Documentary Films You Really Must See

SOPHIE WILLIAMS advises documentary-newbies about how to get in ‘the know’ in time for Watersprite.

american Cambridge Cinema documentary dolphins Film French Watersprite

Who doesn’t love a good documentary? Not Louis Theroux, for sure. And not Cambridge students either. At the Watersprite Festival, running here from Friday to Sunday, Roger Graef will give a talk about his lengthy career (fifty years!) in the field of documentary-making. DocumentarIES can be as beautiful and engaging as any fictional film. If you’re planning on going to Graef’s talk on Saturday but know very little about documentaries, here’s a list of some that really shouldn’t be missed.

Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty, USA, 1922

“The truest story”? Such lies

Nanook, perhaps the most famous early documentary wasn’t really much of a documentary at all. Nanook of the North claimed to be a film about an Inuit living in a harsh Arctic region of Canada, struggling to raise a family by the means of Inuit traditions such as igloos and spears. In fact, the Inuits of that time and region were pretty well advanced, and scenes involving their ‘traditions’ were staged by Flaherty who was keen to show these people to be primitive. Nanook wasn’t even called ‘Nanook’. Not much of a fact-filled documentary, but Flaherty made a truly successful film and got some common-law wives out of it in the process.

Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais, France, 1955

French film-making legend Alain Resnais died last week at the age of 91. Though he produced several famous fiction-films during his lengthy career, including the ultra-enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad, perhaps his greatest legacy is this film, Nuit et Brouillard, one of the first documentaries about the Holocaust to be made after the War. The film was so brutally honest about French involvement with the Nazi atrocities that it had to be censored, and was even threatened with withdrawal from the Cannes Festival when it was first released. Francois Truffaut said it was the greatest film ever made. It’s unsettling, heart-breaking and important.

“Staunch”, as Little Edie would say

Grey Gardens & The Beales of Grey Gardens, dirs. The Maysles Brothers, USA, 1976 & 2006

Little Edie and Big Edie Beale – the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis – were two distinctly unique women, the likes of which the cinema screen had never seen. The Maysles Brothers stumbled across an article about them in a magazine, telling how they lived in absolute squalor, and sought them out to make a documentary. By turns sad and hilarious, the original Grey Gardens allowed the mother-and-daughter tell their own story with little interference from the brothers. The sequel was put together decades later from the reels of excess footage the brothers had made. And the dramatised remake released a few years ago starring Drew Barrymore is pretty good, too.

The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris, USA, 1988

The Thin Blue Line might be the most important documentary ever in that it literally saved a man’s life. In 1976, Randall Adams was arrested for a crime he did not commit – murder. He had been on Death Row for a long time before Morris came along. But this dedicated director, who had previously worked as a private detective, took it upon himself to dismantle the case by making this film which interviewed some of those involved (including Adams himself) and picked holes in the prosecution’s case. And Morris succeeded: Adams was allowed to walk free soon after the release of this film. Result.

Hoop Dreams, dir. Steve James, USA, 1994

Hoop Dreams follows two African-American teenagers from Chicago as they seek basketball glory, despite their unprivileged backgrounds. Originally intended to only be thirty minutes long, it turned into a 250-hour epic (which was then cut down to a 171 minute smaller-epic) – unsurprising since the cameras followed these young hopefuls for five years. Watch Arthur Agee and William Gates follow their dreams, navigating their way through the tricky worlds of sports stardom and the Chicago streets. It almost doesn’t feel like a documentary; there is such a strong, emotive narrative that it seems too good to be true. But it is true. Be inspired.

You’ll never want to eat tuna again

The Cove, dir. Louie Psihoyos, USA, 2009

The Cove won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010, and it’s not difficult to see why. The film looks at the treatment of dolphins in Japan and the hunting practices involved in producing dolphin meat for consumers. It states that around 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed in Japan every year by their whaling industry. The film follows Ric O’Barry, the man who first caught and tamed the dolphin that would be Flipper in the 1960s, as he seeks to document the treatment of his beloved creatures. Though he helped create an worldwide industry of maltreatment of dolphins in marine parks, he is seeking to remedy this now. If you watch this and aren’t moved, then you pretty much have no heart (sorry to say).

And if you’ve watched these films, you’re ready to see Roger Graef at the Divinity School, St John’s College on Saturday 8th March, 12:30pm.

Tickets for the event, 50 Years of Roger Graef, are available here.