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Fun Friday: Favorite Documentaries

Friday, September 19, 2008


Ha! I bet you thought that I had exhausted all of the categories of film in which I might have favorites. You thought wrong! [Insert evil laugh here.]

I’m not one to just sit down and watch documentary films, but there are some that I’ve seen that have been so riveting that I can’t help but count them amongst some of the best works I’ve witnessed. Most were made for television. Some are short, some are long. But I found all of them fascinating enough to watch more than once. (Some of these video clips are pretty long, so I don’t blame you if you don’t watch the whole video.)

5. Rome: Engineering an Empire (The History Channel, 2005)
Given that my second favorite miniseries is A.D., which is set in the first-century Roman empire and the fact that the history of my last name traces its roots back to the Roman empire, it shouldn’t be any wonder that one of my favorite documentaries focuses on Rome and the amazing feats of engineering they accomplished, even as they conquered and subjugated millions across Europe and Asia Minor. What I find most fascinating about the history of Rome is that their technology for running water, for construction, for “modern” amenities were somehow lost, bringing about the Dark Ages. It’s fascinating to postulate how much more advanced our society might be now if we hadn’t lost the knowledge and industry forged by the Romans.

4. SiCKO (Dog Eat Dog Films, 2007)
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t 100% accurate in its portrayal of healthcare in other countries, but everyone who lives in the U.S. and thinks their health insurance is infallible needs to watch this film. It’s okay to disagree with Michael Moore and his political views. But taking a hard look at the healtcare system in the U.S. is important, and this film raises some serious questions about it. And it’s highly entertaining, if nothing else.

3. Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy (LucasFilm, 2004)
This documentary was originally aired on the History Channel to coincide with the release of the “original” Star Wars trilogy on DVD. It’s also included on a separate bonus disc in the boxed set. Why do I love this? Because I love Star Wars, and as I’ve mentioned before, it’s the first movie that I can vividly remember seeing, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

2. 9/11 (CBS Television, 2002)
In early September 2002, two brothers, French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, were making a documentary about the New York Fire Department. The firehouse where they were following rookie firefighter Tony Benetatos was only blocks from the World Trade Center towers. They were having a very uneventful morning until they noticed a low-flying plane overhead—and filmed it as it crashed into the first tower. The Naudets kept the cameras rolling as the firefighters deployed to the WTC. It is some of the only footage taken inside the lobby of the WTC just moments after the first plane crashed. Miraculously, none of the firefighters from the house where they were filming were lost. There is no rhetoric, no politics. Just raw footage and even rawer emotions.

1. The Civil War (A Ken Burns Film, 1990)
This is the documentary that made it possible for me to pass my senior-level Civil War seminar at LSU (the premiere university for the study of the American Civil War) almost without cracking a book. Ken Burns’s film changed the way documentaries are made—mixing reenactments with still photos, interviews with historians with dramatic readings of surviving letters and journals by celebrities such as Morgan Freeman (Frederick Douglass), Sam Waterston (Abraham Lincoln), Julie Harris (Mary Chestnut), Jason Robards (Ulysses S. Grant), and Garrison Keillor (Walt Whitman), and it made famous the voice of narrator David McCullough, already an award-winning biographer/historian in his own right. Want to know just how influential Ken Burns’s style is on filmmaking? Apple named a feature of their iMovie 3 software after him: the Ken Burns Effect. Here is a clip of my absolutely favorite part of the documentary (audio but no video):

  1. Friday, September 19, 2008 1:58 am

    Of these the only ones I’ve even heard of (and seen) are Sicko and the Star Wars doc. Both are very, very good.

    Have you not seen Bowling for Columbine or Super Size Me?

    Murderball is also awesome.

    If feature-length special features really counted (which I guess you’re sort of counting them with the Star Wars inclusion) there are dozen others I’d highly recommend. Particularly anything from…

    – the Alien Quadrilogy (3 hour docs on each of the four films)

    – Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (several hours worth of docs on each)

    – King Kong dvd’s
    (production diaries dvd – 3 hour production documentary)
    (2-disc theatrical dvd – 3 hour post production documentary)
    (3-disc extended dvd – 6 hours of documentaries on the entire process, minimal repeated footage from the first two releases)

    – the three hour Gladiator documentary from the 3-disc Extended Edition

    – the two-hour documentary from the 30th Anniversary edition of Jaws

    – the hour long documentary on Spirited Away

    – the three-hour documentary from the Titanic 3-disc

    – the complete history of Daredevil (the comic book character, not the movie) documentary from the 2-disc release of the theatrical version of Daredevil

    – a bunch more, but this list is already really long.

    All of those go far, far beyond the traditional featurettes of most dvd’s to give some of the most in depth looks at film making, classic book history, historical events, or classic character diagrams I’ve ever seen. The majority of them put the Star Wars documentary to shame, and I loved that one too.


  2. Friday, September 19, 2008 7:49 am

    Ha, I never would’ve guessed you’d go for a favorite documentaries Friday post! Very cool…


  3. Emilie permalink
    Friday, September 19, 2008 12:54 pm

    I’m a big Ken Burns fan, too, Kaye. My thesis novel from SHU is set during WWII, and The War was such a wonderful help. And my husband’s great-aunt by marriage was one of the interview subjects–Emma Belle Petcher, in case you’ve seen it. We about had heart attacks when we saw it! Jazz was great too–helpful for the WWII project as well as a 1920’s project when I was in high school, which was due about a month after Jazz premiered on PBS. Thank goodness for Ken Burns and his sixth sense for my school projects!


  4. Sunday, September 21, 2008 10:49 pm

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog. The Civil War film/documentary by Ken Burns is sensational. The man is a genius. All of his films are good but this one is my favorite. Mesmerizing. With music and photos, as well as the wonderful voices of the readers, he takes us back to that time. Lovely.

    Looking forward to following your posts.


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