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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

A Choice Selection of 10 Illuminating and Insightful Documentaries

Movie poster for the top-10 list A Choice Selection of 10 Illuminating and Insightful Documentaries

Movie poster for the documentary Dear Zachary about the murder of Dr. Andrew Bagby

“Dear Zachary” (2008) is a documentary that acts as a very special message to a boy named Zachary Andrew Turner, the infant child of filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s closest childhood friend, Andrew Bagby. Andrew Bagby was a young doctor who was tragically murdered in November of 2001 by his girlfriend, Shirley Turner. Following Andrew’s murder, at a time when Shirley was being investigated for the killing, she announced that she was pregnant with Andrew’s son, Zachary. Upon learning of Zachary’s impeding birth, the grieving Keunne set out to travel across America, Canada and the United Kingdom to interview those who knew and loved Andrew, gathering footage and tributes for the young doctor so that young Zachary could one day appreciate his father’s character and the extent to which he positively affected the lives of those he touched. Impassioned and heartbreaking, "Dear Zachary" comes as highly recommended as any film you may come across. Take the time to experience this remarkable true story first-hand.

Movie poster for the documentary Virunga about Virunga National Park

“Virunga” (2014) is an urgent British documentary about Virunga National Park, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a team of rangers have dedicated themselves to the preservation of the park and to the protection of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. The threat to the park and to the gorillas comes from ruthless poachers, looming civil war, and SOCO International—an oil conglomerate with ambitions to exploit the natural resources under the park’s Lake Edward. The storyline revolves around the desperate efforts of park wardens Emmanuel de Merode and Rodrigue Mugaruka Katemb to protect the reserve, ranger André Bauma to personally care for the vulnerable creatures and investigative journalist Mélanie Gouby to expose SOCO’s nefarious intentions for the besieged park, as all three forces slowly converge. A stunning real-life thriller bound to enrage and galvanize the viewer—a remarkable glimpse into a desperate conflict and a searing call-to-action.

Movie poster for the documentary Zero Days from filmmaker Alex Gibney

“Zero Days” (2016) is a fascinating and alarming documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus that raised red flags throughout the cyber-security world in 2010 due to its complexity and ambiguous threat. Told in urgent fashion with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals from around the globe, “Zero Days” details the efforts of analysts to painstakingly dissect the Stuxnet code, and ultimately determine that it was the wayward product of a joint effort between the U.S. and Israel governments to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant—in the hopes of slowing their development of nuclear weapons. The unfolding mystery plays out with urgency and dismay, as the implications of this covert operation unfold, including the legitimate threat of retaliation by the Iranian government. It’s a stunning real-life thriller that not only details the complexities of advanced coding in an evocative visual manner, but also spells out much of the modern espionage involved in such an elaborate operation. A spellbinding and utterly terrifying experience.

Movie poster for the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief from filmmaker Alex Gibney

"Going Clear" (2015) is an illuminative and riveting documentary from writer/director Alex Gibney that details the history and growing influence of The Church of Scientology since it was first founded in 1953 by L. Ron Hubbard. Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, the film features first-hand accounts from 8 former members of the controversial church, as they spell out the church's doctrine as well as its efforts to grow in following and influence around the world and within the ranks of Hollywood royalty (including Tom Cruise and John Travolta). Structured in three parts focused successively on personal stories of recruitment/ enlistment, historical summary of the religion's evolution and ultimately numerous accounts of exploitation and abuse, Gibney delivers a stunning expose of one of the world's most enigmatic and oft-disputed denominations that absolutely must be seen to be believed—an experience you will not soon forget.

Movie poster for the documentary The Salt of the Earth about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado

“The Salt of the Earth” is a 2014 biographical documentary about famed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Directed and narrated by Wim Wenders in collaboration with Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film tells Salgado’s life story from his childhood in northern Brazil, his early career as an economist, and ultimately the shift to photography that would lead him to over 120 countries as a world-renowned photojournalist. Shot in stunning black and white by Juliano and Hugo Barbier, "The Salt of the Earth" is a mesmerizing exhibition of one man’s lifelong dedication to capturing humanity and nature in remarkable states of peril, compromise and elegance. From the Brazilian gold mine of Serra Pelada to the Yali Tribe of Papua New Guinea to the war-ravaged people of Rwanda (to name just a few), the film follows Salgado’s career through his photography, accompanied by his personal accounts of his many encounters and impressions. An exemplary presentation of Salgado’s work and his reflections upon a career dedicated to truth, awareness and beauty.

Movie poster for the documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present about Serbian artist Marina Abramović

“Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” (2012) is an entrancing documentary about the life and work of famed Serbian artist Marina Abramović as she prepares for her titular 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This wonderful biography serves up equal parts personal history, exposition of her artistic style as it has evolved over time, and presentation of her ultimate achievement: a 736-hour performance where she ensconced herself silently in a chair and allowed museum-goers to sit before her wordlessly, one at a time. It’s an ostensibly peculiar concept made enchanting and invigorating by the background insight into Abramović’s creative mind and creative process that the film conveys so earnestly. Her passion for ingenuity and for stepping beyond the traditional constraints of what many deem to be “art” pours forth through Abramović—an utter virtuoso of striking sensuality and inspired vision. Highlighted be supreme cinematography and editing, “The Artist is Present” is an absolute must-see.

Movie poster for the documentary The Gatekeepers from filmmaker Dror Moreh

“The Gatekeepers” (2012) is a fascinating documentary providing an historical exposition of Shin Bet (the Israeli secret service) dating back to 1967, as told directly by six surviving former heads of the counterespionage outfit. The film provides a remarkable retrospective that examines in-depth the milestone events and decisions that have shaped the agency's agenda, policies and activities over the past 50+ years. Utterly superb storytelling by director Dror Moreh that delves directly into the most important matters of hatred, violence, revenge and collateral damage. Moral questions arise surrounding a number of controversial actions and activities, and the filmmakers take the wise approach of remaining journalistically neutral to the subject matter. Ultimately the revelations that each of the 6 former dignitaries deliver—including the candid assertion that violence and warfare ultimately do not work—underscore a profound and memorable history lesson.

Movie poster for the documentary The Wolfpack from filmmaker Crystal Moselle

“The Wolfpack” (2015) is an unusual and fascinating documentary about six teenage brothers (and one younger sister) locked away in a small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for most of their lives, rarely allowed to visit the outside world by their hyper-protective father (a Peruvian Hare Krishna). The boys have spent their many years of imprisonment delving into cinematic escapism, transcribing and memorizing film scripts verbatim, and recreating the films at home using props and costumes fashioned (impressively) from household items. The film ultimately finds the brothers at a stage of burgeoning rebellion against their incarceration as they yearn to explore the outside world. Really one-of-a-kind stuff that’s so strange it’s hard to believe it’s actually true. The whole family is fascinating, and director Crystal Moselle does a wonderful job of remaining respectful and unobtrusive throughout what must have been a bizarre and surreal experience in filmmaking. Very much worth a look-see.

Movie poster for the documentary Last Days in Vietnam from filmmaker Rory Kennedy

“Last Days in Vietnam” (2014) is a historical documentary that recounts the final weeks of the Vietnam Conflict (in 1975), as North Vietnamese forces surged toward Saigon and U.S. personnel anxiously awaited word of an evacuation plan. At the time, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin was reluctant to accept defeat, and delayed a U.S. withdrawal in his (rapidly diminishing) hopes that a solution could be reached. Once the fall of Saigon became imminent, U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence personnel were left piecing together a bare bones plan to escape via military helicopter support. Featuring remarkable footage and first-hand accounts from many involved, the film recounts those final days of chaos and confusion in stunningly dramatic fashion. Director Rory Kennedy has pieced together a gripping and emotionally compelling storyline that balances broad historical exposition with concise detail related to the evacuation complexities—all of it punctuated by remarkable examples of bravery and heroism.

Movie poster for the documentary Requiem for the American Dream featuring Noam Chomsky

“Requiem for the American Dream” is a 2015 documentary focused on the teachings of Noam Chomsky, celebrated intellectual, social critic and linguistics professor. Over the course of 4 years, the filmmakers interviewed Chomsky in order to unravel the political and market forces that he deems to have systematically defeated the classic ideal of “The American Dream” over the past century. The bulk of “Requiem for the American Dream” is built out as an examination of what Chomsky refers to as “The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power“. These principles revolve around the notion that political parties are dependent upon large corporations to support the high costs of political campaigning, and that the political power that corporations earn through their contributions translates into legislation that meets their own special interests. It’s eye-opening stuff that provides remarkable insight from one of the most esteemed and highly regarded social critics of our time.


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