So you’ve exhausted Netflix’s catalogue of documentaries and aren’t too sure what to do with yourself now? Tiger King hype has been and gone and, quite frankly, you can’t stomach another subpar docu on a serial killer.
For this week’s Bene Recommends we’re focusing on some documentary picks that you won’t find in your Netflix queue! We’ve selected four key documentaries from four different decades that speak to the movement in different ways and are worth your watch. Read on to find out why.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
Man with a Movie Camera is probably a film you’re aware of, some of its iconographies are likely ingrained somewhere in your memory, even though you may not have had to pleasure of viewing it yet. It is this effect that a piece of art with a large cultural significance has on our collective memory, whereby its images are widely known just through its eminence in the cultural psyche.
Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera has by no means the frivolous entertainment of streaming platform docu-series, but a list of must-see documentaries would be incomplete without it (although read on for further recommendations with a similar tone to modern docus).
The documentary mixes the mundane with the avant-garde. Documenting the everyday movements of a Soviet city by showing an audience viewing a documentary about said Soviet city and the movements of the titular Man (with his movie camera) who is shooting the landscape with his own lens.
Most likely on every list of ‘Films to see before you die’, Man with a Movie Camera remains a film school staple due to its revolutionary use of cinematic techniques (see this bfi article for a small look into Vertov’s techniques: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/five-wonderful-effects-man-movie-camera), and being an early form of what we would consider a documentary film today- setting out some of the paradigms for documentary making.
Seven Up! (1964 to 2019, Michael Apted and Paul Almond)
Think Linklaters Boyhood (or our next pick James’ Hoop Dreams) except this cult docu-series spans 6 decades, with a total of 9 episodes spaced out by 7 years. We see the participants at age 7 (1964), 14 (1970), 21 (1977), 28 (1984), 35 (1991), 42 (1998), 49 (2005), 56 (2012) and finally age 63 (2019). It is currently unknown if there will be a further episode to the series in 2026, but this will likely happen and be shown on ITV (now the producers of the series).
If you have never heard of the Up Series, it is likely that you’ll wonder ‘how did I not know this was a thing?’, and honestly, this was our reaction too. Originally set up as a social experiment to see if the class and socio-economic backgrounds of the selected children would affect their future paths and reflecting the Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man".
The series is about the human experience in all its forms and thus the docu-series’ portrayal of the realities of life and its effects on the participants becomes a depressing tale of loss, divorce and homelessness, but also an uplifting experience of life and love.
However, it is the original 1964 documentary that we recommend here. Its key focus on the participant’s socio-economic backgrounds makes the cute performances by the group of 7-year-olds somehow also a keen exploration into issues of British class disparities. Equally funny/ cute and a magnification of inequality of class in Britain, which whilst watching in hindsight begs the sad question- has anything has really changed since 1964?, you can watch Seven Up!
WATCH HERE : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo-Z75rZRlI
Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James)
Much like our above pick, James’ basketball documentary, Hoop Dreams spans multiple years. However, this time in one masterful (almost) 3-hour documentary. Don’t let the run time put you off though! Hoop Dreams is widely regarded as the best sports documentary ever made, and even if you aren’t a basketball head it (through its extensive filming period of 5 years ) offers authentic stories imbued with palpable raw emotion.
The documentary, which won the Sundance Audience Award in 1994, follows the education and journeys of two young African American teenagers (William Gates and Arthur Agee) as they grapple with wanting to progress in their respective basketball careers whilst being prey to the realities of life.
The documentary deals with the raw emotions behind carving a path in sport, but takes great importance in highlighting the difficulties of such journeys under social constraint. Rather than ‘dealing’ with race and economic issues, the documentary captures the realities- the reality that being black and below the breadline puts you at a greater disadvantage when it comes to progressing in our society.
Regardless of obstacles, both boys and their families show the true emotion behind getting where you want to be and the dedication it takes to push through. Throughout it all, the constant dream of the hoop is the true emotional pull.
Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley)
If you’re a keen Netflix docu binger, Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley might be the next documentary to add to your list. It will seem familiar with its classical documentarian ‘to camera’ interview set up and heavy use of reconstruction. However, what sets Polley’s documentary apart is not only its subject matter but its gorgeous mise en scene and reconstruction of her families story.
Perhaps the innate beauty of this film comes from the personal. The way Polley meticulously constructs the story of her Mother and her family with a palpable love and care towards the subject matter. This makes Stories We Tell a special documentary; where the subject matter and the author intermingle and play.
Not only does Stories We Tell tackle the personal and the family story, but it also asks us to consider narrator reliability and the human way of twisting narratives to suit our own. Ultimately about how our stories define us and our families, Stories We Tell is a ‘warmly messy’ retelling of family secrets and truths and an ode to the beauty of life and loss.
(Also, there’s a good old gasp-worthy twist to this one- so thank us later!)
WATCH HERE: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00JUTMG1I
Article written by Molly Bennett.