Okay, so, maybe I’ve always been a giant nerd. I loved watching PBS growing up. I mean, come on, did Ken Burns Civil War not make you weep when the soulful violins in Ashokan Farewell played as they dramatically read soldier's letters? No? Just me? My favorite day in school was when the teachers pulled out the projector and put on a movie--not because I could sleep like everyone else, but because I just really dug documentary films. Now at the ripe old age of 25, I made it my business to not just watch documentaries, but create them as well. Everytime it comes up that I enjoy them so much, I am forever shocked so many people respond with “eh, I think documentary films are boring.”
Um, EXCUSE ME? Bruh, the best part about documentaries is that nobody made them up...that really happened to someone! But, I understand. By the time you reach adulthood you’ve probably been forced to watch the most boring educational films ever made that are, like, 30 years out of date and as entertaining as watching paint dry. Even though I loved watching movies in school no matter how good they were, for some people, it made the word “documentary” a dirty word they carried into their adult years. But, just like fiction films, there is a broad range of quality. Just because you saw Minions and thought it was hot garbage, it doesn’t change your feelings about knowing all the lines to every single Harry Potter movie. They are totally not even in the same universe of “good films”, so why lump all documentary films into “boring”?
So, with my extraordinarily exciting social life, I made a point to watch tons of documentaries on Netflix to let you know what ones are worthwhile. This list is for you, “I ThiNk DocUmenTAriEs aRe bOriNg” person as well as the rest of you casual viewers/die-hard doc fans.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
What It’s About:
13th, named after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution banning slavery, is about how the United States continues to set African Americans up for failure within society even in modern times. This film examines why our for-profit prison systems are essentially modern slavery. 13th identifies unfair laws and regulations that negatively affect low income communities and creates a cycle of poverty and crime that politicians and corporations profit from.
Why I Love It:
First off, this topic gets me feeling all kinds of fired up. I thought I knew a lot about this going in, but there was so much more to learn. While there are definitely great films made from dull topics, this one for sure has the support of a super interesting topic. The filmmaking is incredible. DuVernay (holla, holla, lady filmmaker alert! Yas girl!) does a fantastic job creating a rich, stylized texture that unifies the interviews, archival footage, and really great motion graphic sequences. I am a giant sucker for documentaries that include animation because it adds a whole new level of understanding with big, bold infographics, charts, and maps that put nothing but facts right in your face. It’s also a really cool way to change things up from the “talking heads” we’re used to seeing. There is a really cool kinetic text bit to the lyrics of “Fuck the Police” which the world definitely needs more of. Mixed media is a fabulous technique when used right in documentaries to support an argument. This is a film that definitely sticks with you not just by the insane topic, but by the insane filmmaking as well.
Hot Girls Wanted
Directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus
What It’s About:
Hot Girls Wanted, produced by Rashida Jones, follows several amature porn performers as they begin their foray into the industry. This film questions why women pursue such a career and the thin line between being a powerful woman in control of her own body and being degraded and treated less than human.
Why I Love It:
During graduate school I made a film about why people enjoy being exhibitionists on websites like Reddit and Tumblr and interviewed several users from these sites; this film jumped out at me because of that. I have such mixed feelings about the topics explored in this film which is why I love it. I am a firm believer that both men and women ought to have the freedom to express themselves sexually however they want to as long as every participating partner is 100% consenting and that absolutely includes appearing in pornography. But when I saw this film, I couldn’t help be feel so sad for some of the girls they followed. They kept saying “oh yeah, I love sex. I love being in porn,” but looking in their young teenage eyes there was an air of hesitation and self-consciousness. They talked about money a lot. And it seemed like money and insecurity at home was the biggest reason why they were attracted to the industry rather than sexual freedom.
The difference between this film and my exhibitionist documentary was money and identity. The people I interviewed were doing it only because they liked feeling sexy and no money was involved. They don’t play any characters or roles other than themselves and their partners whereas the talent in Hot Girls Wanted were playing nannies/maids/school girls/step daughters/etc. and getting the obscenely enormous wieners of strange men shoved down their throat while they screamed in pretend ecstacy. It’s a delicate line to play the gatekeeper of sexuality and this film does a really great job handling it in a cinema verite-style. Cinema verite, a super fancy word you can impress all your friends with, is when a film has that “fly on the wall” style. There are no sit down interviews or opinions being given during the film. Films in this style do their best to be completely hands off and show only the truth. Doing Hot Girls Wanted in the cinema verite style works because it’s just so difficult to make the correct assessment of what is happening so the filmmakers allow the viewers to create their own judgement of this film.
This film is super cut and dry. The filmmaking itself is supremely basic with very few bells and whistles attached, relying wholly on the actions and casual conversation of the subjects. I sort of like that I feel like I’m eavesdropping on the lives of others with films in this style, but it’s a risk because if the topic isn’t interesting enough, you start to lose people. But, everyone loves porn and hot people, so even you people who don’t like educational films will like this for “educational purposes”.
Directed by Yance Ford
What It’s About:
Strong Island is an autobiography about Yance Ford and his family living in the aftermath of the murder of his brother, William Ford. They recall the night of the murder and how they were treated as African Americans by police and the unfairness of the American justice system.
Why I Love It:
Oh my God. This film is so beautifully done and heartbreaking. This is the complete opposite of 13th and Hot Girls Wanted. Strong Island is just so...quiet. You have to lean in and become a part of the story. It’s intimate and personal, letting the viewer inside the hearts and minds of this family suffering a great loss. This film sneaks up on you. Ford doesn’t utilize those shocking in-your-face visuals and claims lots of contemporary persuasive cultural documentaries use. I love comparing this film to 13th because they both have two totally different approaches even though they both tackle the topic of injustices against African Americans. While 13th covers a broad scope of this topic, Strong Island zooms in on the story of one family. This is a very special film for the director because it is his own family. These kinds of films are amazing because when a filmmaker chooses a topic about something that affects them that closely, there is a certain level of care taken to make it perfect. When it hasn’t happened to you as the filmmaker, you are making the film to learn and comprehend the subject. When you, yourself are the subject...you are making the film to help everyone else learn. No one knows you better than you. Ford was able get the most authentic interviews from people close to him as well as honest representations of them going about their days since he is not an outsider. He was already apart of the scene before, but now he just happens to have a camera.
What’s also unique about this film is that it could have been done on almost zero budget. Even though documentaries are famously known for being much less expensive than their fictional counterparts, they still cost at least some money. Travel costs, production planning meetings, paying subjects/reenactors, research materials, archive material royalties, intense editing, special effects...the list goes on. What’s different about this film is that it is almost entirely filmed within the home, documenting the most mundane settings and daily activities as the family tells their story and shares photographs. It is so incredibly basic yet still manages to be mind blowingly effective. However, for some viewers, that might be what turns them away from finishing this film. It is a very slow burn and you really need to be listening to it more than watching it. I even needed to turn it off and come back a few days later to finish. This film is beautiful, but it might not fully support my “documentaries are for everyone!” case.
My Beautiful Broken Brain
Directed by Sophie Robinson and Lotje Sodderland
What It’s About:
Before a massive brain hemorrhage, Lotje Sodderland was a smart, successful young adult. My Beautiful Broken Brain documents her recovery and the road to relearning how to speak, read, write, and remember her life.
Why I Love It:
I’ll be honest and say that typically I am not initially attracted to science-y documentaries. I feel that I most often find myself drawn towards political and cultural films. But the trailer done got me--it was a moment of “ooh, what is this sparkly thing I’m looking at? I’m interested!” because I am pretty much just a fish eyeballing luers wearing a people suit. You guys, it is such a pretty movie. The editing gives us a unique artistic representation of what it’s like to suffer from aphasia after a stroke. It’s like being a part of a surreal dream--flashes of colors and light with strange sounds that echo all around you, moments where our sense of time and space become distorted. There are pieces that are done from the POV of someone affected with such a disorder that really engages viewers and puts you in their shoes.
What I also love about this is that it is a bit of a video diary from Sodderland, showing us the progress and pitfalls as she goes on her journey. It’s honest and unaltered from a phone camera she can take out and do herself at any moment. This movie made me a believer in science documentaries and had me interested and asking questions about how mysterious the human brain is. This is a unique execution of a not-so-unique occurance for many thousands of people which proves that you can make an interesting documentary about any topic.
Directed by Sandi Tan
What It’s About:
In 1992, the young Sandi Tan and her friends made a fictional film in Singapore about a young murderess entitled “Shirkers”. However, the director disappeared along with all of the footage for the film… 25 years later, Sandi Tan tries to figure out the mystery behind the missing footage.
Why I Love It:
This film is so unusual and surreal, the quirky, colorful approach is sure to make a believer out of anyone who has ever called documentaries “boring”. This film is so engaging you will hardly believe its a documentary. I’m obsessed with the vibrant beauty of this film. It reminds me of the collage we use to make as kids, crudely cut pictures from magazines glued on top of eachother in a crazy design. The choppy, hand-cut nature of it is reminiscent of the late 80s and 90s without being cliche. I finished this film itching for more movies in this style because I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: filmmakers love films about filmmaking. I know, shocker. So obviously this film was a thematic hit in my book. But honestly, without trying to dog the plot, I sort of almost didn’t care what it was about. This movie literally could have been about a sock factory and I wouldn’t have cared because it was just so cool to look at. I’ve seen this movie three times now and I probably couldn’t tell you what happened in it because I was just too busy fangirling over the aesthetics. But the plot is absolutely not boring at all. It’s very weird in the best way possible. People that are enigmas and larger than life make for very interesting documentary subjects. Tan’s mentor, Georges, was a strange man more than twice her age shrouded in mystery. He had odd stories that seemed untrue and thought of the young Tan as his Lolita. But he ran away without a trace, stealing all of the footage. In 2011 when Georges passed away, Tan received an email from his wife saying she had uncovered dozens of cans of films labeled “Shirkers” completely untouched. We get a glimpse of that footage in this documentary, seeing a surreal fantasy world within Singapore in 1992. This film is inspiring, tickling at my creative bone in a great way...it also serves as a great warning to back-up all your SD cards because losing footage is every filmmaker’s forever nightmare.
Searching for Sugarman
Directed by Malik Bendjellou
What It’s About:
In the 1970s, an album by someone named Rodriguez gained fame in South Africa. Rumors started to spread about Rodriguez’s apparent suicide that shook the nation. He was an enigma and nobody had ever seen him in person, his single release becoming an anthem for a generation as if he were the Beatles. The filmmaker set out on a journey to find out who this man was...however, he had no idea that he would find a penniless musician still alive and well living in Detroit, Michigan. Rodriguez never gained fame here in the US, but soon learned of his success thousands of miles away.
Why I Love It:
As a Detroit native, Searching for Sugarman gets me all sorts of excited to know that we have a superstar undercover in our midst. How often do we walk past people on the street who have some unfound fame? It also gives me hope that maybe someday I’ll find out the crappy book i published once is actually being read in some country far away where I’m famous even though nobody bought it here...anyway, there is a great story here that feels almost too good to be fiction. I luckily didn’t read any sort of description of the film before I watched it which made the “he’s alive!” bit better than any fictional plot twist I’ve ever seen. That’s what’s especially fun about documentaries--the filmmaker can go in expecting one film and then get something totally different in the end. If the rumors had been true about Rodriguez having committed suicide, how would that have changed the film? Would it be nearly as well received? Nobody expected that to happen which is why it is so incredible. The music is hella catchy--i threw that bad boy onto my spotify real quick.
So, grab your “I ThiNk DocUmenTAriEs aRe bOriNg” friends and show them how much a documentary snob you are now after watching all these awesome films and bring them on board with how cool documentaries can actually be.