I think we can all admit this: documentary filmmaking gets something of a bum rap in a lot of circles. They don’t make nearly as much money as “fiction” films and they typically get less-than-stellar theatrical distribution. Docs seldom garner much institutional support; the Academy has yet to nominate a Documentary for Best Picture. Hell, documentaries aren’t even eligible for the IMDb’s Top 250 list.
In some ways, I suppose this is understandable. After all, we live in a culture for whom the motion picture is a means of “escapism” – a big-budget product targeted to the broad masses. The documentary, in its most categorically reductive sense, is anathema to the concept of escapism; it instead meant to serve as a kind of projection of our world, to incite truth through journalistic and/or political styles of propagation. In a documentary, we are never intended to forget this very real world of ours. Who on earth wants that when they are going to the movies?
In another, more accurate way, this “understandable” logic behind our disdain for nonfiction film is roundly unfair. Sure, a documentary is unlikely in our lifetime to snag the kind of studio backing and marketing budget of a film like The Avengers. The idea, however, that a documentary’s primary function to inform and/or propagate – not to provide escapist pleasures – or even that it is bound to the facts and to the “real” world, is woefully limiting. The kind of experiential value to be wrung from the nonfiction film genre is both diverse and expansive, and it is our goal this month to explore that.
Throughout the month of July (and seeping briefly into the month of August), the Film Misery staff will be watching a collection of classic documentary films, featuring selections from the silent era to the fairly recent past. It was surprisingly difficult to whittle down the list to a group of films we thought were worth checking out, based on their historical value, their artistic contributions, and their social relevance (plus, no film being reviewed is under a decade old). Since we don’t have time to review about a dozen more films, we are counting on you, dear reader, to champion your personal favorite documentaries.
Below is the list of the classic documentaries we plan on discussing throughout the month (we have noted which films are available on Netflix and Hulu Plus):
- Nanook of the North (1922, dir. Robert J. Flaherty)
- Grey Gardens (1975, dir. Albert & David Maysles) – available on Hulu Plus
- Harlan County, USA (1976, dir. Barbara Kopple)
- The Thin Blue Line (1988, dir. Errol Morris) – available on Netflix
- Roger & Me (1989, dir. Michael Moore)
- Hoop Dreams (1994, dir. Steve James) – available on Netflix and Hulu Plus
- American Movie (1999, dir. Chris Smith)