Tips For Adulthood: Five Documentaries Worth Seeing

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’m pretty consistent in my film tastes. I tend to go for dark, Indie films about failed efforts at personal redemption or fictional feature films that capture some signature moment in political history.

But my husband is a huge fan of documentaries. And so – benefiting once again from the division of labor that characterizes our marriage – I’ve seen my fair share of those as well.

While I doubt I’ll ever become a documentary junkie, over the years I’ve grown to enjoy them more and more. Here are five documentaries worth seeing:

1. The Thin, Blue Line. This may have been the very first documentary I ever saw with my husband. It’s an Errol Morris film – which makes it worth viewing in and of itself – that dramatically re-enacts the crime scene and investigation of a police officer’s murder in Dallas. Apparently, the film was so powerful and convincing that it helped free an innocent man from prison. But I like it because it plays like a murder mystery thriller. Stylistically, it’s also interesting. Interviews with suspects and their acquaintances,  law enforcement officials and lawyers are interspersed with a stylized re-enactments of the murder. Among other things, you’ll come away questioning the very notion of “truth.”

2. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. This is another good film to see if you are interested in questioning the fairness and efficacy of the American judicial system. The film examines the famous, ongoing case against Roman Polanski, who had sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl 34 years ago, a crime for which he remains a fugitive from justice in the United States. However you feel about the controversial European film director  – and for the record, I side with those who see him as a child rapist – this film makes you appreciate the horrible miscarriage of justice that his circus of a trial was. (It also shows just how bizarre, wounded and self-destructive a character Polanski really is.)

3. One Day In September. Shifting from domestic to international politics,  this 1999 Oscar award-winning documentary about the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich is guaranteed to keep you glued to the screen. Again, however you feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you won’t be able to look away as the narrator carefully walks you towards the bloody, suspenseful climax. Which is pretty impressive, given that we all know in advance how the whole thing turns out. You will also come away in awe of the Israeli secret service, Mossad.

4. Promises. This is an utterly different – but equally worthy – documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What makes it so compelling – sad and hopeful in equal measure – is that it examines the conflict through the eyes of seven children who live in Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Israeli neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. Some are secular; some are religious. Some are more militant; some are more peaceful. Above all, however, we see them as kids. And it is this universal bond of youth which cuts across the geo-political struggle that wages around them. Powerful stuff.

5. Hoop Dreams. If you only manage to see one documentary on this list, let this be it. This is, quite simply, an amazing film and something that all teen-agers should be required to watch. It narrates the lives of two African-American boys who are spotted for their talent on the basketball courts on the West side of Chicago and follows their lives as they try to realize their dream of playing in the NBA. In addition to the whole sports-as-ticket-out-of-the ghetto theme, you are also exposed to all of the other realities of inner city life that surround these boys, including drugs, crime, teen pregnancy and poverty. I saw it when it first came out but we watched it as a family this summer with my two children (ages 7 and 10) and we’re still talking about it. I’m also delighted to learn that the film-maker, Steve James, has a new documentary out this summer about gang violence in Chicago called The Interrupters. Can’t wait.


What have I missed?


Image: Hoop Dream by playhockeyeh via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

  • Reply ML

    August 24, 2011, 1:25 pm

    The Two Escobars. Ostensibly about Pablo Escobar, the drug lord, and Andres Escobar, the soccer player killed after the 1994 World Cup, but really about Colombia. Fantastic documentary and I highly recommend it.

  • Reply Matthew J Boylan

    August 24, 2011, 8:36 pm

    The single best documentary that was released in the United States in 2010 for my money was: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector” combines – certain – elements of both the documentary about Roman Polanski’s trial that you discuss above as well as “The Thin Blue Line.” It involves the legendary rock producer Phil Spector and his trial for the murder of his girlfriend. It is an – extraordinary — journey into the psychopathology of a man who had an almost uncanny ability to sense the constantly moving target of popular music taste from the late 1950’s (he wrote and played on the Teddy Bears “To Know Him is to Love Him” through his best known period when he developed the famous “wall of sound” used by The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers (he wrote the 4:50″ full version of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and on into the late 60’s (He produced and wrote such a large portion of The Beatles’ “Let it Be” that John Lennon simply said at the time: we took this stuff from the studio’s can to the Master.” Paul McCartney 30 years later re-released a second version of it – that attracted no where near the notice of what many consider the Beatles’s masterpiece. He went on to work with John Lennon into the 1970’s on many of his solo hits. This documentary (and this is highly unusual for documentaries) – plays each of these songs in their entirety and in their original striking sound quality. As to musical production values – he was a genius. However, the music is a backdrop for his trial for the murder of his then girl friend – which itself is used not as the typical trial as a discussion of the murder at issue but merely as an (entirely factual) frame tale that discusses Phil Spector’s narcissism, views and behavior with a whole series of women he was involved with over many years and ultimately the most intimate aspects of his psyche. It is a fascinating, compelling and dramatic discussion of one man’s psyche and its twists and turns that will – not -soon be replicated. I highly recommend this film – if you are interested in these issues (along with its remarkable uncut and un remixed soundtrack.) However, I would not view with your children!

  • Reply daryl boylan

    August 24, 2011, 11:54 pm

    I have excellent memories of “Hoop Dreams”, the only one of the 5 I saw & yes, I too would like to see the new one about the attempting peacemakers. I must say the one about the Israeli & Palestinian kids sounds the most appealing.

  • Reply delialloyd

    August 25, 2011, 7:50 am

    @ML thanks for the rec-had not heard of that one. @matt – yes I am dying to see that film on your rec. couldn’t get it over here in the UK so will hunt it down stateside.

Write a comment