Although we normally classify narrative feature films as “tearjerkers,” nothing quite touches the heart more than real life. The documentary form cannot be reduced to mere journalism. It can be portraiture of the human soul. It remains one of the most challenging forms of filmmaking because it requires a director to encapsulate a biography, a historical moment or an idea into a digestible motion picture. A few documentaries stand out as the genre’s most moving examples.
Released in 1984, “Streetwise” details the lives of nine homeless teenagers in downtown Seattle. Some become involved in prostitution. Others use drugs. All of them are too young to be exposed to the harsh realities of urban life. Nominated for an Academy Award, this doc helped shape our modern understanding of homelessness as a phenomenon not restricted to aged winos.
4 “Bowling for Columbine”
Michael Moore can be obnoxious, aggressive, manipulative and absolutely brilliant. “Bowling for Columbine” remains his magnum opus. The documentary explores America’s fascination with guns in the context of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Although violence-saturated audiences have become desensitized to onscreen carnage, you cannot but be moved by a victim’s talk of the tragedy or the chilling surveillance footage of the shooters wandering the school cafeteria.
3 “Grey Gardens”
A powerful documentary may study the lives of millions—or just a lone individual. The Maysles brothers’ “Grey Gardens” focuses on two eccentric women, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie. Relatives of Jackie Onassis, the blue-blooded pair live in a decaying mansion near East Hampton, New York. In this film portrait, directors David and Albert Maysles explore the pair’s rich fantasy world. The mother reminisces of her singing days, while her 56-year old daughter still awaits her “big break” in music. Without commentary or a clear narrative, the film explores their complex, dysfunctional but ultimately loving relationship.
With very little historical B-roll imagery, “Shoah” has become the definitive documentary on the Holocaust since its release in 1985. The film largely consists of interviews with the tragedy’s survivors, witnesses and perpetrators. With a running time of nearly 10 hours, the film does not conform to the standard of a typical feature-length work. Rather, it stands as a cinematic monument to one of the darkest moments of human history.
1 “Titicut Follies”
Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 debut has long been one of the best documentaries you never saw. “Titicut Follies” explores the mistreatment of inmates at a Boston hospital for the criminally insane. The shocking footage resulted in a decades-long effort by the state of Massachusetts to ban its release. Notably, the film doesn’t offer “voice of God” narration about the inmates’ degradation. Wiseman simply presents it to the viewer without any commentary and a minimal degree of editing. The simple act of documentation spoke volumes.