THE BEST documentary film has all the qualities we appreciate in feature films: drama, excitement, suspense and a vivid appeal to our imagination. Films that content themselves merely with imparting information are the ones we forget. The following films I would rate as among the best in that genre that have come my way.
Hollywood (Kevin Brownlow 1980)
This beautiful and moving tribute to the art of the silent cinema features many interviews with film makers active 1910-1929 and restored footage from films of that period. It’s also a portrait of America at a time when anything was possible. The best film on the cinema ever made. On laserdisk and VHS tape (if you’re lucky).
Cosmos (Carl Sagan 1980)
There will be those who will say this series is out of date, but if you want a grasp on what it means to live in a universe of incalculable size this will take your breath away. The sheer imaginative scope of this series has never been excelled and is not likely to be. On DVD.
The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell 1988)
Joseph Campbell was a man who could fill every word he spoke with meaning. While Bill Moyers asks the questions we all ask and cannot answer Campbell draws on his incredible knowledge of myth for some startling observations. Myth contains the wisdom of our ancestors, and Campbell passes on that wisdom in an inspiring way. On DVD.
Phantom India/Calcutta (Louis Malle 1969)
Although released separately these were both edited from miles of film stock Malle and his two colleagues photographed in India. They had no agenda: this was ‘free cinema’. It makes a difference that Malle was one of the geniuses of cinema, and one of it’s greatest cinematographers as well. An awe inspiring portrait of what is still an overwhelming culture for Westerners. On DVD.
And the Pursuit of Happiness (Louis Malle 1986)
Malle manages to say something fresh about the disconcerting, disorienting process of emigration. He made the film shortly after himself becoming an American citizen, and shows how the process of relocating oneself in a foreign culture is in many ways chasing a phantom ideal while also suggesting that, like the founders of American democracy, emigrants bring something vital to their country along with and because of their hopes. On DVD.
In Search of the Trojan War (Michael Wood 1985)
Like Troy itself this film stands at the crossroads of history, myth and clashing cultures and Wood manages to present these elements so that they illuminate each other, as well as providing a fascinating travelogue. There is considerable scholarship on display but presented so engagingly one finds oneself considering the nature of history or myth quite readily. One of the best films on an ancient culture ever made. On DVD.
Legacy (Michael Wood 1991)
Six episodes look at India, Egypt, China, the Americas, Iran/Iraq and the West. Wood’s knowledge, enthusiasm and on the spot exploration make these commonly explored topics somehow fresh and exciting. Through examination of such diverse cultures we learn something about human culture in general and even about human nature. It’s quite inspiring. On DVD or VHS tape (if you’re lucky).
The Human Animal /The Human Sexes (Desmond Morris, 1994 /1997)
Desmond Morris is one of the most knowledgeable and wisest of hosts. These two series show us humankind in context, as an animal species living and adapting in an amazing world of other living things. Morris sprang to prominence as the author of The Naked Ape (1967), but his approach is far from reductionist and can be seen as part of an adaptive approach we all need to make in order to survive. This is enlightening indeed. On VHS tape (if you’re lucky).
Crumb (Terry Zwigoff 1995)
Robert Crumb is an artist of genius and a man of exceptional perception and intelligence. In this film he turns his eye on himself, his family and American society, and the results are excoriating: both funny and horrifying. Surviving childhood abuse, bought up in a dysfunctional family with brothers who, in spite of their talents did not survive, and eventually successful and exploited in the art world, Crumb learnt in a hard school. One of the best of biographies. On DVD.
The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Muller 1994)
Riefenstahl was many things: famous dancer, popular actress, one of the founders of cinema art and one of the world’s greatest photographers. She also spent four years working for the Nazi Party (at a time, be it remembered, when Hitler was one of the most admired leaders in the world). In this lengthy interview Riefenstahl talks about all these aspects of her career. A rare portrait of a genius. On DVD.
Life of Leonardo da Vinci (Renato Castellani 1972)
Leonardo did something no other human being has been able to do. By reasoning from his direct observation he created scientific principles for an extraordinary range of sciences without reference to any other thinker or writer. Newton acknowledged he saw further than others “because he stood on the shoulders of giants”. Leonardo relied on no one. This film is the most authentic and complete portrait ever made. On VHS tape and DVD (DVD version has 40 minutes cut from the running time).
Documentary film can often give one insight into its subject not by presenting new material but by showing that material in a new light or unusual perspective. The following are all enlightening films.
Who Wrote the New Testament (Barcud Derwen 2003)
This film examines the context within which the gospels and other new testament writings were produced, what and who they were written for and how they’ve changed over the centuries without losing sight of the importance of the writings themselves and the role they’ve played in millions of lives. On DVD.
The Life and Loves of Oscar Wilde (Annie Paul 1995)
Wilde’s grandson and Bosie’s grand daughter are among those interviewed. We gain some knowledge of the harm that was done to Wilde’s family and of the discomfort and regret that still survives today among Wilde’s descendants. Like the Dreyfus case, Wilde’s punishment is an example of prejudice displacing justice and is a case we all need to learn from. On DVD (BBC Oscar Wilde Collection).
Bob Dylan No Direction Home (Martin Scorsese 2005)
The first half of Dylan’s life as presented by one of America’s most famous directors. One of the most adroit integration of documentary material ever made and essential viewing for anyone interested in popular music. On DVD.
Chuck Berry Hail Hail Rock and Roll (Taylor Hackford 1987)
Berry’s 60th birthday celebration as organised by Keith Richard shows him able to outplay and outperform some of the world’s best rock musicians who come along. An alert, edgy personality who can reflect that he was descended from slaves and did not fend much better himself in his early career, Berry sheds new light on the evolution of rock and roll, of which he was a founder On a 4 DVD set.
Helen of Troy (Bettany Hughes 2005)
An impossible attempt by Hughes to evoke what it was like in war and peace in Bronze Age Europe, this film is broad in scope, and shows that what is important is not the answers you find but the questions you ask. Stimulating. On DVD.
The Story of India (Michael Wood 2007)
Wood has bought history to life in many series, most notably in dealing with Alexander the Great and William Shakespeare. Here he attempts to deal with the land of many cultures, races, languages and religions, one of the most dynamic regions on earth. The result is exhilarating. On DVD.
Don’t Look Back (D A Pennebaker 1967)
Dylan on tour in Britain in the mid sixties. This is a depiction of a major change in popular culture as it was influenced by one important individual, shot while it was happening. Shows Dylan at his creative peak. On DVD.
Leonardo da Vinci (BBC 2004)
A composite of dramatic re-enactment, readings from the Notebooks, reconstructions of Leonardo’s machines and interviews with scholars, this film has spectacular photography and great music, and some innovative insights to make, such as Leonardo’s ‘mistakes’ in his technical drawings which experts reconstructing the machines have to decipher before they can make a working model: an early copyright device. TV.
The Ancient Egyptians (Tony Mitchell 2003)
A presentation of several episodes from Egyptian history told with rigorous attention to detail. Actors speak a reconstruction of the ancient Egyptian language, costumes are those from wall paintings, chariots made authentically. This is as real as can be. Each story is an involving, well acted drama. On DVD.
Dancing in the Street (Karen Walsh 1995)
The history of rock and roll, told by the people who made it. Looks at origins, styles, big names, trends and influences. There may be some gaps, but generally it’s a story told with energy and great flair. Most people will only be familiar with some of the material covered and so it can be recommended for all. On VHS tape (if you’re lucky).
Wasn’t That a Time (Jim Brown 1982)
The Weavers were giants of the American folk scene, appearing out of the left wing workers’ movement that had inspired Woody Guthrie. They became hugely popular recording stars until McCarthyism put an end to their career. This is the story of their reunion concert. Lee Hays was dying (he died the year after the concert) but you wouldn’t know it from the wisecracks, Ronnie Gilbert’s voice is as sweet as ever, Fred Hellerman is as smooth and urbane, Pete Seeger as dynamic. Sit back and listen as these four old folk show you how to get a full house Carnegie Hall crowd to their feet. On DVD.
In Search of Mozart (Phil Grabsky 2006)
There are some who feel that Mozart was one of the most gifted individuals who has ever lived. This film won’t disappoint them. You can listen to some of the world’s most gifted performers talking of what they feel while playing Mozart’s music. Some are close to tears while they speak, truly moved by the music. The film also makes an effort to chart Mozart’s development, excerpting music in chronological order of composition. It is an astonishing story of the rapid development of a genius of the drama who expressed himself in musical forms. On DVD.
On Cukor (Robert Trachenberg 2000)
This film builds up a portrait of one of the greatest of Hollywood directors by interviewing those who worked with him and those who loved him. A gay man who survived an era of intolerance in such matters, Cukor was a generous man with a light touch with actors, a warm and loyal friend and the creator of some of Hollywood’s greatest films. A very touching portrait. On DVD.
Parkinson (Michael Parkinson 1971)
Talk shows don’t get any better than Parky’s; viewers and TV personnel both vote Parkinson as among the top 10 best TV shows ever made in Britain. Notable for the many famous people who have shown a human side of their personality in response to Parkinson’s warm interest in them. An especially valuable resource for those interested in the arts for the many key figures in literature, cinema and the stage who appeared on the show. TV.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.