Must Watch: The 50 Greatest Documentaries of All Time!

By Arun Fulara. Posted on September 04, 2015

The Sight & Sound magazine is one of the oldest & most respected film magazines. Their decadal poll on the 'Greatest Films Of All Time' are well-known. On similar lines, they conducted a poll last year on the greatest documentaries of all time. They polled 340 critics, programmers and filmmakers from around the world including the likes of Clio Barnard, Asif Kapadia, Kevin Macdonald, James Marsh, Joshua Oppenheimer, Anand Patwardhan, Pawel Pawlikowski, Walter Salles and James Toback.

Documentaries have a long hoary tradition going back to the first videos that were made. From capturing the zeitgeist to throwing light on critical issues to exploring uncharted terrains to celebrating people or events, they cover the entire range of human experience, probably better than fiction films do.

The list has films by such acclaimed directors as Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Errol Morris, D.A. Pennebaker, Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles, Leni Riefenstahl & Agnes Varda amongst others. The films range from the 1895 film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory by Lumiere Brothers to the 2012 film Act Of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer. The film that tops the list though, is a surprise. The Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, made in 1929 in the USSR, received a total of 100 votes, 32 more than the next best. A film about the making of a documentary, it is a radical innovative film that is finally getting its due after more than 80 years. 

A small brief on the film at the BFI site provides a gist of the documentary;

"Man with a Movie Camera is a ‘city symphony’ film of a kind not uncommon in the 1920s. These films celebrated the vibrancy of the modern cityscape with pastiches of urban images, for the most part neither set up nor reconstructed. Vertov, though, plays fast and loose with the conventions of such films, to profound effect. He superimposes, splits the screen, deploys fast- and slow-motion and extreme close-ups, and animates using stop-motion. Most surprisingly, he shows us the processes whereby a documentary is made. The eponymous man with the movie camera is his brother Mikhail, and his wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, is his editor. Both appear at work on screen."

Luckily for us, the film is on YouTube. It's an engrossing affair, the background score adding to the images.

This intro to the film by Brian Winston excerpted from his essay on Sight & Sound explains why the film ranks at the top of the list;

"Vertov, who always marched to a different drummer, compounded the threat. He never produced recognisable scripts, shot from the hip (most of the time), went over budget and was generally uncontrollable. He was a combative polemicist vehemently insisting that the potential of the cinema as a revolutionary tool was being ignored by his fellows. Their fictions were bourgeois distractions, unlike his efforts with the “unplayed film”, as he called documentary.

Almost from the start of his career in newsreels immediately after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and in total contrast to the fixed-camera procedures of the time, he was already experimenting with special effects to reveal, through the kino-glaz, the camera’s eye, film truth – kino-pravda. “Film is not merely… facts recorded on film… but the product, a ‘higher mathematics’ of facts.” Crucially, he disdained everyday observationalism: “Our eyes,” he wrote, “see very poorly and very little… the movie camera was invented to penetrate more deeply into the visible world”…

Today, all such possibilities matter more and more. A ‘kino-eye’ seeing beneath surface realities offers a crucial lifeline as modern technology undercuts and wounds mainstream realist documentary’s essential observationalist assumptions, perhaps fatally. Vertov’s agenda in Man with a Movie Camera signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, “show us life”. Vertov is, in fact, the key to documentary’s future. It is no wonder that two years ago Man with a Movie Camera entered the top ten in Sight & Sound’s ‘Greatest films of all time’ list and that now it tops the poll for the greatest documentary ever made. It is not merely that a great film now receives its just deserts. Vertov has no reason any longer to be “sad”.

Kevin B. Lee of Fandor, that master essayist, created this cool mash-up of the top 30 documentaries in the list. Watch it and then go out and get these films. This is an awesome list.



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