Documentaries are still considered a niche part of film, but often they can be just as inventive, fascinating , thought-provoking and imaginative as any fiction film. The five listed below are must-see pieces of cinema for anyone looking to appreciate documentary filmmaking at its finest. Beyond these five, there are plenty more to explore.
Don’t Look Back (1967)
D.A. Pennebaker’s best films are a time capsule of the 60’s. Before he captured one of the late Janis Joplin’s most electrifying live performances (among others) in Monterey Pop, he tagged along with Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of the United Kingdom. His gritty, grainy hand-held style is called cinéma vérité or “observational cinema,” and perfectly captures Bob Dylan at a pivotal moment in his career. This unflinching film shows a star who could be rude and arrogant, but also a gifted poet and singer. He was on the cusp of writing his best work, and it seems like he knew it. Showing how the wild and mercurial musician related to a world that didn’t quite know what to make of him, Don’t Look Back is a fascinating document of one of the defining shifts in popular music ever.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Errol Morris’s documentary The Thin Blue Line saved a man’s life. That’s not hyperbole. The case made by this film was so strong that Randall Adams was saved from death row, where he was awaiting punishment for a murder committed in 1976, when Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood was gunned down from the window of a car that he had pulled over. Morris’s film combines interviews with gorgeously shot recreations of what supposedly happened that night, we get to know the soft-spoken Randall, as well as the younger David Ray Harris who was also involved. With a hypnotic score from composer Philip Glass, and an intriguing, layered structure and textured storytelling, The Thin Blue Line is a perfect piece of documentary cinema.
The Gleaners & I (2000)
“Gleaners,” historically, were those who would collect the scraps after a harvest. They still exist today, but with urbanisation and industrialisation having changed the way farming and production work, they glean in different ways. Filmmaker Agnès Varda travelled around France and encountered various people in both rural and suburban settings who subsist on scraps, who make use of things that are unwanted. In a way, Varda was gleaning too, hoisting her camera in the hope that she would encounter something beautiful or fascinating. Much of The Gleaners & I seems to happen by accident, and Varda puts herself in the film so that she too can be one of the gleaners, rather than someone observing them. This low-key but surprising film is a delicate and powerful exploration of the modern world.
Tarnation is not a typical documentary. This “essay film” is uncompromisingly avant-garde in its structure, but still universal in its themes. Created from more than 20 years of home-recorded footage, Jonathan Caouette created this ode to his troubled upbringing and complicated relationship with his mother, who suffered from mentall illness ever since undergoing electroshock treatment in her teens. More than that, though, Tarnation is a self-portrait that shows Caouette coming to terms with his identity as an artist and as a gay man. The low-quality images are manipulated and twisted until their aged murkiness becomes in itself an important part of the story. It can be confusing and overwhelming, but Tarnation is a profoundly affecting film experience that you won’t forget.
The Act of Killing (2012)
From 1965-1966, the Indonesian people were under the thumb of powerful gangsters, following the overthrowing of the country’s President. Among the most powerful of those trying to eliminate the country’s communist element were Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, who routinely ordered cruel executions of those they deemed to be enemies. Filmmaker Josh Oppenheimer, who requested they star as themselves in a film about that time, approached them; the result was The Act of Killing. The Act of Killing is undoubtedly the most confronting documentary on this list, not because of what it shows, but because of the way in which it condemns. Oppenheimer almost passively makes the subjects of his film confront the things they did in the past. It sucks you in so that you almost feel complicit, and its emotional climax – a moment of harsh realisation for Anwar Congo – provides powerful catharsis that you won’t find anywhere else.