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Classic Documentary Films on DVD
What characteristics define a Documentary film? Visit the “Film Genres” page on the American Movie Classics (AMC) web site to find out!
Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment by
Call Number: E 843 .C74 2003
Publication Date: Produced 1963; DVD released 2003
When Governor George Wallace literally stands in the schoolhouse door to block the admittance of two African American students to the all-white University of Alabama in June 1963, President Kennedy is forced to decide whether to use the power of the presidency to support racial equality. This film captures events from all sides, using the cinéma vérité techniques pioneered by Robert Drew and his associates Richard Leacock, James Lipscomb, D. A. Pennebaker and Hope Ryden. Cameras follow the President, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Wallace, and the two students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, as the crisis unfolds and up through its dramatic climax, including rare scenes of decision-making inside the Oval Office. The film delivers on its promise to show history in the making, and not just in the grand gestures and grim strategy sessions that dominate the action; the filmmakers also capture small, human moments.
The Civil War by
Call Number: E 468 .C58 1990
Publication Date: Produced & DVD released 1990
This nine-part series by acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns explores the most important conflict in our nation’s history. The war was fought in 10,000 places, approximately 3 million Americans fought in it, and more than 600,000 men – two percent of the population – died in it. The war saw the end of slavery and the downfall of a southern planter aristocracy. It was the watershed of a new political and economic order, and the beginning of big industry, big business, and big government. It was the first modern war and, for Americans, the costliest, yielding the most American casualties and the greatest domestic suffering, spiritually and physically. It was the most horrible, necessary, intimate, acrimonious, mean-spirited, and heroic conflict the nation has ever known. What began as a bitter dispute over Union and States’ Rights ended as a struggle over the meaning of freedom in America. This film series, which presented Burns' years of painstaking research, is the highest-rated and most celebrated documentary in public television’s history.
The Celluloid Closet by
Call Number: PN 1995.9 .H55 C34 2001
Publication Date: Produced 1996; DVD released 2001
What "That's Entertainment" did for movie musicals, this documentary does for Hollywood homosexuality, as this exuberant, eye-opening film serves up a dazzling 100-year history of the role gay men and lesbians have had on the silver screen. Lily Tomlin narrates as Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman assemble fabulous footage from 120 films showing the changing face of cinema sexuality, from cruel stereotypes to covert love to the activist triumphs of the 1990s. Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Curtis, Harvey Fierstein and Gore Vidal are just a few of the many actors, writers and commentators who provide funny and insightful anecdotes.
Bowling for Columbine by
Call Number: HV 7436 .B594 2003
Publication Date: Produced 2002; DVD released 2003
In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, filmmaker Michael Moore set out to investigate the long, often volatile love affair between Americans and their firearms, uncovering the pervasive culture of fear that keeps the nation locked and loaded. Armed only with a camera and microphone, Moore follows the trail of bullets from Littleton, Colorado, and Flint, Michigan, all the way to Kmart’s midwestern headquarters and National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston’s Beverly Hills mansion, meeting shooting survivors, militia members, mild-mannered Canadians, and rock provocateur Marilyn Manson along the way. This film's popular success helped usher in a new era in documentary filmmaking.
Inconvenient Truth by
Call Number: QC 981.8 .G56 I533 2006
Publication Date: Produced & DVD released 2006
This film makes the compelling case that global warming is real, man-made, and its effects will be cataclysmic if we don’t act now. Former Vice President Al Gore presents a wide array of facts and information in a thoughtful and compelling way: often humorous, frequently emotional, and always fascinating. In the end, the program accomplishes what all great films should: it leaves the viewer shaken, involved and inspired.
Now Streaming: Films on Demand
One of the earliest examples of documentary filmmaking is Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North. This silent film follows Inuit hunter Nanook and his family as they struggle to survive in the harsh conditions of Canada’s Hudson Bay region. Although Nanook was enormously popular when it was released in 1922, Flaherty's methods -- and the tone of the film -- have been criticized in recent years. In addition to staging many of the supposedly spontaneous activities undertaken by the indigenous people, modern audiences recognize the film's racist perspective that treats its subjects like primitive curiosities. Flaherty's credibility suffered when it was revealed that he had fathered a child with an Inuit woman during his Arctic expeditions, but failed to acknowledge or support him. These and other controversial aspects of the Nanook project are discussed in the program Nanook Revisited, and this article from the Library of Congress website.
Leni Riefenstahl used her considerable talent to advance an abhorrent political agenda when she served as documentarian to the Nazi Party. Her infamous propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, focusing on the Third Reich's 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally, features a cast of thousands -- including Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering and other top officials. Images of cheering crowds, precision marching, military bands, banners lining Nuremberg's streets, and Hitler's climactic speech, illustrate with chilling clarity how Germany fell under his spell.
Robert Drew & the Development of Cinéma Vérité in America by
Call Number: PN 1998.3 .D73 O25 1992
Publication Date: 1992
This book traces Robert Drew’s influence on cinéma vérité through extensive interviews with Drew and other founding fathers of American documentary filmmaking: Donn Alan Pennebaker, Gregory Shuker, and Richard Leacock. In a 40-minute magazine show (his first attempt at revolutionizing television journalism), Drew realized that his heavy equipment -- and the crew needed to carry it -- intruded too much into the real-life situations he was trying to capture. He persuaded Time-Life Broadcasting to sponsor the development of new, lightweight, portable synchronous sound equipment that freed documentary filmmakers from the bulky, tripod-mounted, AC-powered equipment of the past. Drew formed a like-minded staff and, using the new technology to go beyond the interview-and-narration form of television journalism, filmed "Primary," which documented the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary election. By capturing intense moments as they happened, this film fulfilled Drew’s dream of making an audience feel personally involved in the events he presented.
Shooting the Truth: The Rise of American Political Documentaries by
Call Number: PN 1995.9 .D6 M38 2006
Publication Date: 2006
Tracing the origins of an oppositional documentary movement to the Vietnam era, author James McEnteer shows how a strong independent documentary tradition grew from television's failure to sustain a commitment to the public interest. This book evaluates the work of four artists in depth: the intrepid Barbara Kopple; the puckish but deadly Michael Moore; Errol Morris, a connoisseur of human quirkiness; and anti-Bush crusader Robert Greenwald, as well as the pioneering public affairs documentaries of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. The text concludes with a look at the populist anti-war and anti-globalization films of Big Noise and the Guerrilla News Network, whose youthful producers push the boundaries of the documentary form.