15, 2016

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