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Required Viewing: Educators Share Their Top Five Docs for Students

By Tom White

Among the early stakeholders in your documentary career are your teachers—whether at the high school level, to provide that crucial early spark of inspiration; or in college, to broaden and deepen your understanding of and appreciation for the genre; or in graduate school, when your career aspirations are more or less solidified but your heart and mind are ever open to transformative work to set your artistic journey in motion. Your teachers—by and large, filmmakers themselves who abide by an essential and evolving canon of work to keep their creative instincts sharp—are your mentors and your Baedekers. What they advise you at this early stage in your career generally stays with you as your career blossoms into a purpose.

With that, we reached out to a selection of educators at the graduate and undergraduate levels and asked, What five documentaries do you strongly advise that your students watch as they embark on their filmmaking careers? The responses, edited for length and clarity, are below.

First, I would tell them to be watching documentaries all the time—there are so many awesome ones, and they're so easy to find these days! For backgrounders for American documentarians, in order to introduce them to the enormous range of documentary and to the problem of representing the real, I'd recommend the following, knowing that many other films could be on my list as well:

  • Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929): Look for how editing composes the film; for the reflexivity of the theme, as the camera itself becomes a character; for the enthusiasm Vertov brings to the act of really looking, unashamed; for the polemic imbedded in the film.

  • Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922): Look for the construction of a Romantic notion of primitiveness; for the way camerawork and editing bring drama to daily life; at how long shots lay a claim to authenticity; at the turning of event into narrative; at the erasure of the filmmaker.

  • The Plow that Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, 1936): As an example of government propaganda. Pay attention to the poem-like structure, and the use of actual poetry and of the role of music in contributing to the emotional drama of the poetry; pay attention to how the agricultural and financial crisis is carefully portrayed to avoid critique of core capitalist processes and financiers; look at the claims to an "us" that created the circumstances that "we" can address and resolve. ALT: Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister, 1942): Similarly, a poetic, understated work to which the soundtrack is key, a piece of government propaganda that carefully makes a manifestly untrue assertion in the interests of public morale.

  • Eyes on the Prize (Henry Hampton, 1987; episodes of one's choice). Note the use of archival footage to retell a story, position the African-American civil rights struggle as central to American history overall, and showcase underheard voices to tell that story as well.

  • ALT: Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974): Look for how archival footage is used to retell differently a story that the archival sources told differently. Look at how the expectations of a public affairs news documentary are used and changed in order to make an open argument.

  • The Great Invisible (Margaret Brown, 2014): Look for the use of cinema vérité approaches to go beyond interview and exposé to reveal, via the perilous state of Gulf oil drilling, the society-wide danger of a dependence on fossil fuel. Look at how individual narratives and tragedies become part of a much bigger picture. ALT: Shut Up and Sing (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, 2006): Another great example of a cinema vérité approach, much more extensively used, in constructing a narrative of personal and political evolution with implications for an open society.

—Patricia Aufderheide
Professor, School of Communication
Founder, Center for Media and Social Impact
American University

There are so many excellent documentaries, past and present, that it's difficult to select just five that my students must see. What I suggest is that they look at different approaches to the form. Here are some examples I recommend:

  • The Classic, Poetic Documentary: Pare Lorentz's The River (1938) or Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1956) or a film by Chris Marker, for their brilliant use of words as well as images.

  • American Direct Cinema: A film by Frederick Wiseman. I usually suggest picking an earlier one, such as High School (1968) or Hospital (1970), mainly because they're shorter and the later ones require more endurance and a lengthier attention span than many of my students seem capable of.

  • The French Version of Cinema Vérité: Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Although made in 1960 during the war in Algiers, the film is still amazingly relevant and resonant, and it greatly influenced my own filmmaking.

  • A Strong Political Documentary: Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974). Also, still incredibly relevant—and to my students, born after the Vietnam War, eye-opening.

  • A Personal Documentary: Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1986) is both funny and insightful and still one of the best of this genre.

  • A Longitudinal Documentary: Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994) or Michael Apted's Up Series (1964-present) to illustrate the power of following your subjects over a long period of time.

There are many other documentaries I also recommend: Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), for successfully employing animation); and recently, Ezra Edelman’s five-part miniseries, OJ: Made in America (2016), to show what can be done in long-form nonfiction.

—Mark Jonathan Harris
Distinguished Professor of Film and TV Production
Head, Advanced Documentary Production Course
Mona and Bernard Kantor Endowed Chair in Production
USC School of Cinematic Arts

Film is young. And while there are many contemporary films that feel fresh and innovative, I'm always looking for their roots and reference points, seeking that which was truly groundbreaking. Below are six must-see films that I think every film student should watch and dissect, over and over again.

  • Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935): My students and I have been discussing Triumph for weeks. It raises endless questions about ethics, point-of-view, craft and truth, and is especially good fodder for debating that evergreen question, What is documentary?

  • Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1956): Does any film better demonstrate the power of archives, of the image as evidence, of poetic writing, of counterpoint, of history and of brevity? It's all there in its terrible, beautiful glory.

  • The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984): Warning, this film makes you want to be a documentary filmmaker. It's a storytelling and editing masterpiece.

  • Ethnic Notions (Marlon Riggs, 1986): Mind-blowingly successful at breaking down race and representation in America—something, it turns out, that documentary does well.

  • Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995): Because it's a striking demonstration that nothing much needs to happen to take the viewer on a psychological (yet visual) journey. It taught me that watching people of extraordinary achievement is most interesting when you see them in all their human complexity and moral ambiguity.

  • Senorita Extraviada (Lourdes Portillo, 2002): This film interrogates us as much as it interrogates its subject. It's an investigation, a critique, a document, a megaphone and a work of art. Who gets to bear witness? Whose stories are told? Whose lives matter?

—Carrie Lozano
University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

Here are, in no particular order, my “must sees” for our graduate students in the Institute for Documentary Filmmaking at GWU and why they are required viewing.

  • Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003): This film makes the students question the very essence and nature of truth.

  • Dear Zachary (Kurt Kuenne, 2008): the most finely structured and shocking film they will ever see.

  • Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005): The best political film I know of, and since we’re in Washington, DC, politics is frequently on the minds of our students.

  • Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015): The best example of how a film about a well-known person does not devolve into simple biography—or worse, hagiography.

  • 51 Birch Street (Doug Block, 2006): This film allows us to explore a multiplicity of ethical questions in documentary filmmaking.

—Nina Gilden Seavey
Director, The Documentary Center
Research Professor of History and Media and Public Affairs
George Washington University

Without an official documentary hall of fame to certify an agreed-on pantheon, the films one shows their class is such an individual thing. What were the films that inspired you to become a filmmaker? What documentaries changed the way you thought films could be made? What films are great teaching illustrations for specific things you’d like your students to learn? And how about the docs you just saw that knocked your socks off? So how would I choose just five?

In my University of Texas office, full of DVDs and VHS tapes, as well as a computer full of film links, there are the films that made me rethink what I thought I knew about form, structure and storytelling—Sherman’s March, The Civil War, A Healthy Baby Girl, Tongues Untied, American Dream, Nostalgia for the Light and Darwin’s Nightmare. There are works by younger filmmakers in Austin that are truly special, like Heather Courtney’s Where Soldiers Come From, Keith Matiland’s Tower, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ Only the Young and Michel Scott’s Over the Hills and Far Away, all of which I use in class. There is an ever-growing body of shorts, perfect for classroom viewing, including my favorites like Ivete Guerra Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s series of Florida-based shorts. There are even films I was lucky enough to work on, like Henry Hampton’s epic civil rights series, Eyes on the Prize.

I know there are films I’m missing, but here are five docs that have been my most often go-to’s:

  • Nobody’s Business (Alan Berliner, 1996): Just a masterpiece in structure, story, editing, sound design and, above all, in making one man’s life universal: his father’s.

  • Yosemite: The Fate of Man (Jon Else, 1989): Cinematography as true poetry, making you feel what it is to love the natural world, watching the seasons change, watching the beauty of a climber traversing a rock face, and holding your breath following a waterfall go down and down as the music reaches its crescendo.

  • Be Here to Love Me (Margaret Brown, 2004): A unique historical bio film that allows you to get inside a tortured soul who wrote beautiful songs, with Lee Daniels’ shooting blending with the music in surprising ways, and an ending that’s truly heartbreaking.

  • Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz and Sean Welch, 2002): I love films that say they’re about one subject, like the National Spelling Bee, but are really being about something much more, like immigration, assimilation and what it means to be American. Plus, I still tear up in the opening sequence when Angela Arenivar, the daughter of undocumented parents, wins her 54-round Texas panhandle regional.

  • People Like Us: Class in America (Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, 2001): I’ve worked with these filmmakers since we met almost 40 years ago, but this is their own classic, made of a series of essay chapters that consistently use humor and are always entertaining.

—Paul Stekler
Former Chair, Department of Radio-Television-Film
University of Texas at Austin

  • A.K.A. Don Bonus (Spencer Nakasako, 1995): A riveting example of the camcorder diaries genre that evolved in the mid-1990s in concert with the advent of mini-DV cameras, rendering the production process both cost-effective and open to bold and beautiful innovations.

  • 4.1 Miles (Daphne Matziaraki, 2016): I could think of so many great examples of cinema vérité, but because 4.1 Miles was directed by a graduate student (and was nominated for an Academy Award), I recommend it to my students as a work to aspire to.

  • Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989): An intuitive, personal doc that amplifies the lives of gay black men in a fiercely poetic way.

  • I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016): A superbly constructed documentary that evinces both the visionary language of James Baldwin and the strong vision of Raoul Peck in rendering this great American artist in a full-bodied cinematic treatment.

  • Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Lourdes Portillo and Susana Blaustein Muñoz, 1985): As a social justice film, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo gives us a ground-level view of junta-era Argentina through the intrepid actions of the mothers’ movement that fought for answers about the “disappeared.”

—Renee Tajima-Peña
Professor, Department of Asian American Studies

Undergraduates in documentary need to detox from their fantasies of producing feature-length, long-form, analog theatrical documentary. These legacy modes, although important, will most likely not be in their future.

Students need to dive deeper and take the necessary plunge into the dynamic emerging sectors of new media documentaries, rewiring all we thought about what a documentary can do. Rather than thinking film, they need to think multiple platforms.

These open, constantly changing works assembling many short pieces and voices present more urgent, scalable and sustainable models to address the enormous political crises confronting the world. Students also need to look to models beyond the US and to more racialized, gendered and multicultural models in the US.

These projects flip documentary practice away from auteurism, characters and narrative arcs. They deploy collaborative, horizontal, participatory, polyphonic and community-based modes. They use any and all technologies available, migrating constantly between different modes and interfaces.

They deal with social and political conflicts in inviting ways that expand and complicate issues and foster engagements in necessary dialogues. They rethink production, distribution and exhibition.

Although vast in scope and involving many people, they are located in place. Never finished, they design interactions which engage communities to create a mosaic of polyphonic voices that dispel the deductive linear arguments of many long-form theatrical documentaries.

  • Babylon ’13 (Babylon ’13 Collective, Ukraine, 2013-ongoing): Babylon ’13 is a collective of over 100 amateur, student and professional media-makers who banded together during the 2013 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine to document this event from the ground up. Using a website, Facebook and YouTube channel, the collective has continued to document the ongoing war in the Donbass, the occupation of Crimea by the Russians, various aspects of war, and environmental and social issues. The works circulate on social media, and are used to organize people across Ukraine as well as to combat sensationalized international media representations.

  • EngageMedia (Indonesia/Australia, 2005-ongoing): EngageMedia is an environmental and human rights social media portal and capacity-building project constructed with polyphonic collaborations in the Asia Pacific region. An open archive, it features a range of user-generated, NGO-produced, artisanal and community-based work from all over the region on topics such as biotechnology, climate change, the environment, food security, forests, health, indigenous people, migration, poverty, racism, war. It has been involved in technology innovation with its Plumi software and also in media production capacity building in underserved areas such as Myanmar and Papua and on issues such as migration.

  • Precious Places/Muslim Voices Project (Scribe Video Center with Louis Massiah,, US, 2005-ongoing): Since 2005, Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia has worked on an innovative community media project called Precious Places to map the city’s hidden racialized histories in the face of massive gentrification and development. These short projects create teams with community members, filmmakers, academics and activists to remap Philly history block by block and then use innovative community-based exhibition to engage people. A recent project emanating from this model is their Muslim Voices of Philadelphia project, which shows how Muslim identities are multiple.

  • Proyecto Quipu/The Quipu Project (Maria Court and Rosemarie Lerner, Peru/UK, 2017): The Quipu Project traverses the analog, digital and embodied to open up space for indigenous Quechua women in rural Peru to talk openly about their forced sterilization under President Alberto Fujimori—272,000 women and 21,000 men were sterilized. The project aggregates indigenous women’s voices in remote villages without Internet access to create a testimonial archive by using phones distributed in these areas. Stories are loaded into a website designed to emulate the quipu storytelling necklace. Rather than representations of suffering, the project aims to activate and promote dialogue, collect stories and mobilize justice for these women in larger arenas.

  • The Shore Line (Elizabeth Miller, Bangladesh/Canada/Chile/India/Indonesia/New Zealand/Norway/Panama, United States, 2017-ongoing): The Shore Line is an expansive interactive documentary focused on environmental resilience in the face of rising sea levels, flooding and disappearing wetland in coastal communities around the world. The project features 43 short films produced with media-makers, scientists and activists around the globe that can be searched by different topics or locations as well as an interactive map of wetlands and coastal areas.

—Patricia R. Zimmermann
Professor of Screen Studies, Roy H. Park School of Communications
Ithaca College


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.