7 Tough But Important Documentaries

The day after I watched For Sama, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s powerful film about life during the siege of Aleppo, a friend asked me if I could recommend a documentary for her to watch.


I hesitated. 


I wanted to say, go home right now and watch For Sama. This is a stunning piece of work - gripping, immersive and incredibly intimate. So, why did I hesitate? Well, For Sama is also  distressing, heartbreaking and extremely tough to watch. 


This is a film that does not look away from the chaos, carnage and destruction of war. It is upsetting, it is brutal and it is devastating. However, I am so glad that I watched For Sama as it explores vitally important issues and inspires real understanding.


I have to believe that the more people watch films like For Sama, the more people will understand the refugee crisis. Besides, spending one hour and 40 minutes in the environment that Waad and her family had to endure for years seems the very least we can do… right?


This is why I watch tough and difficult documentaries like the ones listed below. I want to understand and I want to believe that understanding is the first step towards positive change. No one benefits if we look away. 


For Sama

For Sama isn’t the first documentary that I have watched about the devastating conflict in Syria. 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 is the one I feel will stay with me the most. 


It is For Sama’s mix of powerful journalism and deeply 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.


One of the questions that Waad is asked the most after a screening of For Sama is what can we do to help. In addition to a campaign to stop the bombing of hospitals, the director hopes that her film will inspire a greater understanding of what happened in Aleppo.


This is the power of For Sama. The documentary wants and earns our understanding as it records a terrible event in history - recent history - an event that needs to be faced and acknowledged. 


Click here for more about For Sama


Taxi To The Dark Side

In 2002, US soldiers occupy war-torn Afghanistan. Tensions are high and violence is commonplace. At a checkpoint, a young Afghan taxi driver called Dilawar is arrested along with his passengers. They are suspects in a Taliban rocket attack.


Dilawar is taken to Bagram Air Base where he is confined in a solitary cell. He is then chained, sleep deprived and subjected to a series of brutal beatings and torture from the US soldiers on duty.


Five days after his arrest, Dilawar died.


In Taxi To The Dark Side, Alex Gibney explores the devastating reality of life at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It is an unquestionably tough watch - revealing the ugly face of war. The images we see, the reenactments we watch and the stories we hear (from an impressive range of soldiers who were involved) are horrific. They stay with you long after the film has concluded.


As they should.


It is all too easy to turn away, to pretend such things never happened. It is all too easy to blame a few rogue soldiers and move forward without considering just how much of this torture was condoned or even encouraged by their superiors.


Gibney does not allow us to look away and this is why Taxi To The Dark Side is so vitally important. It raises questions about the abuse of power from the front line to the very heights of political power. 


Taxi To The Dark Side makes us question… are we really the good guys?


Click here for more about Taxi To The Dark Side




13th starts by addressing a truly stunning statistic. The US - often called the land of the free - has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Even more shocking is the fact that one in three black males in America will go to prison at some point during their lives. That's compared to one in 17 white men.  


Ava DuVernay’s documentary looks at what lies behind this discrepancy. A series of fascinating experts and academics explain how, after years of fighting for freedom and equality, black communities are still waiting for change.


13th also examines the legacy of America’s Civil Rights movement and argues that achievements in places such as Selma (events depicted in DuVernay’s film of the same name) have since been thwarted by the US criminal justice system.


The documentary contends that the war on drugs - instigated by President Nixon and endorsed by both President Bush and President Clinton - was actually a war on American communities of colour. 13th includes some truly shameful (off the record) statements and horrifying statistics in support of its case. 


If the evolution of slavery and mass incarceration in the US were not enough for one film to cover, DuVernay moves on to discuss the $80bn industry of imprisonment. Incarceration is big business and 13th argues that it is in the interests of many powerful corporations to keep US prisons filled. 


DuVernay’s film weighs heavily on its audience. It will certainly stay with me for a long, long time. There is a remarkable amount of information to consume and much ground is covered. However, there is no attempt to suggest a solution. The answers are up to us to find.


Click here for more on 13th



City Of Joy

City Of Joy examines the impact of the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war in the eastern part of The Democratic Republic of Congo - a location often labeled "the worst place in the world to be a woman".


The film, by first time director Madeleine Gavin, tells the story behind the creation of City of Joy - a revolutionary leadership centre in eastern Congo. It follows the centre’s founders - Dr. Denis Mukwege, 2016 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, women's rights activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver and radical feminist Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues.


The documentary also gives voice to some of the women who seek refuge at City Of Joy. Their shocking experiences are utterly and unbelievably horrific. There are simply no words to convey the level of monstrous inhumane violence that they have suffered.


However, Gavin’s film is a story of profound and inspirational resilience - a powerful portrait of the phenomenal strength of the human spirit. Despite the horror, there is tremendous vitality here. City of Joy tells an extremely important story and it is a story of hope.


Click here to read more about City Of Joy



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.


Click here for my review of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God




Evelyn is a powerful and deeply moving documentary about suicide and its lasting impact on the family and friends left behind. This is both a deeply personal story and a movie that inspires wider discussion of an important issue that is still considered taboo.


Director Orlando von Einsiedel is no stranger to tough but important documentary stories having made films such as The White Helmets (about the volunteer rescue workers who put their lives on the line to save civilians amidst the turmoil and violence in Syria and Turkey) and Virunga (about a small team of incredibly brave rangers in eastern Congo’s Virunga National Park who risk their lives to protect the land and the last remaining mountain gorillas).


By sharing their experiences, Orlando and his family encourage us to be more open about suicide - we all need to talk about this issue. 


Click here to read more about Evelyn.




In October 2016, an army of over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and militia moved to liberate Mosul, the country’s second largest city, from ISIS. 


When Daniel Gabriel - a former CIA counterterrorism officer who had completed six tours in Iraq and Afghanistan - heard about the plan, he used his connections in the Iraqi government to capture the event via embedded journalist Ali Maula and several crews of combat cameramen.


The result is Mosul, a thoughtful and informative documentary that is both a compelling record of what happened in Mosul and a warning that sectarian differences in Iraq - between the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and others - could well open the door to future conflict.


Mosul is an incredibly tense and disturbing documentary experience. The film leaves us with an unsettling question from Ali Maula (an interpretation of the famous George Santayana quotation) - if we forget or destroy history we may well be doomed to repeat it.


Click here to read more about Mosul


Over To You...

Have you watched any of the films on this list? If so, what did you think of these documentaries? What docs would you add? 


Let me know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones

E: jane@500daysoffilm.com


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