100 Must See Documentary Films – File Five

“I try to learn from both, from features and documentaries. In both cases you have to find a way to make the camera as discreet as possible, and flexible enough to be able to capture the moment when it happens. I know from documentary how to not have a preconceived idea of what the scene could be.” – – – Michel Gondry

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Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004) Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman

Winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2004, writers and directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman have accomplished a magnificent blend of abuse and spirit. Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids documents many of the children, in prostitution, much of it by Briski herself. Intending to venture out to take an abundance of photographs of these ordeals and awful ways of life, she in turn grew an affection for the kids. In among the turmoil, Briski began to teach the children the techniques of photography.

The documentary then begins to see this world through the children’s eyes but from a different dynamic. Many of the photos would go on to become a big deal. Even though money was raised and lives were somewhat improved, the film was on the back end of various debates and criticisms. That the film exploited the children, that the parents were misrepresented, that there were elements of racism and stereotyping. And by those close to the culture too. Please, open your fucking eyes. – – – – – Robin Write

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An Open Secret (2015) Amy J. Berg

We may not want to admit it, but there’s a very dark side to the Hollywood machine. Director Amy J Berg was Berg was approached by Matthew Valentinas in 2011. Valentinas and Gabe Hoffman wanted to make a film about victims of sexual exploitation and stated that they, “chose Amy because we didn’t want it to be exploitative or tabloid. We wanted it to be empowering for the victims.” (Berg’s 2006 film Deliver Us From Evil about the systemic child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church had been an eye opener for many). This unflinching documentary follows the stories of five former child actors who were sexually abused by multiple predators. And, much of the film focuses on Marc Collins-Rector, subsequently convicted of child sexual abuse, who co-owned and operated Digital Entertainment Network. Perhaps most interestingly is how the film makes multiple references to director Bryan Singer, who was alleged to be at some of the DEN parties, and in the wake of revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein’s extensive history of sexual harassment and assault in October 2017, further allegations against Singer were brought to the attention of the public.

Of course all this is a little too late for the victims. Upon its release, An Open Secret had a limited theatrical release, but producers were encouraged about its commercial potential because a pirated version was viewed 900,000 times. However, it received no television deal or video-on-demand distribution, perhaps it’s just too “taboo” a subject to be discussed in public (oh the bitter irony). According to Gabe Hoffman, who financed the film: “We got zero Hollywood offers to distribute the film. Not even one. Literally no offers for any price whatsoever.” With the ongoing situation with Hollywood, perhaps this film will finally get the attention it deserves, better yet hopefully the victims will get the justice that they deserve. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) Liv Corfixen

Behind the scenes documentaries tend to be fascinating by nature. Given that Nicolas Winding Refn’s stomach-punch of a movie Only God Forgives is the subject here, you can be forgiven (by God or whoever) for lacking that default enthusiasm here. Refn’s actual wife, Liv Corfixen, is the filmmaker here though. Wandering in and around their home and the shoot of the film, Corfixen is not afraid to stick a camera in the face of her husband amidst his many changes of moods.

Fair to say, what we see of the making of Only God Forgives is much more compelling than the film itself. I asked myself a couple of times, why Corfixen puts up with this man. He is not a bad man, no, but his behavior can be a little erratic. A God-complex perhaps, but Refn’s ever-growing paranoia and dubious view of his film, believing at times that this movie will suck, is captivating to watch. He was right, then, and his wife has it all on record. – – – – – Robin Write

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Waltz with Bashhir (2008) Ari Folman

So how does one make yet another documentary about the conflict in the Middle East standout amongst its many predecessors? Animation, of course. It’s a brilliant decision, especially given the subject matter of a young soldier trying to overcome amnesia. The presentation of memory as drawings voiced by the real characters adds a dreamlike quality to Folman’s investigation. Why does he have no memory of a time that gives his friends nightmares? His only memory is a nighttime frolic on a Beirut beach underneath the flares of battle.

It’s the source of those flares and their intended use that solve Folman’s mystery for him, and by the end of the film, we dissolve back into the reality of actual live footage of the refugee camp following the massacre made possible by the light from the flares for which Folman and his companions were responsible. A tough lesson imaginatively presented. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009) Serge Bromberg, Ruxandra Medrea

The cinematic year of 1964 has something of a dent in it. And you may not even realize. Henri-Georges Clouzot found a way to project his insomnia, his emotional turmoil, his obsessive eye for film. What would have most certainly been something very special, the 1964 film Inferno was tragically never completed. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea got access to 185 cans of film consisting of some 13 hours of shot footage. And their documentary from 2009 proves it was indeed a site to behold.

L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno) chronicles much of the great filmmaker discussing his work, and quite openly, his personal issues with depression. Films like Le salaire de la peur, Les Diaboliques, and La Vérité demonstrated Clouzot’s unrivaled talent for story-telling and fine work from actors. Inferno could have been a master work. The documentary gives us lucky ones a kaleidoscope of vivid color photography, dynamic camera framing and lighting, gorgeous tricks of film motion, not to mention the ridiculously photogenic and radiant Romy Schneider. Perhaps this was just too good to be true. – – – – – Robin Write

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Zero Days (2016) Alex Gibney

The tenuous relationship between allied powers and their mutual target lies at the center of Alex Gibney’s Zero Days. The American and Israeli government team up to create a piece of malware known as the Stuxnet Virus. Their aims turn out to be disrupting the uranium enrichment facilities located in Iran. Government secrecy, obfuscation, and unintended collateral damage drive the creepy drama of Zero Days. While successfully deploying the virus it goes beyond it’s intended result. It opens up discussion for questions about just how secret these complex and morally ambiguous weapons should be. What if someone decides to attack us in the same way? What if someone else decides to not play by the rules?

Gibney goes on to explore the Iran Nuclear deal and the United States public support while aiming to destroy their centrifuges in secret. The divide between Israel and the United States over just how far they were willing to go was another key issue. This divide nearly results in utter disaster. Zero Days is a terrifying examination of cyber warfare and the reckless behavior of government leaders . It also informs us of the Pandora’s Box that was potentially opened over foreign policy zealotry. – – – – – Rob Motto

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A Personal Journey Through Cinema History (2016) Thomas Pollock

Thomas Pollock, a friend of the site, and some time contributor, has been a busy boy in the last few years establishing himself as a filmmaker. A couple of years ago he offered me the chance to see his documentary, his own personal journey through cinema history. Unlike Scorsese, who focused so wonderfully on American cinema, Pollock here really lets his hair down with his passiona and enthusiasm for cinema from across the planet, and over decades and decades.

It kind of serves as a basic guide to thee growth of cinema. Though, this is not basic in depth. Pollock narrates rather concisely the key points of cinema’s chronology. Kind of like a montage of film history. Map-flagging the significant emergence of the Oscars, the gangster film, the horror craze, the silent era etc. Cut together rather well, there is a hefty love for Asian cinema, which just about makes up for less coverage of the extensive French cinematic history. – – – – – Robin Write

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The Red Pill (2016) Cassie Jaye

We have all heard how we live in patriarchal society, with men being the oppressors and women being the oppressed. But how much of that is the truth and if that is the truth then why is it that 75% of suicides are made up of male victims, and how come the divorce courts almost always favour the mother over the father? This is Cassie Jaye’s journey following the mysterious and polarizing Men’s Rights Movement. The Red Pill explores today’s gender war and asks the question “what is the future of gender equality? At the start of the documentary Cassie Jaye identifies as a Feminist and sets out to explore the much-maligned men’s rights movement, assuming as many do that it must be a hate movement composed of men who resent the gains that women have made and long for the “good old days where women were in the kitchen and men were the hunter gathers.”

However when she delves into what motivates men’s rights activists, she discovers that the movement is very different from what she had originally thought it was and goes on to challenge her own prior views about gender, power, and privilege, via the use of her personal video diary. She discusses at length the numerous legitimate grievances that many men have on issues ranging from military conscription to false rape allegations, from unfair treatment in divorce to higher rates of violent victimization (perhaps most shocking is the fact that men have very little access to domestic violence shelters).

Jaye interviews many significant figures from both movements from the outspoken Paul Elam to the even more outspoken radical feminist known as “Big Red” but never does Jaye mock these individuals for their believes, she just listens and engages from time to time in a polite and considerate manner. The Red Pill is historic in the fact that it marks the first time that the issues facing men and boys and the activists working to address them have ever been portrayed on the big screen. And regardless of whether you are a feminist or not, you can’t help but be moved by hearing the stories of fathers losing their children and seeing how biased the media is when reporting about the situation of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria where 300 hundred girls were kidnapped but countless numbers of boys were burnt alive. This will certainly start you questioning just who is oppressed, and perhaps we’re equal in more ways than one. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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30 for 30 – Hillsborough (2014) Daniel Gordon

ESPN has done many documentary films over the years, but the one that sticks out to me the most is the one that aired in 2014 called Hillsborough. Prior to this, I had never heard of this event, but after watching the doc, I was hooked on the story. So, what happened is that on April 15, 1989 in Sheffield, England, a soccer aka football game was happening at Hillsborough Stadium, and the crowd in a section of the lower stands got so crowded, that a crush happened, and dozens of fans came pouring onto the field. What happened next was a true disaster and tragedy.

94 people died due to suffocation and then 2 more died later on. Then if that wasn’t bad enough, the blame was immediately put on the fans and not on the stadium operators and team management. The documentary stood out to me so much partly because I had no knowledge of the event, but also because the tragedy is oddly interesting. Director Daniel Gordon not only brought me onto the field that day but made me experience the aftermath as if it was happening to me. I’ve felt for a long time that if I was a screenwriter or film director, I would want so much to make this into a feature film because sometimes the truth is crazier than fiction. – – – – – Al Robinson

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Woodstock (1970) Michael Wadleigh

The Summer of Love in 1969 marked the end of an era. It wasn’t a planned finale. The organizers of the outdoor concert in upstate New York had no idea that their three-day concert would become the phenomenon it did. The 32 acts who performed were a Who’s Who of 60s pop, folk and blues, but when nearly half a million people showed up to watch them and experience the “3 days of Peace and Music”, it became the defining event of the Sixties counterculture. And then, it started to rain.

Wadleigh’s team of seven cinematographer’s, including himself, recorded every aspect of this instant city and, despite the weather, shortage of food and services and proliferation of stimulants of every ilk, there was no violence, no tension and no angst. It was exactly as it had been advertised, three days of peace, set to the music of a generation. As an interesting aside, both Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese (nobody’s at the time) served as Second Unit Directors and helped edit the 120 miles (193km) of footage. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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