Documentaries: Truly Stranger Than Fiction?

Benjamin Baruch Woody

I have often heard the phrase “Truth is stranger than Fiction.” I have never found this to be true. The world is a truly fascinating, ever shifting, and diverse place, but it isn’t nearly as strange as a desert world with huge sandworms that a messiah figure rides into battle. Fiction can just do things that real life cannot do. That being established, there is a special place in the arts for the truth, for facts. True stories that happened to real people. In the film world, these movies are called documentaries.

According to Wikipedia, the term documentary was invented by “Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana {not this Moana}, published in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926″. This Robert Flaherty was also the director of one of the first documentary films ever made, Nanook of the North (which you can get at the library). Documentaries have been around as long as film has. Human beings feel the urge to document their surroundings. Just as many people document their vast interior lives with a diary, people also want to film the outside world.

Through the 20’s 30’s and 40’s, documentary film-making mostly followed the same tropes. However, World War II especially, did usher in a boom in propaganda documentaries. Leni RiefenstahlDziga Vertov, and Frank Capra are some famous documentary filmmakers from this era.

Sometime in the 60’s a new movement arose in documentaries. The Cinéma vérité style (there is an argument that there is a difference between the Cinéma vérité style and Direct Cinema. We will not enter that argument here.) usually involves a minimal crew (sometimes just one person), hand-held camera, intimate close-ups, ambient sound, and a pursuit for a certain kind of truth. The idea is that there are no “sets”. The subjects are filmed where they are. The camera is present, and sometimes even intrusive. This lack of subterfuge is supposed to lend a freedom to both subject and filmmaker. The point is to strip away as much artifice as possible between viewer and art. Some of the great Cinéma vérité documentaries that your local library has access to (and I personally recommend) are:

  1. Salesman: 1969–Great documentary by the pioneering Maysles Brothers following 4 Bible salesman around the country.
  2. Grey Gardens: 1975–Another amazing film by the Maysles Brothers. A truly remarkable movie showing the decay of both the house and cousins of the Kennedy family.
  3. The War Room: 1993–The quintessential election documentary. This movie takes us into the War Room, the campaign room of the 1992 presidential campaign for Bill Clinton. It provides intimate access to James Carville and George Stephanopoulos as they play hard ball with the Republicans.
  4. Special Mention: Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation 1986–This is my favorite documentary of all time. It defies explanation. It begins in Highlands, North Carolina and ends with several broken love affairs. Just watch it.

Today, documentaries have many styles and genres. Cinéma vérité has definitely been most influential and is still being done today, but many other techniques are used. One cannot talk about documentary film making without talking about the great Ken Burns. The Civil War, BaseballThe Vietnam War, and many, many more. All of his films are excellent.

There are just too many excellent documentaries to talk about each one. Below is a list of documentaries, of all styles, without description. These are movies that I personally love and believe you will also:

  1. Room 237
  2. Finders Keepers
  3. The Staircase
  4. The Magic Pill
  5. 30 for 30      All 30 movies from the first season
  6. 1804 and the Hidden Colors series.  Amazing history of Haiti and the African experience.
  7. Amy
  8. I called him Morgan
  9. Searching for Sugar Man
  10. Joan Baez

Fontana Regional Library system also has the free streaming service Kanopy. There are many wonderful documentaries on Kanopy. I suggest you search for The Criterion Collection. This collection is an already curated list of amazing movies, many of them documentaries. Happy Watching!!