‘The process of making a documentary is one of discovery, and like writing a story, you follow a less that leads you to something else and then by the time you finish, the story is nothing like you expected’ – William Shatner
I have the attention span of a gnat. So I’m not a massive film buff and I just don’t have the patience to sit though them unless they’re really good or have Jake Gyllenhaal in. I have however always loved a good documentary film, because, much like reality TV, the lives of other people is always way more interesting than a story someone has made up.
The title maybe misleading as these may not be strictly the best documentaries in the whole wide world, but they’re certainly ones that are certainly worth a watch if you have a spare hour and a half!
1. A Map For Saturday (2005)
Following 25 year old Brook on an 11 month backpacking trip around the world after jacking in his job working with HBO this film chronicles the places he visits and people he meets along the way. The name of the film is derived by the fact that when you’re travelling for so long with no real schedule to stick to, every day feels like a Saturday. It’s really well shot and Brook is a charming and charismatic host, he’s refreshingly honest as well, highlighting the inevitable lows that being on a constant tight budget and away from your family for so long can bring. All the inevitable travel porn scenes are intercut with interviews with people from all over the world embarking on the same adventure, talking about their experiences and why they made the decision to pack up and go alone in the first place.
2. Scared Straight (1978)
Academy Award winning and narrated by Peter Falk (Columbo himself!) this tells the story of wayward teenagers from The New York area who were taken into Rahway State Prison to meet a group of ‘lifers’ who gave them a terrifying insight into prison life. The prisoners proceed to shout, threaten, swear at and intimidate the young tearaways (all of them guilty of petty crime in their own neighbourhoods) and basically try to terrify them into behaving themselves. The session with the prisoners in unrelenting and hard to watch in places, especially when they talk at length about ‘protection’ and becoming another inmates ‘property’ and the kids who swaggered in to the prison full of bravado and cockiness are left shaking and in tears. The follow up documentary (presented by Danny Glover) meets up with the kids, and some of the inmates 20 years later and explores whether the programme had any impact on either parties.
3. Devil’s Playground (2002)
There seems to have been a bit of a saturation of documentaries or Tv series about Amish kids going through Rumspringa (a period from the ages of 16 to 21 where they are allowed to experience and ‘English’ world and depart from Amish rules with a view to rejoining the church again for life) but this film is still worth a watch as I think its a little deeper than some of the lighthearted shows I’ve seen. It follows a few teenagers from Indiana who enter into the English world and experience partying, drinking, sex and drugs for the first time which varying degrees of success. The ‘star’of the film is definitely Faron, who seems to embrace Rumspringa the most but still feels conflicted between his ties to the English and Amish worlds. It details what path each of the teenagers eventually choose; be baptised as adults back into the Amish church, stay in the English world, or be baptised back then leave again – which results in being shunned by the family, and the consequences of those decisions.
4. Don’t You Forget About Me (2009)
Part road trip, part nostalgic homage, this film was shot over two years and chronicles the journey of a group of young film makers who go on a search for 80’s film maker John Hughes, who hasn’t given an interview or been seen in public since 1999. They’ve managed to secure interviews with some of Hughes’ biggest stars; Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Kelly LeBrock, as well and Simple Minds Lead singer Jim Kerr (who’s song from The Breakfast Club lends its name to the title of the film) and the filmmakers themselves are engaging and their enthusiasm is infectious. For any kid of the 80s this film is a must see trip down memory lane and will no doubt make you want to watch all the old Hughes movies again. I want ruin the ending for you but you’re with them every step of the way as they travel from Canada to Chicago hoping the mange to get some time with their hero and tell him how much his work means to them.
5. Fuck – A Documentary (2005)
A lighthearted look at everyone’s favourite four letter word. Interviews from both side of the fence (users and the offended alike) construct the syrup how where the word came from, what it was originally used for and the many ways in which it can be added to any sentence as a noun, verb, adjective or interjection. There are some big hitters being interviewed on the subject (Kevin Smith, Alanis Morisette, Billy Connelly) who delve into the realms of censorship, free speech and the first amendment, and it’s use in American politics is fascinating (there are audio recordings of pretty much every US president of the last 70 years using it). Members of the FCC appear in the film to offer their rebuttal but it’s clear which since of the fence director Steve Anderson sits on with regards to use of the word. The word it’s self appears 857 times so if you’re easily offended this may not be for you (but let’s be honest, you wouldn’t be watching it in the first place if you were).
6. Paradise Lost (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) & Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)
All three of these films focus on the story of the West Memphis Three; a group of teenagers convicted of murdering and torturing 3 young boys in 1993, their subsequent incarceration (Paradise Lost 2) and their appeals against the conviction and retrial (Paradise Lost 3). The stories are as fascinating as they are disturbing and raise more questions than they answer for the most part. How were they convicted with such a lack or forensic evidence? Why wasn’t the bloodied man found in a local restaurant the night of the murders investigated further? Why weren’t the accused more emotional on the stand? The courtroom scenes and the apparent incompetence of the detectives involved is jaw dropping in places, it almost plays out like a Hollywood movie; hard to believe that this is actual footage from an actual courtroom. The films themselves are shot very well using not voice over narrative at all, just intercut footage and interviews which tell the story and let the viewer make up their own mind. Questions are certainly raised involvement from mother parties (particularly the parents) after all, if you son had just been brutally muse red would you be quipping to the camera man ‘oh my god, I’m going to be on TV how exciting!’ Anyone who likes those dodgy true crime documentaries on Channel 5 will think all your Christmasses have come at once with these three films!
7. Dear Zachary – A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008)
I watched this with caution as after i’d read the premise I was worried there was a risk of it being corny and cliche. How wrong I was. This is a documentary that will stay with you long, long after you’ve watched it. It’s a cinematic time capsule to Zachary, whose dad, Andrew was tragically murdered before he was even born. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, who was best friends with Andrew growing up, travels the country interviewing friends and family finding out everything he possibly could about Andrew’s life and, more importantly, the impact he made on everyone he came in contact with. Like all great documentaries, it starts off in one place and ends up somewhere completely unexpected. But the twists and turns of the story aren’t bigged up in some dramatic Hollywood style as the tragic story of the Bagby family is told in a very subtle and touching way. If you can make it through the film without crying, I would seriously check your pulse immediately. If the world had more Kurt Kuenne’s in it, it would be a much better place.
8. American Teen (2008)
If you’re a reality TV freak like I am then you’ll love this documentary which is essentially a 90 minute long episode of Laguna Beach. Filmed over a year at Warsaw Community High School in Indiana it follows a group of students in their senior year from different ends of the popularity spectrum and they navigate their way through the social minefield that is High School. The main ‘stars’ are: Hannah (the rebel), Colin (the jock), Megan (the princess), Mitch (the heratthrob) and Jake (the geek) and see their ups, downs, first loves, heartbreaks, dramas (mainly provided by Megan who is wholly dislikeable) and insecurities as they all try and make potentially life changing decisions about their futures. As someone who went to high school in England, seeing into a real American High school (which is alarmingly similar to the movies) is interesting and, whilst (most of) the characters in the film are endearing and make you root for them; much like the advancement of social media, it still made me so pleased i’m not a teenager any more!
9. The Imposter (2012)
The absolutely baffling and frankly mind blowing story of a french man (Frederic Bourdin) who pretended to be a missing 13 year old boy from Texas, despite being 7 years older, have different colour eyes and a french accent. He managed to convince authorities and the missing boy’s family that he was kidnapped by the Mexican and European military for the purposes of child trafficking. As the story unfolds interviews with the family, US authorities and Frederick himself explain how this incredible story came to be and what was said or not said in order for the family to believe Frederick’s lies. It’s one of those films were you have to keep on reminding yourself that it’s a true stories because the facts are just so hard to believe. How was this imposter welcomed into the family with no questions asked? Why weren’t simple DNA tests carried out? Why weren’t the Mexican and European authorities contacted immediately when the claims of kidnap were made? A compelling watch!
10. I Know That Voice (2013)
A comical look into the world of voice acting including interviews with stars such as Matt Groening, Nancy Cartwright, Seth Green and Mark Hamil. If i were to give a tiny criticism it would be that it’s 15 minutes too long and a tad self indulgent and ;’back patting’ in places, but worth a watch if you can stick with the long section about Manga and Anime (which sadly doesn’t interest me in the slightest!) The interviewees are funny and charming, explain how they got into voice acting, and why they do what they do. Of course there’s impressions by the bucketful which are always entertaining and really funny seeing humans doing the voices of your favourite cartoon characters. There’s a high nostalgia factor though, some cartoon i’d forgotten existed feature heavily and all the actors speak fondly of this close knit community of which they’re clearly proud to be part of. A fun watch for any cartoon fan!