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Documentary Year Zero; or, A Century of Memory

By Myron Meisel

A woman looks over her shoulder at the child she's carrying on her back, from Robert Flaherty's 'Nanook of the North' (1922)

It's fulfilling to step back at some remove and acknowledge just how extensive a contribution documentary has made to the art of film. It's not a marginal enterprise: documentary has always been critical to the development of cinema aesthetics. Many other titles belong here; the first draft of this list was comfortably twice as long and could easily have hit 250 titles without lowering standards. Enjoy the richness of the list rather than carping over the omissions. Dates and titles are from U.S. release. Notice that the list is almost entirely American, with Joris Ivens and some Frenchmen thrown in. There are also no real ethnographic films. These limitations are mine, not those of the films. As penance, I've deliberately left off any documentaries about the movies. 

The work of Eadweard Muybridge (precinema)

The films of the Lumieres (1896-1899) Execution of Czolcosz (1901), Life of an American Fireman (1903), Edwin S. Porter With Captain Scott RN at the South Pole (1912), Herbert George Ponting

Manahatta (1921), Paul Strand

Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty 

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1926), Walter Ruttman, Karl Freund

Moana (1926), Robert Flaherty (but not the family "restoration")

Living Russia; or, The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov

The Silent Enemy (1930), H.P. Carver

Land Without Bread (1932), Luis Buñuel

Que Viva Mexico! (1937 abridged version/1939), Sergei Eisenstein

Man of Aran (1934), Robert Flaherty

Night Mail (1935), Basil Wright, Harry Watt

Triumph of the Will (1936), Olympia (1937), Leni Riefenstahl

London Can Take It (1940), Luten to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943), A Diary for Timothy (1945), Humphrey Jennings

The Land (1942), Robert Flaherty

Four Men on a Raft (1942/assembled 1993), Orson Welles

The Battk of Russia, Prelude to War, Divide and Conquer, The Nazis Strike (1943), Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, Anthony Veiller

Memphu Belk (1944), William Wyler

With the Marinu at Tarawa (1944), U.S. Marine Corps

San Pietro (1945), Let There Be Light (1945 completed/1980 released), John Huston

Blood of the Beasts (1949), Georges Franju

Les Statues meurent aussi (1953), Alain Resnais and Chris Marker

India (1958), Roberto Rossellini

Come Back Africa (1959), Lionel Rogosin

Primary (1960), The Chair (1962), Crisis (1963), Robert Drew, Gregory Shuker, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker

The Exiles (1961), Kent MacKenzie

Lonely Boy (1961), Wolf Koenig

Elgar (1962), Ken Russell

Culloden (1965), Peter Watkins

A Valparaiso (1965), Le Mistral (1966), Joris Ivens

Le Joli Mai (1966), Chris Marker, Pierre Lhomme

Black Natchez (1967), Edward Pincus, David Neuman

A Time for Burning (1967), Barbara Connell, William Jersey

The Anderson Platoon (1967), Pierre Schoendoerffer

Don't Look Back (1967), D.A. Pennebaker

Salesman (1968), Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Warredale (1968), Allan King

High School (1969), Frederick Wiseman

A Face of War (1969), Eugene S. Jones

Woodstock (1970), Michael Wadleigh

Gimme Shelter (1970), Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

The Sorrow and the Pity, A Sense of Loss (1972), Marcel Ophuls

The Resolution (1972 completed/1984 released), Gyula Gazdag, Judit Ember

Phantom India (1972), Louis Malle

The Memory of Justice (1976), Marcel Ophuls

Harlan County USA (1977), Barbara Kopple

The Last Waltz (1978), Martin Scorsese

The Battle of Chile (1978), Patricio Guzman

Gatu of Heaven (1980), Errol Morris

Best Boy (1980), Ira Wohl

Demon Lover Diary (1981), Joel deMott

Middletown: Family Business; Middletown: The Campaign (1982), Tom Cohen

Soldier Girls (1982), Joan Churchill, Nick Broomfield

Mur Murs (1982), Agnes Vardá 

Koyaanisqatsi (1983), Ron Fricke and Godfrey Reggio

Kaddish (1985), Steve Brand

Streetwise (1985), Martin Bell

Seventeen (1985), Jeff Kreines, Joel deMott

Bring on the Night (1985), 28 Up (1986), Michael Apted

Stripper (1986), Jerome Gary

Partisans of Vilna (1986), Joshua Waletzky

Routine Pleasures (1986), Jean-Pierre Gorin

Eyes on the Prize (1987), Judith Vecchione (parts 1 and 2), Orlando Bagwell (parts 3 and 5), Callie Crossley and Jane DeVinney (parts 4 and 6), Henry Hampton, Jon Else

Sherman's March (1987), Ross McElwee

Threat (1988), Stefan Jarl

Afghanistan: The Secret War (1988), Mike Hoover, Tim Huntley

Broken Noses (1988), Let's Get Lost (1989), Bruce Weber

Lodz Ghetto (1989), Alan Adelson, Kathryn Taverna

Paris Is Burning (1990), Jenny Livingston (with Barry Swimer)

Tongues Untied (1990), Marlon T. Riggs

The Civil War (1990), Ken Burns

Tale of the Wind (1991), Joris Ivens, Marceline Loridan

Coney Island (1991), The Donner Party (1992), Ric Burns

American Dream (1992), Barbara Kopple (with Cathy Caplan, Tom Haneke, Lawrence Silk)

Black Harvest (1992), Kevin Connolly, Robin Anderson

Silverlake Life: The Viewfrom Here (1993), Tom Joslin, Peter Friedman

Children of Fate (1993), Andrew Young, Susan Todd (with Robert Young, Michael Roemer)

I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School (1993), Susan Raymond, Alan Raymond

Hoop Dreams (1994), Steve James, Frederick Marx, Peter Gilbert (with Gordon Quinn/Kartemquin Films)

Latcho Drum (1994), Tony Gatlif

The Trouble with Evan (1994), When the Bough Breaks (1995), Neil Docherty

Crumb (1995), Terry Zwigoff

High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (1995), Jon Alpert, Maryann DiLeo, Richard Farrell

Eternity (1995), Susan MacKinnnon, Lawrence Johnston

The Begging Game (1995), Joel Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky