"Just the facts, ma'am"

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996

Documentaries once meant going somewhere far away and coming back with footage of strange foreigners doing exotic things. More recently, the strange and exotic can be found just around the corner. Now, a good documentary induces the shock of recognition.

"Nanook of the North" (1922), by Robert Flaherty, gets proper credit as the first documentary feature. This study of the eskimo Nanook and his family, including how they catch seals and build igloos, is still touching and intriguing.

"Man of Aran" (1934) by Flaherty captures the courage of Irish fishermen living and working on the barren, windswept coastal islands. It has long been debated whether Flaherty romanticized the man vs. sea theme.

"Triumph of the Will" (1935), by Leni Riefenstahl, is the Nazi propaganda movie that everyone should see as an inoculation against propaganda's insidious appeal. Brings on the shudders.

"Mondo Cane" (1963) by Gualtiero Jacopetti was the logical end of the line for the shocking-things-foreigners-do documentary. This movie caused a brief sensation.

"The Endless Summer" (1966), by Bruce Brown, is a paean to surfing and California-ness that can still charm you out of your jams.

"Salesman" (1968), by Albert and David Maysles, focuses on men who make a living in one of the most difficult and emotionally draining ways, door-to-door sales. Pep talks sometimes ring hollow for these peddlers, who sell Bibles.

"In the Year of the Pig" and "Milhouse" by Emile de Antonio are two of the finest polemical documentaries ever made in the U.S. "Pig", about American involvement in Vietnam, uses film footage shot by non-American camera crews during the war and includes the infamous Saigon street execution sequence from the Tet offensive. "Milhouse," about the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, includes his "Checkers speech" and "last press conference."

"The Sorrow and the Pity" (1970) by Marcel Ophuls is, at over four hours in length, the last word about French resistance and collaboration during the Nazi occupation. Ophuls demonstrates that the French embraced Nazism and anti-Semitism with more enthusiasm than the French like to remember.

"The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971), by Walon Green and Lawrence Pressman, now looks kind of campy with its cautionary message about how predatory bugs threaten mankind. Check it out instead for its hair-raising microphotography of insects.

"Marjoe" (1972), by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, is the documentary that the televangelists don't want you to see. Evangelist Marjoe Gortner reveals how to use the lingo, milk the suckers and even cop moves from Mick Jagger. Hallelujah!

"Harlan County U.S.A." (1977), by Barbara Kopple, takes you inside a coal miners' strike in Kentucky, where the hard-pressed UMW squares off against Duke Power and its "gun thugs."

"Atomic Cafe" (1982) is a masterfully woven tapestry of found footage about postwar nuclear paranoia and how it was portrayed in commercials, educational films, etc. This, kids, is what the baby boomers grew up with. Duck and cover!

"Koyaanisqatsi" (1983) by Godfrey Reggio uses dazzling hi- tech cinematography techniques to illustrate that we live in a "life out of balance" with nature. Lots of eyeball kicks helps the medicine go down.

"Streetwise" (1984) by Martin Bell goes diving into dumpsters and fleeing down alleys with homeless teen urchins in downtown Seattle. The exploitation of these adolescents by predatory adult perverts induces helpless rage.

"The Times of Harvey Milk" (1984) by Robert Epstein recounts the tragically short-lived career of Milk, one of America's first openly gay politicians, who was assassinated by an uptight straight politician. You laugh, then you cry.

In "Sherman's March" (1986) the self-absorbed young Southerner Ross McElwee films himself going to visit all his ex- girlfriends and seeing what they're up to. Along the way he tries to meet Burt Reynolds. This droll piece may be the most solipsistic documentary ever made.

"Shoah" (1986) by Claude Lanzmann takes over eight hours to unfold, but when it is over you understand exactly how the Nazis managed to exterminate eight million Jews in just a few years. Lanzmann pulls this feat off without using any archival footage, just contemporary interviews with survivors, ex-Nazis, etc.

"Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie" (1986) by Marcel Ophuls probes deeply into the shadowy politics immediately after World War II in Europe when certain war criminals, including the butcher Barbie, became intelligence "assets" and were shielded from punishment.

"The Thin Blue Line" (1988) by Errol Morris is utterly convincing that an innocent man was sent to death row in Texas for killing a cop. This movie helped free him. Morris boldly uses expressionistic techniques to restage some important events.

"Roger & Me" (1989) by Michael Moore is unabashedly left- wing and polemical, which is what makes it so much fun. Moore charts how the rise in the fortunes of GM resulted in the decline in the fortunes of Flint, Michigan, and attempts to get GM chairman Roger Smith to explain it all.

"The Twist" (1992) by Ron Mann affectionately traces the history of the most influential dance craze ever to sweep America. "There's a new dance and it goes like this."

"35UP" (1992) by Michael Apted is the most recent installament in a remarkable ongoing film project--nothing less than the life biographies of a group of middle-class British who were interviewed at seven-year intervals beginning at age 7. Presumably, this project will follow them to their graves.

"Manufacturing Consent" (1992) by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick profiles American dissident, celebrated linguist, media theorist and anarcho-syndicalist Noam Chomsky, a man the mainstream media generally prefers to ignore.

"Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" (1993) by Nick Broomfield details the greed and exploitation that surrounded the apprehension in Florida of "America's first female serial killer." Wuornos, who claims she only killed in self defense, comes off as one of the nicer people.

Back to The Indispensable Movies Home Page.