I don’t know about you but the end of a decade fills me with existential dread. Where did the time go? What have I achieved? What does the future hold…
Thankfully, I experience no dread when I look back over the past ten years of documentary film. Here are my 7 favourite films of the decade!
In the summer of 2010, Dawn Brancheau was killed at Orlando’s SeaWorld marine park. Her killer was the 12,000 pound orca called Tilikum that Brancheau - an extremely experienced trainer - had helped train and had performed with for years.
The tragedy did not sit well with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. “Something wasn’t right,” she recalls. “Why would a highly intelligent animal attack its trainer – in effect, bite the hand that feeds it? I set out to understand this incident not as an activist, but as a mother (who had just taken her kids to SeaWorld) and as a documentary filmmaker (who can’t let sleeping dogs lie).”
At the start, the director really didn’t know what story she wanted to tell. “For two years we were bombarded with terrifying facts, autopsy reports, sobbing interviewees, and unhappy animals – a place diametrically opposite to its [SeaWorld's] carefully refined image,” she recalls. “But as I moved forward, I knew that we had a chance to fix some things that had come unraveled along the way. And that all I had to do was tell the truth.”
Filmmaker, Laura Poitras, had been working on a film about surveillance for two years when she was contacted by someone using the name “Citizenfour”. The contact was a man and he knew about Poitras because she had been the target of US government surveillance and had steadfastly refused to be intimidated.
Citizenfour revealed that he was a high level NSA analyst and that he could expose the massive amount of surveillance of Americans (and others). Poitras persuaded Citizenfour to let her film him.
He agreed and Poitras along with Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, flew to Hong Kong to meet Citizenfour - otherwise known as Edward Snowden.
Citizenfour is a truly remarkable documentary. It is nothing short of incredible to be in the hotel room with Poitras and Greenwald and hear Edward Snowden tell his story. The film feels like a thriller - it almost doesn’t feel real.
Once they have heard Snowdon’s story (a story of a lifetime), Poitras and Greenwald have to think on their feet. How should they present the story? How far should they go? When should the identity of Citizenfour be revealed?
This is no easy decision for either the journalist or the filmmaker. They are as aware as Snowden that, once they let the genie out of the bottle, none of their lives (or the lives of their loved ones) will ever be the same.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God
In 1972 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - in the first known case in the US - victims publicly accuse a priest of child sexual abuse. This case would spur a worldwide investigation reaching all the way to the Vatican.
Alex Gibney’s superb documentary tells the story of the horrific abuse of over 200 children who attended Milwaukee's St John’s School For The Deaf in the 1950s. The abuse was carried out by their most trusted guardian - Father Lawrence Murphy.
The experiences of a small group of deaf men lie at the heart of Mea Maxima Culpa. Their names are Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinski and Bob Bolger and their stories are told via the voices of actors Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Jamey Sheridan and John Slattery.
Kohut, Smith, Budzinski and Bolger fought for years to get the attention of the world. They were let down by society time and time again. But they did not give up. They could not - not until the world knew about the systemic child abuse within the Catholic Church.
And, as tough as it is to see the pain and damage etched on their faces, I am so glad that I have watched them tell their story. They are an inspiration and, once again, this is the very least I can do.
West Of Memphis
On 6 May, 1993 the naked and mutilated bodies of three eight year old boys - Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers - were found in a watery ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Under significant pressure to solve the crime and in the midst of satanic panic hysteria, three local teenagers - Damien Echols, his friend Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley - were arrested, charged and then convicted of the brutal murders.
The case of the West Memphis Three was controversial from the start and it drew the attention of Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. They believed that the convictions were a devastating miscarriage of justice and felt compelled to use their resources to help free the West Memphis Three.
Deciding that a documentary was needed to present their position and raise awareness about the West Memphis Three, Walsh and Jackson (after watching her film, Deliver Us From Evil, about sex abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church) - approached director Amy Berg. They felt that she could handle both the sensitivities and the complexity of the case.
West Of Memphis is an extremely tough and upsetting watch. Berg does not shy away from the brutality of the murders. However, she also does not exploit what happened to Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers.
Instead, Berg builds a compelling and gripping argument why justice was not - and never will be - served in the case of the West Memphis Three.
Over the last few years, there has been a steady influx of films - including The White Helmets, City Of Ghosts and Last Men in Aleppo - depicting the war and the battle for Aleppo.
However, Waad al-Kateab’s documentary, For Sama, is the one I feel will stay with me the most.
It is For Sama’s mix of powerful journalism and intimate storytelling that makes this film an unforgettable experience. The documentary offers both an uncompromising and important account of life in Aleppo between 2012 and 2016 and immersive access to a family under siege.
For Sama’s depiction of family life is deeply affecting - this is a mother’s heartfelt message to her baby daughter. Waad narrates her own story, explaining to Sama why she and Sama's father decided to stay in such a dangerous place, what it was really like and why, in the end, they had to leave.
Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell is a deeply personal exploration of Sarah Polley’s family. As Polley unravels (detective style) the mysteries of her childhood, she reveals an intimate and intriguing collection of memories about the mother, Diane, she lost aged just 11 years old.
What sets Stories We Tell apart from other personal documentaries is how Polley digs deeper and examines more universal questions - exploring the power of stories, the act of storytelling, the concept of truth and the elusive nature of memory.
Kirsten Johnson is one of the most respected cinematographers working in documentary cinema. Her impressive filmography includes Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Invisible War and Audrie & Daisy.
After 25 years behind the camera, Johnson decided to take pieces of memorable footage and edit them together to form a memoir, an exploration of human connections and a look at what it means to film and be filmed.
Cameraperson is a cinematic collage - a series of moments selected from a truly illustrious career. There is no voice over, nothing to tell you what to make of the footage you are watching. As a result, the film's emotional impact creeps up on you...leaving you feeling heartbroken and optimistic, devastated and inspired.
Johnson's documentary is a powerful, personal and insightful film. It is made from the stuff of life - with all the beauty and pain that entails.
Over To You...
What do you think of the films of my list? What documentaries would make your list?
Let me know in the comments section below or let’s talk documentaries over on Twitter! You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.