Ten Documentary Films

I was reading a post tonight on DVXuser that asked: What’s the best documentary you’ve ever seen? and I was inspired by the challenge and made a list of 10 documentary films to watch that are worthy of both viewing and analysis. I can’t begin to rank what I would consider top ten of documentaries, nor could I ever narrow things down to ten, but if I had to pick ten documentary films right this instant to program in a hypothetical documentary film festival, here are ten films I’d consider programming right at this moment.

One of the films is a short to make up for the epic length of another one of the selections. Ask me tomorrow and my answer will be a different, ask me next year and it will be really different. So here’s the list in chronological order:

There are so many amazing documentary films, choosing ten is impossible. Here are some notes on each of the films:
Man With a Movie CameraMan with a Movie Camera
Dziga Vertov, 1929, Russian title, Chelovek s kino-apparatom

This classic avant-garde documentary shows a camera person traveling through post-revolution Russia capturing images of everyday life. The protagonist of the film is the collective Russian people in an attempt to show the new socialist society. The film is loosely organized around the cycle of a day with music and editing moving the story along. The film makes explicit the kinds of cinematic manipulation and serves as an encyclopedia of all the techniques Dziga Vertov and his fellow filmmakers had access to at the time including time-lapse, superimposition, cross-fade, etc. The film was way ahead of its time and films like Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982) are very evocative of The Man with a Movie Camera in terms of the techniques used. I was very much inspired by this film in graduate school and fascinated with the parallels between the way the film was assembled and the research I was doing around multiple point-of-view documentary, it was as if Vertov was telegraphing the future of documentary as well as reflecting the state of cinematic art of his time.

Titicut FolliesTiticut Follies
Frederick Wiseman, 1967

This film provides a scathing look at the poor treatment inmates were receiving from guards, doctors, social workers, and psychiatrists at a prison hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. John Marshall’s handheld camerawork provides a very intimate portrayal of the events. The film brings up issues of access, privacy, the right-to-know, the role of documentary film in society, you name it. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts sued Wiseman and the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the film constituted an invasion of inmate privacy and ordered its withdrawal from circulation. Was it really about Privacy? Or was it the nature of the exposé? The ban on Titicut Follies in Massachusetts was not lifted until 1992.

Dont Look NowDon’t Look Back
D.A. Pennebaker, 1967

Pennebaker’s camera follows Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour in England. One of the best examples of Direct Cinema (a.k.a. American cinéma-vérité) offering a glimpse into the private life of Dylan at a time when he is gaining popularity and transforming his style. It’s amazing that the agreement between Dylan and Pennebaker to work together to make this film was sealed with a handshake and continues to this day. These days the legal fees required for such an agreement would dwarf the production budget of most cinéma-vérité films.

Werner Herzog Eats his ShoeWerner Herzog Eats His Shoe
Les Blank, 1979

A short documentary film in which Blank meets Herzog at the San Francisco airport and then follows him to Chez Panisse where Alice Waters helps Herzog cook his shoe in duck fat. The next day Blank is at the U.C. Theater in Berkeley where Herzog eats a piece of shoe in front of an audience. Why did this happen? Years before Werner Herzog had been talking to a U.C. Berkeley student and encouraged him to be a filmmaker with a unique challenge: he said that if the student ever succeeded in making a film that was shown at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, he would come back and eat his shoe. The student was Errol Morris who eventually made Gates of Heaven, a documentary about the moving of a pet cemetery. True to his word, Herzog came back to Berkeley and ate his own shoe. In 1982 Blank followed Herzog again, this time to the Amazon jungle to film the making of Fitzcarraldo, which became one of Blank’s most popular films, Burden of Dreams.

Notebook on Cities and ClothesNotebook on Cities and Clothes
Wim Wenders, 1989

An unusual documentary in which Wenders is invited by the Georges Pompidou Centre to make a film in the context of fashion and the result is a mix of 16mm and video materials exploring the work of Yohji Yamamoto, a Japanese fashion designer. Wenders follows the designer from Tokyo to Paris as the designer prepares for his latest showing. Through dialog with the designer and solo musings, the film offers a mélange of reflections on the ephemeral nature of fashion and the essential differences between shooting on film vs. video. Today this film vs. video discussion may seem tired, but it was a serious ontological concern among filmmakers in the late 80s when the film was made.

Ibrahim Ferrer (Buena Vista Social Club)Buena Vista Social Club
Wim Wenders, 1999

A poetic documentary of guitarist Ry Cooder gathering together twelve legendary musicians and resurrecting the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba for a series of recording sessions and performances. A variety of performances and observational footage are inter-cut with interviews of the musicians reminiscing in a backdrop of a decaying but colorful Havana. The lush and colorful images were captured using a mix of miniDV and Digital Betacam in the PAL format, helping to de-stigmatize the use of video for films destined for theatrical release.

Allie Light, Dialogues with MadwomenDialogues with Madwomen
Allie Light, 1993

This highly personal documentary explores the idea that a woman who speaks her mind and acts in her own interests must be insane is a myth that goes way back in our society. Light and Saraf present seven “madwomen,” including Light herself, describing their experiences with schizophrenia, manic depression, euphoria, and recovery. Interviews, reenactments, and home movie footage combine to tell each woman’s story and reveal the abuses they experienced under the care of their doctors. The film challenges us to consider that what we sometimes perceive as “madness” is actually a women’s self-expression. Allie Light said, “A lot of people think that madness, so-called, comes out of nowhere. But the film links it up with their environment.” In the same interview she later says, “Somebody once said to me, women are in mental hospitals, and men are in prison.” (quotes from an interview by Gary Morris in Bright Lights Screen Journal, Issue 14, September, 1995).

When We Were KingsWhen We Were Kings
Leon Gast, 1996

This film offers perspectives on the complicated story of Muhammad Ali and the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire that included a concert featuring musicians like B.B King and James Brown. Fight Promoter Don King contracted the two fighters offering each five million for the fight. Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko put up the prize money, hoping that hosting the event would help him create a better image of his dictatorship. Gast provides a contemporary perspective on the fighters, the dictatorship in Zaire, history, politics, Black identity, and the fight through interviews with George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, and Spike Lee. A superbly crafted documentary film.

A Kalahari FamilyA Kalahari Family
John Marshall, 2002

A five-part, six-hour series documenting fifty years in the lives of the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of southern Africa, from 1951 to 2000. This ambitious film of epic scope presents a story of how once independent hunter-gatherers experience dispossession, confinement to a homeland, and the chaos of war. Then as hope for Namibian independence and the end of apartheid grows, Ju/’hoansi fight to establish farming communities and reclaim their traditional lands. The series challenges stereotypes of “Primitive Bushmen” with images of development projects initiated by the Ju/’hoansi. Tsamkxao, a Ju/’hoansi, states in the film, “There are two kinds of films. Films that show us in skins are lies. Films that show the truth show us with cattle, with farms, with our own water, making our own plans.”A Kalahari Family documents the Ju/’hoansi’s struggle for self-determination and access to land and water as NGOs, foundations, and aid organizations conspire against them with other ideas that would blast them back into a “plastic stone age.” The film consists of footage that Marshall shot starting in the fifties on family expeditions to the end of the millennium, and it’s interesting to see how Marshall’s camera work, style, and voice evolved as time went by, the technology changed, and his relationship was transformed over time from friend of the Ju/’hoansi in the 50s to an activist helping them fight for land and water rights in the 80s. A rich, deep, and complex story about a group of people and their struggle for self-determination and basic human rights.

Bowling for ColumbineBowling for Columbine
Michael Moore, 2002

An exploration of the relationship between guns and violence in the United States. Moore travels around the United States and Canada talking with a variety of people including NRA president Charlton Heston, James Nichols (brother of Oklahoma bombing accomplice Terry Nichols), and members of the Michigan Militia. The film draws the connection between America’s violent society and its role in the world. But more importantly, this film provides a focal point for discussion of documentary filmmaking ethics, as the film is full of deceptive editing that twists and stretches the truth, yet through his storytelling skills, Moore, like a good magician, hides the mechanisms behind the tricks, resulting in a compelling argument that appeals to the emotions, but falls apart during the fact checking process. This film is not a documentary in most senses of the term, but it’s certainly entertaining.

This page was revised on October 18, 2008 (images and slight edits to the text were added)


  1. says

    I love documentaries. I’m a Netflix subscriber mostly so that I can get access to documentaries I couldn’t get at local video stores.

    There’s one thing I’ve always wondered: it seems like it’s not possible to get a DVD or VHS of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. Do you know why this is, or if it will change?

  2. says

    Many classic documetaries, including many of Frederick Wiseman’s films, are not available on home video because the bread-and-butter revenue comes from theatrical, institutional rentals, and broadcast. Once something is out on home video, a large percentage of viewers are going to be watching “free” copies of the film. For something of specialized interest, it’s the rentals to schools that provides revenue. It’s part of a channel strategy. That’s my opinion. If you have a film that primarily makes money from institutional rentals and sales, home video would cannibalize those sales.

  3. says

    Hi! I am the Features ed of a mag called platform based in New Delhi, India. We have a segment called Life’s Realities where we feature docu filmmakers frm around the world. If you would like us to feature your work then, please send us your synopsis at contribute@platform-mag.com

  4. barbara says

    hi dave,

    happy to find your blog…and glad you included marshall on your list. his writings found in gid’s filing cabinet, his prespective on shooting documentary, blew me away.

    have you seen joris iven’s “rain?” i saw it at harvard film archive libraries. i think it is on par with the your list (always tough to keep it to 10). an oldie but stunning.

    saw you at the plymouth film fest but did not get a chance to catch up. looking forward to keeping up via kino-eye.

    barbara (ic)

  5. david says


    You asked about “joris iven’s “rain,” I’ve not seen it, I will add it to my list. Thanks for the tip. Sorry we did not get a chance to catch up at PIFF, maybe sometime soon around MIT. Keeping to 10 films is tough, but I’ll have to make another one soon, 10 other films :-)

  6. Harry says

    Excellent list. Thanks for differentiating Bowling for Columbine as a work of fiction. It’s hard for me to watch knowing how many people were deceived by his ‘nfortainment’.

  7. says

    Sometimes the fiction/doc distinction is valid, sometimes it’s just academic. Bill Nichols has an interesting discussion in his book Introduction to Documentary” in which he argues there are two types of films, documentaries of wish fulfillment (what we commonly call narratives) and documentaries of social reality (what we commonly call documentaries). It’s also interesting to note that the history of documentary is closely tied to the history of propaganda. Consider the work of Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein.

  8. says

    hi lisa,
    i was just reading comments – i know it’s been two years – but wanted you to know that fred wiseman has released some of his films on DVD, and they’re available for purchase to home viewers. I had always wondered myself since i haven’t been able to see some of his works. they’re $30+. http://www.zipporah.com/calendar/press/9

  9. says

    kathryn, thanks for stopping by and sharing the link, it’s very exciting that wiseman’s films are finally on DVD and available at “personal” prices for sales to individuals.