Recommended Documentaries

Recommended Docs

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This is a topic where you can say which documentary has really impressed you, and why people should see it. Can be a recent one or an all-time favourite. Can't be your own though, sorry...

This topic is for praising the work of others, not your own. If you want to beat the drum for your own documentary, please don't do it here. Fans use our Public Classifieds, and Professionals have their own Shameless Self-Promotion topic.

We also have a Documentary Films topic for our Professionals where the debate is private and possibly more controversial. This topic here is for recommendations to the documentary-interested public.

Marj Safinia

And just to round out a trio of great films about obsessive movie making, don't forget Lost in La Mancha.

Summers Henderson

There's a very good documentary made by New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton called The Nuclear Comeback (2008) about the question of whether or not nuclear power is what we need, to have more environmentally friendly energy production. (I made a documentary on the same subject, but it's not nearly as good.) Pemberton tries to give both sides of the debate an even chance to make their case – but it's hard not to notice that the main proponent of nuclear energy is an arrogant jerk. Nonetheless, the trend has been towards a huge, global renaissance in nuclear power. I suspect that the currently unfolding tragedy in Japan might change that. Let's all hope that it doesn't turn out to be as bad as it could be (and as I suspect it is).

But probably my favorite documentary on nuclear issues is Radio Bikini (1987) from director Robert Stone, about the nuclear bomb tests carried out by the US military after WWII. It's mostly constructed from archival footage – masterfully edited. But it's elevated to being more than just an archival film by two poignant interviews – one with a native Pacific islander who was forced to leave his home by the tests, and one with a US sailor who was part of the testing, and became an unwitting test subject. Highly recommended as an example of a historical documentary that packs a punch.

Thomas Papapetros

Not pleasant viewing. Made a deep impact on me. See directors cut version. Great but bizarre film making. Its a controversial film, that i think is misunderstood by many.

Ryan Ferguson

also – in terms of Nuclear related films, i always loved The Atomic Cafe, masterfully edited over 5 years out of archival footage only. It apparently can be watched in its entirety on this youtube clip but there are ads throughout. maybe not the best movie to break up with ads, so it's probably best to seek an alternative way to view it.

Doug Block

I know others liked it a lot, but I have to say I found Into Eternity incredibly pretentious. Saw it at a film festival and I couldn't take more than 30 minutes of it.

Nick Higgins

LIFE AND DEBT is great if you want to see how the world really works for most of it's inhabitants

Ben Kempas

Mascha, as mentioned above, please do not use this topic to promote your own work.

Jason Osder

For my money, it is hard to beat 2008 Oscar winner MAN ON WIRE.

Jo-Anne Velin

Mon tout petit/Mein Kleines Kind, Katja Baumgarten. The midwife carries her child to term knowing well ahead s/he will not survive long. She made her own film about this.

download –

Erica Ginsberg

One of my faves is Heddy Honigmann's THE UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA. Unfortunately no online trailer or way to get the film other than at the institutional rate on Icarus. which is not very realistic for a filmmaker who just wants to check out the work of another filmmaker. But if you want to see it and other films of hers on DVD, there is a Facebook movement

Suree Towfighnia

Thanks for starting this thread, Doug.
The film that's impressed me lately is Gasland- I sort of avoided it for awhile, but after a few minutes of screening it, I was hooked. Another story of lighting your water on fire from local natural gas mining. A must see for those interested in the feasibility of this "clean and terrorist free" energy. And there's banjo!
But an all time favorite –that sadly I can't find on DVD (anyone know how I can get a copy?) is Two Towns of Jaspar-innovative in approach (one black crew/one white crew) and deep in exploring race in contemporary America.
So many others to save for another time...

David Herman

My Favourite is Last Train. Wish I could be rapped on the knuckles for self promotion on that one. Would die a happy man.

Doug Block

Assume you mean Last Train Home, sir. I agree, it's a great doc.

Ben Kempas

In this context, Why documentaries matter by Nick Fraser in today's Observer.
Includes his all-time favourite docs, and many people posted theirs in response. Well, we did it first... Which are YOURS?

jade wu

Up the Yangtze. Lin was Yung's DP on Yangtze film prior to making Last Train Home. Stunning cinematography in both. The stories: very well told. Considering the circumstances under which they filmed, both are one of many that are top on my list.

Also loved the incredible archival in John Walter's Theater of War.

David Herman

Doug, famous docs are allowed shortcut names. I often talk about that famous doc I saw in New York – The Kids.

Doug Block

The Kid Stays In the Picture? The Kids Are Alright? My Kid Could Paint That? The Kids Grow Up?

Just saying this is a topic open to the general public, so we shouldn't assume anyone is familiar with our recommended films, much less their shortcut names.

Doug Block

We'll let it slide this one time, Mascha. Mostly to serve as an example to others ;-) Don't let this keep you from participating, though. What other doc do you recommend, particularly one from the Netherlands?

Doug Block

It's a far different thing recommending someone else's doc that you admired than to recommend your own. Whether yours is a good film or not, it then becomes an act of self-promotion.

Stephanie Vevers

In reply to Erica Ginsberg's post on Sun 20 Mar 2011 :

Heddy Honigman website:

Maybe not her newer films but at least 3 other Heddy Honigmann films now available on Netflix: Dutch Junkies (2007), Forever (2006) and O Amor Natural (1996)
and as a DVD boxed set also:

Her facebook page: .

Meanwhile Icarus Films has 2 competing facebook pages for her, from their own angle.

Suree Towfighnia

Straight, No Chaser. A beautiful Thelonuis Monk story with mostly "found" footage and Charlotte Zwerin as an editor. It's a true testament to the power of the edit to create something from discovered footage years later. Aside, from that, it's awesome to see inside the genius. Same with Charles Mingus, 1968...follows him through his eviction from his apartment/studio. Found it on vimeo

John Burgan

In reply to Ben Kempas's post on Wed 23 Mar 2011 :

Leacock's obituary and also a piece by filmmaker/scholar Brian Winston

Remembering Richard Leacock
By Brian Winston

photo: G. Andrew Boyd
Here is how The (London) Guardian obituary of Richard Leacock, who died in Paris, March 23, 2011, began:

If you remember the 1960s, you may well remember the documentary films shot by Richard Leacock, notably Monterey Pop (1968)…… Leacock, who has died aged 89, was one of six cinematographers on the film – including its director, DA Pennebaker – and had already established himself as a leading figure in the “direct cinema” movement, the American version of cinéma vérité.

Not, perhaps, how any who know anything about the documentary would situate Leacock. There is, though, a reason for quoting this frankly absurd take on the life of one of the most crucial pioneering figures: it speaks to a far too common view. Even if people better understand the relationship between direct cinema and cinéma vérité, they are likely to downgrade Leacock’s foundational contribution to the development of the observational documentary, his greatness as a cinematographer and the warmth of his humanity. Moreover, as Flaherty’s camera operator on Louisiana Story, he was the last living direct link to film documentary’s roots.

Why this comparative marginalization, then?

Well, for one thing, Ricky had the otherworldly insouciance that sometimes comes with being a scion of the eccentric edge of the English upper-class. His family were descended from 16th century French Huguenot protestant refugees and his father was a veritable oxymoron, a communist plantation owner growing bananas in the Canary Islands. Ricky, born in 1921, was educated at experimental (and very expensive) English private schools. Not for him, then, the obsessive petty bourgeois hoarding of the images he captured, the threat of writs if anybody tried to reproduce them; he somehow finished up, with rather lordly disdain, owning the copyright to barely any of his work. Nor was he given to the endless self-promotion which can so entrance the scholarly gullible. Moreover, Ricky became, essentially, a film professor, as sure a way to obscurity as any and his achievements were in consequence, of course, obfuscated. These, though, were, without question, monumental. He is the emblematic American figure in documentary’s observational turn of the late 1950s and early ’60s.

His privileged background had given him an education unconventional enough to expose him — at school in England (!), private (!!), in the early 1930s (!!!) — to films such as Turin’s Turksib. He also had the wherewithal to take up the expensive hobby of filmmaking as a teenager. His first finished work, Canary Bananas, was a poetic impression of his home made to convey to his schoolmates, who were intrigued by his exotic background, an impression of where he came from. In what was to become his motto for the documentary, he wanted, he said, for them to gain ‘the feeling of being there’. His biology master had also taken him, aged 17, to film an expedition to the Galapagos – not your average school outing then or, indeed, now. And he had met Robert Flaherty who was visiting his daughters who also attended the school. He screened Canary Bananas for Flaherty and Flaherty promised that they would work together someday. The promise was kept in 1946 when Flaherty, remembering the school-kid’s movie, hired him to be the cinematographer on Louisiana Story. Having attended Harvard where he studies physics, Leacock served in the American army during the Second World War as a newsreel cameraman, but Flaherty did not bother with that – just Canary Bananas had stuck in his mind.

A happy moment at VEXV in 2008. (photo courtesy of Ohad Landesman)
After the war, giving the audience ‘the feeling of being there’ was to be, increasingly, the driver that fueled both his impulse to carry the camera and his central contribution to the technological development of film, the synchronization mechanism between camera and tape-recorder. I used to think that the following quotation, taken from an interview given to Gideon Backmann at the time of Primary, held the clue to his motivation:

Already when we were working on Louisiana Story, I saw that when we were using small cameras, we had tremendous flexibility, we could do anything we wanted, and get a wonderful sense of cinema…. [Shooting synch, though,] We could no longer watch things as they developed, we had to impose ourselves to such an extent upon everything that happened before us, that everything sort of died.

Blowing out 87 at VEXV in 2008. (photo courtesy of Barbara Evans)
At Visible Evidence XV in Lincoln, where we celebrated his 87th birthday in 2008, he told another story.

He explained that the oppressive nature of conventional documentary filmmaking had really struck him was when he was preparing to shoot Bernstein in Israel in 1958. He had set up the gear in the concert hall – this is in essence a concert film – when he found himself in Bernstein’s hotel suite. The Israelis were eager to hear about West Side Story, which had just opened to a sensational reception in New York. Sitting at the piano the hotel had provided for the room, Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, did the whole score. Ricky watched, frustrated, his stand-camera locked away in the concert-hall.

But he had already by this point begun to lay out his response to this frustration. Two films he made in 1954 demonstrate his direction of travel. In Jazz Dance the camera was hand-held but the film was shot silent. The synch was faux. In Toby and the Tall Corn which he shot for Willard van Dyke (another link to the first generation) he actually managed some hand-held synch.

Toby was to be crucial. This was the film that inspired journalist Robert Drew, a Time-Life reporter eager to breath new life into the March of Time newsreel operation, to seek Leacock out. From that connection came Primary in 1960 in which Leacock hand-held a 16mm version of the square studio synch camera, developed by Walter Bach for the burgeoning US TV news industry. This Bach-Auricon combined picture-and-sound camera was but a first step to the sep-mag standard of an Éclair or Arri BL plus Nagra. Ricky’s contribution to this development was to take the crystal from a Bulova electronic watch, then new to market, and use it as the control enabling the physically separate camera to run in synch with the Nagra. Breaking the umbilical cord between camera and recorder significantly increased the flexibility of the system and its unobtrusiveness.

This was the most enduring of Leacock’s technical innovations as his life long fascination with the machinery of image capture otherwise sometimes led him up blind allies – 8mm sep-mag for example. The coming of the miniature digitized video-camera delighted him, although he could not resist messing about it. For example, his last intervention was a home-made mike that could be converted from directional to omni-directional at the flick of switch. The crystal control though, was the real winner. It was at the heart of the rigs that became the standard for documentary filming until the arrival of equally portable single system broadcast-standard video equipment a quarter of a century later.

I want to remember something else about Primary, though. Although the outcomes are quite opposite to each other, there is something common to both the un-filmed Bernstein hotel room in 1958 and the filmed (famously with an Auricon Ricky was resting on the arm of the chair he was sat in) Kennedy hotel suite two years later: Ricky’s personal relationship to these protagonists.

He knew Bernstein, for instance, from Harvard days when Lenny was the pianist at silent movie screenings of the university film club. And he also knew John Kennedy personally. He knew lots and lots of people – and not just the famous. He was a man of strong opinions and much of the dogme surrounding Direct Cinema came from him, but I have a distinct impression Ricky never filmed anybody he didn’t like – small-time police chiefs wondering whether their town councils would stand for them buying some bazookas; fundamentalist Christians who spent their Sunday mornings vomiting up the devil; deranged race-car drivers. In fact, Leacock’s humanity, which was sometimes contradicted by vigour of his conversation, was suffused by a certain radicalism. Ricky shared the family politics. For example, he was involved in establishing IATSE after the war and then in fighting for the Union to be colour blind. Yet the politics took second place to the care he brought to filmmaking. All humanity from Nehru, say, to a KKK wizard were captured but not skewered.

Perhaps the best example of this is Happy Mother’s Day, a film on the lunacies surrounding the birth of quintuplets in a small South Dakota town. Leacock, it is quite clear from the footage, becomes the placid mom’s co-conspirator in viewing the attendant brouhaha with jaundiced eye. His was an elusive talent in this regard – not merely the charm that the documentarist needs to win trust and co-operation but the empathy that conditions the images the filmmaker captures. The line between this human sympathy and intrusive voyeurism is difficult to draw and infinitely permeable, but Ricky was always on the right side of it.

And he was, above all, let it not be forgotten, a great cinematographer. The opening sequence of that paean of praise to oil-exploration, Louisiana Story, remains so exquisite that one struggles to remember who paid for it to be made. The fleeting gestures that reveal character, the complete mastery of the technology, the instinct that led him to be always in the right place — his ambition for the documentary might have been overstated and film will never really give us the ‘feeling of being there’; but it can offer incontrovertible proof that Ricky Leacock, for more than half a century, was there, bearing witness.

Brian Winston

March 28, 2011

Tim VandeSteeg

There are so many... FACING ALI & also love the ESPN Series 30 in 30, a collection of sport documentaries.

Docs Rock!

Jason Perdue

I was just about to post about The Arbor in Doc Films. It's playing at SF Int'l later this month. Can't wait to see it.

And thanks for the recommend on Kinshasa Symphony as it's playing close by next weekend and I wasn't planning to see it.

Papagena Robbins

I recently saw Brian Winston speak in support of a (very expensive) documentary on Robert Flaherty, ‘A Boatload of Wild Irishmen,’ for which he wrote the script. There is a little interview with Leacock in the film where he talks about working as Flaherty's cameraman on "Louisiana Story." Leacock's career was a truly expansive one.

Here's a link to Leacock's recollection of this experience of working with Flaherty from his website:


John Frisbie

Brett Morgan did one of the ESPN 30 On 30 pieces about the historic day in sports in which OJ was chased through LA, the NBA Finals were taking place and Arnold Palmer was playing his last round of golf. Good storytelling and he only used available footage. Also, just watched 'Weather Underground' – couldn't believe how well-paced it was. A few holes, but it moves so well.