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Eight documentaries which come highly recommended by me. This is part two of a documentaries list I made – you can read the first one here.
I think Zero Days is the best of this bunch.
Black Fish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite) 2013
It’s a documentary about killer wales held in captivity, and one killer whale called Tillikum in particular. It’s a shocking story of brutal killings (of humans by whales) and cover ups by SeaWorld and the people who hold these orcas in captivity. Watch this and you’ll never go to a SeaWorld (or similar) centre again.
Accidental Anarchist: Life Without Government (Clara Glynn & John Archer) 2017
Possibly because he looks like an average bloke, just like you and me (sorry if you’re not), Carne Ross is a truly inspirational man. A British diplomat, Ross was involved in work at the United Nations which led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His dedication to his work – and what he admits was a detachment to those affected by decisions he helped form – was eventually replaced by disillusionment and shame. This film documents that story and Ross’ hunt for a new political belief, namely anarchy. The film gives a bitterly honest view of modern-day politics.
Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara (Errol Morris) 2003
Basically an in-depth interview with former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, this beautifully edited documentary is part-historical testimony, part lesson in humanity as McNamara relates his experiences to world politics. This extraordinary man, 85 at the time of being interviewed, served under President John F Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, and then under Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. His insights, often derived from factual data research, are enthralling. This documentary is engaging from start to finish.
Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore) 2002
At times I find Moore’s documentaries, and this one in particular, a little rough round the edges – particularly the segments where he is on camera. Yet it’s also these sequences which make Moore’s films stand out and have catapulted him to stardom as the most famous documentary film maker of the modern era. Bowling for Columbine is everything some journalists strive not to be: biased, passionate and heart-felt. It’s about American gun law, and specifically gun law in Columbine, Moore’s home town and the location of a terrifying high school massacre in 1999. Charlton Heston becomes the centrepiece of the film. And although the final interview fails to emulate the epic climax of Ben-Hur, Heston’s performance is captivating (he doesn’t come out of it looking very good).
Zero Days (Alex Gibney) 2016
Possibly Alex Gibney’s greatest piece work. The fairly recent story of the ultimate cyber attack by joint aggressors the US and Israeli governments, who targeted Iran’s nuclear program for several years from 2006. This is a story almost ignored by the Western media when it should be hailed as a shameful turning point in world politics. When Iran discovered the hacks, its cyber retaliation on the US forced an uncomfortable nuclear-based agreement between the two nations. I remember thinking this was hugely suspicious when it was announced. What Gibney does is expertly tell this story, helped by some high-ranking US interviewees from his previous documentaries (Gibney’s contacts book is now phenomenal). However, the director goes even further, revealing the true scope of the hacking plan through anonymous testimonies from US intelligence officers. These revelations are the real kicker to the film, which force us to question who the bad guys really are (increasingly, they are always Western countries, most commonly the US). Zero Days also shows us that future warfare will rely heavily on hacking and destruction of national infrastructures. This is the documentary I would recommend you to watch above all others.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Alex Gibney) 2013
WikiLeaks became one of the greatest news stories of the modern age when it began publishing classified US Army documents and videos, most notably supplied to them by Army Private Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning. Manning was subsequently arrested and jailed. WikiLeaks continued publishing a number of sensitive files, bringing with it huge publicity. But the story behind WikiLeaks, not least it’s hugely controversial founder Julian Assange is staggering. Run on a shoe-string budget by Assange and his close-knit fellow activists, WikiLeaks’ undoubted success belies an undercurrent of problems, not least with Assange himself, who is a mixture of freedom fighter and paranoid victim. This Alex Gibney documentary does not suffer, as some films do, from the refusal of the star – Assange himself – to appear (he wanted too much money) as it paints a grotesque picture of the Australian activist and the brilliant things he has achieved.
Man On Wire (James Marsh) 2008
This is the re-telling of the true-life tale of Frenchman’s Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to walk across a tightrope between New York’s iconic World Trade Centre Twin Towers, using archive footage taken by Petit’s rag-tag team of helpers mixed with artful abstract re-staged filming. Petit’s attempt to do the walk between the towers – right at the top as well – is hugely enthralling, not least because it was done in stealth, with no permission from the owners. It was a truly audacious attempt. In terms of storytelling, this documentary easily matches that audacity. No wonder it tops the Rotten Tomatoes list of best documentaries of all time. I’ll not say if he was successful (if you didn’t know already).
Taxi To The Dark Side (Alex Gibney) 2007
Stories of brutality and torture by US soldiers in detention centres are accepted with a shrug of the shoulders these days. In 2007, when this documentary was released, they were as shocking as they were unreal. It was photographic images of brutality and films like this which helped change the views of millions of people, not only about war itself but also about the roles of our own armies and governments. Taxi To The Dark Side tells the story of an Afghan taxi driver called Dilawar who ended up imprisoned at Bagram Airbase in 2002. He died of injuries sustained while being held at the airbase. This documentary, which expands to examine the wider questions of human rights and the actions of soldiers under orders, won on Oscar.