8 Documentaries Newly Added to the National Film Registry and Where to Watch Them

Milestone Film

The Library of Congress has announced the National Film Registry class of 2015–25 films to be preserved for their “cultural, historic or aesthetic significance.” It’s a good year for nonfiction selection, with documentaries stretching from the 1890s to the 1990s now slated for inclusion in the nation’s central archive. The list includes eight nonfiction films, though some of them are more easily categorized than others. That’s nearly a third. Last year, for comparison, only five nonfiction films were added. It’s an exciting uptick.

Here are the eight titles, as well as streaming information for the six that are currently available:

Black and Tan (1929)

This musical short film, directed by Dudley Murphy (Ballet Mécanique), is not technically a documentary. It’s a simple narrative about a struggling New York City musician and his dancer wife (Fredi Washington, who would later star in the 1934 version of Imitation of Life). Yet the musician is Duke Ellington, essentially playing himself. The film is notable for its melodrama, to be sure, but its historic significance lies in its footage of Ellington and the Cotton Club Orchestra. It was their first opportunity to bring the jazz of the Harlem Renaissance to the silver screen, culminating in a performance of “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

Black and Tan is available on Fandor.

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975)

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer is, in a sense, a work of preservation in its own right. Filmmaker Thom Andersen made this hour-long documentary in part by restoring to motion Eadweard Muybridge’s many photographic studies of animal and human movement. These stunning, historically revelatory sequences are interspersed with Muybridge’s murder-inflected life story, narrated by Dean Stockwell.

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, long on YouTube, is now only available via institutional DVD purchase and rental.

Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)

More commonly known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze, this is one of the most entertaining documentaries of the 19th century. Fred Ott, one of Thomas Edison’s assistants, takes a sniff of snuff and then sneezes. Back in 1894, the film was actually submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright in the form of 45 still frames on paper. It was later restored by mounting the stills onto cardboard and rephotographing them, recreating the five-second movie that can now be viewed via the Library of Congress’s YouTube channel.

The Inner World of Aphasia (1968)

One of many instructional films made by Ed and Naomi Feil, this particular short teaches doctors how to interact with patients with aphasia. It has been praised for its approach, focusing on creative means of encouraging communication from patients who have lost the ability to speak. A DVD is available for purchase on the Ed Feil Productions website.

Portrait of Jason (1967)

A landmark of independent filmmaking, as well as an invaluable document of gay life before Stonewall, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason has lately had a bit of a renaissance. It was rereleased in cinemas in the spring of 2013, and was then made much more readily available for home viewing. It has since been the subject of not only plenty of discussion and praise, but also a controversial and fictionalized remake from director Stephen Winter. Inclusion in the National Film Registry is a very welcome addition, further confirming its place in the canon of American nonfiction.

Portrait of Jason is available on a number of streaming platforms, including Amazon Instant, iTunes and Fandor.

Sink or Swim (1990)

An example of avant-garde, autobiographical filmmaking, Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim is a portrait of her relationship with her father told in the form of 26 vignettes. Narrated by a child and built from a broad scope of archival footage, it’s a landmark use of nonfiction cinema as a form for memoir.

Sink or Swim is available to stream on Fandor.

The Story of Menstruation (1946)

Commissioned by the manufacturers of Kotex, this Walt Disney educational video was shown in schools all across the United States. Though essentially a marketing tool, The Story of Menstruation is a great deal more scientifically focused than many other Kotex promotional items of the 1940s, such as the As One to Another booklet. This has been credited to the involvement of gynecologist Mason Hohl, who was hired as a consultant. This approach also makes the film more scientifically reliable than many other Disney documentaries, which would eventually propagate the myth of mass suicide among lemmings.

The Story of Menstruation does not appear to have been released by Disney in any official format, but it has been uploaded a number of times to YouTube.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)

Filmmaker William Greaves completed experimental docu-drama Symbiopsychotaxiplasm in 1968, but it lingered without any real distribution for years. Eventually, after garnering the cult reputation of so many hidden masterpieces, it was released in 2001. Along the way it picked up such crucial fans as Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh. And, like Portrait of Jason, its aesthetic and historic significance is manifold. It’s a landmark of African-American filmmaking, a structurally innovative piece of metatextual storytelling, and an important corollary to the concept of cinema-verite.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One was released by the Criterion Collection and is available to stream on Hulu.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.