Documentary films

by Keith Barber

The Thin Blue Line (1988) Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, the man convicted of the 1976 killing of a Dallas police officer. Through spellbinding re-enactments of the crime, Morris makes a strong case that Adams is innocent and the 16-year-old runaway who fingered him (David Harris) is the person who pulled the trigger on that fateful night. The filmmaker’s technique of having his interview subjects speak directly to the camera makes the viewer feel like an active participant in the story. High production values, masterful editing and a powerful, moving score by Philip Glass make The Thin Blue Line one of the greatest documentaries of all time.

Waiting for Superman (2010) Acclaimed filmmaker Davis Guggenheim takes on one of the broadest, most unwieldy subjects in cinematic history: the American education system. Guggenheim’s film gives some insight into sobering statistics like America ranks 29 th in science among industrialized nations. According to the Sundance Film Festival guide, Guggenheim “reminds us that education ‘statistics’ have names.” Guggenheim follows five children through their elementary education experience to show the pitfalls of the education system and the barriers to real reform.

Waste Land (2010) Lucy Walker’s uplifting story of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and work with the catadores, or pickers of recyclable materials, at Jardim Gramacho — the world’s biggest landfill located just south of Rio de Janiero — took home the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Muniz’s transformation of his black-and-white photographs into gigantic collages using recyclable materials as photo pixels parallels the personal transformations of the catadores of Jardim Gramacho, and the audience enjoys its own cathartic moment at the film’s climax.

Fog of War (2003) Errol Morris’s 2003 film offers the gift of insight into life of Robert S. McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. McNamara served as a bombing statistician during World War II, and he speaks in abstract terms about the killing of hundreds of thousands of Japanese but then the emotion of the bombing of Tokyo hits him, and he’s visibly shaken. Morris has the uncanny ability to build trust with his interview subjects to the point that they slowly reveal themselves as the film progresses. McNamara was a central figure during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His revelations about how close we came to thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union and the sound decisions made by JFK that saved our nation make Fog of War a must-see for history buffs.

Food Inc. (2009) Apart from Super Size Me, there is one film that can take credit for thousands of Americans changing their eating habits and that film is Food Inc. Director Robert Kenner’s searing indictment of the global food industry tracks the its enormous expansion since the 1950s and how government-subsidized crops like corn have been engineered to go into almost everything we eat. After watching Food Inc., one is tempted to swear off all products containing high fructose corn syrup. Kenner personalizes the issue in a vignette that shows a poor Latino family shopping for groceries. The parents realize an organic pear costs more than an entire meal at Burger King, so they opt for fast food. The sinister nature of the food industry is made manifest by images of obese children chowing down on unhealthy fast food.

Bowling for Columbine (2002) Some would argue that Michael Moore is not a documentary filmmaker but an essayist, and I would agree. However, Moore’s essay on America’s obsession with guns and proclivity toward gun violence is one of the best documentaries ever made. The winner of the 2003 Academy Award, Bowling for Columbine draws its inspiration from the senseless massacre of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Moore delves deeply into the American psyche to find an answer to the pressing question: Why is America the most violent nation on the planet? Moore takes on the late Charlton Heston, former president of the National Rifle Association, and exposes the media’s role in creating a culture of fear, hate and bigotry.

Roger & Me (1989) Moore’s 1989 documentary is a showcase of the filmmaker’s unique talents. Using archival footage and first-person narration, Moore guides the viewer through a history lesson on General Motors closure of plants in Flint, Mich. that led to the loss of 30,000 jobs and the devastation of a once-great American city. With cameras rolling, Moore approaches GM’s headquarters in Detroit on several occasions to get a one-on-one meeting with former CEO Roger Smith. Each time, Moore’s attempts are thwarted but finally near the film’s end, Moore confronts Smith at a public event. However, there is no resolution to the confrontation, only exasperation for a city victimized by corporate greed.

Iraq in Fragments (2006) Director James Longley’s poignant and lyrical film about life in post-war Iraq earned him the directing prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. A cinema verité masterpiece, Longley allows the people of Iraq’s three distinct regions tell their own personal stories, and the effect is mesmerizing. A ground’s-eye view of the human cost of war, Iraq in Fragments is enlightening in that it reminds us of our shared humanity.

Harlan County, USA (1976) Director Barbara Kopple’s film about a band of coal miners striking against a mining company in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973 is widely considered one of the best films ever made, regardless of genre. After the miners sign a contract with the United Mine Workers of America, the company refuses to grant them a new contract. Over the course of a year, Kopple documents the battles between company armed thugs and the striking miners in a film that brilliantly encapsulates the struggles of the labor movement in America.

The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006) Based on the story of Darryl Hunt, the Winston-Salem man who spent 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s film is one of the most powerful social justice documentaries ever produced. Stern and Sundberg show how misconduct by the Winston-Salem Police Department and the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office, as well as biased coverage by the local media railroaded Hunt. The Trials of Darryl Hunt makes the viewer wonder how many people, particularly African-American men, have been wrongfully convicted by our system of justice. Ultimately, the film “challenges the assumption that all Americans have the right to unbiased justice,” said Sundberg.