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100 Must See Documentary Films – File Six

“When you’re shooting a feature that costs $200,000 a day with a crew of 250, you don’t want accidents; you want to know exactly what’s going to happen. But with a documentary, you don’t, so you have to be sensitive to accidents because that is where the gold is.” – – – Sydney Pollack


She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) Mary Dore

To counterbalance Cassie Jaye’s documentary The Red Pill, I have selected this documentary which investigates women’s fight for their independence and for the reproductive rights in the 1960. This is a history piece regarding the second wave feminist movement and how it has implicated our current society. By using statements, videos and photos, we bare witness to what life was like for women before the mid-1960’s and helps us understand the origins of the concept of gender equality that many of us do take for granted. Dore believes that much of what was won decades ago is once again in jeopardy, but of course you should come to your own conclusions regarding that. There are clips from mass marches, meetings, poetry readings, and consciousness-raising sessions which really help capture the moment.

The filmmakers interviewed many women who became the face of feminism and these women’s reflections upon how the movement developed, are passionate and informative. Interestingly, Dore chooses to discuss the flaws of the feminist movement and shows us that it is a messy, complicated movement which is divided on many issues such as race, class and sexuality. Regardless of where you stand, you can’t help but be admired by the determination of these brave women who fought for the rights for in terms of birth control and maternity laws. This would make a perfect companion for The Red Pill and will be a great part of the gender studies discussion. – – – – – Bianca Garner


The Invisible War (2012) Kirby Dick

You don’t have to be a woman from the military to get a sense of the awful truth about thousands of sexual assault incidents that went unnoticed. In fact, I can’t begin to imagine the turmoil this hefty invasion has on any of the women, not just during their time in the armed forces, but long after they return to civilian life. Written and directed by Kirby Dick, The Invisible War digs a huge hole into the United States military system that somehow buried its head in the sand while women were being raped by members of their own alliance.

The film documents the open recounting of just a few of these women. They are interviewed, as well as allowing the filmmakers to get an idea of how “normal” their lives are living with such traumas. The exposing of such an unacceptable culture of sexual assault is a must, but its a slow process. One veteran has further complications with welfare to cover the medical costs of being treated for such atrocities. The widespread influence resulted in hundreds of military personnel being incarcerated for their crimes. – – – – – Robin Write


F for Fake (1973) Orson Welles

Orson Welles final film falls somewhere in the realm between documentary, drama and film essay, territory few major filmmakers dare to tread unless your last name happens to be Godard. It loosely investigates the line between art and fakery – if indeed there is one – and divides its time between art forger Elmyr de Hory, his biographer Clifford Irving (who, himself, forged the diaries of Howard Hughes) and Welles use of “fake news” in his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

Welles questions what determines “authenticity” and its impact on value, reminding us that Picasso claimed that art was the lie that made us find the truth. The film was universally panned when it was released (nobody likes being called a fake or a liar) , but calmer heads have since prevailed and the film is now a respected rumination on the smoke and mirrors that are the core elements of art. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer


Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (2013) Ellen Goosenberg Kent

Many of us have worked in a call centre. Headed off to work, put on a headset, and spoke to varying degrees of people on the telephone. One such establishment in Academy Award winning Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent, takes over 20,000 calls every single month. These employees work for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline. And you need a lot more than sales experience and customer service skills to get through an average day here.

The staff members may well be the very last voice military veterans hear. Their desparate decline, cries for help, amidst their darkest hours, demonstrate a huge compassion and courage from these call takers. This 44 minute film is a powerful experience, depicting the emotional strain that comes from such a role. I mean, the statistics of veterans that committed suicide was recorded at one point to outweigh those who actually died in combat. – – – – – Robin Write


Hearts of Darkness (1991) Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola

Every so often the making of a film becomes it’s own untamed creature. The vision is perhaps too ambitious, there can be a troublesome cast member, sickness and accidents make the news, or nature unleashes a wrecking ball on the entire proceedings. All this and much, much more bore down on Francis Ford Coppola as he cobbled together his Vietnam War magnum opus, Apocalypse Now. Typhoon Olga started things off by destroying the sets and knocking the film off budget, Brando showed up morbidly obese, Martin Sheen had a heat attack, Coppola suffered heat stroke and nervous instability, and all the while, the budget kept ticking upward.

Coppola handed over his reels of behind the scenes footage to Hickenlooper and Bahr some 15 years later and they set about adding some and crew interviews and editing the material into a cohesive record of the filming of one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a fascinating portrait of the one that almost got away. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer


Unknown Chaplin (1982) Kevin Brownlow, David Gill

He is easiest one of the well know icons of the silent film era, and it would be hard to simply commit to just an one off documentary about Charlie Chaplin, in fact this 1983 British documentary series is actually in three parts which charts the rise and fall of silent film star, and goes into depth about his methods. The film was directed and written by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, and they were granted access to unseen material from Chaplin’s private film archive by his widow Oona O’Neil Chaplin. Episode one of the series was also based on a large cache of pirated outtakes from the Mutual Film Corporation period of Chaplin’s career (1916-1917), which was made available by the film collector Raymond Rohauer.

The documentary also includes interviews with Chaplin’s second wife Lita Grey, his son Sydney Chaplin, and his surviving co-stars Jackie Coogan, Dean Riesner, Georgia Hale, and Virginia Cherrill, which help give us an unique insight into the man off screen. We also get the opportunity to get an insight into Chaplin’s working methods and filmmaking techniques. In particular, the Mutual outtakes (which Chaplin ordered destroyed due to content inappropriate for the time) show his painstaking approach to developing comedic and dramatic ideas on film, examined in what director Brownlow described as an “archaeology of the cinema”. We realise that Chaplin was like many great artists, a perfectionist and we witness various outtakes of Chaplin laughing or getting angry when scenes go awry. Narrated by James Mason, this is a great documentary for cinephiles and film lovers alike. This would make a great companion piece with Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), which features a great performance from the Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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Siedem kobiet w róznym wieku (1979) Krzysztof Kieślowski

Translated to Seven Women of Different Ages, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s short documentary from 1978 is more than just a portrayal of the art of ballet. The music and movement of women was a key motif for the Polish filmmaker in later years – singing in La double vie de Véronique, composing in Trois couleurs: Bleu, and of course, ballet fitness in Trois couleurs: Rouge. Kieślowski wonderfully films these women in the field of ballet, following the sequence of each day of the week, also illuminating the abstract journey and emotion of them.

The age ranges of the girls and women offers a kind of bond with these heroines. Almost like they are one and the same. The varying degrees of the ballet, including the number present, and the demeanor of the instructor, also brings multi-dimensions to character and story rhythm. Kieślowski’s flair for natural, revolving filmmaking is a sight to behold. Beautiful. – – – – – Robin Write


The Central Park Five (2012) Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon

Back in 1989, the city of New York was left shaken when Trisha Meili, a female jogger, who was violently assaulted in central park. The attack became known as the central park jogger case. The attack left her in a coma for 12 days. Meili was a 28-year-old investment banker at the time, weighing under 100 pounds (45 kg). The New York Times described the attack as “one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980s.” The documentary was inspired by Sarah Burns (Ken Burns’ daughter) undergraduate thesis, which was on the topic of racism in the media coverage of the event. Five young males happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were apprehended in connection with a number of attacks in Central Park committed by around 30 teenage perpetrators. The defendants were tried variously for assault, robbery, riot, rape, sexual abuse, and attempted murder relating to Meili’s attack and the other attacks in the park, based solely on confessions that they said were coerced and false.

The documentary follows their story, and their fight to prove their innocence but also manages to reflect on how the city was feeling at the time, people were terrified, and the only way they could somehow connect was through this crime. The documentary tells a story of fear, racism and mob mentality, and helps to expose the media madness that fueled the investigation, (we see an interview with tycoon Donald Trump calling for these teenage boys to be thrown in jail, which makes for deeply discomforting viewing). This is still a very sensitive subject in our society, and racial discrimination by the police force still occurs. I personally felt very angry watching this documentary, as it shows you the devastating power of mob mentality. I can’t recommend this documentary enough, and it always leaves me in tears, it is that powerful. – – – – – Bianca Garner


Hearts and Minds (1974) Peter Davis

The Vietnam War was probably the most divisive event in US history – at least until the 2016 election – and this documentary made no efforts to bridge the gap. Unlike the current state of journalism, it makes no false-equivalencies on the matter – a country was repeatedly invaded and rightly fought back against those invaders. Full stop. The title is from a direct quote by Lyndon Johnson who said that victory was dependent upon the “hearts and minds of the people who live there,” and the film illustrates precisely why those hearts and minds would never be won over.

The film contains interviews with generals, prisoners of war, veterans and anti-war activists, all of which converge on the same conclusion, as one critic put it – a “meditation upon American power.” It’s a polarizing piece of work and reflects the mood of a somewhat deluded society that had bitten off more than it could chew. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer


Sans Soleil (1983) Chris Marker

Unforgettable and vast, minute by minute, French documentary Sans Soleil from Chris Marker (La jetée) is difficult to put into words. Or at least so few. A mosaic of history and memory, this documentary-come-visual-essay is an experimental journey through a cluster of images, sequences, thoughts. The film’s almost fictional context has a female narrator read what feels like an abundance of letters claimed to be given to her by the cameraman.

The majority of the footage derives from Japan and Guinea-Bissau, Marker was compiling this 1983 anthology of anthropology from the 1970s. His notion of captivating an audience through the same kind of principles as a home movie yields great results. Sans Soleil is an enduring film, littered with thought-provoking, you might say inspirational, visuals. And there are glimpses of Marker’s own value of filmmaking, hat-tipping the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock in some moments. – – – – – Robin Write



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