Top Ten Documentaries

On the weekend I finally got around to watching Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s a very compelling film about an obsessive-compulsive hipster in Los Angeles who randomly stumbles upon the underground world of street art and eventually becomes a practitioner himself. The candid looks at the subversive and mysterious movement provide exclusive insights into the lives and methods of these artists, including the elusive Banksy himself. I highly recommend checking it out.

The main reason Exit works so well is the massive array of visual elements. There’s unprecedented access to a world most viewers know nothing about. While the interviews generally lack emotion, the footage is what carries the film. And that’s what I love about visual documentaries. There’s a delicate balancing act in effectively marrying comprehensive and emotional interviews with powerful pictures. It’s something I’m still learning.

I loved documentaries long before I became a journalist. This is mostly due to my early exposure to the tremendous work of Alanis Obomsawin. I saw Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance in high school and it blew me away. It would later inspire me to dedicate my life to telling the stories of Aboriginal people across Turtle Island. I now find myself in the fortunate position of producing my very first hour-long television documentary. Capital NDNs will begin production in early June, and will air at the end of August on CBC TV. Stay tuned for more information on this look at contemporary urban Aboriginal life in Canada’s capital. On that exciting note, here are the films that inspired me to follow this path:

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Alanis Obomsawin, 1993

It’s the most powerful and comprehensive look at the most important moment in modern Canadian history. Obomsawin successfully tells the real story of the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec and exposes viewers to the crucial moments and facts withheld by the Canadian military and federal government.

A Place Called Chiapas

Nettie Wild, 1998

Another intense Indigenous struggle is done justice on film. Chronicling the 1994 Zapatista revolution in Mexico, A Place Called Chiapas is another story of a subordinated group of people desperately trying to have their voices heard by a government who would rather have them wither in the periphery.

Gimme Shelter

Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970

One of the first “rockumentaries”, and probably the best. It chronicles the debacle that was the Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont Speedway outside of Oakland that tragically marked the end of the 1960s.


Donald Brittain, 1965

Holocaust survivors return to Germany two decades after fleeing the Nazi’s scourge. It’s a riveting illustration of the attitudes of both 1960s Germany and the Jewish people who initially fled – generally, shame and bitterness respectively. It looks at how everyone was coping in the aftershock of one of the greatest horrors in human history.

Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change
Zacharias Kunuk and Ian Mauro, 2010

The climate change debate goes right to the contact point of its biggest impact: Canada’s north. Kunuk and Mauro talked to dozens of Inuit leaders, elders, hunters, and scientists to gauge just how the earth’s changing climate is affecting their day-to-day lives. All the interviews and dialogue are in various dialects of Inuktitut.

Manufacturing Consent

Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992

An ominous look at how government and corporate media work hand-in-hand to create a monstrous and indestructible propaganda machine. It’s based almost entirely on the ideas of media watchdog Noam Chomsky and his struggles as a political outsider. Required viewing for anyone working in media.

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey
Sam Dunn, 2005

A lifelong heavy metal fan travels the world to trace the roots of an eclectic, powerful, and misunderstood genre. Dunn’s anthropological approach to uncovering the loudest music on the planet is a treat for both fans and unfamiliar listeners.

When We Were Kings

Leon Gast, 1996

Director Leon Gast went to Zaire in 1974 to make a film on the “Rumble in the Jungle” – a highly touted boxing match between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman. But because of legal issues, the material he gathered sat idle for more than 20 years. It was finally released, with old and new interviews with some of the key figures.

Little Caughnawaga
Reaghan Tarbell, 2008

Few people realize that the mighty New York City skyline was constructed with the help of dozens of Mohawk steelworkers from Kahnawake, Quebec. From the 1920s to 1960s, they carved out their own community in the heart of New York. The film goes back and forth between the rez and the city, chronicling this unique exodus and contribution to modern urbanity.

Buena Vista Social Club
Wim Wenders, 1999

Legendary guitarist Ry Cooder seeks out long-forgotten musical counterparts in Cuba to explore their traditional music and tell their life stories. A classic album resulted from the sessions, which were thankfully filmed.

Feel free to leave your favourites in the comments!


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