Some people cringe at the mere mention of documentaries. That’s cool, (not really) but there are a few that you should watch at least once in your life. Why? Well, for one, they make you more aware of important issues, two, they give you something to talk about that makes you sound smart and well informed at parties (if that’s your thing). Lastly, they can make you grateful for what you have, because a lot of the people in these films I’ve listed have very little. At least one of these films will change you when you’re done watching, and probably you will want to change things out in the world. That’s a really good thing.
1. Black Tar Heroin Dark End Of The Street
In the 1990’s, black tar heroin use in the San Francisco area skyrocketed, assisted by an explosion in the Mexican market, which was trafficked by the ton across the border to California. This doco follows 5 teens and their friends living in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, an area which on one hand is artistically vibrant and diverse, and on the other filled with some extreme poverty, violence and marginalisation.
The best part about this documentary is that the subjects tell their own stories; there is no voice over, no Hollywood narrative. These people are drug addicts, mostly homeless. Some have been abused and all of them voice a certain level of despair at their situation. They are not, however, condescended to or turned into villains by the film maker, Steven Okazaki. Their smarts and personality shines through the gloom.
The soundtrack is amazing, very of the time and if you want to know the reality of every day drug use, without the sensationalist Drugs Inc quality, then watch this on Youtube or track down the DVD.
2. Hookers At The Point
Another 90’s film, Hookers at the Point follows a group of prostitutes from Hunter’s Point, the Bronx, as they navigate their trade and its inherent risks, and struggle against abuse, drugs and destitution. This documentary gives a face and voice to women who are often viewed as diseased objects of abuse and pleasure.
They are street smart women with thoughts to share. It is told in their voices again, with their personal stories and is an often heartrending, very intense viewing experience. It will make you question both individual choices and societal exclusion.
It isn’t a slick film making experience, so if that’s what you’re looking for, scroll down to the next entry, but it is gritty and fascinating viewing of an issue people judge without knowing.
3. Planet Earth
There are debates about the best David Attenborough/BBC documentary, but the sheer scale of Planet Earth, the beauty of its subjects and the time devoted to its production make it a favourite of mine forever. Also, cute animals. Who could ever resist the squee?
Released in 2006, but filmed over five years, Earth was the most expensive documentary ever funded by the BBC Natural History crew. This film series is worth taking the time to watch over a weekend for the uplifting amazement it will give you at the beauty and intricacy of the planet we call home.
A bonus is that the science content is crunchy enough to enthral, but not detailed enough to lose the viewer. Watch with a friend to ooh and ahh over the scenery. It’s like going on vacation without spending the money or leaving the couch! Wait…
4. Children of the Dark
A portrait of disability, mental health and the treatment of these conditions in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Children of the Dark documents the societal reaction, hospitals and recovery programs used at that point to treat patients.
Some of these programs in particular are highly unorthodox and debatable, a warning to people who are triggered by disturbing images. This is a picture of the daily struggles of mentally ill children who could not live at home with their families.
Be warned also, these children will stay with you. You will wonder what has happened to them and if they made it to live the lives they dreamed of. Unfortunately, after some research there’s very little information to be had. It is a beautifully compassionate documentary, old, but more real than many programs you will see in the present film industry about disability, mental health and living on the margins.
5. Food Inc
One of the most intense and controversial films to be produced in the last decade, Food Inc is an in-depth look at where exactly the West’s food comes from. It was pretty squicky for me, personally. You will probably feel sick at least once while watching, I mean this film is known for driving thousands of people to go vegetarian and/or organic.
It explores different areas of production; meats, grains and vegetables and economic and branding power in separate sections. The idea is that the current agribusiness model used in the US in particular is unhealthy, environmentally devastating and cruel. Whether you come to this conclusion yourself or not, it is a fascinating film that needed to be made and demands to be seen.
6. Deliver Us From Evil
First, a trigger warning. This is a difficult film about abuse with very disturbing subject matter. This was going to be an ‘even’ kind of article. The title was 5 Top Docos; people like nice snappy titles like Top 10, Top 5 etcetera. And then I watched this documentary on DVD and couldn’t not include it.
With incredibly important, and uncomfortable, subject matter, I was riveted and disgusted. Taken aback by the sharpness of the shots and angles used by director, and disgusted by the subject matter. It is a film which proves more than ever that the bad guys are not simplistic, they don’t look like monsters or wear disguises. It is evidence that paedophiles often go where the children are; churches, schools, homeless shelters. They target the vulnerable, the lonely, the unprotected.
The film investigates convicted child sex offender Oliver O’Grady, who worked in the Catholic Church. It suggests the higher ups of the Church knew he had been abusing children in his care and decided not to act. This was made in 2006, and in Australia and the UK right now we see the fruits of the labour the Church put into hiding the crimes of its priests. This was a film made ahead of its time in a lot of ways. Definitely hard to watch, but a very important film that highlights the relevance of investigative documentaries.