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100 Must See Documentary Films – File Ten

“When I left university I was working for a documentary film company for six or seven years to the great relief of my father whose greatest waking fear was that I would become an actor.” – – – Sam Neill

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Koyaanisqatsi (1982) Godfrey Reggio

The unbalanced life forms in so many words the sub-title and translation of Koyaanisqatsi. Except in this extraordinary experimental film from Godfrey Reggio, no words or narration were required. This is a journey of images and music, a kind of travelogue through America, time, nature, the relationships of human beings, technology. Utilizing both slow motion and time-lapse techniques throughout the film, Koyaanisqatsi literally dictates the pace, one blends into the other. Like life, I guess.

A relentlessly fitting score from Philip Glass, and some unfathomable cinematography from Ron Fricke capture so much of the essence of the world we live in. Busy cities, natural landscapes, a rocket launch, shadows of clouds across buildings, run-down housing projects, modern life, evolution, the whole shebang. Reggio impressed Francis Ford Coppola so much that he helped distribute the documentary before shooting The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. I was 16 or 17 when this was shown to the class at college, and like Coppola, I don’t believe I had seen anything quite like it. – – – – – Robin Write

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Powaqqatsi (1988) Godfrey Reggio

Powaqqatsi is a kind of documentary sequel to Koyaanisqatsi, which 6 years prior had depicted a kaleidoscope of modern life. Here, in the middle section of the ‘Qatsi’ trilogy (Naqoyqatsi would follow in 2002), the style of filmmaking is super-similar, a collage of visual and musical splendor, with no dialogue or voice-over. This time, Powaqqatsi attempts to shine sunlight on the conflicts of the third world, leaving the United States in the dust. Again an astounding collection of united images, sweeping across South American, Africa, gold mines, villages, aerial views of vast land, people working hard amidst the dirt and hot conditions.

Godfrey Reggio portrays a life in transition, the lesser developed countries and their traditional methods of everyday life, against a tide of new industrial ways. Amidst the inevitable progress and change, some hopefully prosperous ones for the developing nations, there’s a natural aura of joy. Comparing to the privileged city folk of Koyaanisqatsi in their deadpan, grey lives, the people of Powaqqatsi have an apparent passion and vibe in their strides. Aided by breathtaking photography, beautiful images, colors, tones, and that score by Philip Glass, make this another wonder of the film world. – – – – – Robin Write

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United States of Amnesia (2013) Nicholas Wrathal

Author of 32 novels, 28 works of non-fiction, and 23 plays and screenplays, Gore Vidal never stopped sharing his opinions until he died in 2012 at the age of 86. Wrathall’s documentary includes some of the last interviews with the aging liberal lion as well as a look back at some of his most famous encounters in a life of privilege, politics and show biz. He has included one of the most famous political debating in the turbulent Sixties, when the acerbic and baiting Vidal locked horns with the sneering arch-conservative William F Buckley on live TV, nearly coming to blows on-air when the parrying turned personal.

Vidal was famous for his intelligence, wit and total refusal to suffer fools lightly. So disappointed was he with the political arc in the United States that he lived much of the latter part life in self-imposed exile on an Italian mountaintop with his partner of 53 years, Howard Austen – a complete 180 change for the man who was close friends with Tennessee Williams and John F Kennedy and an archenemy of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. He also refused to be pigeonholed, commenting that there was but one political party in the US – the Property Party, of which Republican and Democratic were but offshoots – and dismissed efforts to label him as gay or bisexual. Aussie Wrathall composes an tightly enlightening and very entertaining look at the voice that, had his co-patriots taken heed, they might have avoided the pit in which they find themselves mired today. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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Searching for Sugar Man (2012) Malik Bendjelloul

Just who was Sixto ‘’Sugar Man’’ Rodriguez? This documentary looks into the life of the Detroit folk singer who had a short-lived recording career with only two well received but non-selling albums. Unknown to Rodriguez, his musical story continued in South Africa where he became a pop music icon and inspiration for generations. Many in South Africa believed he had actually committed suicide, and a few die-hard fans in the 1990s decided to seek out the truth of their hero’s fate. What follows is a bizarrely heartening story in which they found far more in their quest than they ever hoped, while a Detroit construction laborer discovered that his lost artistic dreams came true after all.

This is such a soulful, touching, heartrending and uplifting, film which is a story of true brilliance and daunting inspiration. The music and archive footage transport you back into the 60s and 70s and you become fully immersed into the world of the film. The documentary is a lovely journey of discovery of the south africans who try to find the roots of this enigma and re-discover his music. It is one of the best documentaries on the topic of music, and I say that as someone who isn’t a huge music fan (yes, I know that sounds crazy!). The music will stay with you for days after the you have watched the film and you will fall in love with the beauty of Rodriguez’s music. – – – – – Bianca Garner

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Spellbound (2002) Jeffrey Blitz

Documentaries find themselves in all kinds of trouble from time to time in respect of their content and subject matter. Generally well received, Spellbound, the 2002 documentary before we get off on the wrong foot, had some claims that the film somehow exploits the children it portrays. Shining a spotlight on their ordeals involved in the pressures of spelling contests, as well as reflecting their unique personalizes, Spellbound didn’t need to go deep, deep in the children’s personal lives.

Director Jeffrey Blitz wanted to, and succeeded in, creating a kind of drama, a suspense for something so menial to many, but oh so very important to these kids. The film follows many of the contstants, but focuses centrally on eight – Neil, Emily, Ashley, April, Harry, Angela, Nupur, and Ted – as they compete for the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Of course, with words like hypsometer, logorrhea, and kookaburra, which would have knocked most of us adults off our pedastals, who are we to criticise. – – – – – Robin Write

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Andre The Giant (2018) Jason Hehir

Andre Roussimoff or as he was best known, Andre The Giant truly fit the bill of larger than life. His life was recently profiled in HBO’s documentary Andre the Giant, which gave insight into his lasting impact on all those he worked with. Ranging from his time wrestling in the WWF, to his early days growing up in France, to interviews with his cast members of The Princess Bride, the documentary covers extensive ground. Even someone that is as cold and heartless as Vince McMahon who created the WWF, comes off as someone who was greatly affected by Andre and touched by his loss.

The film shows a man who had to go to great lengths to find physical comfort throughout his life, at times drinking 7 or 8 bottles of wine a night just to rest. Andre’s rise in the wrestling world went from circus act novelty to the forefront of pop culture with the emergence of events like Wrestlemania, in 1985. This put the Andre The Giant persona on a Super Bowl like stage with massive amounts of eyes able to see the behemoth performer. The film ends with Andre’s unfortunate death and the loss felt by those close to him. One scene in particular with his former assistant Tim White coming to terms with his death is especially heartbreaking and tear inducing. HBO has produced another excellent documentary about an extraordinary life that was here too brief a time. – – – – –  Rob Motto

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Twinsters (2015) Samantha Futerman, Ryan Miyamoto

Anaïs Bordier and Samantha Futerman met each other as young adults, and had no idea what a great story they would share. The French Anaïs saw an American actress on YouTube who looked exactly like her. With overwhelming curiosity, she adds Samantha on Facebook, who pretty much sees herself in Anaïs on the profile picture. As they interact, they discover they have the same birthday, were both born in South Korea, and then adopted.

Their exhilarating relationship from there blossoms, almost certain they are twin sisters, but go through the proper DNA testing anyway. Through Skype, Facebook, eventually meeting, Anaïs and Samantha flourish in their newfound sibling discovery. The documentary’s style a times reflects a kind of MTV generation, but in a way that aptly mirrors the jubilant energy of such a life-altering, and wonderful, surprise. – – – – – Robin Write

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016) Raoul Peck

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, writer James Baldwin reflects upon race in the United States with his unfinished novel “Remember This House” via interviews, archival footage, and the like. Racial prejudice still exists today even though gender inequality is at the forefront with the #MeToo Movement. Stereotypes are evident as ever, as we may believe African Americans belong to a criminal background. In other words, we should not judge people based on stereotypes, akin to we should not judge books based on their covers.

In Raoul Peck’s respectable documentary I Am Not Your Negro, the film ask questions and allows reflection of the current racial relations on many levels. Despite it is a conventional documentary perfectly tapping into the zeitgeist, it may generate meaningful conversations among audiences. Ultimately, I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful film. Racial prejudice is prominent everywhere, even though we may not realize it. And yet, the Trump Administration is against so much that rather than progressing, we are moving in the reverse direction. – – – – – Livia Peterson

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Earth Days (2009) Robert Stone

In a mere 102 minutes, Stone follows the birth and development of the environmental movement from the middle of the last century to today, including the establishment of the first Earth Day in 1970. Rich in archival footage that includes everybody who was anybody in the movement from the beginning, Stone asserts his established might as a documentarian with the ability to inform, entertain and, in this case, frighten the bejesus out of anyone who dismisses the seriousness of the topic. He examines the evidence provided by scientists, politicians and business experts and shows how green politics became the thorn-in-the-side of the consumer-based status quo and recounts the various victories and failures of the movement.

Footage with Rachel Carson, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Paul Ehrlich and even astronaut Rusty Schweickart and former presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter light the way, but Schweickart’s mission is to map, not preach. By deftly guiding us through the journey of the movement, he allows the voices, testimonies both pro and con, to provide us with a series of snapshots that takes us from the relatively clueless days in the post-war Fifties to an awakening that has become the single underlying key issue that strangely polarizes us today. It is a visually and intellectually stunning endeavor. – – – – – Steve Schweighofer

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News from Home (1977) Chantal Akerman

When a 21 year-old Belgian filmmaker moved to New York City, she worked whatever job paid the rent, found new friends, and expanded on her filmmaking passion. Returning to Belgium some years later, the young director scored a huge success with Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Chantel Akerman’s next venture would tie those loving New York recollections with letters the mother that missed her dearly, sent to her daughter during those years. Akerman reads the letters over the visuals, seemingly at the more noisier moments. It emphasizes the kind of poignant absence her mother’s words echo.

Akerman’s willingness to just let the camera sit in and around the segments of New York she used to take long walks through, for instance, act like picture postcards of her lingering memories. The drawn out shots, more specifically the static, enduring ones, may detach some audience members, but not me. I welcome being magnetized by New York. The longing to just be there, in those moments. Akerman allows us to spend time with our own thoughts, imagining our own potential memories. As we drift away on the ferry in the closing moments, there’s a certain sadness in leaving. – – – – – Robin Write


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