Industry Trends

7 Films To Watch During SAAM

Each April, we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence. 

There are many ways to inform yourself and observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Here are seven documentaries and narrative films you may want to check out this April that help spread awareness about sexual assault, have a preventative slant, or tell a story about survival.

1) I Am Evidence
Available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HULU, Amazon Prime
Not Rated – 1hr 29min – Trigger Warning: sexual assault

This documentary follows the stories of survivors seeking justice through police departments and the courts. It identifies the failures of the US criminal justice system and the extreme backlog of unexamined rape kits, and won Best Documentary at the 2019 News & Documentary Emmy Awards.

2) Spotlight
Available on HULU, Amazon Prime
R – 2hr 8min – Trigger Warning: child abuse

This true newsroom drama starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, follows a team of journalists who investigate allegations of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and unravel the complex cover-up. The film earned a surprise victory when it won Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards.

3) The Hunting Ground
Available on Amazon Prime
PG-13 – 1h 34min – Trigger Warning: campus sexual assault

 The Hunting Ground explores the trauma and turmoil victims of sexual assault face on college campuses. The film earned many nominations and wins across the festival circuit, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song–Lady Gaga recorded the original song, “Til It Happens to You,” for the film’s soundtrack.

4) Anita: Speaking Truth to Power
Available on Amazon Prime, Kanopy
Not Rated – 1hr 17 min – Trigger Warning: sexual harassment and racism

For many Americans, one of the key moments in sexual assault awareness was Anita Hill testifying at the congressional confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, who was nominated to become a US Supreme Court Justice in 1991. Anita: Speaking Truth to Power is a documentary that explores the many societal factors at play that blocked Anita Hill from receiving justice after her public accusations of sexual harassment against Thomas.

5) Audrie and Daisy
Available on Netflix
Not Rated – 1hr 35min – Trigger Warning: assault and bullying

Audrie and Daisy is a documentary that looks into harassment and public shame that victims of sexual assault experience in high schools across the US, exploring two specific young teenagers who faced cyberbullying and abuse following their sexual assault. The husband and wife filmmakers describe the film as a “a modern-day Scarlet Letter story.”

6) Precious
Available on Hulu, Amazon Prime
R – 1hr 50min – Trigger Warning: sexual assault and incest

This heartbreaking but hopeful film shows the journey of a young woman growing up in an abusive household, struggling to speak out and escape domestic and sexual abuse. At the  2010 Academy Awards, Gabourey Sidibe was nominated for Best Actress for emotional portrayal of Precious, while Mo’Nique won Best Supporting Actress for playing her terrifying and abusive mother.

7) The Shawshank Redemption
Available on Netflix
R – 2hr 22min – Trigger Warning: sexual assault

This film follows the experiences of an imprisoned banker and the friendship he develops with an older inmate. Although the film contains problematic representations of prison sexual violence, identifying what the film gets wrong about sexual violence can serve as the basis for an interesting discussion.

6 Environmental Documentaries to Watch on Earth Day

For nearly fifty years, Earth Day has been celebrated worldwide to demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection. Originally, environmental issues ranged from cleaning up air pollution and acid rain to safety oversight over fossil fuel companies. The last few years has seen more of a concern of global climate change and the wide-ranging effects warming and acidifying oceans will have on both weather and sociopolitical dynamics around the world.

Environmental topics have been the focus of countless films, including narrative disaster films like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow, which sees the world overtaken by everything from giant tornados to tsunamis that freeze over. Even Pixar film WALL-E features a garbage-covered Earth that is no longer habitable to life.

Perhaps the most interesting environmental films of all are the true ones though—documentaries that portray the delicate balance of natural life on the planet, and all the ways society can upset that balance.

Here are just a few documentaries you can check out this Earth Day:

The 11th Hour

Directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, The 11th Hour gained a lot of buzz when it was realized for its association with producer, co-writer, narrator, and creator of the film—Hollywood megastar and noted environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio. The 2007 film interviews a murderer’s row of scientists, politicians, and activists, and places a focus on the myriad problems that pose dangerous threats to the planet, while offering possible solutions that are just as varied in their strategy.

Our Planet

The high profile docuseries Our Planet is Netflix’s own take on the Planet Earth series—Netflix went as far as working with Planet Earth producers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and hiring David Attenborough to narrate this series as well. Each of the eight episodes of the series focuses on a specific part of the planet, from seas to deserts to forests and everything in between. The docuseries has become event television this spring, with an early Hollywood screening in February moderated by NYFA Acting for Film alum Lana Condor giving Our Planet some early buzz.

Everything’s Cool

Everything’s Cool was directed by Dan Gold and Judith Helfand and was first shown at Sundance in 2007. Unlike many other environmental films, the documentary focuses more on the politics and public perception of climate change, rather than the science behind it. This important angle is especially key at a time when the world’s scientists have come to a consensus that action needs to be taken to prepare and respond to climate change, while the laws and practices of nations and private corporations have yet to catch up.


The 2010 film Gasland was directed by Josh Fox and showcased harrowing footage of local families dealing with the disastrous effects of corporate fracking—the process of stimulating natural gas production by injecting the ground with copious amounts of liquid chemicals. The film made fracking a hot button issue to this day, and brought to light some of the shocking side effects of the drilling method, such as water coming out of kitchen sink taps that could be lit on fire with a match.

An Inconvenient Truth

The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth helped kickstart the latest wave of environmental activism, as well as a slew of environmental documentaries that followed in its wake. Based around a slideshow given by former Vice President and environmentalist Al Gore, the film focuses on carbon dioxide’s effect on climate change, and won two Academy Awards for its efforts—Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song.


Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film directed by Godfrey Reggio from 1982, with a score by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke, who mostly used slow motion and time-lapse footage of both urban areas and natural landscapes. The avant garde film is very much open for interpretation, allowing its viewers to lose themselves in its sometimes haunting imagery and music. While nothing is told outright to the audience, the relationship between humanity, technology, and nature is clearly the focus of the film, raising questions about how these connections affect the world around us and will affect the world around us for decades to come.

With every passing Earth Day, these questions are becoming more important than ever.

2019 Oscars: Best Documentary Feature Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards, to be given out during ABC’s televised ceremony on Sunday, February 24. New York Film Academy (NYFA) is incredibly proud that two of the nominees, Free Solo and RBG, were worked on by faculty members of our Documentary Filmmaking school.

The Oscars will cap off a months-long awards season featuring industry veterans, newcomers, and as always, endless debates about who deserves to go home with the golden statue.

New York Film Academy takes a closer look at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature:

2019 best documentary

Free Solo

Free Solo profiles Alex Honnold as he attempts to free solo climb, without the aid of ropes, El Capitan. The film has already won several top awards, including the BAFTA for Best Documentary, and was edited by NYFA instructor Bob Eisenhardt and directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. This is the first Oscar nomination for Vasarhelyi and Chin, who also directed climbing doc Meru. Vasarhelyi also directed the documentaries A Normal Life, Touba, and Incorruptible, among others.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Hale County This Morning, This Evening won the Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at Sundance and documents the citizens of Hale County in Alabama’s Black Belt. The film has already been nominated for and won several awards, including Best Documentary at the Gotham Awards. Ross has worked as a cinematographer, producer, and editor, all positions he served on Hale County. This is his first Academy Award nomination.

Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap showcases three young skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois and won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival. This was the directorial debut of Bing Liu, who worked a cinematographer on the short films Collinsville, Mistress, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Zombies, and crewed on Hollywood blockbusters like Jupiter Ascending, Divergent, and Transcendence, as well as television shows Shameless, Sirens, and The Girlfriend Experience.

Of Fathers and Sons

Director Talal Derki risked his own safety and life to document radical jihadism and terrorist training camps in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, following the Osama family—a father and two sons—as they dig deeper into their beliefs and face the consequences that ensue. The film won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, among other accolades. Derki previously shot and directed the documentary The Return to Homs. This is his first Oscar nomination.


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is profiled in the wildly popular and successful documentary, RBG. The film was shot by cinematographer and NYFA instructor Claudia Racshke and directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. This is the directorial debut of West, who previously produced films such as Whiz Kids, Constantine’s Sword, The 4%: Film’s Gender Problem, and The Lavender Scare. Cohen has produced for Dateline NBC and directed the documentaries The Unforgettable Hampton Family, A Joyous Sound, The Sturgeon Queens, and American Veteran, among others. This is the first Oscar nomination for both.


Check out the New York Film Academy Blog after this year’s ceremony for a full list of the 2019 Oscar winners and losers! <

Oscars 2019: The Best Documentary Short Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards, to be given out during ABC’s televised ceremony on Sunday, February 24. The Oscars will cap off a months-long awards season featuring industry veterans, newcomers, and as always, endless debates about who deserves to go home with the golden statue.

New York Film Academy (NYFA) takes a closer look at this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject:

Black Sheep

Black Sheep is a look at Cornelius Walker, the son of Nigerian immigrants who dealt with traumatizing racism while growing up in London, and who attempted to deal with that racism by trying to assimilate into his white neighborhood. Notably, the 26 minute-long film is mainly a single close-up of Walker, interspersed with reenactments. Director Ed Perkins has mostly shot documentaries, including Chutzpah and If I Die on Mars. This is his first Oscar nomination.

End Game

The Netflix short End Game is 40 minutes long, the maximum length an eligible film can be for the Documentary Short Oscar. The film centers on palliative care providers and terminal patients in the San Francisco Bay Area and was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein has won two Academy Awards for the feature documentaries Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and The Times of Harvey Milk, though this is first nomination in nearly thirty years. This is the first nod for Friedman, who co-directed Common Threads. The pair also directed the Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl, starring James Franco.


Lifeboat follows Sea-Watch, a German nonprofit that looks for stranded refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, over the course of a single day in 2016. The 26-minute-long film gives a look at the desperate migrants fleeing North Africa for Europe. This is the first Academy Award nomination for director Skye Fitzgerald, who also directed the documentaries Bombhunters, Finding Face, and 101 Seconds.

A Night at the Garden

A Night at the Garden is a seven-minute-long haunting look at archival footage from a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on February 20, 1939. Appropriating themes of American patriotism, 20,000 audience members attended the event, supporting Third Reich ideals for the United States on the eve of World War II. Director Marshall Curry has been nominated for the Oscar twice before, for the Documentary features If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front and Street Fight, which followed the 2002 mayoral campaign of now Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker.

Period. End of Sentence.

Period. End of Sentence. explores the cultural taboos around menstruation in India, where many women don’t have access to the same quality hygiene care found elsewhere. The 26-minute-long film focuses on a low-cost, easy-to-use machine that manufactures sanitary pads invented by entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, an advocate of women’s rights in India. This is the first Academy Award nomination for director Rayka Zehtabchi, who also directed the short narratives Madaran, We Home, and Shnoof.


Check out the New York Film Academy Blog after this year’s ceremony for a full list of the 2019 Oscar winners and losers!

IDA: Window to the World of Filmmaking

by Sanora Bartels

When students ask me what’s the best thing they can do when starting out as a documentary filmmaker, I always tell them: “Join IDA!”

IDA is the International Documentary Association and students can join for $35 a year — a small price to pay given the wealth of access to high-level documentaries and their directors, producers, writers and editors.

To give a “for instance,” on Jan. 6, 2018, IDA held a Master Class with Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing in Los Angeles, CA at Netflix Studio facilities — a beautiful new building next to the old KTLA building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.  Driving onto the lot was a pleasure and everyone involved with the day was enthusiastic and welcoming, including Netflix’s Director of Original Documentary Programming Jason Springarn-Koff.  In other words, attendees were rubbing elbows with the people in charge of obtaining new work for Netflix.

More important than the welcoming atmosphere was the opportunity to hear Rachel and Heidi share their experiences making documentaries: Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, Detropia, and their latest, One of Us.

They shared clips of their films and spoke specifically of the individual challenges faced with each project. Tickets were limited (100 people were in attendance in the filled to capacity screening room) and there was time for Q&A throughout the Master Class.

NYFA documentary alum Valentine Rosado and classmates on set.

One of the most important pieces of advice Heidi and Rachel gave that day (and there were many) was to hold off pitching your project until you have secured unique access to the subject or story.  

In this era of internet and email, the most important tool to help documentarians secure access is the phone. The filmmaker must make the call and connect one-on-one with the people important to the story. Once you have developed a relationship with the people involved, you can then pitch your story without fear of a production company saying, “Yeah, great idea, thanks for bringing it wrapped in bow, we’ll get right on that,” And then proceeding to put their own team on it.

Yet access can be tricky and often it’s not just as simple as a phone call.

While researching One of Us, the filmmakers learned about Footsteps, an organization designed to help individuals leave the Ultra-Orthodox world of Hasidic Judaism.  With the permission of the organization, they hung out in the lobby of the non-profit for months in order to develop relationships with individuals and possibly use them to tell the story of the difficulty in leaving an oppressive community. Heidi and Rachel estimated that they spent nearly a year developing access and casting their documentary.

Spending a few hours with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady reminded me that Documentary Filmmaking requires patience and steel-eyed persistence tempered by a genuine compassion for your characters as they share their lives and story.  

The reminder came at a bargain price.

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.

Screenshot 2017-06-21 11.08.36

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.


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”


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?


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.


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.


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.


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)


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)  

Full movie: 


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)


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)


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)


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)

Full movie (English subtitles): 

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…

marines in fallujah fire weapon

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.

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. (2000)

This film follows childhood friends and co-founders of a dot-com start-up,, 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


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 of 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 is 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 


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…


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 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.


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 has produced another powerful and tender biopic that borders on masterpiece. Another essential—if heartbreaking—documentary to watch this Summer.

The Wolfpack

In 2010, documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle chanced across a peculiar 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 that 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

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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.


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.