Industry Trends

4 Groundbreaking Documentary Films to Note

Most of us consume quite a lot of TV and Netflix, and we tend to think of cinema as a means of entertainment. But the visual storytelling medium of film is capable of so much more, and there’s a dearth of real life stories and authentic and diversified representations of people on screen. This is where the documentary comes in. A documentary film is more than just educational non-fiction film: a well-made documentary can move the viewer as much as an Oscar-winning narrative film. Whether you’re a cinephile or a budding film maker, watching documentaries is an integral aspect of understanding how the cinematic medium works as well as for exploring its full potential.

Here are some groundbreaking documentaries that you just can’t miss.

1. “Super Size Me” (2004)

Directed by Morgan Spurlock, this film is built on a very interesting premise: Morgan decides to eat only McDonald’s food for 30 days straight! From Feb. 1 to March 2, 2003, he ate at a McDonald’s outlet three times a day, consuming around 5000 calories per day.

Given the rising obesity rates, the movie is an eye-opening look at how dangerous junk food is for one’s physical and mental health. It took Morgan over a year to lose all the weight he gained from the experiment. The movie was so successful it was nominated for an Oscar, and a comic book based on it has been released.

2. “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004)

The highest-grossing documentary film of all time, “Fahrenheit 9/11 ,” directed by Michael Moore, takes a cold hard look at the presidency of George W. Bush — especially the invasion of Iraq and the worldwide damage and chaos it caused. Coupled with intelligent humor and investigative journalism, the film displays a nuanced critical analysis of the situation.

Fahrenheit 9/11 made over $150 million. Among its many accomplishments, the film prompted several controversies, won the Palm D’Or, received a 20-minute standing ovation at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and also featuired a cameo by Britney Spears. The movie’s title is of course a reference to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” thereby ironically putting everything into perspective.

3. “Waltz With Bashir” (2008)

This autobiographical war film by Ari Folman is important for its innovative and heart-wrenching way of tackling its subject: the 1982 Lebanon War. Given that the documentary medium is primarily associated with realism, the film eschews the use of real people to talk about their experiences. Instead, most of the film is narrated via animation which has a gritty, graphic novel feel. When real footage is inserted in the narrative, suddenly, it hits you like a ton of bricks.

The style of the film not only challenges the traditional expectations of a documentary film, it also artistically conveys that some things are so violent and so depraved that it’s impossible to show them as they are.

4. “The Square” (2013)

A three-time Emmy Award-winner, this film depicts the ongoing crisis in Egypt. Marked by gritty cinematography, it begins with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 at Tahrir Square and showcases the daily reality that most of us tend to turn a blind eye to. Over 500 hours of footage was edited to make this film.

And we have another reason for you to watch it: this groundbreaking political documentary was shot and co-produced by New York Film Academy graduate Muhammad Hamdy! For his remarkable work, Hamdy won an Emmy for Best Cinematography.

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Now that’s inspirational!

This list is just scratching the surface, but it should give you an idea of how diverse, original and experimental the documentary genre is, using a myriad of styles and techniques to critically and innovatively show audiences dynamic, true stories that may otherwise go unnoticed.

So if you’re looking to take a filmmaking class at NYFA, why not give documentary filmmaking a shot?

 

How Netflix Documentaries Are Changing the Industry

It’s hard to imagine that almost 20 years ago, you could find a red envelope nestled in the depths of your mailbox. There’s a chance you’d rip open the small package to see which DVD was hiding in its Netflix sleeve.

In 1997, Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings founded Netflix in Scotts Valley, California. Netflix — now with more than 80 million DVD and online streaming subscribers — is continuing to change today’s market.  

The New York Film Academy’s filmmaking school has ranked as the top filmmaking school for the last eight years. It has also been listed in the Top 10 Academic Programs for Documentary Filmmakers in “Independent Magazine.”

Well-rounded industry experts teach students in the filmmaking school artistic and professional skills. Our students will face practical challenges, opportunities, and realities when they are creating films in the documentary filmmaking program.

Where is Netflix in today’s market?

As of March 2017, Netflix has created original films and television series in genres including drama; comedy; animation; animated and live action movies for children and families; foreign language; in partnership; continuations; docu-series and documentaries; reality; talk shows; specials and stand-up comedies. The company even has acquisitions in exclusive international television distribution.

Michael Lev-Ram of “Fortune” wrote in June 2016 that Netflix ranked No. 379 on the Fortune 500 list. The company, which has focused on streaming media the last few years, isn’t required to disclose viewership numbers and the Netflix originals don’t show up in Nielsen ratings. The Fortune 500 ranking and the audience’s reaction to a show doesn’t really concern Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix.

“Great storytelling is what makes something really global,” Sarandos said during the interview with “Fortune.” At the end of the day, it’s about how many subscribers sign up for streaming services, not rankings or ratings.

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In April 2016, Netflix announced that the company had seen an increase of 35 percent in subscribers after it had passed its 81-million-subscriber mark. Forty-two percent of Netflix’s current customers are outside of the U.S. but Sarandos still considers Netflix a small company.

Netflix Documentaries

The selection of Netflix documentaries and docu-series has increased rapidly over the last few years. As of April, there are more than 50 documentaries available on Netflix—ranging from true crimes stories like H.H. Holmes to crises in the healthcare system. Netflix documentaries and docu-series are redefining the definition—they are not boring and they boast some pretty big names.

One new documentary, “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On,” is available for streaming on April 21. The documentary series follows people and their lives, which are affected, by social media, pornography and virtual relationships. Sex and technology in today’s age highlight the fact that both are equally important in how most live and interact.  

“Five Came Back,” based on Mark Harris’ book, is Netflix’s newest documentary, which focuses on five men who put aside their careers, families, and their safety to join the fight against Imperial Japan. Meryl Streep narrates the documentary and Steven Spielberg is the executive producer.

Documentary Filmmaking at NYFA

Our documentary filmmaking program at NYFA focuses on subjects such as sound; cinematography and lightning; producing and directing the documentary; editing; new media/self-distribution; writing/non-fiction storytelling; producing; documentary craft; documentary traditions and aesthetics; production; post-production; and graphics, special effects, and color correction.   

Netflix has demonstrated that it aims to have great storytelling. The company is focusing on documentaries that will be more interesting for the audience. In order to do that though, Netflix has had to bring in larger names to help hold interest. One thing is for sure, Netflix will continue to dominate the media streaming industry, but its list of documentaries will surpass its other content without a doubt.

What is your favorite Netflix documentary? Let us know below! If you’re ready to learn more about documentary filmmaking, check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking program offerings.

HBO Documentaries: Which Ones Make the Cut?

HBO is known for their premium television shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “True Blood.” But the network has also produced some riveting and chilling documentaries. HBO produces a handful of documentaries per year, but only a few still stick around in recent memory as truly captivating. While there are many more documentaries worth viewing, these are four of the many worthy documentaries shown on HBO within the past few years:

Spoiler Alert: May Contain Spoilers.

“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”

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The six-part 2015 documentary series was already popular before the filmmakers unintentionally caught Robert Durst — a real-estate heir — making a startling admission. But even without the shocking discovery, the series captured the attention of many interested in a high-profile murder case. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a whopping 94 percent and a. 8.8 out of 10 rating on IMDb. The film combines both past and contemporary interviews, news footage, reenactments, and more exciting visuals to make it a worthy documentary.

“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

Based on the 2015 book  of the same name by Lawrence Wright, the documentary premiered in 2016 and received heavy criticism from the Scientology community. Regardless, the film won three Primetime Emmys. The New York Times wrote, “[Director Alex] Gibney, who enters swinging and keeps on swinging, comes across as less interested in understanding Scientology than in exposing its secrets, which makes for a lively and watchable documentary if not an especially enlightening one.”

“Beware the Slenderman”

The film initially appeared in 2016 at South by Southwest, but was released on HBO January 23, 2017. The documentary analyzes the case of two preteens who stabbed their friend repeatedly to avoid being murdered by an internet folklore legend called Slenderman. The film lifts stills and footage from the indie game inspired by Slenderman called “Slender: The Eight Pages,” fan sites, and from the homemade “mockumentary” by Marble Hornets. IMDb rates the film at 6.3 stars out of 10 and Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 83 percent rating.

“What really compelled us about that case was how the girls blurred fantasy with reality,” producer Sarah Bernstein told Rolling Stone. Bernstein added, “[That] notion of, as a parent, can you really police what your children are watching online?”

The film itself would more than likely be nothing new to those familiar with the Slenderman myth, but for those who are just getting acquainted with the faceless forest-stalker, it’s nightmarish.

“The Loving Story”

Centered on the historic Supreme Court case on interracial marriage, “The Loving Story” follows the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who married and started a family regardless of discriminatory laws in Virginia. The film received a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and fittingly premiered on Valentine’s Day in 2012, just in time for Black History Month. The film combines new interviews as well as home video footage from the Loving family with previously unseen photographs of the Lovings and their lawyers from LIFE magazine.

Interested in learning more about documentary film? Check out NYFA’s documentary programs!

5 Social Justice Documentaries to Watch on Netflix

Whether you call it the Civil Rights Movement of the millennial generation or however you prefer to phrase it, there’s no denying that the world is politically tumultuous at present, and folks are speaking out loud and proud about those social justice issues that matter to them most. And while we’re all busy learning, protesting, challenging the status quo, or creating meaningful art, there’s nothing like a good documentary to keep us inspired, informed, and engaged, while on the path to making radical changes to improving our world as we know it.

Whether you are advocating for racial justice and reconciliation, gender equality, animal rights, or equal rights for those of the LGBTQ and transgender community, here are five social justice documentaries available to stream online right now, courtesy of Netflix.

1. “13th” Ava DuVernay, Dir.

An in-depth examination of the judicial system in the U.S. and how it reveals our nation’s racial bias at the intersection of justice and mass incarceration, Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-winning documentary posits that slavery in the U.S was never fully abolished. Her thesis is that slavery only evolved into our nation’s current prison industrial complex that criminalizes certain behaviors, unfairly targeting African-Americans. Named after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery, “13th” demands that viewers recognize the existence of modern-day American slavery by another name.

2. “Miss Representation” Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Dir.

Premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Jennifer Siebel Newsom draws on the experiences of everyday women and celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, and Ellen DeGeneres, who concede that women cannot aspire to become what they know nothing of. In short, the film questions why there aren’t enough strong women role models in mainstream media, and implores those who view it to take a pledge against gender misrepresentation: #DisruptTheNarrative!

3. “Prescription Thugs” Chris Bell, Dir.

In this sobering look at America’s legal drug abuse problem, director Chris Bell turns his camera to the abuse of prescription drugs and big pharma, and eventually to his own harrowing addiction. This film explores the goals of pharmaceutical companies, the doctors involved in this epidemic, and the nature of addiction. This thought-provoking expose is one to watch to better understand how ordinary people deal with pain, and their response to addiction in an economy that profits off of them.

4. “Second Chance Dogs” Kenn Bell, Dir.

*Trigger warning for animal lovers.

In this emotionally charged documentary, we follow several dogs who’ve experienced various situations of abuse through puppy mills and hoarding, and despite it all, have been rescued and rehabilitated. Originally aired on Animal Planet, the film follows a facility dedicated to their recovery through patience and innovative techniques at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center.

5. “A Sinner in Mecca” Parvez Sharma, Dir.

On his own pilgrimage to Mecca, openly gay Muslim director Sharma documents his own personal journey, fulfilling a lifelong dream. In the film, he strives to make a place for himself in the Wahabi Islam he’s always known, and the extremism Islam he’s come to know but that has no resemblance to his religious and spiritual beliefs.

What are your favorite social justice documentaries to stream right now? Let us know in the comments below, and check out NYFA’s documentary programs.

Are Food Documentaries Changing the Food Industry?

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While the purpose of a documentary film can vary, most documentaries are made with the intention of promoting one thing: change. By uncovering hidden truths and enlightening viewers with valuable information, a documentary filmmaker hopes to help people realize there’s a problem and do their part to fix it.

Shedding Light on Unhealthy Truths

Such is the case with food documentaries, which look to help audiences discover disturbing secrets about the very food we put into our bodies. Whether the focus is on unsanitary conditions of animals and overuse of chemicals or the complete lack of nutritional value in today’s fast food chains, these kinds of films want viewers to rethink if what they eat everyday is actually doing them good.

Of course, it’s not easy taking on arguably one of the most powerful industries on Earth. The food industry is a colossus, which means it’s to their benefit to keep unsavory facts about food production in the dark. Food documentary filmmakers certainly have their work cut out for them, but has their work actually shown signs of any impact?

You Are What You Eat

To answer that question, one must look at perhaps the most popular food documentary of all time: “Super Size Me.” This film follows a man on a 30-day diet consisting only of McDonald’s food. While eating three McDonald’s meals a day, he went from a healthy 185 pound weight to a heavy 215 pounds — all in one month.

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Despite walking 2,000 steps a day, which matches the average American’s daily physical activity, the man saw his fat content rise 7 percent and cholesterol rise 65 points, essentially doubling his risk of heart disease. The three doctors featured in the film were astounded by the change and even suggested he give up the diet to avoid health problems.

“Super Size Me” became a huge success, grossing more than $11 million in box office revenue. People were flooding into theaters to learn just how unhealthy the fries and burgers they’ve been eating themselves and feeding their children actually are.

Our Food Industry

Four years later, Robert Kenner released his own food documentary, titled “Food, Inc.” This film also struck chords across America, revealing the corporate side of food production. Viewers gasped as they saw the cruel treatment and sad, short lives of the animals eventually slaughtered, packaged, and distributed at stores to eat.

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The power of Kenner’s film is fueled by a simple, ugly reality: Finding meat that isn’t made from abused animals is difficult today. It was the perfect film to follow up “Super Size Me” because it helped audiences realize that just because they stopped eating at McDonald’s didn’t mean they’d solved the problem of supporting a controversial system within a controversial industry.

Making An Impact

Both of the food documentaries we mentioned managed to influence thousands of people across America. But it hardly matters if food production and consumer habits remain basically the same. So do food documentaries actually influence the food industry to change?

Between these two influential movies, the answer is yes. Change did happen. In the last decade we’ve seen more regulation of trans fats in food, including stricter nutritional labeling. Even McDonald’s has introduced healthier food options while also using their resources to educate children on eating correctly. They even cut ties with long-time egg supplier Sparboe Farms, who received backlash for alleged animal cruelty. And just this month the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed the idea of a sugar tax for sugary drinks. Food documentaries, and increased public awareness, are certainly behind this increase in conversation.

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The fact that “Super Size Me” and “Food, Inc.” alone helped create change in the world’s biggest food chain on the planet is a testament to the power of the food documentary. The fact that countless more food documentaries have been produced since them also helps prove one thing: Although slow and steady, food documentaries are making a difference.

Best of all, we’ve seen these game-changing films — and the makers behind them — have a direct positive impact on NYFA documentary students and alumni. Warrior Poets’ Matthew Galkin, is an instructor in our Documentary Filmmaking Department. This community connection to award-winning and active documentary filmmakers is only a small part of why the New York Film Academy’s Documentary Filmmaking School has been rated by Independent Magazine as among the 10 Best Documentary Programs.

What other ways have you seen food documentaries impacting the food industry? Have you personally felt influenced by a food documentary? Let us know in the comments below!

Change the World: 5 Documentaries That Made a Difference (for Better or Worse)

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To change the world is a big goal, and yet documentary film can sometimes bring this goal within reach. One of the greatest strengths of the medium of documentary filmmaking is its ability to capture the cultural zeitgeist, as well as to bring an issue or a slice of society to a wider audience’s awareness.

The documentary format is generally meant to reflect impartially on its subject, but quite often the filmmaker influences events during the course of shooting … and on some occasions, the documentary itself ends up changing the world in a very tangible way. Here are five documentary films (plus some honorable mentions) that did exactly that.

*Warning: may contain spoilers.

1. “The Thin Blue Line” (1988)  

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Heralded by many as one of the greatest documentaries ever committed to celluloid, “The Thin Blue Line” followed the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Filmed by ex-private detective Errol Morris, the documentary showed categorically that the case was corrupt through and through.

Did it change the world?

The documentary stirred massive awareness in the public regarding the case, which caused intense scrutiny on the ruling and led to the case being reopened. A year after the documentary screened, Adams was exonerated and released. This film may have had the largest impact on the life of just one man and his family, but its greater message is clear: even in the face of the entire judicial system, one man and a camera can make a difference.

Honorable Mention: The trilogy “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” shot in 1996, 2000, and 2011, which strongly influence the real-life case of The West Memphis Three.

2. “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006)

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This is the famous Academy Award-winning documentary charting former VP Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness about global warming to citizens across the country. Producer Laurie David took on the project after being bowled over during one of Gore’s lectures, realizing that it could go on to inspire a wider audience.

Did it change the world?

David’s prediction was a success, given that his documentary inspired an outcry of conversation about global warming not just in the U.S. but around the world. According to an Oxford University study, three out of four people who had seen the film reported to have changed their consumer habits as a result.

3. “Blackfish” (2013)

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Seaworld has long been famous for its use of orcas in public entertainment, but what are the repercussions of keeping orcas in captivity? That’s the central question behind the 2013 documentary that got everyone talking — and got the Seaworld marketing staff a little hot under the collar.

Did it change the world?

In addition to countering many myths about orcas long held by the public (many of which were encouraged by SeaWorld itself), the documentary hit its mark; Seaworld profits, share values and attendance numbers tanked following the release of “Blackfish” — and SeaWorld is still struggling to revitalize its public image. While the top brass claimed this has all had nothing to do with “Blackfish,” they subsequently announced in March this year that they were ending all orca performances, and just this week it was reported that SeaWorld has official phased out its orca breeding program.

Honorable Mention: “The Cove,” which received an Academy Award for best documentary in 2010 and prompted a huge drop in Japanese dolphin fishing.

4. “Super Size Me” (2004)

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In which Morgan Spurlock famously ate at McDonald’s every day for a month, ingesting three meals per day at the chain (and nothing else). When asked if he wanted that meal supersized?  He had to say “yes.”

Did it change the world?

While one critic pointed out we all already knew that fast food is bad for you and many others highlighting that nobody should consume 5,000 calories a day without exercising, the documentary showcased the dramatic effect of this diet in a way that truly captured the public imagination. This film prompted a wider public discussion about the role of fast food chains in society. After the film’s release, McDonald’s removed the “supersize” option from their menu six weeks after the film’s premiere (while claiming it wasn’t a response to the film). They also added salads to their menu.

Honorable mention: 2005’s “McLibel” documentary, a David-and-Goliath tale covering the much maligned lawsuit of the same name.

5. “Triumph of the Will” (1935)

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Not all documentaries are a force for positive change. Some are used as propaganda, which is a stark reminder of just how influential and important a documentary can be — and why it’s critical that documentary filmmakers learn and practice their craft carefully.

“Triumph of the Will” is an example of how documentary film can be manipulated for dubious ends. Starring none other than Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Viktor Lutze, and other Nazi leaders, this WWII documentary was arguably one of the most effective propaganda films ever made.

Did it change the world?

The response to the film was monumental, and immediately after its release gained the Nazi party countless numbers of additional supporters and sympathizers. Leni Riefenstahl, the director, went on to be heralded as one of the finest female filmmakers of the 20 century mainly owing to technical and stylistic innovations in “Triumph of the Will,” but she was also demonized for her associations right up until her death in 2003 (aged 101). Dubiously honorable mention: Riefenstahl’s follow up propaganda film, “Olympia,” which covered the Hitler-attended 1936 Olympic Games, and is also recognized for its technical innovation (if not the content).

For better or worse, the impact these documentaries have made remind us all of the immense power and responsibility of documentary filmmakers. Whatever stories you choose to tell, remember that your film might just change the world.

More documentaries to consider that did their part to change the world: “Making a Murderer,” “The Jinx,” “Titicut Follies” and “Gasland.”

Has your life been strongly impacted or changed by a documentary film? Do you plan on making a film to change the world? Let us know in the comments below!

7 Of The Best (And Most Disturbing) War Documentaries

Perhaps as an unfortunate reflection of the times, the theater of war has been the focus of some excellent (if harrowing) fictional movies in recent years, as well as some thought-provoking dramatization of real events.

But of course, war by its very nature doesn’t always need dramatizing and for those who prefer to not mix their fact and fiction on the same plate, there are always war documentaries…

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1. Restrepo (2010)

Conflict Covered: Afghanistan War

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Why It’s So Good: A powerhouse example of cinema verite, Restrepo never falls afoul of the common war documentary pitfall of becoming bogged down in political point making. In fact, it doesn’t even attempt to offer up a commentary, and in doing so we’re given an alarmingly honest portrayal of the Afghan conflict courtesy of those embroiled in it.

2. The Fog of War (2003)

Conflict Covered: Numerous

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Why It’s So Good: Subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara and directed by Errol Morris, the documentary centers around a series of interviews with the titular former Secretary of Defense. From WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis and illustrated with archival footage and home video, McNamara holds nothing back as he discusses with great experience what can be learned from some of the most divisive and nuanced conflicts in living memory.

3. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Conflict Covered: The War on Terror

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

Why It’s So Good: One of the first (if not the first) documentaries to question the official narrative that was playing out in popular culture while the Vietnam War was waged, Winter Soldier is a collection of stories—and confessions—from the front lines. One of the hardest movies on this list to get through, it has an eerie and unsettling resonance with current events.

4. Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Conflict Covered: Iraq War

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

Why It’s So Good: Another well-crafted expose by war documentarian Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure deftly covers one of the many ugly stories that emerged from the Iraq conflict: the torture and abuse of terror suspects held at Abu Ghraib by American troops. More importantly, it gets beneath the skin of the soldiers who were photographed committing these notorious acts, as well as examining the administrative culture which allowed them to occur.

6. No End In Sight (2007)

Conflict Covered: The War on Terror

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%

Why It’s So Good: Possibly the closest a war documentary will ever get to a bona fide horror show, No End in Sight catalogs the series of decisions from within the Bush administration that culminated in the invasion of Iraq. Incredibly in-depth but accessible to any audience, Charles Ferguson’s comprehensive documentary is one that will probably cause your blood pressure to be a lot higher by the time the 100 minutes are up.

7. Last Days in Vietnam (2014)

Why It’s So Good: As the title suggests, this gracefully executed documentary – packed to the brim with drama, emotion and heroism – focuses in on the final events of the Vietnam War. The suspense of the closing scenes are as utterly thrilling as anything you’ll see in fiction, cementing Last Days as one of the best PBS documentaries ever produced.

Got any other favorites that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below, and if you’re looking to follow in the footsteps of these superb war documentarians, you might want to check out our guide to staying safe while shooting in live conflict zones.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

Cinéma Vérité Vs. Direct Cinema: An Introduction

Robert Capa uses a hand-held camera

From its very beginnings in 1877 when Eadweard Muybridge took sequential photographs of moving horses and animated them with the zoópraxiscope—a device he invented two years later to project the images—documentary film has taken many forms and adopted numerous styles and techniques. Most notably, was when the Lumiére brothers invented the first movie camera in 1895 that could hold fifty feet of film stock, with which they captured a train pulling up to a station. As a result, the concept of unedited documentation of real-life situations referred to as “actualities” came about. Today, the two most common methods used in the genre however, are ‘direct cinema’ (the more commonly recognized, ‘standard’ method, if you will) and ‘cinema vérité.’

Both practices were quite revolutionary in their time and were developed during the same historical period in the early ‘60s—a period where documentary cinema had become more comparable to highly edited post-World War II propaganda than portrayals of real events. Developments in technology like smaller and lighter cameras that used 16mm film stock (as opposed to its 35mm predecessor), and portable sync sound allowed for a much less obtrusive way of filming events on site as they happened. The major film crews could be significantly downsized, editing became much more unnecessary and the hand-held cameras could ensure a closer, more authentic look at the subjects in question. Although the two similar techniques came about with synonymous ideologies about championing realism in film, they do have some subtle, yet important differences.

The Maysles brothers, Albert and David Maysles of the United States were most well-known for developing direct cinema. Three of their most popular works in the genre were Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975). Rather than planning a scene they wanted to shoot, the brothers would let the story unfold organically as the camera rolled. They believed the documentarian was an objective observer, a completely invisible passivist as opposed to a director or participant—a noteworthy sentiment that sets the genre apart from cinema vérité.

French for “film truth”, cinema vérité was first developed by French ethnologist and filmmaker, Jean Rouch during the early 1960s and brought to documentary filmmaking a natural dialogue and authenticity of action. But unlike its direct counterpart, the philosophy behind this technique was that the filmmaker actively participates in the film as a subjective observer where necessary; combining observational AND participatory filming in the same breath. Essentially, there is an awareness of the camera that is filming the scene, thus establishing a connection between the cameraman/filmmaker and those who are being filmed. It can also involve stylized and staged set-ups and the degree of intervention is greater than in direct cinema, with the filmmaker’s subjective involvement evoking provocation—something critics point out goes against the whole foundation of documentary as a means to portray uninterrupted truths. In its defence, famous vérité filmmaker Dan Kraus once said “no documentary can ever show you the truth, because there are multiple truths, but vérité can at least relay the truth as seen by a single observer…” Similarly, Rouch’s view about the camera provoking subjects was that provocation reveals people’s true selves as the creatures of fantasy, myth and imagination, which he believes constitutes the most authentic self.

One of the earliest and most widely known of Rouch’s films using vérité was Chronicle of a Summer (1960), which he did with fellow French filmmaker Edgar Morin. By gathering a number of Parisians, including a few supporters of a group with socialist ideologies, either through one-on-one interviews or group discussions, the film addresses topics ranging from happiness and love to colonialism and racism. True to the active role of vérité filmmakers on-camera, the action of the characters in the film seem to always be a response to an impulse by the leader of the conversation or the interviewer. Both Rouch and Morin play with their own roles within the film and are never detached or disengaged from the process of filming. They even included responses from all of the characters in the edited film after showing them the original; allowing for the luxury of self-representation in all parties that resulted in a sense of equality never achieved in direct cinema.

In comparison, both direct cinema and cinema vérité aim to uncover truth in two different ways. The former hopes to unveil truth through the camera’s observation of events and subjects; the latter uses any means possible to seek out truth and is intrinsically an internal process being gradually revealed. Nevertheless, documentary is rarely a matter of pure, untouched observation, but within both methods lies an opportunity for revelation—regardless of the degree of mediation by both the camera and the filmmaker. As such, they are viewed equally as two alternative methods of documentary filmmaking whose use of particular cinematic philosophy and new technology had a huge influence on many generations of filmmakers which is still felt today.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujam

 

Although female names among the incessant list of filmmakers in a male-dominated industry seem as scarce as hen’s teeth, there are quite a few females in the documentary filmmaking landscape who are thriving and have produced some magnificent work throughout the years; one of whom is Egyptian/American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim. Born in Washington D.C. in 1974 to an Egyptian father and an American mother, she was raised in Kuwait and Egypt until her family moved to Boston in 1990, where she later graduated Magna Cum Laude in Visual Arts and Philosophy from Harvard. Before graduating however, she was awarded the Gardiner Fellowship for her film Mokattam, an Arabic film she directed about a garbage-collecting village near Cairo. This was the precedent for a long and successful career directing and producing many films in the Middle East and the U.S in an attempt to create a day where the power of film could bring a global community together; allowing a new understanding of one another. The following are four of Noujaim’s most notable documentaries with which you should get well-acquainted.

1. Startup.com (2000)

This film follows childhood friends and co-founders of a dot-com start-up, govWorks.com, Kaleil Tuzman and Tom Herman, during the troubled state of the Internet revolution. It uses an intimate and dynamic cinema-vérité style in personalizing the crisis through intensely private views of those involved and tells a classic story about values and friendship during the dawn of the Internet Age. The film was shot over two years on digital video and required over 400 hours of video editing—right up until its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Along with a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the festival, the film also won Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary at the Directors Guild of America in 2002, among many others.

2. Control Room (2004)

This feature documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Arab news network, Al-Jazeera, as it covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Including interviews with military officials and both American and Al-Jazeera journalists, this film showcases the huge gap in understanding that exists between the Arab world and Americans, and the way events relating to the war have taken on significantly different meanings, weight and emotional import. Through this, it essentially asks the big question of whether America is radicalizing or stabilizing the Arab world. Among the film’s seven wins and eight nominations, it was awarded the coveted TED prize in 2006. Noujaim was the first woman and the youngest person to win the prize, which grants winners a wish to change the world.

3. Rafea: Solar Mama (2012)

This co-directed documentary with Mona Eldaief follows Rafea, a Jordanian woman from one of the country’s poorest desert villages, Bedouin, as she leaves her 4 daughters and husband to study solar engineering at the revolutionary Barefoot College in India. The college teaches rural men and women—many of whom are illiterate—to become engineers, doctors and artisans with only 2 requirements for enrollment —you must be poor and you must take what you learn to your home village. The challenges Rafea faces are ongoing, with many of the men back home (including her husband) intervening and unconvinced of her ambitions as a practical avenue for women, but her desire for a better, more sustainable future remains clear. The documentary won a U.S. Cinema Eye Honors Award in 2014 and the EDA Award at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in 2013.

4. The Square (2013)

This film follows a handful of Tahrir Square protesters through a 3-year course of Egypt’s political upheaval since 2011. An intimate observational documentary, it begins in the tents of Tahrir in the days leading up to Mubarak’s fall and follows the life-changing journeys of its characters as they begin the real struggle with the military regime—one that has been in power longer than the dictator they removed. The film had over 1600 hours worth of material that was edited and finalised in 2012. But after entering the Sundance Film festival a year later and winning the Audience Award, Noujaim and her crew went back to Tahrir to keep shooting after the situation on the ground had changed and the characters found themselves in the thick of things once again. As a result, the film became an even deeper and more complex story, receiving an Academy Award nomination and winning a Directors Guild Award, the International Documentary Award and an Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival—making it the first ever film to win the award at both Sundance and Toronto.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Werner Herzog

werner herzog

If there’s ever a documentarian that hires cast and crewmembers whose endurance levels match their professional skills, it’s German filmmaker, Werner Herzog. Born on September 5, 1942 in post-World War II Germany, the offbeat visionary thrives on filming in rugged and exotic places like Antarctica or the Amazonian forest and is renowned for putting his subjects to the test—both physically and mentally.

He uses his camera to unveil new layers of experience, nature and the human psyche and is well-known for his frequent collaborations with the controversial and often temperamental actor, Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s films, like himself, are offbeat, cluttered and ecstatic and once professed that “the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” But this crazed valour is all part of his mystique—he once ate a shoe after losing a bet to fellow documentarian Errol Morris.

With over forty years in filmmaking and more than sixty films (including feature films) under his belt, to say Herzog’s had an illustrious career would be an understatement. But as far as documentaries go, if you were to watch any 5 of his works, these should be the ones.

Grizzly Man (2005)

This documentary follows the work of grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard—both of whom were mauled to death by the animal—and was pieced together using actual video footage of Treadwell’s. One of the elements that makes this film so fascinating is the contentious dialogue between Treadwell’s running commentary in the footage and Herzog’s narration; Herzog only saw the overwhelming indifference of nature in the bears whereas Treadwell believed in them as more than just killers.

Fata Morgana (1971)

A truly one-of-a-kind piece of nonfiction filmmaking that could only have come from a mind like Werner Herzog’s, this film puts together narration reciting the Mayan creation myth and stunning yet sometimes bizarre images of the Sahara Desert. The film was initially intended to have a science fiction narrative, but still contains some fascinating dystopian imagery that’s even more bizarre when accompanied by the songs of Leonard Cohen.

 

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

This film is what inspired another of Herzog’s films, the narrative drama Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Steve Zahn. Made for German television, this documentary follows German-American Dieter Dengler as he discusses serving as an American naval pilot in the Vietnam War. His stories of deprivation and struggle in the years after the war echo similar memories from Herzog’s past.

 

Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

This film shows how the deaf and blind struggle to understand and come to terms with a world from which they’re almost completely isolated. It does so through Fini Straubinger, the protagonist, an elderly woman who has been blind, deaf and mute since adolescence. She uses tactile sign language to communicate with people who rely only on taste, touch and smell as she helps them ease the isolation they experience because of their disabilities. It truly is an equally fascinating and touching film.

 

Lessons of Darkness (1992)

This film shows the disaster of the post-Gulf War Kuwaitian oil wells in flames, in a style that seems almost like it’s documented through the perspective of a somewhat alien observer. With few interviews and no explanatory narration, but only a soundtrack full of melancholy and grandiosity, this visually mesmerizing exploration of the ravaged fields sits side-by-side with its equally effective companion Fata Morgana.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The Feminist Cinema Of Kim Longinotto

Kim Longinotto

Oprah, Beyoncé, Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie; when talking feminism, art, and pop-culture, these are the names that immediately spring to mind. But what about the strong and talented females behind the camera that use their art to elevate women’s rights and their plight in trying to fight for them? Kim Longinotto (1952), a documentary filmmaker from the UK, is one of them and has been using her talent to highlight the oppression and discrimination of females from stifling traditions and authoritative rule for the last three decades.

Her debut film, 1976’s Pride of Place, a school project of hers during her years at England’s National School of Television and Film, was somewhat of a rebellion against her previous boarding school in Buckinghamshire, a repressive institution with absurd punishments and incalculable rules. This dark exposé used the students’ perspectives to condemn the school and resulted in it closing down a year after the film was released. This kind of observational documentation of the lives of females as they rose up against any situation that was unjust set the tone for a very long and prestigious career for Longinotto.

As an observational filmmaker, her techniques were unobtrusive—often steering away from any advanced planning, narration, scripting, or staging and yet somewhat also participatory. She would make sure that the audience would feel like they were involved, right there in the scene as her, watching what was happening through the camera. As a result, her work always exhibited her subjects with a fervent veracity that penetrated the camera lens, giving them a distinct voice and presence not always shown in other documentary genres.

Take Shinjuku Boys (1995), a candid look at the lives of three female-to-male transgender subjects working as hosts at the New Marilyn Club in Tokyo. This remarkable documentary followed the three subjects (all of whom don’t identify themselves as lesbians) at home and at work with an anthropological immersion as they entertained their exclusively heterosexual female clientele. Showcasing the complexities of sexuality in an ultra-conservative Japan, this film really thrust Longinotto into the filmmaking limelight and won Outstanding Documentary at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. This then catapulted the career of the self-confessed “lover of the underdog” as she continued to be adorned with honours—including a two-week-long career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among the 14 films featured at the event was Rough Aunties (2008), winner of the Sundance documentary award for its portrayal of five South African women, aka “Bobbi Bears,” who looked after abandoned and abused children. There was also Pink Saris (2010), with protagonist Sampat Pal, a relentless vigilante battling India’s endemic rape dilemma. And Sisters in Law (2005), following Cameroonian judge, Beatric Ntuba and prosecutor, Vera Ngassa as they help women fight cases of abuse; a film that also won the Prix Art et Essai at Cannes and was awarded a Peabody.

The consistent theme behind her works could easily be misinterpreted as continuous representations of female victims and their tragic stories. But Longinotto is quick to point out that none of her subjects are victims but rather survivors. “These stories are about rebels, and those rebels are usually women, because, in most situations, men have an awful lot more power,” she says. However she also clarifies that her work empathises with all of those who struggle. “If there was a place where men were being kicked around and women were locking them in cages, then you’d focus on the men,” she says.

Her passion for those who struggle without a voice comes as no surprise when considering her own history. Born to a Welsh mother and an Italian father, a photographer who later went bankrupt, Longinotto grew up in complete fear of her father’s next “blow-up,” followed by the fear of her boarding school headmistress’ next punishment. She eventually ended up as a homeless 17 year-old where she found herself at the brink of death from illness. It was only when she discovered her love of filmmaking at the National Film and Television School, that she felt she had a calling.

True to form, her latest film Dreamcatcher won the Directing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Following Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute and addict as she dedicates her life to saving girls on the street, it’s clear from the get-go Longinotto’s intent to truly bring the audience in through all the harrowing accounts of rape, violence and abuse. It includes everything, from the shockingly nonchalant confession of a nine-year-old rape victim having witnessed her four-year-old sister receive the same treatment, to the opening scene, where a young sex-worker recalls being stabbed multiple times by a client. And through it all, Longinotto shoots with her resolute adherence to justice through awareness. And may she continue to do so.

Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

The History of the Mockumentary Artform

“I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.” – David St. Hubbins, This is Spinal Tap

One of the countless memorable quotes from the title that spawned—and defines—an entire genre, blurring the lines between scripted satire and improvised comical genius. And while Spinal Tap is arguably the most well-known and oft-quoted of the mockumentary genre so far, it wasn’t strictly the first mockumentary…and it definitely won’t be the last.

As such, join us outside the classroom of your documentary school for this tour of one of the most quirky genres in cinema as we explore:

The History of the Mockumentary

RickyGervaisAsBrent

The first major English language example of the genre—and also the first to leave a long-lasting impact on popular culture—came to us way back in 1938 in the form of a radio play.

When Orson Welles read out a fake news broadcast based on and adapted from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, his delivery and the format of the program reportedly led many people to believe that Earth was, in fact, being invaded by a genocidal martian army.

While there was a disclaimer at the start of the show, it’s suspected that many people missed it due to crossover scheduling and tuned in ten minutes too late to catch Welles describing the invasion in media res. With heightened tension in the face of the real war looming in Europe, the broadcast hadn’t even ended before authorities swarmed CBS and tried to shut it down based on reports of public mass hysteria (they were met with physical resistance from radio executives).

Without any commercial interruption, even with 70 years of hindsight it’s easy to see why the realism unintentionally deceived people (especially if you imagine just tuning in at the 2:30 minute mark.) Here’s the complete broadcast, and it’s every bit as good even when you know it’s a dramatization:

While the scale of the public hysteria is under debate, there’s no doubt that the 1938 War of the Worlds adaptation put Orson Welles squarely on the path to stardom and kickstarted the whole idea of fiction presented as fact, even if it was unintentional.

A Hard Day’s Tap

Not much occurred in the genre for the next few decades following the Welles broadcast, though it should be noted that ‘joke’ news articles and journalistic satire did see a rise, and the tradition of running April Fool’s news segments on both screen and in print was cemented shortly afterwards. The latter was achieved mostly through the ready availability of stock footage, coupled with ludicrous voice over content.

But it wasn’t until the 60s that we saw anything approaching what we currently know as a ‘mockumentary’ feature; that came in the form of A Hard Day’s Night, which served as a strong precursor to the aforementioned This is Spinal Tap:

The format and writing really resonated at the time with the legion of Beatles fans who were afforded an inside look—albeit tongue-in-cheek and scripted—at the Liverpudlian quartet’s everyday lives. And its appeal has endured, frequently being named as one of the most influential music films ever produced.

Approaching the Apex

With the momentum of the mockumentary artform now building,  few more titles embraced the style—namely, the extremely meta David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and the forgettable Pat Paulson for President (1968)—but it was Woody Allen who took the ball and ran with it, pushing the genre to new heights with 1963’s Take the Money and Run and later with 1983’s Zelig.

And then along came Christopher Guest, the grandfather of the improvisational mockumentary.

Directed by Rob Reiner and co-written with Guest (along with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), the 1984 masterpiece This is Spinal Tap changed the game forever and arguably hasn’t been topped since.

We’ll let this iconic clip speak for itself:

There’s not much more to be written about the comic and cinematography genius that hasn’t already been stated over the past three decades since its release, save for another recommendation to immediately go and watch it if you haven’t already.

The Modern Era

A few mockumentaries have tried to turn the dial to eleven since then, to varying degrees of success. Sascha Baron Cohen put a fresh spin on the genre and brought it to a new age with Borat, at the same time pushing the limits of how awkward and cringeworthy unleashing a character actor into real-world settings can be:

But proving that you can have too much of a good thing, his subsequent efforts—Brüno and The Dictator—failed to capitalize on the format Cohen invented.

When it comes to television, however, the mockumentary genre has flourished with some seminal titles coming particularly out of Britain: The Office revolutionized the genre for the medium (and spawned many international versions), and many heralded the black comedy, spoof news series Brass Eye as being the pinnacle of satirical TV news (NSFW language warning):

Going forward however, it’s the new mockumentary series Documentary Now! which looks set to steal the spoof TV crown back for America.

Written by notable Saturday Night Live alumni Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen and inspired by the likes of Spinal Tap—though intentionally trying not to mirror it. The show recently wrapped up a successful first season that included such documentary punching bags as a parody of Nanook of the North and a lampooning of Vice’s journalistic practices. We’re eagerly awaiting the upcoming second season to see which sacred cows of documentary film they take on next.

Certainly one to watch, and we’d love to know what you think of the new show (and any other favorite mockumentaries we might have missed.) Head on down to the comments below and let your voice be heard!

5 Fallen Musical Idols Immortalized in Documentary Form

It’s a sad fact of life and with way too much precedent that some of the finest musicians bow out early, leaving the rest of us with the unanswerable question of what they would have gone on to achieve had they not passed too soon.

At the same time, these stars—regardless if what mind you pay to the notion of celebrity—usually have a colorful life and personality, and it takes an expert documentarian with access to really good footage in order to tell their stories in an effective and respectful way.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse

5 Must-See Documentaries About Tragically Lost Music Stars

1. This is It

One of the more controversial documentaries listed here due to both the subject himself and the nature of it’s release, This is It covers the preparations behind what would be Michael Jackson’s final curtain call, both literally and, sadly, figuratively. A very interesting inside look behind the scenes of an enigmatic, true genius… as long as you can put aside the fact that none of the footage was intended for release, the Jackson estate didn’t exactly approve, fans objected to the exploitative nature of the tour itself, and that – arguably – Jackson himself wouldn’t have wanted its release.

2. Montage of Heck

If Michael Jackson is to be considered the most tragic figure in pop, Kurt Cobain surely ranks among the same leagues when it comes to rock.

Kurt Cobain: A Montage of Heck is one of the finest documentaries of 2015 so far, let alone one of the best music documentaries ever released. Montage paints a very different picture of Cobain to the one that has endured in popular culture. Particularly, we learn that he wasn’t the moody, tortured artist who only took his own life to escape the trappings of fame; in reality, he was a humorous (if highly-strung) perfectionist who loved music and did all he could to steer his life in the right way before succumbing to his long-lasting battle with depression and drug addiction.

Documentary filmmaking at its very finest, and will no doubt be the definitive work on the Nirvana frontman for years to come (and probably permanently.)

3. What Happened, Miss Simone?

This Netflix original opened this Summer to great acclaim, helped in part thanks to Nina Simone’s only surviving daughter overseeing the fine work of director Liz Garbus as executive producer.

And really, a documentary covering the huge career and personality of Simone was never in better hands than Garbus’. If you know the name, it’ll likely be from her biopics Bobby Fischer Against the World (which opened the Premier Documentary event at Sundance in 2011) as well as the Love, Marilyn documentary; anyone that can craft a well-made homage to Marilyn Monroe where so many others have failed is worth following.

4. Amy

Joining Kurt Cobain in the notorious 27 Club—a term used to describe the phenomenon of gifted young artists passing away at the age of 27—Amy Winehouse’s death came as a shock, if not surprise, to the British music scene and far beyond.

And like Cobain, Winehouse’s story (as well as what drove both her musical aptitude and self-destructiveness) is complicated and multi-layered, making it and Montage two of the most essential documentaries of the summer. This year’s Amy is an achievement because it does exactly what a good documentary should do: taking a complex figure and getting right to the heart of what they’re all about, with depth and feeling along the way.

A truly heartbreaking study of fame, addiction, broken relationships and, above all, a uniquely talented musician.

5. Searching for Sugarman

An anomaly on this list of musicians that died way before their time if taken in a literal sense, the twist in the tale of Stephen Segerman’s life and career is way more glorious and magical to view on screen than anything you might have read about it on paper … so we won’t give anything away.

Almost unanimously voted as the best documentary of 2013, Searching for Sugar Man plays out much the same as a beloved, emotional song: a disarmingly grabbing intro, a strong hook and a surprising turn at the bridge, all leading into an incredibly eclectic crescendo. If you haven’t watched Searching for Sugar Man, you’re missing out.

BONUS – Notorious B.I.G: One More Chance 

BIGGGIE

While March 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Biggie’s shocking murder at the young age of 24, Biggie Smalls is not only not forgotten — he’s still loved and revered by many as the greatest rapper of all time. The Brooklyn-based artist originated a unique sound mingling Jamaican Patois and East Coast grit that is still unique and resonant two decades later.

B.I.G. not only inspired a generation of hip-hop artists, musicians, and singers; he’s inspired documentaries and an upcoming scripted true crime series. He was the subject of a 2007 documentary feature titled “Notorious B.I.G. Bigger Than Life,” which included personal appearances and interviews with some of the biggest names in hip hop.

And, as announced in Spin March 2017, a new Biggie Smalls documentary is in the works: “‘Notorious B.I.G.: One More Chance’ will be directed by Emmett Malloy and Brendan Malloy, and will be made with the full cooperation of the late rapper’s estate and his mother, Voletta Wallace.”Singer Faith Evans was married to B.I.G. at the time of his death, and has commemorated the 20th anniversary of his by loss dropping a new album of duets she created with her late husband, titled “The King & I.”

Know of any more musician profile documentaries that deserve a watch? Don’t hesitate to give it a shout out in the comments below—we’re all ears.

5 Essential Documentaries To Watch This Summer

It’s been something of a banner year for documentaries so far, with many feature-length releases already being touted as candidates for the best non-fiction releases of the year despite still having five months left to go.

best documentaries 2015

In fact, the pick of the crop has been so strong in 2015 that it was tough to narrow it down to just 5 Essential Documentaries to Watch This Summer… but if you’re studying the craft at documentary filmmaking school or even just love a great story, here are five titles we’d highly recommend you add to your ‘To Watch’ list.

Let’s start with some essential viewing for anyone except those who suffer from vertigo…

Meru

Nothing quite captures the spirit of human endeavor than a mountain climbing movie, and as a general rule it’s the non-fiction that’s more compelling than anything a screenwriter can dream up.

Most climbing documentaries inherently contain all the ingredients for a good watch—conflict, despair, life, death, endurance, and triumph—but this year’s Meru really pushes it all to the next level.

Set on the utterly terrifying Shark’s Fin feature on the mountain of the same name, Meru is a disarmingly moving story of three climbers attempting the near-impossible.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

There have been a number of documentaries over the years covering the life and untimely death of the enigmatic Nirvana frontman, and for a long time 2006’s About a Son was considered the most definitive… and then came this Summer’s Montage of Heck.

Montage is not only the best piece of material ever made about Kurt (and it is solely about Cobain, not the rest of the band), but it’s probably going to end up being the best documentary of 2015.

Even the most hardcore of Kurt Cobain fans will be surprised by the level of intimacy of the footage, as well as the approach taken to the documentary.

For the record, Dave Grohl reportedly lasted ten minutes before he became “too terrified” to continue watching.

Amy

Another member of the fabled ’27 Club’ and as equally tormented as the late Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and her tragically young death has been deserving of a careful documentary treatment since her passing in 2011.

As both a celebration of her art and career success and a study of what ultimately became her undoing, the team behind the 2010 documentary Senna have produced another powerful and tender biopic which borders on masterpiece. Another essential—if heartbreaking—documentary to watch this Summer.

The Wolfpack

In 2010, documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle chanced across a perculiar bunch of teenagers walking around First Avenue in Manhattan. Dressed in all black, wearing dark Ray-Bans and with their hair down to their waists, Crystal ended up befriending the group of siblings and chanced upon a bizarre story—the six brothers and one sister had all been forcibly confined to their Lower East Side apartment by their father since birth and homeschooled.

Nearly everything on the outside world was new to them, and in turn, the very candid look into their bizarre world is very new to us as viewers. Well worth watching.

Going Clear

An incendiary documentary which unpacks the claims made by the Church of Scientology (and based on the 2013 book of the same name), Going Clear is probably the most deeply disturbing piece of nonfiction you’ll see this year.

Despite a furious and sustained effort to block the documentary by the Church of Scientology itself, Going Clear went on to become the second-most watched HBO documentary of the last ten years ( behind a feature on Beyoncé.) In fact, director Alex Gibney voiced appreciation for the Church taking out full page ads discouraging potential viewers from watching it, thereby increasing its exposure.

5 Of The Best Space Documentaries Now Streaming

What lies beyond the confines of our own atmosphere is mind-boggling in the truest sense of the word, so it’s little wonder that space—and the stuff in it—makes for compelling subject matter when it comes to documentaries.

That said, it’s a double-edged sword for students at documentary filmmaking school looking to focus on the cosmos. For one thing, space documentaries have to rely on inventive ways to represent the subject matter visually since there’s usually no direct footage or images of deep space objects or abstract concepts.

Secondly, it’s tricky to balance the writingyou don’t want to lose 99.98% of the viewers who don’t know the intricacies of Minowski spacetime, but at the same time you don’t want to patronize them with details most 8th graders know.

What follows is a roundup of titles that serve as near-perfect examples of space documentaries which manage to tick all the right boxes. Set your warp drives to maximum as we chart:

The Best Space Documentaries Currently Streaming

1. Life in Our Universe

Life in our universe documentary

A six-part series lead by the hugely engaging (and award-winning) Dr. Laird Close, Life in Our Universe charts the progress of scientists and uncovers how our civilization is conducting the hunt for others. The question of whether or not life exists amongst the stars has always been an exciting one, and this series does the magnificence of the question justice.

Streaming on: Netflix

2. In the Shadow of the Moon

best space documentaries

By far the most comprehensive documentary about the Apollo lunar landings ever produced, this British-made documentary managed to do something never done before: bringing all of the key players of the moon landings together to reminisce on their experiences (even those who had previously been interview shy.)

Even those who think they know it all will be surprised at the amount of detail coveredif you loved Andrew Chaikin’s book A Man on the Moon or the HBO series it spawned (entitled From the Earth to the Moon), you’ll love this.

Streaming on: 4oD (may not be available in all regions)

3. NASA: The Space Shuttle

Just as interesting as space itself are the marvels of technology that got us there, and this YouTube documentary is both a fascinating look back at the Space Shuttle fleet as well as a celebration of its time in service (even more poignant given that the last Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.) But we can sell this documentary about rocket ships with just one line: it’s narrated by William Shatner.

Streaming on: YouTube

4. The Journey to the Centre of the Universe

In the span of just 90 minutes, this National Geographic documentary covers a lot of ground—namely, from the sands of our own planet to the borders of the known Universe. While the special effects are somewhat rudimentary by current standards, it’s nevertheless one of the best space documentaries on YouTube.

Steaming on: YouTube

5. Cosmos

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 02.15.47

No list of the best space documentaries available for streaming would be complete without a hat-tip to Cosmos. These days Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s reputation as a compelling astrophysicist speaks for itself, and although the show has been aimed at a broad audiencemeaning the science is a little entry-level at timesit doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Extremely impressive special effects, excellent animations, and every bit as good as you’ve no doubt heard.

Streaming on: Netflix

Know of any other fantastic space documentaries currently streaming that we should be watching? You know what to do – descend on down to the comments below and jettison your suggestion!

6 Female Documentary Filmmakers To Watch

While the number of female directors in Hollywood is depressingly few and far between, the state of play is a lot more balanced in the world of nonfiction with some tremendous female talent coming out of documentary filmmaking school and going on to create magnificent work.

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From industry stalwarts with numerous award wins behind them to brand new talent currently making waves, below you’ll find six excellent documentary filmmakers who just so happen to be women. Dive right in, and you may just find a new favorite…

1. Barbara Kopple

A regular name which has appeared on every decent Top Documentarians list since the mid-90s, Kopple has won not just one, but two Academy Awards for her documentary work. Hallmarks from her extensive filmography include dissections of American culture and biopics of intriguing figures, particularly the controversies (such as Woody Allen and his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, or the Dixie Chicks’ anti-war backlash.)

If You Had to Watch One: Go with Harlan County, USA. It was one of her Oscar winners and a classic example of a documentary crew becoming part of the story itself, cementing its status in the documentary film canon. The above link plays the full feature.

2. Abigail Disney

Since the release of her debut documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell in 2008, the granddaughter of the famous animation studio’s co-founder has come into her own as a force to be reckoned with. As well as a slew of critically acclaimed documentaries, Disney is also responsible for the formation and success of numerous pro-female causes and peace initiatives.

If You Had to Watch One: The aforementioned Pray the Devil Back to Hell—co-directed with Emmy Award winner Gini Reticker—is a great place to start.

3. Kim Longinotto

A British documentarian who draws from inspiration from her tumultuous early life, Longinotto began working as a director way back in the mid-seventies and has since become a benchmark for the cinema vérité approach as applied to documentary filmmaking. With her material typically highlighting cases of women who are subject to discrimination and/or oppression, Longinotto usually leaves those she films to tell their own story (to great effect.)

If You Had to Watch One: Her most recent documentary, Dreamcatcher, is well worth checking out and won the World Cinema Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

4. Chris Hegedus

Another luminary from the style of Direct Cinema, Hegedus has won more lifetime achievement awards for her documentary filmography than we could possibly list here. Along with her husband D.A. Pennebaker—a hugely influential filmmaker in his own right—the duo have blown open the stories behind numerous significant events in contemporary American history, as well as produced some second-to-none profiles of many musical legends.

If You Had to Watch One: Either The War Room (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), or Moon Over Broadway if you’ve got an interest in musical theatre.

5. Lourdes Portillo

A Mexican-born documentary filmmaker whose extensive body of work borders on the avant garde. Much of her work—which is frequently the subject of Chicano studies—centers around aspects of Latin America culture and events, but that doesn’t mean her documentaries are any less engaging for a wider audience.

If You Had to Watch One: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, covering the disturbing story of mothers in Argentina whose children “vanished” during the human rights atrocities of the Dirty War.

6. Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Cowperthwaite has produced a number of TV series documentaries over the past two decades, but it was with the release of 2013’s Blackfish that she gained worldwide recognition as a director and a BAFTA nomination. Interestingly, despite the unparalleled success of Blackfish, Cowperthwaite is yet to make any money off its release, admitting that she wasn’t much of a “business-minded shark” when it came to negotiating investment contracts.

If You Had to Watch One: Blackfish is as engaging as you’ve heard, but if you’ve already seen it, try her other directed credit City Lax.

6 of the Best Environmental Documentaries

Documentaries have the power to change perceptions about the world around us on both a personal and societal level, and as we’ve seen time and time again, the source of this can come from anywhere; a student at documentary filmmaking school is just as likely to inspire big change as a well-known celebrity A-Lister.

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One area in which documentary filmmaking is making great strides is ecology and the environment. With single titles having a notable impact on how we as a species affect our planet, let’s take a look at six of the best environmental documentaries you should check out right now (from both the obscure to the award-winning).

Food, Inc. (2008)

Usually high up the list of many people’s “best environmental documentaries,” Food, Inc. went after one of the biggest subjects in ecology with a brazenness the likes of which isn’t often seen in modern documentary filmmaking. It found its mark.

Divided into three acts, the documentary covers the production of meat and vegetables in the first two before turning its attention to the conglomerate nature of food sales. Eye opening and horrifying in equal measure, it wholly deserved the Emmy which it went on to win.

Dirt! The Movie (2009)

Based on the book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth and narrated by none other than Jamie Lee Curtis, this is a documentary that doesn’t look appealing at first glance but is actually essential viewing given the ubiquity of the subject matter. It’s also free to watch on YouTube, so dive into this unexpected (and award-winning) treat by clicking here.

General Orders No. 9 (2012)

One of the lesser known yet no less stunning environmental documentaries on this list, General Orders No. 9 is an absolute beauty to behold.

Eschewing all of the standard documentary conventions and running like a visual meditation, this unique film sequence chronicles the American South’s demise as the wilderness is slowly paved over. Having taken 11 years to make, cinematography doesn’t get much more elegant than this.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

No list of the best environmental documentaries would be complete without a hat tip to Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. No real introduction is needed for the title which arguably did more for raising global consciousness than any prior film to the effects of global warming, so if you haven’t already, go watch it immediately.

Gasland (2010)

As we mentioned in our “How to Shoot a Documentary” post, Gasland has the distinction of being one of the few feature-length, widely distributed documentaries to have been produced by just one man. That man is Josh Fox, and Gasland doesn’t suffer any for the lack of crew members.

Fox’s story comes out of the gate swinging, beginning in medias res with a natural gas company offering him $100,000 to lease the land he lives on for drilling purposes. Intrigued, the director goes on to speak to families who have accepted the offer and uncovers numerous serious health issues in the process—essentially, it’s a modern-day Erin Brockovich in documentary form.

Blackfish (2013)

One of the most recognizable entries on the list of best environmental documentaries, in part due to the immense furor it caused upon its release in 2013 and the subsequent fallout.

If you want an example of a documentary that tangentially changed the world, this is it. The tale of one orca’s life in captivity and the narrative surrounding it totally savaged SeaWorld’s reputation, so much so that the company’s shares and attendance figures plummeted in the documentary’s wake:

Seaworld Share Prices
For its part, however, SeaWorld has claimed that the documentary hasn’t had a negative effect and that the drop in share prices is down to other factors (and the drop in attendance is the result of unseasonably bad weather at its main parks). We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Got your own recommendations of the best environmental documentaries we should be watching? Don’t hesitate to hit the comments below and share with the group.

The Best Documentaries – Nine Films of Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney

On the short list of current documentary filmmakers that can create a world of buzz with a new film, Alex Gibney is near the top. Born in New York City in 1953, Gibney went to film school after getting his bachelor’s degree from Yale University. The son of a journalist and stepson of a Reverend, his films often show great concern for finding the inherent truths of their subjects, while also possessing a moral compass that orients Gibney’s relationship to both the subject and the audience. The following are nine documentaries from Gibney’s filmography that illustrate the work he’s done for the form.

1. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Based on the 2003 best-seller of the same name, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts and analyzes the Enron Corporation’s headline-making collapse due to massive corruption at the highest levels and the epic scandal that followed. Gibney’s film, released in 2005, includes interviews with Enron executives and other employees, as well as stock analysts and reporters, including the book’s authors, Bethany McLean and peter Elkind. Released in 2005, Enron was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary in 2006.

2. Taxi to the Dark Side

Gibney didn’t win the Oscar for Enron, but he did the following year for Taxi to the Dark Side, which documents the horrific story of an Afghan taxi driver tortured and beaten to death by American soldiers while in prison. The film broadens its subject to the American policy on torture and enhanced interrogation and, by interviewing political and military experts on both sides of the issue, examines the ethics of torture as well as its effects on pop culture and its relation to the Geneva Convention.

Taxi to the Dark Side DVD cover

3. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Released in 2008, Gonzo tells the story of groundbreaking journalist/author Hunter S. Thompson, using interviews with friends and family to add insight into the enigmatic writer’s life. The documentary was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the WGA’s Best Documentary Screenplay award, and is one of the few documentaries with a Grammy nomination, for its album notes co-written by Johnny Depp and Douglas Brinkley.

4. Freakonomics

The Freakonomics movie was four short documentaries packaged together, all based on stories depicted in the best-selling book of the same name by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Each documentary had a different director, including Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki and Rachel Grady. Gibney directed the second segment, “Pure Corruption,” which concerned match fixing in Sumo wrestling, a scandalous yet prevalent feature of the Japanese sport. Freakonomics premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010.

5. Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Released in 2010, Casino Jack tells the story of Jack Abramoff, the D.C. lobbyist who went to prison for orchestrating a massive bribing scandal involving him and several lobbyists, politicians and congressional staffers, including a Congressman and two White House officials. While focusing on Abramoff, a conman and schemer, Gibney takes a broader look at the corruption embedded in the nation’s capital and its inner workings.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

6. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

At first glance, Client 9 seems to be another of Gibney’s intensive looks at political corruption at the highest levels. While that is certainly an important component of the film’s DNA, Client 9 is a more personal look at one individual, former Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer, whose meteoric rise and White House aspirations collapsed under his epic prostitution scandal. Client 9 premiered in Spitzer’s home state at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010.

7. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Gibney again tackles the darkest corners of the current political climate, but rather than taking a broad view or a specific look at an individual, he takes focus on an organization—WikiLeaks. The documentary covers the history of WikiLeaks and the context that led to its creation, including a 1989 hacking of NASA and a timeline of WikiLeaks’ major whistleblowing efforts, culminating in Chelsea Manning’s leak of classified war footage and documents. A story about WikiLeaks and a story about its founder, Julian Assange, go hand-in-hand, but Gibney interviews several people, including Manning, and uses previous interview footage of Assange himself.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

8. Finding Fela

Gibney narrows his focus again to a single individual for Finding Fela, offering an intimate look into the fascinating life and career of musician Fela Kuti. The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2014.

9. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Currently airing on HBO, which produced the film, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear is adapted from Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name. Once again Gibney tackles a powerful institution and the controversy that surrounds it—this time the Church of Scientology. Gibney uses provocative footage of Scientology conventions and meetings, and interviews prominent ex-Scientologists, many either famous or former high-ranking members of the group. Gibney also includes footage from one of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s rare interviews. Before airing on cable, Going Clear premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, continuing Gibney’s streak of event-filmmaking.

Scientology church from Going Clear

Interested in telling stories of your own? Check out our documentary school programs today!

New Eminem Documentary – Watch ‘Not Afraid’ Now

Eminem Not Afraid Documentary

The music documentary industry has never been better or more prominent. From 2012’s flawless Searching for Sugar Man to the DJ essential Scratch ten years before it, we’ve seen some excellent works from the genre coming from both professional filmmakers and documentary school students alike.

With this in mind, we’ve previously covered a list of the most essential music documentaries ever made, but a brand new Eminem documentary has just dropped that may have us revising this list in the coming days.

Not Afraid: The Shady Records Story

Even non-hip hop fans will be aware of Eminem’s divisive music, public image and career. The Detroit-born rapper has never failed to push the envelope since his emergence (primarily through his Slim Shady alter ego) into the mainstream during the late nineties, and it’s tricky to sum up the entirety of his career in one go.

A new documentary, however, has done a pretty good of just that. Click the video to watch the brand new Eminem documentary produced and released by Complex:

Not Afraid: The Shady Records Story is a 30 minute retrospective released in time to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Marshall Mathers’ label Shady Records, which Marshall Mathers founded with renowned hip-hop manager Paul Rosenberg.

The documentary predominantly charts Slim Shady’s rise to prominence and features some behind-the-scenes stories from the Shady Records label, including candid interviews with Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Rosenberg and other label mates and luminaries of the genre.

The short itself is exceptionally well produced and will shed some light on facets of the label that even hardcore fans aren’t likely to know. There are also some great soundbites that emerge from the footage, including Dre admitting that he had no idea Marshall was white. Other stories from the documentary include 50 Cent’s near-fatal shooting, the background to songs like Lose Yourself and Stan, and the numerous collaborations that have happened so far on the label.

Are you a Shady fan, and have you seen the documentary? Let us know your take on it via the comments below.

Documentary Filmmaking in 2014 – Trends & Five of the Best Documentary Films

All in all, 2014 was a great year for documentary filmmaking with some brilliant work having been released by both returning professionals and new talent fresh out of documentary filmmaking school. We also saw a few definite trends emerge and a few that were further cemented with last year’s output, and the most notable one is the increased amount of character studies which are being released.

The Rise of the Portrait

For a while now, character-centric documentary films have become a staple of the industry but this has reached influx levels very recently. However, it’s for this very reason that not all character studies are good—some filmmakers have seen the success of such emotional documentaries featuring colorful (and often tragic) subjects, and feel that it’s a magic bullet guaranteed to make for a great documentary.

Due to the slew of documentaries of this ilk, it’s no longer enough to point a camera at someone with an interesting story. Audiences have had their fill of these, and require a cherry on top in order to become fully engaged.

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That said, thanks to the inherent nature of humankind’s love of storytelling, character study documentaries aren’t likely to lose their appeal – all we’re seeing now is that they have to be told exceptionally well in order to stand ahead of the competition.

And that is still achievable given that the subgenre offers a robust framework on which to tell a great story – character documentaries lend themselves extremely well to narrative story structure, can be less complicated to shoot (though not always) and often the story can unfurl in unexpected ways even as it’s being told.

NYFA’s Year in Documentary Film

In addition to the above trends, a number of instructors and students from NYFA’s documentary school have found significant success and awards season recognition for their documentary work. Curriculum Advisor and Master Class professor Geof Bartz edited the HBO documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Death that recently debuted at Sundance and was an Oscar contender this year. In addition, documentary graduate Muhammad Hamdy, who DP’d on the Oscar-nominated film The Square last year, had his most recent film We Are The Giant short-listed for this year’s Oscars.

A number of other films directed by NYFA instructors were also featured in this year’s Oscar race  including Jeremy Xido’s much buzzed-about film Death Metal Angola. In addition, instructor Hilla Medalia produced the acclaimed documentary and Oscar contender Dancing in Jaffa and wrote and directed The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. And recent One-Year Documentary graduate Colleen Shaw’s short documentary All in my Head: The Patrick Stein Story was short-listed for the Best Documentary Short Oscar.

Subculture Club

An even more recent documentary trend which has formed as an offshoot to this is the idea of ‘community’ documentaries – that is, exploring a subculture (usually Internet based) which is misunderstood by the mainstream.

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Documentaries covering video gaming and religious subcultures (think King of Kong, Indie Game: The Movie, For the Bible Tells Me So and Jesus Camp) seem to be especially rising to the forefront of documentary filmmaking, which seems to correlate with how both topics have risen in popularity over the past decade.

Again, this trend for documentary filmmaking isn’t likely to go away given that there are bottomless depths to plumb in terms of subject matter.

Top 5 Must-Watch Documentaries of 2014

Unfortunately, the Golden Globes have eschewed the idea of an award for documentaries again this year (the last time it recognized the work of documentary filmmakers was 1977), but there were many documentaries in 2014 that would surely be eligible for such an award if it existed.

Actress
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

Wire star Brandy Burr under the microscope, examining her decision to leave the show to start a family before trying to re-enter the limelight once again… but what starts off as a simple premise ends up twisting and turning in huge, unsettling ways.

Citizenfour
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

The Edward Snowden story was always destined to be retold on celluloid in some form or another, but thankfully Citizenfour was the one to do it justice. This is hardly surprising given that the documentary was created by Laura Poitras, the woman Snowden reached out to in order to expose the United States government whilst she was making a different film on government surveillance (and thus making her implicit in the dramatic—and, by turns, horrific—tale which rapidly unfolded).

The Case Against 8
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

A documentary covering a lengthy series of judicial proceedings may not sound incredibly engaging on paper, The Case Against 8 is truly deserving on a list of the top 5 must-watch documentaries of 2014. The fight for marriage equality which went all the way to the Supreme Court is a surprisingly emotional and deeply human one, with directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White carefully balancing the legal backstory with the relatable points.

Happy Valley
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

The Jerry Sandusky scandal was one of the most explosive stories to have hit the headlines in the last decade. Emmy Award-winner Amir Bar-Lev manages to not only cover all the angles (and failings) behind this sensitive story, but also deftly explores the wider issues surrounding “team spirit” and the seeming invincibility of sports stars.

National Gallery
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

For decades now, Frederick Wiseman has been an underrated master of cinéma vérité. His thirty-eight documentaries so far have primarily concerned themselves with exploring the workings of various major institutions—a ballet company, an air force training base, a major hospital—but last year’s study of London’s National Gallery might be one of his finest masterpieces.