If you, like me, rely mostly on Netflix for entertainment, I’d like to offer recommendations for some of the best television that you may be missing out on. Documentaries, or non-fiction films, are a fascinating genre. It isn’t the “factuality” of the content that attracts me and many others to this style of film, but rather the perspective(s), the filmmaker’s point of view, and the narrative; I am interested in how documentaries represent particular realities. Documentaries are not about real life nor do they “show the real” because they are captured, produced, and filtered through various lenses—that of the filmmaker and her camera, the shears of the editor, and the eye of the beholder. So, what is a “documentary”? In my view, documentary uses “real life” as its clay and molds stories into shape using this raw material, or as John Grierson originally defined it, it is the “creative treatment of actuality.”1 The following stories, then, are not excellent for their claims to truthfulness but due to how compelling they are, the questions they raise, their novelty, narrative style, depth, and resonance, among other characteristics. Unfortunately, Netflix Canada has removed a couple of other favourites not listed here including Exit Through the Gift Shop and The Act of Killing, so watch the following before Netflix takes them away, too!
The Witness (2015)
I first learned about the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in a social psychology class. It was used to explain the bystander effect and the diffusion of responsibility—that a larger number of bystanders decreases the likelihood that someone will help a victim. This was the case for Kitty Genovese who, in New York in 1964, was stabbed multiple times and raped outside her apartment building with apparently more than 30 witnesses to the attack. The documentary is executive produced and narrated by William Genovese, Kitty’s brother, who attempts to piece together the events of that night, but also seeks to understand who Kitty was and what her life was really like in order to reclaim it from the pages of sensationalist newspaper stories and psychology textbooks. Though the truth will always remain murky, the film is a touching elegy and offers some closure for both William and the viewer.
Planet Earth I (2006) and II (2016)
If you are one of the last few holdouts or think this is just a nature documentary, oh how wrong you are! Planet Earth explores habitats all over the world capturing nature’s most dramatic moments in ultra-high definition. The personification, score and David Attenborough’s soothing, wise grandpa voice also helps (for a brilliant comedic alternative, try the Snoop Dogg version). Cinematographers and producers spend weeks waiting and watching to capture a single scene, such as this favourite from the sequel which was released just this year in Canada:
While I may be biased because I love Amy Winehouse’s music, this feature’s reviews and accolades don’t lie. Amy chronicles the chanteuse’s childhood, rise to fame, descent and eventual death due to drugs and alcohol. In doing so, it spotlights the pitfalls of fame, money, exploitation, and poor support systems, that may have all played a part in cutting Amy’s life tragically short. The film uses interviews with over 100 people, including friends and family, archival footage, and home video. It attempts to show Amy, who she really was, away from the predatory and downright cruel headlines that relentlessly followed her to the end of her life. She was funny, talented, a brilliant poet, an amazing voice, and a loving and loved soul. But she also struggled terribly, not just with addiction, but with eating disorders as well. Her music is given more context, richness and depth as we get to know who she was and what motivated her words. It also makes you realize how complicit her family, friends, label, management, media, fans, onlookers and, really, we as a society are in producing the conditions for her demise. A memorable and sad moment is when Amy ominously foreshadows early in the film:
“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous…I’d probably go mad.”
Welcome to Leith (2015)
This documentary tells the story of the sleepy town of Leith, North Dakota, that awakens to a Neo-nazi who moves into town and attempts to take it over to form a white nationalist community by buying up property and gaining electoral majority. Particularly relevant for the post-Trump era, the film offers a frightening look at the extremes of ideology, democracy, and first and second amendment rights. It’s creepy, terrifying and deeply troubling, but also hopeful as the local residents, and others from nearby towns, rally together to challenge their abhorrent new neighbours.
The Overnighters (2014)
I watched this documentary just this past week and it struck me as both poignant and perturbing. It touches on several themes that exemplify America in 2017: the death of the American dream, economic depression and promise, religion and hypocrisy, ethics and morality, and humanity or lack thereof. It is about Pastor Jay Reinke and his mission to provide shelter in his church for over 1000 men who have come to North Dakota looking for fracking jobs during the state’s recent shale oil boom. These are “broken” men, as Reinke puts it; men struggling with homelessness, addiction, criminal records and unemployment. They believe Williston, North Dakota, offers opportunities, but with no place to stay and a leery and overburdened community, the men feel hopeless. Reinke takes them in, gives them hope and we see his humanity and kindness shine through as he literally practices what he preaches. Or does he? Over the course of the documentary Reinke admits that he, too, is broken as he struggles to keep his flock, help these men (many of whom are sex offenders), and manage his role as pastor, husband and father. With its conclusion, this documentary, like many great documentaries, forces you to ponder your own ethics and morality and leaves you with many questions. I also highly recommend it because it is a glimpse at the actual economic frustration that may have in part led to Trump’s victory (it will certainly not be mitigated through his policies but that’s another story).
Paris is Burning (1990)
A controversial classic featuring the LGBTQ* communities and drag ballroom competitions in New York that gave rise to many aspects of modern drag and the culture as we know it. Not to mention, much of the current millennial vocabulary (YAS, Werk, Shade, Realness, among many other terms and styles) are appropriated from the marginalized communities featured in Paris is Burning—with Madonna and Vogueing being, perhaps, the biggest culprit of all. This film is important because of the historical record it provides through interviews with key Latinx and black figures at the forefront of drag culture in the mid-1980s and takes us into the elaborate drag ball competitions at the center of the scene. Candid interviews explore themes of sexuality, gender identity, HIV-AIDS, drug use, racism, class, sex work, among others. It is also controversial as Jennie Livingston, the cis white female director of the film, has been accused of exploiting the marginalized LGBTQ* people and communities featured in the film by profiting from their stories without adequate compensation. I recommend it for the enigmatic and talented personalities, who tell us, in their own voice, about their communities, families, lives, modes of expression, and means of survival in a brutal world. If you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, this is a must-watch to see the original competitions the popular show is based on and, after you watch it, read this stranger-than-fiction story about Dorian Corey, one of the drag queens featured in the movie.
The Imposter (2012)
This one really blew my mind. It made me question everything I had just seen and the nature of truth, deception and manipulation. And, like many of the movies featured in this list, it will leave you with more questions than answers. I don’t want to give anything away, so here is the IMDB description: “A documentary centered on a young man in Spain who claims to a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who has been missing for 3 years.” And this is just the beginning; it is a mystery, a thriller, and a thesis on deception. The imposter in question tells his story, but the film also uses dramatization, which perfectly fits director Bart Layton’s modus operandi in using the medium to question the nature of reality and fiction:
“What I wanted to do is make it very clear from the beginning that this isn’t what must have happened, this is a visualization of what someone wants you to believe happened. You know you’ve got an unreliable witness and yet you still go along with it, and that’s part of what makes this a different kind of documentary.”
From “The Unbelievable Story Of ‘The Imposter.’” 2012. HuffPost Canada. July 13, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/the-imposter-documentary_n_1669745.html.
Dear Zachary: A letter to a son about his father (2008)
Grab the tissues, this one is going to hit you so hard in the feels. When I think about this movie today it still cuts deep. Dear Zachary is director Kurt Kuenne’s attempt at creating a collection of loving remembrances for his late friend Andrew Bagby’s son, Zachary. What began as a project for friends and family became a publicly released film due to the events that transpire before and during its making. Bagby was murdered by his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child. The film shows the lengths to which Andrew’s parents go, including moving to Canada, to ensure that they gain custody of their grandson. What actually happens…you know what I can’t say anymore…just watch it and hug your loved ones!
The Fear of 13 (2015)
Another rollercoaster ride and deeply intimate portrait of one man, Nick Yarris, The Fear of 13 belongs to the genre of death-row documentaries which focus on the lives of inmates as they await their execution. What distinguishes this feature is both the narrative style—apart from some reenactments, Nick narrates his own story with the camera intensely focused on him—and the surprising turns his story takes. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to develop empathy for Nick and anger toward a cruel prison and justice system. Particularly compelling are the heart-wrenching love stories that take place within the walls of the prison and Nick’s passion for books and learning, as he explains how he educates himself while incarcerated (triskaidekaphobia, or the fear of the number 13, is one of the words he learns in prison). This documentary is deeply moving and far more emotional than you might think and not for the reasons you expect.
The Up Series (1964-2012)
Possibly my favourite documentary series, I am surprised it is not more popular. Perhaps it’s the number of films that one must commit to? Because this is actually a series of 8 films. It chronicles the lives of 14 British children every seven years beginning in 1964 (the films are aptly titled: 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, all the way to 56 Up, released in 2012). I stumbled upon the first, 7 Up, by accident, not realizing that this was a series. I became hooked instantly as the premise was to examine how children’s social class and upbringing affects their future lot in life. Over the series, we see the lives of these individuals up close through successes, failures, relationships, heartbreaks; through coming of age and beyond. It’s a fascinating use of the medium to study the lifecourse of 14 individuals who were somewhat randomly chosen for this project. While the film began as a kind of sociological longitudinal study of class and society, overtime it became a person-centered narrative exploring the inner lives of its participants. This unintentional existential exploration of life and growing up makes you feel close with these people who’ve literally aged in front of your eyes.
John Grierson, “The First Principles of Documentary,” in Forsythe Hardy, ed.,
Grierson on Documentary (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), 147.