Beginner’s Guide To… Documentaries


“I began to feel that the drama of the truth that is in the moment and in the past is richer and more interesting than the drama of Hollywood movies. So I began looking at documentary films.”

– Ken Burns

Silence. The camera pans onto a scene familiar except for one marked difference; it could be two men in business suits swimming in a pool, dolphins in a pool of their own blood, or the American flag fluttering as it burns. What you’re about to see, the voiceover tells you, is critical. What you’re about to see changes everything.

This is the power of documentaries. They change the world, through education and by causing audiences to empathise with situations they could never otherwise envisage. In 1988, Errol Morris made a film about a man sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit. He showed that five of the witnesses in the case had committed perjury, and a year after the film’s release, Randall Dale Adams was released from jail.

Very few good documentaries are unbiased, something critics of veteran Michael Moore never seem to understand. Documentaries are good only when their makers are passionate about the subject, and passion is rarely coupled with objectivity. It is for this reason that Moore’s first documentary is in many ways his best. You can clearly see the love he has for his hometown, and he has an anonymity that allows him to get away with things he can’t now.

Documentaries look to understand and explain the worldaround us. In a culture that increasingly embraces escapism in films, they bring us back to reality and show us what needs to be changed, whether this is stopping Japanese villagers from poisoning their children with mercury or embarrassing McDonalds to the extent that they now sell salads. While they are often seen as boring, this simply isn’t the case. In the last year alone, documentaries highlighted the dangers of social networking, showcased the horrors or war and allowed Banksy to prank the world. So in the next film you see, allow yourself to learn something.

Must See Documentaries:

The War Game (1965)

Thin Blue Line (1988)

Roger & Me (1989)

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Bloody Sunday (2002)

Enron: Smartest Guys In The Room (2005)

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

No End In Sight (2007)