Retrospective 2020: Documentary Films

Earlier this year I enrolled in a documentary studies course at the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University. Called Traditions, this course looked at the history of the documentary from an interdisciplinary perspective that included photography, film making, oral history, music making, and folklore. In the course, we examined how documentary work evolved into 21st century practice. Our instructor, Joy Salyers, met with us students weekly on a Zoom call. We had some great discussions.

Our homework included a rich set of readings, films, photographs, and sound recordings. When the course ended, I continued to view a fair number of documentary films, some that had commercial success. I’d like to share a few of the films I enjoyed.


First up is Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, 1983. Considering experimental, this French filmmaker assembled stock footage and photographs in a collage that is “a meditation on the nature of human memory.” This work of art, considered to be one of the all-time best films, is difficult to sum up. Perhaps the quotations that start the film can give you a glimpse of what the film is about.


The French version begins with a quotation from Jean Racine that roughly translates to:

The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the times.

But the English version starts with a different quotation, also chosen by Marker, from T. S. Elliot

Because I know that time is always time And place is always and only place.. (And what is actual is actual only for one time And only for one place.)

Another stunning film by Chris Marker is the science fiction film La Jetee, 1962. It is not a documentary, but the entire story is told using still images.


Other documentary films that I enjoyed and recommend are:

  • Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple, 1976. The story of coal miners and their families who staged a years-long strike against Duke Power Company for better working conditions. It was an Oscar winner.

  • Four Little Girls, Spike Lee, 1997. A documentary that tells the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that murdered four African-American girls.

  • Gimme Shelter, Maysles Brothers, 1970. A look at the Rolling Stones tour of the USA that ended with the Altamont Free Concert, a disaster.

  • F is for Fake, Orson Wells, 1973. A docudrama about the life of the art forger Elmyr de Hory.

  • Mossville: When Great Trees Fall, Alexander Glustron, 2019. Produced by a woman with whom I took a documentary ethics course last year (Michelle Lanier), the movie chronicles the destruction of a centuries-old African American community contaminated by a petrochemical plant.

  • The Soloist, Joe Wright, 2009. Not quite a documentary, this story is a loose biography of a homeless musical genius discovered by a journalist. It highlights the complex issues around homelessness in L.A.

  • Quest, Jonathan Olshefski, 2017. This film follows the life of a family in North Philadelphia over an 8-year period and shows how they survived the poverty and strife in their neighborhood.

  • They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson, 2018. Assembled from World War I archival footage, portrays the experience of soldiers in the thick of war.

  • Dark Money, Kimberly Reed, 2018. A story about the untraceable money used to influence American politics.

  • Muscle Shoals, Greg 'Freddy' Camalier. 2013. Tells the story of Rick Hall who founded FAME studies in Alabama. There are many great musical performances by the famous artists who loved the “Muscle Shoals” sound. I was astounded by the music and musicians who have passed through Rick Hall’s doors over the years.

  • Fireball: Visitors from Dark Worlds, Werner Herzog, 2020. In his unique way, Herzog takes us through the history of comets and their influence on culture and religion.


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