By: Busra Mutlu
Documentaries have always been important in film, but it can’t be denied that the genre’s popularity has soared in the past couple of years. With the popularity of Serial (2014), a podcast hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig about true murder cases and Netflix’s Making A Murderer (2015), documentaries have been in high demand of late. There are hundreds of important and amazing documentary films, but I have selected 5 that everyone needs to watch.
My first recommendation is Confession Tapes (2017), which is from the same crime genre as Serial and is another series from Netflix. The documentary has 7 episodes and each episode looks at different cases involving possible false confessions. The first case takes up two episodes and is possibly the most controversial one. The episodes start with the case and how it turned out. We meet the people involved in the cases, from the accused to the detectives, and also hear from experts of certain areas. Each case is as serious as the next and include very violent murders. Each episode also (as suggested by the title) include the confession tapes of each accused. The series is evocative precisely because we see crime confessions and the events that follow. Some cases are clear as day; however, some cases, like the first one, will have you questioning everything. This is definitely one of the best documentary series of 2017.
Second on the list is An Open Secret. I was incredibly surprised when I watched this documentary because it was made in 2014 and I had heard nothing about it until 2017. The documentary is directed by award-winning filmmaker Amy J. Berg and exposes the child sex abuse in the film industry. The documentary title, An Open Secret, accurately reflects the state of events in the industry. We are told the story of five former child actors and their sexual abuse by people in power in Hollywood, like talent agents, producers and directors. We watch how the abuses are done openly and freely, and yet was not talked about by most people. Despite the allegations and evidence, the majority of the accused have not been persecuted. The film focuses mainly on Marc Collins-Rector, owner of Digital Entertainment Network, a website founded in the 90s which released TV shows online. We watch as the victims reveal where the abuses took place and the people involved, including director Bryan Singer. However, there was no uproar when the documentary was released in 2014. It had limited theatrical release and producer Gabe Hoffman said that ‘we got zero Hollywood offers to distribute the film. Not even one. Literally no offers for any price whatsoever’. However, in October 2017 the producers put the documentary on Vimeo for free, following the exposure of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. Originally intended to be viewed for only 9 days, the documentary went viral with over 3 million views in the first two weeks and is still available online here. This is a raw and troubling documentary and everyone involved should be praised for their bravery.
The third recommendation is Welcome To Leith. Released in 2015, the documentary is about Craig Cobb, a white supremacist, whose intention was to take over small-town Leith with his followers. This is truly one of the scariest things I’ve watched and 3 years after its release, it’s terrifying how relevant it is. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, we see how a small town with a population of no more than 40 fight neo-Nazis. Although the documentary was released in 2015, we find out that Cobb began his scheme in 2012, and once his plan went public, all hell broke loose. His many followers came to support him clashing with anti-Nazi civil rights groups. It is immensely frustrating to watch, because Cobb is not technically doing anything illegal, and he cannot be stopped as long as he does not engage in violence or criminal activity. Watching a man with so much hatred and evil doing what he wants and seeing the fear and anger of the townspeople is truly difficult at times. It is ironic how relevant the documentary has become to today’s politics.
Fourth on the list, we have Paris is Burning (1990). This film is one of the most important documentaries made about the Black and Latino gay and transgender community. The documentary’s main focus is the ball culture in the 80’s where participants ‘walk’ (like they’re on the runway) for trophies in certain categories like ‘Best Dressed’ or ‘Bizarre’. It’s an eye-opening documentary as we are invited into a new world most of us do not know exist. The film invites us into the world of people who take part in the ball; we see their daily lives, their homes, their dreams and their pasts. It is spectacular how close and personal we get to a culture that is mostly unknown and kept underground. The documentary addresses issues surrounding race, gender, class, homophobia and sexuality.
The last on the list is The White Helmets, which is arguably the most important documentary made in 2016. The film is famous for winning the Best Documentary (Short Subject) Oscar and follows the daily lives of the volunteers for the Syrian Civil Defence, also called The White Helmets. The film is heart-breaking and devastating. It’s everything we already know about the Syrian conflict, the deaths, the devastation and the ruin but this time we get to see the amazing volunteers saving, rescuing and helping the civilians. This documentary shows us that even in amidst such disaster, there are those willing to help and fight for the innocent. They are making the change that many have failed at. The film shows us the things we turn a blind eye to and the people the rest of the world has failed over and over again. It is a short yet powerful documentary.