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50 (more) docs before you die

50 (more) docs before you die
30 August 2011 posted by John Wyver

In a show hosted by Morgan (SuperSize Me) Spurlock, the American channel Current TV tonight unveils its complete 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die. The Artsbeat blog at The New York Times has the full list together with some pithy comments about its problems (yes, any such list is compiled simply to be contested). 'Th[e] focus on "the modern documentary”,' writes Mike Hale, 'goes hand in hand with a relentless preference for the story-based or issue-based films that people now seem to think define the documentary field. It’s hard to imagine a more abstract or idea-based filmmaker like Andy Warhol or Chris Marker in this company.' He might also have pointed out, along with the historical amnesia (nothing before 1988), the overwhelming bias towards documentaries from the United States. So as a riposte, in the jump is a list of 50 more documentaries that you really have to see -- and soon.

My parameters for the following list (each entry of which links to further information) is that it features only one film per maker (with three half-exceptions); that the films were produced before the turn of the century (to bring some sense of history to the debate), and that includes mostly British films (the ones I know best) together with a number of European documentaries (for which I have mostly used their English titles) that made a major impact on this side of the channel.

The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting, 1924

The Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929

Turksib, Viktor Turin, 1929

A Propos de Nice, Jean Vigo, 1930

Song of Ceylon, Basil Wright, 1934

Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty, 1934

Night Mail, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, 1936

The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens, 1937

Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl, 1938

Target for Tonight, Harry Watt, 1941

Listen to Britain, Humphrey Jennings, 1942

Henry Moore, John Read, 1951

Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, 1955

Momma Don't Allow, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, 1956

Morning in the Streets, Denis Mitchell and Roy Harris, 1959

Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch, 1961

Terminus, John Schlesinger, 1961

Elgar, Ken Russell, 1962

I Think They Call Him John, John Krish, 1964

The Up Series, Paul Almond and Michael Apted, 1964-

The War Game, Peter Watkins, 1966

The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls, 1969

Royal Family, Richard Cawston, 1969

Phantom India, Louis Malle, 1969

Civilisation, Michael Gill, 1969

Ways of Seeing, John Berger and Mike Dibb, 1973

A Life Apart, Michael Grigsby, 1973

The World at War, Jeremy Isaacs, 1973-74

The Family, Franc Roddam and Paul Watson, 1974

Nightcleaners, Berwick Street Collective, 1975

How Yukong Moved the Mountains, Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan Ivens, 1976

My Homeland, Robert Vas, 1976

Police, Roger Graef, 1982

Sans Soleil, Chris Marker, 1983

Four American Composers, Peter Greenaway, 1983

Seacoal, Amber Films, 1985

Handsworth Songs, John Akomfrah, 1986

The Passion of Remembrance, Isaac Julien, 1986

Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, 1985

Fourteen Days in May, Paul Hamann, 1987

Dostoevsky's Travels, Paul Pawlikowski, 1991

Hello, Do You Hear Us, Juris Podnieks, 1991

The Leader, the Driver and the Driver's Wife, Nick Broomfield, 1991

Pandora's Box, Adam Curtis, 1992

The Ark, Molly Dineen, 1993

Dream Girls, Kim Longinotto, 1993

The Belovs, Viktor Kossakovsky, 1994

Relics: Einstein's Brain, Kevin Hull, 1994

The Death of Yugoslavia, Norma Percy, 1995

Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard, 1998

So... what have I missed?


Chuck Scott

30 August 2011 16:34

The australian born Rubbo did about 40 films for the NFB. I thought this film while the characters as well know Canadians the film has universal appeal. Waiting For Fidel - Michael Rubbo NFB Available for viewing in the NFB website. Rather than Man of Aran I would have picked Nanook to represent Flaherty as it was the first commercially successful feature documentary. Also it was shot in Canada... ok biased.

John Burgan

30 August 2011 17:29

Excellent list, John (glad to see Vas in there, of course). I'd be tempted to add Robert Kramer's 1994 "Starting Point" (think he probably counts as an honorary European).

Piers Sanderson

5 September 2011 08:23

Great list John, i would also add Bread Day by Sergei Dvortsevoy Tripping with Zhirinovsky or Serbian Epics by Pawel Pawlikowski and Wisconsin Death Trip by James Marsh

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