The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

The September 2014 edition of the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine features a poll of more 300 critics and filmmakers that has been used to draw up a list of the greatest documentaries of all time. This has resulted in the drawing up of  a critics’ top 50 and a filmmakers’ top 30. Topping both lists is Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

As someone whose teaching and research has focused mainly on French cinema, I was excited to see five French documentaries in the critics’ top 10. Even among this small group of films, there were quite a few different themes and approaches. Claude Lanzmann’s 550-minute long Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) was number two on the critics’ list, a place ahead of Chris Marker’s cinematic essay and travelogue Sans Soleil (1982). Alain Resnais’s concentration camp documentary Nuit et brouillard (1955) was fourth, two places ahead of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s cinéma vérité masterpiece Chronique d’un été (1961). At number 8 was Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000), a quirky film shot using hand-held digital cameras.

The Sight and Sound list got me thinking about what I would include on my own list of best documentaries. For this reason, I have drawn up a list of ten documentaries that I feel stand out for a variety of different reasons. Some are cinematic masterpieces of their time while others are ones that I simply found to curious or amusing, or which had a degree of personal sentimental appeal. As it is so hard to compare radically different types of films, I have decided to list them in the order in which they were made.


Nuit et brouillard (Alain Resnais, 1955)

Released teen years after the end of World War One, Alain Resnais’s documentary about Nazi concentration camps is rooted not just in the past but also the then present and future. It constitutes a meditation on war and memory and reflects on the wider question of to what extent it is possible to represent and adequately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust. It knits together archive footage and still images of the camps as well as shots of what the camps looked like at the time of the film’s production. The gentle music of Hans Eisler and the poetic script written by Jean Cayrol and spoken by Michel Bouquet combine to form a powerful piece of documentary cinema that raises questions about both history and the power of images.


Le Joli Mai (Chris Marker, 1963)

Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai has the feel of a leisurely stroll round Paris and was shot in May 1962, shortly after the end of the Algerian War. Marker took on the role of the off-screen interviewer, asking Parisians about their hopes and fears after a period during which France had been involved in a succession of wars (Second World War, the Indochina War and the Algerian War). Despite being two and a half hours long, the film still succeeds in providing and engaging – and occasionally amusing – portrait of Paris and Parisians in the early 1960s.


Loin du Vietnam (Chris Marker et al, 1967)

This collective project brought together short films by leading French directors such as Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. It also featured footage shot by international filmmakers such as Joris Ivens and William Klein, providing it with a range of perspectives on the Vietnam War. The film also constituted a meditation on film and what happens when a film ends and an audience lives the cinema and heads home. Godard’s segment, which broke the rule that none of the directors should appear in their own part of the film, featured footage of him contemplating the potential impact of political cinema while fiddling with a camera.


Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)

I sometimes struggle to put my finger on exactly what it is about Steve James’s Hoop Dreams that makes it so engaging. The film tells the story of two Chicago high school students who hope to make it as professional basketball players. In many ways, it is a traditional sporting story about the underdog trying to overcome adversity. The central duo, William Gates and Arthur Agee, are African Americans from a run down part of Chicago who end up attending a well-to-do school that is renowned for its basketball history. For almost three hours, Steve James succeeds in providing a fly-on-the-wall portrait of  the pair’s ups and downs as they strive towards their goal in a film that raises issues about education, race and social division in the United States.


Etre et avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002)

I first watched Nicolas Philibert’s film Etre et avoir in autumn 2002 in Lille. I was returning to France having worked in a primary school a year previously, so the documentary about a single room primary school perhaps had a natural appeal. Although such schools are increasingly rare, the film did have a universal appeal due to its focus on learning, growing up and the passing of the seasons. It was also the first documentary by Philibert that I had seen and I remember marveling at the subtlety of his filmmaking. A rarely audible and never visible presence in the film, he succeeded in producing a sentimental and at times moving portrait of the world of education and kids growing up in rural central France.


On n’est pas des marques de vélos (Jean-Pierre Thorn, 2002)

Cinema and the RepublicTo see the film’s trailer, click here.

If it was subtlety that was at the heart of Etre et avoir‘s appeal to me it was perhaps the directness of On n’est pas des marques de vélos that grabbed meThe film tells the story of a breakdancer known as Bouda who is deported from France to Tunisia despite having been legally present in France since he was a few months old. The film both tells the story of the development of hip-hop culture in suburban France and makes hip-hop culture (rap music, breakdance routines, graffiti-style titles) part of the film’s aesthetic. This film itself was one of the reasons that I wanted to do a PhD and being able to interview its director Jean-Pierre Thorn in 2005 was a real privilege. It was a further privilege to be able to use an image from the film on the cover of my book Cinema and the Republic: Filming on the Margins in Contemporary France.


Favela Rising (Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist, 2005)

Matt Mochary and Jeffy Zimbalist’s Favela Rising has a similar focus to On n’est pas des marques de vélos  as it shows how hip-hop music and dance can play a role in seeking to provide a message of hope in Rio de Janeiro’s under-privileged areas. The film tells the story of the AfroReggae movement, and especially the role of drug-dealer turned community worker Anderson Sa. As with On n’est pas des marques de véloship-hop culture is both part of the film’s subject matter and its aesthetic.


Air Guitar Nation (Alexandra Lipsitz, 2006)

It is probably fair to say that Air Guitar Nation is not a film that is widely seen as having marked film history. Although it may not be groundbreaking in cinematic terms, it brings to the wider public a lesser-known international cultural event: the World Air Guitar Championships. The interviews with the competitors, whose routines involve miming to backing tracks as they pretend to play an invisible guitar, are frequently amusing. At one point a competitor proudly states that he considers himself to a musician but sees one of his main rivals as a mere actor.


Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

Man of the Wire stands out largely due to the spectacular footage of high-wire walker Philippe Petit, whose exploits include tightrope walking between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York during the 1970s. The film features many interviews with Petit as he describes the meticulous planning he devoted to such endeavours and also looks back at his roots. Personal footage from Petit’s own archive helps to build the story and Michael Nyman’s soundtrack adds to the dream-like atmosphere.


The Great Hip-Hop Hoax (Jeanie Finlay, 2013)

The Great Hip-Hop Hoax tells the story of a Scottish rap duo who decide to pretend to be from California in order to make it in the music industry. The film is full of twists and surprises as the pair’s hoax goes remarkably well, fooling fans, music journalists and members of several rival bands. It is also a tale of two friends whose meteoric but constantly somewhat precarious rise leads to significant tensions along the way.


What do you think of this list of ten memorable documentaries that I have drawn up? Which films would you include in your list of great documentaries? Feel free to let me know via the comments box below, I’d really welcome feedback on what I’ve said here.

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