The Best Documentary Opening Scenes of All Time

These films hook us immediately, for better or worse.

best documentary opening scenes Don't Look Back

While perusing’s list of “the 50 best opening scenes of all time,” I was happy to see at least two nonfiction films represented (F For Fake and Man With a Movie Camera). But 1/25th of a list is not great, and it made me wonder and then realize that documentaries don’t often have exceptional or memorable beginnings. A lot of the classics just jump right in, which isn’t bad, but they might not easily hook in a lot of today’s generation of Netflix browsers. And a lot of newer films start stiffly with an expository setup.

So, while writing a response for, I tried to come up with some noteworthy opening scenes from documentaries. The first that came to mind is the cane thrashing that opens Beware of Mr. Baker. It’s a moment taken out of context and chronology placed at the front in order to grab our attention with an extreme look at the subject we’ll be dealing with over the next 100 minutes. A similar sort of beginning kicks off Winnebago Man with another profane curmudgeon berating the film’s director on camera.

I named a handful of other docs I could recall having great opening scenes, and now I’d like to share some of them (and one I thought of later) here while inviting everyone to comment with a reminder of some doc starts deserving recognition.

The Last Waltz (1978)

The scene I tend to think of is the first after the title comes up, the actual waltz. Really, the opening scene is the montage of the San Francisco neighborhood in which the Winterland Ballroom resides.

Harlan County, USA (1976)

What better way to draw us in than with explosions? The whole mining montage set to bluegrass music is also a perfect way to capture this place that the story will be set in.

Restrepo (2010)

Another doc that starts off with something blowing up, yet the significance is kind of the opposite of the one beginning in Harlan. We’re put right inside a humvee on the road to the Korengal Valley when an IED explodes, shaking the camera and our senses with it. Right away we know we’re embedded in this war and it’s going to be rough.

Don’t Look Back (1967)

Now we think of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” opening as a music video that’s like a pre-show short before the actual film. It was also used as a trailer for the film. And it’s become one of the most copied scenes in film history, and this isn’t acknowledged enough.

Triumph of the Will (1935)

A great film about terrible people. We can’t dismiss how brilliant this opening is in terms of its propaganda significance. Literally we’re just watching Adolph Hitler’s plane arrive in Nuremberg, but metaphorically we’re meant to feel like the Fuhrer is descending from the heavens to lead and address humanity.

This list was originally published on the Documentary Channel blog on March 21, 2013. It is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.