I grew up thinking of documentaries as National Geographic specials on PBS. They were often interesting voice-over tours of distant lands and unfamiliar ecosystems. About ten years ago, as I was exploring different expressions of storytelling, I returned to this film genre. I remember being amazed at the creativity and edgy feel to these newer documentaries. I don’t know much about the history of documentaries, but it certainly seems like the modern documentary reflect many attributes of the digital world and reality television. Rather than my earlier expectation of an objective educational report on a given topic, this modern breed is wonderfully diverse, packed with bias, constantly blending fiction and reality, and mixing observation and autobiography in a way that I don’t remember in the old Jacques Cousteau films. Then again, I can see how Jane Goodall’s participant ethnographies with Gorillas opened the door to this style.
Whatever the case, if you are interested in the modern world of digital storytelling and want some great ideas for crafting your own, check out these documentaries. You don’t need to agree with the agendas or like the people. Instead, consider them case studies in storytelling that blend editorials, video, images, music, etc.
Here are some that captured my attention over the last decade or so. Be warned that the content in some of these documentaries may be disturbing and definitely isn’t something that you want to watch if you are curled up on the couch with your three-year old.
Race to Nowhere, Please Vote for Me, The Waiting Room, Brooklyn Castles, Bully, The War on Kids, Curiosity, The Cartel, American Teacher, Teached, Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Craigslist Joe, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Buck, Project Nim, Waste Land, Make Believe, Being Elmo, Like Water, Forks Over Knives, Happy, Waiting for Superman, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Lottery, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Freakonomics, Spellbound, Supersize Me, Touching the Void, Paper Clips, College Inc., Touching the Void, March of the Penguins, Devil’s Playground, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Murderball, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Born into Brothels, Grizzly Man, Hoop Dreams, An Inconvenient Truth, My Architect, The Story of the Weeping Camel, Sound and Fury, Stevie, Daughter From Danang, Ghosts of Rwanda, Rize, Mad Hot Ballroom, My Date With Drew, Emmanuel’s Gift.
You don’t want to work through the entire list? Consider my personal favorites (:
1. Emmanuel’s Gift (the most inspirational documentary)
2. Happy (makes you smile)
3. Craigslist (great story about exploring humanity in the digital age)
4. My Architect: A Son’s Journey (for everyone grappling with father-son issues)
5. Sound and Fury (intriguing exploration of the hearing impaired community as a culture)
6. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (from the maker of Super Size Me…notice the way that he tells the story.)
7. Race to Nowhere (because life and learning are so much bigger than school)
8. Born into Brothels (inspirational story of a photo-journalist helping children of prostitutes in India brothels)
9. Spellbound (funny and heart-warming)
10. Waste Land (dignity and despair)
11. The War on Kids (provocative)