The Truth is Out There: 13 Documentary Films

We watch movies for many reasons.  To laugh and to cry, to be amazed and to see things blow up. Mainly we watch them to be entertained. But some films can do more than just entertain us. They can also educate us, and show us the world in new ways.

Documentary films have been around ever since the movie industry started.  The process has been refined throughout the decades, and today some documentaries can see widespread theatrical release.

Documentaries differ from other nonfiction films, such as travelogues for instance, in that they inject some type of drama or opinion into them.  And that is something important to remember.  A documentary filmmaker is telling a story, even though the story is true, and they bring their own opinions and biases into the equation.  It is good practice to do some research after (or perhaps even beforehand)  to make sure you get the full story and relevant facts. To help with that I will not only link you to these docs in the library catalog, but also to any companion books and websites. Sometimes there will be a follow up or update available.

Truth

These lucky 13 documentaries come to you courtesy not just of me (and my wife) but also my wonderful coworkers here at the Macon County Public Library, Kristina and Erin.  They recommended many of these, and it is through their efforts that many of these films have been shown at the library.

Bag It (2010) DVD / Official movie website

“Paper or plastic” is not something we hear so much any more. These days it is just plastic. But should it be? That is what Jeb Berrier, the subject of this film, sets out to discover by deciding to stop using plastic grocery bags.  This decision is more profound than he thought it would be.

Coincidentally, I recently read a piece about plastic bags and what we know, and perhaps more importantly what we don’t know, about their effect on the environment.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008) DVD / Official movie website

In November of 2001 Andrew Bagby was murdered. His girlfriend was the chief suspect, but before she could be arrested she fled to Canada. While awaiting extradition it was revealed that she was pregnant with Bagby’s son. Bagby’s longtime friend, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, decided to interview on film all of the friends and family members he could, so that this child (Zachary) would have something of his father while he grew up.

But Zachary never did grow up, as he was killed by his mother in a homicide/suicide. The film then became a documentary of the tragedy and a look at the (successful) efforts of Zachary’s grandparents to change the Canadian legal system so that something like this could not happen again. A powerful and moving story.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) DVD / Official movie website / A book of Banksy art

Street artist Banksy is famously famous now. In this film he tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a man obsessed with documenting his life. When Guetta meets up with his cousin, a street artist known as Invader, he turns he attention to this particular form of art, and begins doing some himself. The movie also features Shepard Fairey, who is well known for his iconic Barack Obama piece, amongst other things.

What is fascinating about this film is that in the end you are not quite sure how much is real and how much is a put on. Plus some people will watch this and see art within art within art, and others won’t think any of it is art at all. Like all great documentaries do, this movie inspires conversation. And no, you do not get to see Banksy’s face in it.

A Banksy piece in New Orleans.
A Banksy piece in New Orleans.

Good Hair (2009) DVD

Chris Rock talks about hair. While that is probably a good enough description to get you interested, I will expand on it. What he does here is look at the world of African-American hairstyles, primarily those of women. And he does so through a variety of interviews (including an appearance by Maya Angelou). A great example of how a seemingly simple topic can be made into something more.

Grey Gardens (1975/2006) DVD / Official movie website

Let’s roll it back old school here. In the early 1970s a story surfaced about the two Edith Beale’s, aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (!), who were living in a run down old mansion.  “Run down” is probably too gentle a phrase here.  The place was overrun by fleas and raccoons and lacked most basic amenities. In the film we see the efforts made to help the mother and daughter renovate and save their residence. Quite a different look at what one might call “American aristocracy”.

The filmmakers did a follow up in 2006, The Beales of Grey Gardens, and that one is also on DVD. It is also the first documentary ever to be made into a Broadway musical, and it was also adapted into a 2009 TV movie for HBO.

The estate circa 2009
The estate circa 2009

A Man Named Pearl (2006) DVD

Plants can also be art, as shown in this film about North Carolina’s own Pearl Fryar. Son of a sharecropper, Fryar took a liking to topiary, and taught himself how to do it. And by “taught himself” I mean he became an amazing artist at it. His garden is in Bishopville, South Carolina, and is free to visit. that being said, art like this deserves support, so if you do visit please leave a donation.

Man On Wire (2008) DVDTo Reach the Clouds (Petit’s autobiography)

In 1974 Philippe Petit did something a little out of the ordinary. He walked on a high-wire between the Twin Towers in New York City. And he did it unauthorized, leading to his arrest. The doc has all the details, including a reenactment and interviews with some of the people involved.

The story inspired a very well received children’s book in 2003, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein, and is the basis for a new feature film, The Walk, out this fall, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

The Rape of Europa (2006) DVD / Book / Official movie website

World War II took a toll on many things, and one of those things was art. For years the Nazis collected and looted art from across Europe. This movie documents not just that but also the efforts of Allied forces to counter this, and looks at the actions, both good and bad, of art dealers all over the world. The recent feature film The Monuments Men loosely tells the same story.

Restrepo (2010) DVD

Sticking with the war theme, Restrepo is a film about the Afghanistan War, as documented by two journalists (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington) who were embedded with a platoon of the US Army. The title comes from the name of a combat medic in the platoon who is killed in action. This is not a light and happy film, as it shows what these soldiers went through over the course of a year fighting in one of the deadliest areas of that country. It is a meaningful film.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012) DVD / Official movie website

Sixto Rodriguez was a succesful American musician. Not familiar with his music? Maybe that is because his success came chiefly in South Africa. Two fans from Cape Town decided to find out what had happened to Rodriguez, whom they knew little about except his music, and the result is this wonderful film.

Minor spoiler alert here: they do find Rodriguez, who was not dead as was rumored. After the documentary was released, the singer found a little more fame (and sales) both in the US and abroad.

The man himself, performing in 2014.
The man himself, performing in 2014.

Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005) DVD / Official movie website

Would you mind if I broke protocol and got up on my soapbox, just for a moment? I feel that our penal system is flawed, notably in that prisoners are dehumanized. Inmates are not adequately prepared to rejoin society, and that along with social stigma contributes to our high recidivism rates.

So I was already predisposed to like this film, and it did not disappoint. The Shakespeare Behind Bars program has been running for 20 years now, and it does just what the title says: prisoners put on an annual Shakespearean play for family members and fellow inmates. The film documents one such performance.

It is a little startling realizing that some of the participants have done horrific crimes, and some are not going to see the outside of prison again. But the core theme, and one that the SBB group stands behind, is of the innate goodness in humanity. Even though that is hard to see at times. The website has updates on the performers featured in the movie.

Trouble the Water (2008) DVD / Official movie website

Having spent much of my life in Florida, I am conversant with hurricanes. But Katrina was something different, which is what this film shows us. A mix of home video (including scenes from people trapped in an attic as flood waters rise), news footage, and more it is a compelling look at what the victims of the storm went through.

We get to see not only the weather itself but the lasting effects afterwards on people and places that maybe weren’t in the best shape before Mother Nature got nasty. It also features a killer soundtrack.

Waste Land (2010) DVD / Official movie website

Now if you are like me, whenever you make a trip to the dump or the recycling center and someone has left something of theirs out for the taking, you at least glance at it. I don’t think I have ever taken any of that stuff home, but it is like wired in us to at least take a quick look at it. So it is not surprising to know that some people do more than look. But in this film we are not seeing people who scavenge for their survival or scour for recyclables. We see people who do it for…art?

The largest land fill in the world is in Brazil, near Rio de Janeiro, and this is where our story takes us. A group of catadores there have turned some of what they find into art. Prized and auctionable art. It is quite a film, but don’t just take my word for it. Just look at this list of awards it received.

I don't think this is the right wasteland...
I don’t think this is the right wasteland…

Hopefully you will find some documentaries in this list that will teach, entertain, and maybe even inspire you. I have to go now. We have a new documentary on our DVR at home that needs watching. And please share your thoughts on these and recommend any good docs you know of in the comments below.

You can find a list of all the titles mentioned in the library catalog here:

https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=354159;page=0;locg=155;depth=0

2 thoughts on “The Truth is Out There: 13 Documentary Films

  1. Thank you! Definitely going to check out “Shakespeare Behind Bars” (preach away, Chris; I agree!)

    Here’s a documentary I forgot to mention- “OT: Our Town” about a Compton, California high school’s production of the Thornton Wilder play. Find it here:
    https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/record/1175202?query=OT%20our%20town;qtype=title;locg=155

    And to go along with “Man on Wire” I have to recommend this amazing book by Colum McCann… it’s a novel about a few people who witnessed that walk.
    https://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/record/978786?query=let%20the%20great%20world%20spin;qtype=keyword;locg=155

    Like

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