There are two things we are taught over and over again as we try to improve our art. The first is to practice every day, even if it’s just for thirty minutes. The second is to familiarize yourself: read as many books, watch as many films, and look at as many paintings as you can.
See what people are doing. Learn the conventions. Then break ’em.
If you hope to step into the field of doc filmmaking, then we suggest you read our list of the top 10 documentaries of all time – and then watch those films!
1. Dark Days (2000) – The fact that groups of Mole People are living beneath major metropolitan areas has fascinated city-dwellers for decades. But Marc Foster does not make a film about the way of life in abandoned subway tunnels to provide entertainment; he makes the film to provide aboveground homes for the subjects of the film. Despite the characters possessing running water and electricity, it’s truly amazing to see the friendships fostered through living underground.
2. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006) – Jeff Feuerzeig’s film, which kicked-off Raindance’s 13th Film Festival, is focuses on a manic-depressive musician named Daniel Johnston whose lo-fi music recordings are heralded by music enthusiasts across America. It is a touching, though frequently unsettling, look at a man whose mind teeters on the brink of insanity. Regardless, the film furthered a growing cult following for Johnston and other lo-fi artists.
3. Audience of One (2007) – Have you seen the latest trailer for Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph? Neither have I. Neither has anyone. That’s because for the past decade, delusional Pastor Richard Gazowsky has been chasing his dream of making a $50 million biblical, sci-fi epic (featuring aliens and robots, shot at 60fps on 70mm film, and filmed in Italy). Unlike other films centered on extreme religious sects, director Michael Jacobs approaches the subject matter with non-bias and allows the audience to judge for themselves.
4. Paris Is Burning (1991) This is another emotional doozey about an underground scene in New York City. This time, the subject matter is Ball competitions. A poignant film for a city fresh out of the 80’s, it explores the impact of AIDS, the understanding of sexual identity, and the dance style known as “voguing.” It’s a deeply affective film about a subculture that – before the release of the film – had been feared and greatly misunderstood.
5. The Cove (2009) – We know that dolphins are aware of their own existence and that they’re getting slaughtered by the thousands in Taiji, Japan. The presentation of these facts is not what makes this film so memorable. The real gem in this doc is the story of Ric O’Barry, former dolphin trainer for the 60’s TV show Flipper, and his quest for redemption as he feels single-handedly responsible for the worldwide affection – and subsequent capturing and enslavement – of dolphins.
6. Bowling for Columbine (2002) – We can argue all day about Michael Moore and his beliefs. What can’t be argued is that he’s a talented guy. This film uses the Columbine shootings to address the much larger American debate on gun control – and does it in a prolific way. Moore stands steadfastly behind his belief that greater gun control is necessary nationwide; but more importantly, he firmly justifies it.
7. Planet Earth (2006) – It’s easy to forget the grandeur of our globe, but this phenomenal BBC series instills wonder for all and has promoted a worldwide market for nature docs. And just a tip for our American readers: buy the British version because David Attenborough’s narration is far more captivating!
8. Grizzly Man (2005) – This is one of several docs on our list about a man obsessed; the second about a man obsessed with animals. Dissimilar to The Cove, however, it’s a story about discovery, not revelation. Although the film focuses on Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who is eventually eaten by a bear, the journey we follow is really that of filmmaker Werner Herzog as he learns about a seriously misguided man.
9. The Line Blue Line (1988) – Errol Morris, the filmmaker, investigates the death of a Texas cop using testaments from those involved in the case. Morris believes the man accused of murdering the police officer is innocent. He creates dramatic reenactments from these accounts and sets a standard for all murder-mystery documentaries from its release on. A year after the film came out, the man accused is retrialed and acquitted of all charges.
10. Man on Wire (2008) – By far the most uplifting of the 10, this doc follows Philippe Pette, a high wire walker who crosses the roofs of the Twin Towers in NYC. This, too, uses reenactments to hurl the audience into the heist-like game of breaking in and rising to the top. Pette’s excitement and flamboyancy carry the film through all of preperation stages.
The common trend seems to be this: pick one person’s story to represent a much larger issue. New and exotic perspectives have the ability to open the viewers’ minds and challenge them to think in different ways. Film is miraculous in that it reveals truth about human nature – this can either help us mankind or leave us totally fucking confused.