The Long Lens blog: Photography with added snaps, art and culture

The photography site for sore eyes. Featuring: Art, photography, performance and theatre. With extra writing because I'm also a writer.

Top 8 film documentaries you must watch. Or: Top 8 best documentary films. Or: Top 10 best documentary movies (but there’s not 10 of them)

I’m taking the visual language to the extreme here – to write about documentaries. As in films, not photography.

I’m presenting here a short of list of some documentaries I like (I even mention one that I don’t like), in the hope that they will inspire you – first to watch them, and then inspire you again to be creative or do something positive.

Listen, I’m no expert on documentaries. I’ve seen a few, and I’ve seen a few bad ones. You do an internet search for documentaries and you get very mixed results in terms of quality.

I’ve seen too many forgettable films but the eight detailed in this list won’t be forgotten quickly and could have a major impact on your way of thinking, should you decide to watch them.

And I’m looking for new documentaries to watch, so please send your suggestions. I’m @gazcook on Twitter.

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman) 2010
Subtitled films – not my favourite. But this beautifully-shot film, which runs parallel themes of astronomy and human rights abuses in Chile, is a poetic masterpiece. Now, I know this does not leap out at you as on obvious winner – astronomy and Chilean humans rights issues, but this film is easily the most serene piece of art I’ve ever watched. It won loads of awards, including best documentary at the European Film Awards.

Five Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi) 2011


Shot by two Palestinians in the small West Bank town of Bil’in, this documentary focuses on the weekly protests against the construction of the Isreali wall around the village. I was interested in seeing this as I had met several people featured in the film while writing my own book, Palestiniana, about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. But this documentary goes beyond my own connection with the village, it’s an eye-opening story of the harsh conditions these villagers live under, and the wider issues of the occupation in the region. It won an Emmy and the Sundance Film Festival.
(Pictured: Mohammed Khatib one Bil’in’s peaceful protesters, making a speech in Bethlehem, 2012)

Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis) 2015
A two-hour and sixteen minute tour de force by British documentary maker Adam Curtis, who uses his unique access to the BBC (and other) archives to tell the story of a history we should all know but are mostly ignorant of. The best way of summing up Bitter Lake is by describing it as revealing how terrorism developed to what it is today, shown through the history of Afghanistan. Saudia Arabia and the American government do not come out of this well. The title of the film refers to a 1945 meeting between US President Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz at Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal. Though Curtis uses poetic licence in much of his work, this powerful documentary shows the huge hypocrisy and greed which governs world politics today. It’s amazing that this conspiracy-style (but hugely well-researched and factual) documentary was commissioned by the BBC.

Hyper Normalisation (Adam Curtis) 2016
This latest documentary by Curtis (also for the BBC) tackles an even greater narrative than Bitter Lake, this being how we have become numbed to the chaos that surrounds us and how we are fed fake realities of what is actually happening. Again, world leaders – including those in America and Europe, including Britain – are exposed as opportunist embracers of untruths, most vividly depicted in the demonisation and eventual toppling of former Libya leader Colonel Gaddaffi. It’s a whopping two-hours and forty-six minutes, but worth every second.

Going Clear (Alex Gibney) 2015
Everyone has heard of Scientology, but few know it’s full history or that of its creator L Ron Hubbard. This documentary reveals the full jaw-dropping facts, and mixes it up with first-hand accounts from the church’s ex-members. Going Clear delivers in a way in which Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie does not, the Brit’s own expose of the American church lacking depth and being reduced several low-key skirmishes with Scientology bullies.

When Louis Met Jimmy (Louis Theroux) 2000
While Theroux’s Scientology movie misses the mark in, ironically, his first major feature-length doc, this 50-minute essay showcases the likeable Brit at his incisive best. The Jimmy Savile documentary (made for the BBC in 2000) is one of a series of brilliant When Louis Met… and Weird Weekends films. It was always Theroux’s most notoriously good documentary, even before Savile’s death in 2011 and subsequent unveiling as a serious sexual abuser of children. Savile, a long-time broadcaster with the BBC, was the creepiest f***er ever to be appear on British television. Rumours about his deviant behaviour had circulated for years and Theroux jostled with Savile, at the time in his 70s, attempting to get the wild-eyed weirdo to reveal himself. This task was ultimately fruitless, though watching Savile’s behaviour then, with what we know now, is very disturbing. Theroux followed-up this documentary recently with Looking Back on Jimmy Savile (2016) where the feeling that we were all duped, not least the film-maker himself, is magnified ten-fold.

Storyville: Forever Pure – Football and Racism in Jerusalem (Maya Zinshtein) 2016
Detailing the tempestuous club’s 2013-14, where two Arab Chechen players are controversially signed by the club’s unpopular Russian owner, this documentary highlights problems within Israeli society through a partisan football club. The two new signings are the first Muslims to play for Beitar Jerusalam, and the consequences tear the club apart.
There are some gobsmackingly honest revelations from former club owner Arcadi Gaydamak, who plays a captivating cameo role in the documentary. You don’t have to be interested in football to enjoy Forever Pure, which is a brilliantly fascinating social documentary.

Zeitgeist The Movie (Peter Joseph) 2007
While the production values are not as high as other documentary films listed here, Zeitgeist offers hugely important discussions on society, history and conspiracy. It’s a great starting point for anyone looking to learn a factual history of religion and capitalism, the kind of which you won’t be taught in schools. Also incorporating a detailed overview of psychology in relation to human behaviour, Zeitgeist (and several follow up films) offers an increasingly popular view of the world we live in today.




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