William Greaves’s multilayered metafiction—based on a scripted scene of a couple in crisis—is a documentary about the very nature of fictional films, and the authority of a director trying to make them. Greaves films himself, his actors, and his crew at work in Central Park, interacting with one another and with whomever happens to be there, and also includes the crew’s own critique of his methods and even his character.
In this documentary of the making of a studio recording, Pennebaker captures performances of a historic greatness (especially by Elaine Stritch), filming with a sensitive synergy in long and probing takes that shiver with his own excitement and sense of collaborative energy..
“Numéro Zéro” (1971, Jean Eustache)
Eustache’s film consists almost entirely of an extended interview with his grandmother Odette Robert. He elicits her intimate horror stories, which seem to fuse with the modern history of France as well as with the substance of his far more celebrated fiction films (such as “The Mother and the Whore”) and with his own sense of identity.
“Growing Up Female” (1971, Julia Reichert and Jim Klein)
Through a series of interviews with a multigenerational and multiethnic group of women living near her home town, in Ohio, Reichert explores the gender-centered pressures tacit in her environment and reveals the indoctrinations that she and other women experience from media controlled mainly by men. Though the film runs only forty-nine minutes long, it encompasses a vast historical scope.
“Joyce at 34” (1972, Joyce Chopra)
Another pioneer of first-person filmmaking, Chopra begins by documenting the birth of her daughter and goes on to examine the connection between her work as a filmmaker and her family life—and also, through interviews with her own mother, a retired schoolteacher, confronts and contextualizes her own efforts at balancing work and home.
“Marjoe” (1972, Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith)
In this film, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature before disappearing from circulation (it was restored and reissued in 2005), Marjoe Gortner, who had been a child-star preacher, returns to the pulpit as an adult for a farewell tour, which he uses to repudiate the world of organized religion. His riveting stage persona fills the screen with the ecstasy and the skepticism of the age of rock; he collaborates with the filmmakers to reveal the tricks of his trade and, in on-camera discussions, discloses the painful story of his exploitation.
“F for Fake” (1973, Orson Welles)
Taking off from investigations of an art forger and a literary fraudster, Welles’s wide-ranging, richly ironic, and loftily speculative personal-essay film puts the very distinctions between documentary and fiction, and between first-person declaration and journalistic exploration, under kaleidoscopic scrutiny.
“El Sopar” (1974, Pere Portabella)
The very existence of this movie—a clandestine gathering of former political prisoners of the Franco regime, filmed while it was still in power—is a miracle, and Portabella, a director of highly stylized dramas, finds simple forms that give physical presence to the reports from the depths of political horror.
“Welfare” (1975, Frederick Wiseman)
Frederick Wiseman, the great documentarian of bureaucracy in action, here also spotlights the contrast between dispassionate functionaries and the anguish of their put-upon and desperate supplicants. It’s a film about the gap between the letter and the spirit of the law—and about the modes of behavior, or performance, that result.
“Grey Gardens” (1976, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer)
The implicit performances of documentary subjects are at the center of all of the Maysles brothers’ major films, but never more emphatically than in this one. Their view of the chaotic decline of the two Edith Beales, mother and daughter—and the desperately antic theatre of shattered dreams that they present—is inseparable from the Maysles’ own tensely compassionate implication in their subjects’ lives.
Coolidge’s effort to dramatize her experience of being raped, when she was a teen-ager, is the anguished and profound core of this documentary, in which she collaborates with an actress who was also a victim of rape and considers the implications, even the very possibility, of dramatizing such an experience.
Guzman’s documentary in three parts, filmed in 1972 and 1973, anticipated, with a sense of prophetic foreboding, the violent opposition to the government of Chile’s President Salvador Allende. Guzman filmed the end times of the regime, under rightist and American pressure, from within.
This three-hour documentary is a vast intellectual history, putting the momentous events of 1968, in France and elsewhere, under Marker’s political microscope. (Spoiler alert: he instead locates the era’s key political events in 1967.) Aided by furious archival explorations and his expansively trenchant voice-over analysis, Marker filters a period of global upheaval through his editing table.
“Word Is Out” (1977, Mariposa Film Group)
Considered the first documentary about gay people by openly gay people, this film features twenty-six individuals talking about their lives, at length, in detail, and with a complicit candor. In revealing their lifelong oppressions, they enact a liberation of their own voices and of society over all.
“The Police Tapes” (1977, Alan and Susan Raymond)
Taking advantage of a relatively new technology, portable video equipment, the Raymonds embed with police officers at work in the South Bronx, which at the time had the city’s highest crime rate. They film the officers making rounds—at night—and talk with the visionary borough commander, Tony Bouza, whose progressive philosophy of policing embraces drastic social change.
Learning of a pair of San Diego twin girls who spoke a private language, the French director Jean-Pierre Gorin (who had moved to California) visited them and their family; his explorations of their linguistic issues revealed the family’s distinctive emotional world and cultural dynamic, while also evoking crucial aspects of American life over all—and Gorin’s own place in it.
The documentary that should have been made in the nineteen-thirties, about women who played crucial roles in strikes at General Motors factories in 1936-37, was instead made in the nineteen-seventies; as directed by Gray (and produced by Gray, Lyn Goldfarb, and Anne Bohlen), it virtually revives those events by connecting interviews with the women, forty years after the fact, to an astounding selection of archival footage.
Fronza Woods’s short documentary brings to the screen a figure who was, at the time, virtually invisible in American movies: a sixty-five-year-old Black custodial worker. Blending interviews and observation, and using a soundtrack of Fannie telling her life story, Woods—an overlooked figure in American independent filmmaking, who has never had the opportunity to make a feature film—leaps ahead of documentary conventions, and reveals Fannie’s domestic and professional stories to be tales of epic heroism.
There is a before and an after: the agonizing twelve-year experience that went into the making of the nine-hour film, in which Lanzmann interviews survivors of the Holocaust, former concentration-camp guards, people who lived near the death camps, and historians—is clear onscreen, and the incommensurable events that the film details with an unprecedented, horrific specificity are evoked with a power beyond representation, thanks to Lanzmann’s arduously developed artistry.
As a soldier in the Japanese Army during the Second World War, Kenzo Okuzaki survived a virtually suicidal mission. Years later, after years of violent opposition to the regime, he travels throughout Japan to confront his former officers, and Hara collaborates with him to film these furious, even violent confrontations. The result is a clear-eyed record of a country’s ongoing, official indifference.
After making several documentaries about his home town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Buba filmed his own efforts to make a fictional film there, starring one of his former documentary subjects. What he ended up filming is a multilayered account of his failure to make it, one that unfolds the town’s local and large-scale political conflicts and a grimly comical account of his own life.
In one of the most original of all essay-films, Rappaport brilliantly and empathetically connects Rock Hudson’s private life as a gay man and his public one as a movie star. A keen-eyed, clip-centered film, it is as much about the actor’s performances as about the act of movie viewing.
Oxenberg seems to burst beyond the boundaries of the genre in this film about her grandmother, who was terminally ill at the time (and who died in the course of the filming). Using fantasy sequences, dioramas, a faux quiz show, and other imaginative devices, Oxenberg delves deep into family history, and into the cosmic mysteries of death. (The film should have launched her career; instead it was the last feature film she has directed to date.)
“The Devil Never Sleeps” (1994, Lourdes Portillo)
Portillo revisits her home town of Chihuahua, Mexico, to investigate the unexplained death of her uncle, a local politician. She discovers her family’s story to be a lurid melodrama of conflicting interests and political corruption, and she films it—and her childhood memories—with a labyrinthine style to match.
“A Plate of Sardines” (1997, Omar Amiralay)
In this short film, Amiralay, a Syrian filmmaker (and one of the main interview subjects in Lawrence Wright’s piece in The New Yorker, from 2006, on Syrian cinema) considers Israel and the Nakba from the perspective of his childhood memories and family lore (including the titular dish), and considers the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and the destruction of the city of Quneitra from the perspective of moviemaking and moviegoing.
No filmmaker has identified so closely with the history of cinema than Godard, and no filmmaker has looked as deeply into it. This eight-part series, totalling four hours and made in the course of more than a decade, makes use of clips in a manner—involving his own hands-on video effects—no less daring or imaginative or exquisite than his creation of dramatic images. Nearly every other filmmaker’s approach to archival images seems bland and timid by comparison.
One of the great fiction filmmakers, Burnett here deploys his dramatic artistry along with a historian’s ardor and a journalist’s probing interviews. The film is a work of cinematic historiography, examining how Turner’s life, and the rebellion he led, have been depicted and deformed over time. Burnett dramatizes historical events through a multiplicity of performances, and offers a glimpse at his own effort to film them.
This clandestinely made three-hour film, featuring extended takes running up to an hour, is composed almost entirely of an in-depth interview of a woman who, with her late husband, was a victim of China’s political repression in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. It’s an exemplary work of the embodiment of history in language and the recovery of history in real time.
This great cinematic autobiography fuses memory and imagination in scenes that expose the artistry and the lifetime of experience that went into making them. Of all of Varda’s freely imaginative documentaries, it’s the one in which she was at her most personal, her most confessional, her most intimate, and her most inventive.
A virtual novel of a personal documentary, in which Kleine tells the story of her parents’ apparently happy marriage, and her own discovery of her mother’s extraordinary lifetime of secrets—of which Kleine remains, throughout the film, the uneasy guardian.
Panh, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, relies on small figurines and archival footage, as well as new interviews and his recollections, to evoke its depravities and his own family’s sufferings.
Under house arrest, facing imprisonment, and banned from filmmaking, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi nonetheless made a film without, strictly speaking, doing so—using a planted camera and a cell phone to record his own life in isolation and to act out one of his own unfilmed scripts with a vital urgency that surpasses acting.
“Actress” (2014, Robert Greene)
Greene, the crucial theoretician-in-action of the recent wave of self-implicating and self-questioning documentaries, here films his neighbor—the actress Brandy Burre (best known for her role on “The Wire”)—and finds her private life to be a grand and poignant melodrama.
“Field Niggas” (2015, Khalik Allah)
Allah, filming and recording sound by himself, brings new energy to the observational documentary in this movie presenting his encounters with people he meets on 125th Street. With stylistic ingenuity and clarity of purpose, he reveals the practical pressures that they confront as well as the monumental intimacy of their lives.
“No Home Movie” (2015, Chantal Akerman)
The solitude implicit in Akerman’s do-it-yourself filmmaking is also a story of family. Here she turns the camera on her relationship with her aging mother—their emotional closeness and physical distance—her own virtual exile from home as a result of her international career, and her experience of an existential solitude of tragic, horrific power.
“Coma” (2016, Sara Fattahi)
Living in Damascus with her mother and grandmother when the city was under siege from the Syrian regime, Fattahi reveals family history and political anguish with a cinematographic eye and bold juxtapositions that seem wrenched physically from the catastrophe and subjectively from deep within.
“Rat Film” (2016, Theo Anthony)
Starting from his own smartphone video recording of a rat in a garbage pail, the Baltimore-based filmmaker travels through town to probe the city’s ongoing problem of rodent infestation and finds, through passionate research and engaging interviews, long-hidden historical outrages appearing before his eyes.
Mbakam’s film takes a classic premise—the return-home story—and expands it by way of extraordinary compositional skill and a keen sense of the connections between personal and societal events. Born in Cameroon and living in Belgium, she returns to her homeland to visit her mother and other relatives and, during her travels and discussions, discovers the forms of independence that Cameroonian women have asserted in the face of a patriarchal culture.