When I heard that the Citizenfour premiere was attended by journalists awaiting the film’s new revelations in the Edward Snowden story, I got worried that this was going to be a time-sensitive documentary. This would be the kind that has little chance of becoming a repeat watch let alone a classic due to its focus on something that would shortly be old news.
Fortunately that’s not the case. “We know that long-form filmmaking is not about breaking news,” director Laura Poitras said in an interview with Vulture, commenting on a slightly different aspect of the doc. Citizenfour is a film of Snowden and the NSA leak, not about it, and nor is it something centered on momentary facts and unveilings regarding current events. This is a movie that should last as a classic as much as, say, All the President’s Men has.
Not all journalistic docs have such luck, as they’re more about a timely issue or subject than the characters involved with them. Those films may still be great, but they’re also only temporarily significant and have little to no lasting value. They can be seen once and never again. That makes them fall in with a very different sort of doc, which is the film that is hard to get through one time, so there’s little to no chance you’d see it again, in spite of how good it is.
Here is a (starter) list of great documentaries you only want to see once:
The Triumph of the Will (1935)
Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece for the Nazis is so magnificent that it must be seen, and not only as a historical artifact showcasing the grandeur of the party and the power and influence of Hitler and Goebbels at their height during the 1934 rally in Nuremberg. The intro is brilliantly conceived, the wide shots are epic and the low-angle medium close-ups are so perfect for their purpose. You may find yourself wanting to look at some of the film more than once, but maybe you just don’t tell anyone about that.
Blood of the Beasts (1949)
Let’s see, there’s the immediate collapse of the white horse following its being shot with a bolt pistol, there’s the headless veal calves still wriggling about, there’s the smashing of a bull’s skull over and over. Plus all the blood draining and skinning and other cringeworthy parts of Georges Franju’s short look at slaughterhouses outside of Paris. I know, as a meat-eater, I shouldn’t be so shocked, and that’s probably part of the filmmaker’s point. But he also certainly means to get under our skin as much as the butchers get under their animals’, too. What’s so great, then, is that power and the surreal context of the odd suburban landscape shots and the poetic narration and otherwise aesthetically pleasing cinematography. It’s a beautiful film and I want to look at it but then I also don’t want to at all. You could watch this one many times to numb the pain of the slaughter scenes, but most of you can and will just make this a one and done essential.
Titicut Follies (1967)
Frederick Wiseman isn’t thought of as being an issue-film director, but this first documentary of his is one of the most notable pieces of effective advocacy film ever made. Depicting the goings on of a state hospital for the criminally insane, it helped to change some of the terrible things captured (though unseen by the public for more than 20 years), although Wiseman has said it was much less impactful than he’d anticipated. Much of the content is difficult to watch, including a heavy handed (as the filmmaker admits) sequence showing an inmate being force fed and some footage of naked and humiliated men that definitely makes the viewer wonder if they’re complicit as voyeurs. When sharing his picks for the best docs of all time, Rian Johnson said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to revisit it.” That’s not an uncommon comment.
Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945 (1970)
Another film that was kept out of public eye for decades lends itself to this short look at the effects of the atomic bombs on the two title cities at the end of World War II. Eric Barnouw, who literally wrote the book on documentary, was a professor at Columbia when he and others came upon 160 minutes of footage shot by Japan Film Co. and confiscated by the U.S. Occupation Army, which finally made it public record in 1967 without announcing that it was doing so. There was plenty in Barnouw’s 16-minute version to shock TV audiences 44 years ago and today the parts showing radiation sufferers and victims getting skin grafts is painful to see. But not as painful as it was for these people, and that’s why they deserve to be witnessed, to be viewed as necessary reminders of the wrongs of nuclear war and one of the worst things the U.S. has ever been capable of.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
I’m hesitant to label this Michael Moore movie a “great” documentary, but I haven’t re-watched it since it came out. That’s because the first time it felt like something made for a specific window, aimed to be seen right before the 2004 presidential election. While its release came nearly three years after the events of 9/11, that was still so early as far as a historical understanding of the attacks are concerned. I won’t go so far as to make this about what Moore may have gotten wrong or right. It just seems dated either way, though that’s from the perspective of a decade gone; it could always resurface as something of a time capsule of certain feelings in that period. Especially due to Moore’s usual concentration on being funny as much as if not more than correct.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
So much of the talk surrounding this Oscar-winning doc had to do with its importance. People also called it Al Gore’s film rather than director Davis Guggenheim’s. When the former U.S. Vice President won the Nobel Prize for his talks on climate change, many also acted like the doc itself won the award. There’s no denying that it’s a great film, but it’s really just a great concert film. Gore was already presenting his slide-show-supported talk on global warming when producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender decided to adapt it. It is partly an adaptation and partly a capturing of that performance. As such, there is some worth in re-watching it after the hoopla has gone away, but as far as what it meant to be on the issue-film level, a lot of that momentum has gone, and so has much of the trusted validity of the content — at least so far as it’s now eight-year-old data.
Food, Inc. (2008)
Food documentaries are so plentiful nowadays that if they were themselves food they could probably cure hunger. Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated doc, though, is among the cream of the crop, and yet it’s increasingly outdated. Not because it’s obsolete in the info-tainment department, but a lot of the films that have come in its wake elaborate on its various lesson units on the food industry and do often repeat a lot of the details. Just this week there’s a miniseries on National Geographic featuring some of the experts from this film called Eat: The Story of Food. Kenner’s doc is still worth seeing once as a primer, although I’d also recommend Michael Pollan’s book The Ominivores Dilemma as a preliminary primer first.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
If you don’t know much about this documentary, you’re better off going in cold, and that means not even Googling the title because I guarantee one of the top results is a spoiler. That’s if you want to have the optimal experience of the film’s arguably manipulative storytelling and therefore the optimal amount of tears from your eyes by the end. I have never met one person who has been able to or wanted to see the doc again, but it’s something that has to be seen not just for the emotional reminder that you’re a human being and that there are human beings out there capable of the worst acts but also for the legacy of the subjects. It’s one thing that the film’s existence led to important legislation in Canada, but it still deserves to be seen to understand why.
I stand by my recognition of this as one of the best docs of its year. Whether or not the filmmakers knew anything before they seem to on screen doesn’t matter. It’s still a monumental work for its time, both for the way it presents a story full of mystery and suspense and the way it opened up a whole issue regarding the Internet and online dating and social media. It’s hard not to know some of the outcome of the doc if you’re at all familiar with the “catfish” term and the MTV show the film spawned, not to mention if you’d been spoiled on the whole thing by 20/20. It unfortunately doesn’t have the same effect as it did/does the first time you saw/see it — unless you let it unfold as you know it does and appreciate that storytelling just as you would any fictional mystery or horror film re-watched. Even then, it’s just hard to sit through a lot of the uncomfortable last act a second time.
The Act of Killing (2012)
I’m not the biggest fan of Joshua Oppenheimer’s breakout, Oscar-nominated film on Indonesia’s “communist” purge, his second doc of three so far on the subject. I don’t care for the reenactment pageantry stuff. I don’t think its points are or should be that shocking. But much of it is still important, both on the issue and regarding the film’s concept. It’s also such a part of so many conversations that it has to be watched as a reference point if nothing else (including maybe as context for why the follow-up, The Look of Silence, is a much better film). Even if you appreciate what Oppenheimer does throughout, though, you’ll never want to see it all again, especially the gagging scene at the end.