Hard times make you want to look away. These days, political turmoil is the norm. Hate speech seems like it’s part of the vernacular. And people debate diversity rather than celebrate it. We seem to be living in a dystopia. Right now, even acknowledging that there’s turmoil is a Herculean undertaking.
That’s why information is key. Below, you’ll find historical documentaries that demonstrate human folly. They also discuss fragility of peace. Most importantly, they show how easy it is to lose touch with others over perceived differences.
Yes, they show the tolls of war, demonstrate the importance of liberation, or dig deep in search of personal closure. But they also illustrate perseverance, resilience, and a desire for connection. They keep us from looking away, and we need them now more than ever.
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She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry documents the onslaught of second-wave feminism in America during the ’60s. Also, more generally, when the plight of women’s cries for liberation began.
Mary Dore, the director, is no stranger to stories of struggle. In 1984, she released her documentary The Good Fight, about the a crew of fascism fighters called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Decades later, she wipes her lenses and puts the focus on women and their harried persistence on claiming agency.
We’re at a time where even the legitimacy of factual news is contested, where history is disagreed with by rewriting it haphazardly.
Dore reminds everyone what happened that time by deconstructing the phenomenon into a series of archival footage, documents, anecdotes, and talking heads. The result is a less romanticized version of that storied fight in favor of a more a visceral account.
Sad to say that She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry remain an urgent documentary to this day. Women in many parts of the world are still fighting for equal rights, equal pay, and protection from harassment, to name just a few.
Director: Mary Dore – Cast: Alta, Chaude Pamela Allen, Judith Arcana, Nona Willis Aronowitz, Fran Beal, Heather Booth – Subject/Topic: Feminism, Liberation, Gender Politics – Release Date: 2014 – Run Time: 1h 27m
Five Came Back
This mini-documentary series explores the stories of five Hollywood filmmakers who enlisted in the armed forces to document the Second World War.
Adapted from Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by journalist Mark Harris, the series focuses on U.S. directors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens and their frontline war work.
Their artistic comes into careful but rigorous analysis with the help of modern directors. Paul Greengrass, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, and Lawrence Kasdan pick apart and put them back together again.
As much as it’s a deft, delicate portrait of war, Five Came Back is also a meditation on the role of art as evidence in very trying times. It draws on over 100 hours of archival footage and studies the impact and legacies of the all the directors’ work.
Director: Laurent Bouzereau – Cast: Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg – Subject/Topic: Second World War, Art, Cinema – Release Date: 2017 – Run Time: Varies
One of documentary veteran Errol Morris’ first Netflix projects, Wormwood is a six-part docu-drama series centered on Frank Olson, a scientist who may have unwittingly joined a controversial program called Project MKUltra.
Project MKUltra was a secret government biological warfare project. It’s hard to get into this subject without writing a thousand paragraphs on it, but for word count reasons, let’s just call it the CIA mind control program.
Olson died under mysterious circumstances in 1953. It was suicide, the people up there said. But posthumous investigations have raised suspicions of a coverup of an alleged murder.
Much of Wormwood focuses on Eric Olson, the son of Frank, who aims to find out what really happened to his father.
Ultimately, Wormwood is about the fragility of facts, even if we perceive them to be true. Morris says, “What Wormwood tries to do is tell a story about how we know what we know and how reliable is that knowledge.”
Director: Errol Morris – Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Christian Camargo, Scott Shepherd, Tim Blake Nelson, Jimmi Simpson, Bob Balaban, Michael Chernus – Subject/Topic: Government, Psychology, Mind Control – Release Date: 2017 – Run Time: 4h 1m
The Civil War
The Civil War might be the documentary of documentaries, and also one of, if not the finest anti-war documentaries ever made.
Released in 1990, The Civil War pulls the curtains off Virginia’s tumultuous history and reveals horrors of human doing. Bloodshed and the perishment of innocence are the themes it focuses on.
A deeply poignant miniseries, The Civil War plays out with staccato-like verve. It’s at once delicate, somber, and unapologetic about the romanticism it tries to denounce. So much so that Burns has often been criticized for pushing the “Lost Cause” sentimentality too aggressively.
But Burns is unwavering in his conviction. Instead of playing coy about the murderous spree of that era, he instills its horrors sharply. The War, indeed, was fought over slavery. And the South almost burned the entire country down for that racial hierarchy to remain.
Director: Ken Burns – Cast: Sam Waterston, Jason Robards, Julie Harris, Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, George Plimpton – Subject/Topic: American Civil War – Release Date: 1990 – Run Time: 11h 30m
Paris Is Burning
Paris Is Burning takes us to the world of drag balls: Harlem in the mid-to-late 1980s. This historical documentary, deemed one of the most invaluable pieces of evidence in drag ball culture, chronicles the lives of African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities at the time.
New York City then was very different from what it is now. You can walk down the streets of Harlem today in stilts and no one will bat an eye. But it was a different case then. They needed “houses” as a way to form and foster marginalized LGBTQ communities.
Jennie Livingston offers a harrowing, sensitive, and unflinching portrait of New York when it was not quite New York still. Race, class, and gender intersect in this authentic portrait of oppression. But ultimately, it is a celebration of identity and culture.
Director: Jennie Livingston – Cast: Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Octavia St. Laurent, Willi Ninja, Angie Xtravaganza, Sol Pendavis, Freddie Pendavis, Junior Labeija, Paris Dupree – Subject/Topic: Drag Culture, LGBTQ, Gender Politics – Release Date: 1990 – Run Time: 1h 18m
Raiders of the Lost Art
Discover the history behind some of the most iconic art heists in history. From the too-crazy-to-be-true episodes of the Monuments Men to the hunt of the missing Fabergé eggs.
Each episode of this docu-series illustrates how these heists went down. Some are downright ridiculous. Some, however, are pretty impressive. Through re-enactment, rare archival documents, and expert commentary, we find out how crummy thieves looted these priceless treasures.
Even the story of how the Mona Lisa got stolen is the focus of one episode. Yes, Da Vinci’s most famous work was once kidnapped. And though it’s hanging safely at The Louvre now, the same can’t be said of many other stolen works featured in this series.
Director: Cal Seville, Daniel Kontur – Cast: Various – Subject/Topic: Art, Art History, Heists – Release Date: 2014 – Present – Run Time: Varies
Ava DuVernay, who directed the Oscar-nominated film Selma, follows up her seminal film with 13th, the bulk of which explores racial tensions in America.
Tracing back to the Emancipation era, the film makes a compelling yet hardly-startling case on racial oppression in the stateside. It presents ways that institutional bias has created systemic inequalities that lead black men and women to receive heavier criminal sentences than any other groups.
13th refers to the country’s 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery. The film takes a critical look at how slavery runs rampant still in America long after the amendment was passed.
Director: Ava DuVernay – Cast: Various – Subject/Topic: Racial Bias, Racism, Slavery, Black Lives Matter – Release Date: 2016 – Run Time: 1h 40m
Karl Marx City
Part cinema, part personal history, Karl Marx City sees filmmaker Petra Epperlein reach deep within to find the truth about her late father’s suicide.
Chances are you weren’t in East Germany during the height of the Stasi and don’t really have a firm grasp on the atrocities on privacy the GDR secret police committed.
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker go deeper than some films about the Stasi plight, taking care to illustrate the period as accurately as possible. They unravel the Stasi authoritarianism in all its bleakness.
Politics and personal history converge in Karl Marx City. The film’s most striking achievement is how it carefully inserts Epperlein’s own story as a way to examine the broader fabric of Germany’s paranoia period.
Director: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker – Cast: Christa Epperlein, Petra Epperlein, Uwe Epperlein – Subject/Topic: Karl Marx, Personal History – Release Date: 2016 – Run Time: 1h 29m
Let It Fall
America in the 1980s. A time of electronic music, disco, and fanny packs. But also rampant racism. Oppression. Marginalization. A country of vibrant music, colorful clothing, and cheesy TV sitcoms. But also a country divided over growing racial tensions.
Let It Fall takes a closer look at the building aggressions between African Americans and the Los Angeles police department during the ‘80s up to the early ‘90s. Recounting various events that led up to the Los Angeles riots, the film explores vile symptoms of America’s crumbling racial politics.
Through archival footage and firsthand accounts, it analyzes many facets that triggered this harrowing period in American civil rights history. The death of James Mincey Jr. The 1984 Summer Olympics. America’s growing crack problem. The beating of Rodney King. It puts civil unrest front and center and asks you not to flinch. The people lost in bloodshed didn’t have a chance to.
Director: John Ridley – Cast: Tim Goldman, Damian ‘Football’ Williams, Henry Keith Watson – Subject/Topic: Racism, Black Lives Matter, Civil Rights – Release Date: 2017 – Run Time: 2h
Last Days In Vietnam
It’s often said that the final days of the Vietnam War were the period’s most morose segment. Yes, in 1973, the then-president of America, Richard Nixon, commanded the exit of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
But the North Vietnamese Army nevertheless resumed its march toward Saigon. American soldiers and diplomats then had to ask themselves whether to obey White House orders or stay and help those in imminent danger.
In the thick of it, an unlikely band of heroes emerged as Americans and South Vietnamese took matters into their own hands.
Last Days in Vietnam is aware of the moral burdens of war. But it also leaves space to explore a hint of humanity in the midst of terrible tragedy and looming danger. Faced with a terrible moral question, would you defy orders in favor of autonomously doing what you think is right?
Director: Rory Kennedy – Cast: Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Stuart Herrington – Subject/Topic: Vietnam War – Release Date: 2014 – Run Time: 1h 38m
The Thin Blue Line
The second Errol Morris in this list, The Thin Blue Line is documentary about one midnight.
In 1976, in chilly November, Dallas police officers Robert Wood and Teresa Turko performed a routine traffic stop for a car driving without headlights. When Wood approached the vehicle, the driver shot him five times and sped off, leaving Wood’s lifeless body on the ground and Turko firing helplessly.
Turko hard trouble recounting details of the incident. So, a total of 50 investigators worked on the few clues available. There wasn’t a single witness, to make matters worse.
Then, on Dec. 21, less than a month later, authorities seized Randall Dale Adams, a 28-year-old itinerant laborer from Ohio. He said he was innocent. But the jury still declared him guilty. The judge put him on death row.
Then Morris made this documentary and proved Adams’ innocence.
Director: Errol Morris – Cast: Randall Adams, David Harris, Gus Rose – Subject/Topic: Criminal Justice System – Release Date: 1988 – Run Time: 1h 41m
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Jiro Dreams of Sushi, released in 2011, is kind of the proto-Chef’s Table. It’s a film that makes mouth-watering food also things of visual splendor.
The film is a profile of Jiro Ono. He’s the beloved and renowned owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi restaurant with Michelin stars under its belt. Here you’ll find jaw-dropping yet weirdly zen-inducing shots of food. Director David Gelb knows how to film food in a way that it’s rendered like love poems onscreen.
But Gelb is interested in more things than just sliced raw fish. Beyond a painstaking documentation of the practice of preparing sushi, the film serves at the same time an ode to family. Gelb also films, with delicate sensitivity, the interesting dynamics behind this little sushi empire.
Ultimately, and above all else, it’s a film about the merits tireless passion. And also the toils required for its upkeep.
Director: David Gelb – Cast: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto – Subject/Topic: Food, Family, Japan – Release Date: 2011 – Run Time: 1h 21m
Director Bryan Fogel set out to make a film about performance-enhancing drugs. But things don’t always go the way you want them to. Though he originally aimed to illustrate a broad portrait of doping in sports, Fogel went off the rails.
And thank god he did, because now we have this fleshed out documentary that digs deeper than doping. When Fogel encountered the Russian doping scandal from the Sochi Olympics, he suddenly thrust himself into a complex whirlwind of international sports fraught with under-the-table political shenanigans.
Icarus is an eye-opening account of how far some people will go to win. How expendable dignity is in the relentless desire for honor. How ultimately valueless the people who make the sports are to the sporting world.
Director: Bryan Fogel – Cast: Thomas Bach, Sebastian Coe, Bryan Fogel – Subject/Topic: Sports, Doping, Geographical Politics – Release Date: 2017 – Run Time: 2h
Much like Icarus, Tickled was also one thing before it germinated into a far more compelling film that goes beyond its origins.
David Farrier, a pop culture writer from New Zealand, thought he hit gold when he stumbled upon the bizarre world of endurance tickling. It’s a sport in which the participants, with their hands and feet tied down, endures tickling for as long as they can.
But when Farrier tried to contact the organizers for an interview, he was met with severe and unexpected disdain. But it didn’t unnerve him. In fact, Farrier grew more curious about the sudden defensiveness initiated by his very polite inquiry and decided to press on.
What followed was a sequence of events far, far stranger than fiction. Seriously, the less you know about Tickled, the better the experience will be.
Director: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve – Cast: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, Marko Realmonte – Subject/Topic: Toxic Masculinity, Online Bullying, Conspiracies – Release Date: 2016 – Run Time: 1h 32m
Closing this is a little gem of a film called Shirkers. Full disclosure: this isn’t what you’d call a typical documentary. It involves much more personal fare, but is better for it. Sandi Tan recounts a vivid but fleeting account of her childhood.
In it, she hunts lost footage that she and a bunch of friends made when they were kids, which mysteriously disappeared.
Shirkers pokes an open wound with gentle hands. It strives for past memories not to recollect them, but to reconstruct them and bring closure to the present. It is at times mournful, elegiac, but never drenching in its own sentimentality.
Shirkers shows ephemeral memories as fragile as physical objects that get lost without a trace. But rather than grieve, it contemplates, broods, then tries to make do with what’s lost.
Director: Sandi Tan – Cast: Sandi Tan, Jasmine Kin Kia Ng, Philip Cheah – Subject/Topic: Childhood, Personal History – Release Date: 2018 – Run Time: 1h 37m