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100 Must See Documentary Films – File Eight

“There is so much investment in it of people’s labor time that it will never make money. But there are other documentaries that you might make that are sort of on assignment for television that turn around in three to six months. Then the margin can be much be better for you because you’re not spending three-and-a-half years on it. So I think if you’re doing documentary films, that’s sort of the way to look at it.” – – – Liz Garbus

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Collapse (2009) Chris Smith

I was not aware of who Michael Ruppert was until I stumbled across this documentary. But from the very moment he starts to talk I became hooked, and was fascinated hearing him discuss his career as a LA cop whom the CIA tried to recruit to import drugs in the 70’s. Ruppert decided that the public had a right to know and as a result he was fired from the police force and was even shot at. In the 30 years since, he has been an investigative reporter, lecturer and conspiracy theorist, but is there some truth to what he’s saying or is he just your average run-of-the-mill crackpot? We spend 82 minutes with Ruppert as he is interviewed by director Chris Smith, who breaks up the footage by seamlessly using archival footage to illustrate the points.

However this is very much about Ruppert who is shown in darkened basement under a bright spot as he chain smokes (and man does he smoke a lot!). You can’t help but admire at how supremely confident he is, hardened by decades of facing scoffers. Ruppert by nature skates on the edge between prophet and crackpot. But when he speaks, you listen. And he has a lot to say. Ruppert hits us right away with peak oil, explaining that oil is running out and as a result our planet’s infrastructure is going to shut down; it’s not a question of if but when. Ruppert is a survivalist, warning us all to live locally. He compares the fates of North Korea vs. Cuba when they lost the Soviet oil lifeline and explains how Korea essentially came to a halt, but Cuba and its people pulled together, and what Ruppert is suggesting is that we begin working together before it’s too late. My only criticism of this film is that it’s far too short, and I could listen to Ruppert for hours, I don’t know if I am totally convinced by what he is selling, but still it will leave you shaken and questioning whether we are truly prepared for “The Collapse.” – – – – – Bianca Garner

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Sugar Water (2006) Billimarie Robinson

Billimarie Robinson is more than away how her own personal views of the world she lives in have changed. This spontaneous short was made when she was a teenager, and the filmmaker wants that adolescent recording to mark a part of her youth. Sugar Water is a kind of bi-racial video monologue, channeled through diary entries, Robinson’s trail of thought on a very personal status. Of her heritage, her identity, and her place in the world.

“I created that when I was a senior in high school.” Robinson told me last year, “I internally cringe, but appreciate that is where I was, and got to express it.” There are a lot of issues with race, gender, sexuality, and sometimes you do see something so obvious, and you’re like ‘Oh yeah, that is the way to look at it.’ – like the sugar water mix. It’s short and sweet, but ultimately an essential document in Robinson’s life. Her experimental editing too works wonders depicting the turbulent inner angst of a teenager. – – – – – Robin Write

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Visions of Light (1992) Todd McCarthy, Arnold Glassman, Stuart Samuels

This doc about cinematography should be required viewing by anyone who loves filmmaking. Directors Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels guide us through a brief history of the flickering image, pausing briefly on some iconic sequences that, in some cases, occurred by accident. They also include interviews with 23 residents on the Olympus of camera gods, including Gordon Willis, Vittorio Storaro, Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, Michael Chapman and Nestor Almendros, as a cascade of clips from 1920 to 1990 wash over you like the final sequence in Cinema Paradiso. It’s a rich dessert for anyone who knows cinema history and the perfect appetizer for the neophyte searching for a starting point. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2011) Liz Garbus

Aunt Diane was a mother who drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in upstate New York and crashed head-on into an SUV, killing herself and seven others (mostly children who were her own family members). In the aftermath, Diane Schuler was portrayed as a reckless drunk and perhaps a woman who snapped. But was she the monster the public made her out to be? Or the perfect wife and mother that her husband claims she was? Investigating the case six months after the accident, this documentary searches for answers, but we never get clear answers.

This isn’t a very easy film to watch and there’s one particularly I was not prepared for at all. It certainly makes you appreciate time with her family because you simply never know when something like this could happen. I understand why Diane’s family would find it difficult to admit that she was guilty of the crime, I mean how can one dumb decision destroy so many lives? However, sometimes there isn’t any real big conspiracy, people do make mistakes and their mistakes can hurt others. This documentary was very moving because not only do we speak to Diane’s family but the family who were killed by her in the other car. Makes you think twice about who you are getting into a car with. – – – – – Kati Angliss

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What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) Liz Garbus

The title What Happened, Miss Simone? was a question asked by renowned poet Maya Angelou, and documentary film-maker Liz Garbus strives to perhaps answer this. But also shine some light on the illustrious singer and cultural icon. The well-received feature-length account opens many doors, with archive footage, interviews with those that knew and admired Nina Simone, but also you get to savor performances by the artist. Which is worth your time alone. The film first played at the Sundance Film Festival, before it went on to be released by Netflix later that year. – – – – – Robin Write

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The House of Suh (2000) Iris Shim

Andrew Suh was a bright and attentive young man who was raised to believe that nothing was more important than family. While Andrew’s parents died when he was young — his father from cancer, his mother brutally murdered in an unsolved crime — he was raised by his older sister Catherine Suh and her fiancée Robert O’Dubaine. In high school, Andrew was an excellent student, a gifted athlete and won a full scholarship to a college in New England. But at the age of 19, Andrew’s life fell apart when he was persuaded by Catherine to murder Robert after the couple had a severe falling out. Now Andrew is serving one hundred years in prison as a result of the crime. It seems surreal that such an intelligent, polite and well-spoken individual could ever commit such a heinous act, yet within minutes of the movie’s beginning we learn that he did indeed commit this crime.

Director Shim doesn’t waste time retreading the crime, but decided to focus on the circumstances that led to Andrew’s unraveling. We find out how Andrew valued family loyalty above all else, a quality that would turn out to be his greatest fault. Favored by his strict Korean father and fiercely protective of his mother, his life was turned upside down when both of their lives ended early, his older sister and her partner were made his guardians. Andrew had a difficult childhood, tainted by tragedy but of course that’s no excuse for his crime. By weaving together court documents, family photos, interviews with friends and acquaintances of the family, the victim’s brother, and narration from Andrew himself, Shim manages to successfully tell the story of a dysfunctional family situation that went terribly wrong. The overall end result is a well-structured and polished piece of work, which reveals how a murderer is made. – – – – –  Bianca Garner

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Incarcerating US (2016) Regan Hines

Here in the UK (and elsewhere no doubt) we have our own temperamental criminal justice system, rife with public opinion, inappropriate sentencing, the endless debates and practices of what’s right and wrong – in all a puzzle too complex to solve. Director Regan Hines is mercifully not too interested in throwing those mud-balls at us with Incarcerating US, this documentary does not excuse what these prisoners did, or indeed delve into the whys so much. Instead shines spotlights on the humanity of those involved, a light we can clearly see but still not quite equipped to deal with.

America, land of the free, a statement that drops some of its stature when you look at the literal facts. The movie touches on the affects, not just on the incarcerated, but those left behind – families, communities, children. As we journey briefly through the steady balance of justice through various eras from the last century, including the social turbulence of the 1960s, the criminal justice system had to adapt as the 1970s – touching on the notions of change through the contrasting presidential administrations. The math of punishment mapping, in its varied forms and procedures over the decades, continue to evolve or fail to hit the mark. We realize we still can’t measure human nature and have to fit the consequences of crime into the right shaped hole. – – – – – Robin Write

Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country (2018) Chapman and Maclain Way

Yes, it’s the current Netflix series, but if you change the label to “long format documentary”, your indigestion will be assuaged. This is the story of Antelope, Oregon, the tiny hamlet of 40 that suddenly became the residence of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s. Other than a few residents of the Pacific Northwest will even remember this occurrence, but it’s an addictive believe-it-or-not tale of an attempt to establish a city from a commune, complete with the rumors of orgies, brainwashing, weapons stockpiling, bioterrorism, all culminating in the ultimate train wreck between church and state. Had I not witnessed it for myself, I would question whether such a thing was even possible, so just suspend your disbelief and settle in for a binge-watch of one of the most bizarre events in American history. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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The Divide (2015) Katharine Round

The Divide tells the story of 7 individuals striving for a better life in modern day US and UK – where the top 0.1% owns as much wealth as the bottom 90%. By examining these stories we can come to the chilling conclusion that virtually every aspect of our lives is controlled by one factor: the size of the gap between rich and poor. Everyone in Katharine Round’s documentary, is struggling, trying to improve their lives and to live comfortably without worrying about where their next paycheck is coming from, and more importantly everyone is feeling the pressure. This is the reality of a low-wage existence in two of the world’s most unequal economies, Great Britain and the United States of America.

The documentary is based on The Spirit Level, the 2009 bestselling book studying global inequality, and the film highlights the effects of divided communities on everyone who lives in them. We follow Rochelle, a care worker in Newcastle,who is working long hours and all she wants to do is to get home in time to put her children to bed. She also wishes she was better paid so that she didn’t owe £4,000 in catalogue bills, from buying clothes and shoes on credit for her children And on the other side there’s Wall Street psychologist Alden, who wants to get ahead and join the top 1% of earners, and who is working so hard to save up to move his family into a gated community that he gets home too late for story time with his daughters, just like Janet. This documentary goes to show us that we really want the same thing, not money, but happiness however we all have brought into the ideology that only money can buy us happiness. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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The Square (2013) Jehane Noujaim

Tahrir Square, of Cairo, is the location in the film title The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary highlighting the rebellious efforts of the Egyptian people. Attempting to overthrown government, there was bedlam in Cairo, a chunk of history viewed with wide eyes, and ears. Noujaim, who made a similarly impacting account with the Iraq media war film Control Room in 2004, captures the revolutionary politics in Egypt with grounded accuracy. So much handheld footage make this raw and engaging all the more, with extensive birdseye views of Tahrir Square, and on-the-ground viewpoints from those involved. The director has also had to, or chose to, revisit the editing room several times due to the altering of events. – – – – – Robin Write



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