IDA Staff Picks: Documentaries of the Decade
By IDA Staff
This decade has given us some of the boldest, most informative and timeliest documentaries in film history, and with it coming to an end, many of us here in the IDA staff are looking back on the films that had a special or significant impact on us, not just as documentary professionals, but as documentary lovers. Check out these IDA staff picks and find links to watch some of the best nonfiction storytelling on major streaming platforms, all the way from 2011 to the current moment. And make sure you use a legitimate streaming service to directly support the filmmakers and filmmaking team behind each film!
Ava DuVernay’s sweeping exploration of incarceration and racial justice in the United States is perhaps one of the most comprehensive accounts of how systemic, institutionalized racism continues to perpetuate slavery. While history may contend that indentured servitude ended with the 13th Amendment, DuVernay seeks to subvert that understanding and instead reveal how the prison-industrial complex, police and the justice system uphold oppression to this day. The film won the ABCNews Video Source Award at the 2016 IDA Documentary Awards.
5 Broken Cameras
As Israeli settlers begin building homes and erecting a barrier wall in the West Bank village of Bil'in, a Palestinian farm worker, Emad Burnat, documents the town's resistance to the new settlement. Filmed over the course of several years, using five different cameras––as one camera after another is destroyed in violent clashes between the townspeople and the Israeli Defense Force—Academy Award nominee 5 Broken Cameras is a gripping first-person depiction of the mounting tensions and the devastating effects of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A Thousand Thoughts
Devised as a live music documentary project by Sam Green and Joe Bini, A Thousand Thoughts is a boundary-pushing experiential form of filmmaking where audiences are taken through the history of the legendary Kronos Quartet. The live documentary combines archival footage, on-stage narration from Sam Green, and a live performance from Kronos Quartet themselves, resulting in a uniquely collective and immediate way to experience a music documentary.
LEARN MORE: MIT DocuBase
Amy Winehouse’s brief and polarizing career came to a tragic end in 2011, and while much of her personal life and relationship with music was the subject of speculation in the media, who was the real Amy Winehouse behind it? Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary offers a window into the late R&B singer’s life, whose incredible talent and vocal prowess was constantly undermined by abusive relationships, struggles with addiction and more.
The Black Panthers: Vanguards of a Revolution
Multiple IDA Documentary Award winner Stanley Nelson’s films have been essential documents of Black history and culture, and this 2015 documentary exploring a critical part of American history embodies the excellence of his filmography. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution is the first full-length film that sheds light on the Black Panthers and their long-lasting impact on the struggle for civil rights, with rare archival footage and masterful storytelling.
WATCH: Prime Video
Winner of Best Editing at the 2016 IDA Documentary Awards, Cameraperson is an essential documentary when discussing films about films. Created as an autobiographical account by Kirsten Johnson, the film is comprised of footage shot by Johnson as a cinematographer across years and different countries. All along the way, it provokes fascinating questions about art and the practice of artmaking, and how the camera (and therefore the subject) becomes an extension and projection of oneself.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
When filmmaker Travis Wilkerson investigates the murder of an African-American man by his White Supremacist grandfather in 1946, he embarks on an intensely personal and unnerving project of self-discovery and reckoning with the past. Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? is a thought-provoking exploration of whiteness as it manifests today, and a demonstration of how our collective past echoes into the present.
Legendary filmmaker Agnés Varda’s penultimate contribution to the documentary field is one of her finest––the Academy Award-nominated Faces Places (Visages Villages), directed by her and French artist JR, finds them travelling across French villages, towns and factories and forming an unlikely friendship through it all. The film, evident of Varda’s typical ingenuity, is a beautiful portrayal of JR and Varda’s emergent friendship and a patchwork of all the people they meet along the way.
WATCH: Prime Video
Fire At Sea
An emotional story set against the backdrop of the European migrant crisis, the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea follows the story of a 12-year old boy embarking on a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to escape conflict in his home country. Shot from the Siciland island of Lampedusa, the Best Cinematography winner (2016 IDA Documentary Awards) is a deeply personal document of a crisis that shook the continent.
Best Documentary Feature winner (2019 IDA Documentary Awards) For Sama is a powerful look at a young woman’s experience during the uprising in Aleppo, Syria beginning in 2012. It is the first film to examine the Syrian conflict from a woman’s perspective, and is a personal love letter to her daughter. The film tells the story of filmmaker Waad al-Kateab’s life during those five years, as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while cataclysmic conflict rises around her.
Hale County, This Morning This Evening
Director RaMell Ross creates an immersive cinematic reverie of African American life in rural Alabama in Hale County, This Morning This Evening. Winner of Best Music at the 2018 IDA Documentary Awards, the film is constructed as a beautiful patchwork of personal stories that become the collective reflection and output of a community. Ross does a remarkable job behind the camera in Hale County, giving his subjects the time and space they need to tell their own stories.
Created by Jonathan Goldstein, Heavyweight is a documentary podcast featuring Goldstein in conversation with people dealing with an incident from their past they wish to resolve, change, or move past. The resulting conversations are hilarious, thought-provoking and often emotional stories that find Goldstein and his guests discussing anything from a bad breakup to an unsolved murder—and the effect of those events on how the guest gets through their life, one day at a time.
LISTEN: Gimlet Media
Told through the lives of Hatidze and her ailing mother in the mountains of Macedonia, Best Cinematography and Pare Lorentz Award winner Honeyland is a window into ancient beekeeping traditions and the dwindling group of people who still make a living from the practice. The relationship between humans and nature plays a central role in the film, as viewers are treated to a rich, visual symphony and reminder of this fleeting way of life.
WATCH: Prime Video
I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary is based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, and in a fitting tribute to the late author and thinker, is similarly poignant and hard-hitting in its execution. While the film is a retelling of American history, and the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s also an urgent reminder of how systemic racism continues to disenfranchise African Americans today. The film is enriched with accounts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders, strengthened by Baldwin’s prescient observations on American society.
LA 92 presents an incredibly immersive and affecting experience of a city in turmoil, without any talking heads or narration, which eerily resembles the same news stories we see on TV today 25 years later. Set against the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, the TJ Martin and Daniel Lindsay-directed film was pieced from over 1,700 hours of footage from news reports, journalists' stories and news archives to tell a chilling story of some of the darkest days in modern American history. The film won the ABCVideo NewsSource Award at the 2017 IDA Documentary Awards.
Little Ethiopia: Chez nous
Devised as a live documentary performance, Little Ethiopia: Chez nous is, simply put, a documentary about editing. But the unexpected brilliance of the film (and performance) is its ability to create a surreal headspace that warps, rewinds and fast-forwards through time, just like editing on a timeline. Veteran editors Joe Bini and Maya Daisy Hawke turn the camera towards themselves, and use personal videos, photographs and clips from films they’ve edited, offering viewers a glimpse into the world of editing and the development of their own relationship as a couple.
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Minding The Gap
Bing Liu’s directorial debut won us over at the 2018 IDA Documentary Awards with Best Feature, Best Editing and an Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award for Liu himself, and the film remains a timely portrayal of American issues as told through a beautiful coming-of-age story of three friends reckoning with the responsibilities of adulthood. Inspired by Liu’s early foray into skateboarding films, Minding the Gap is a vital piece of work that reveals a great deal about the reality of American youth in a Rust Belt town, even beyond the subjects on screen.
Nostalgia for the Light
Chilean documentary giant Patricio Guzmán travels 10,000 feet above sea level to the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert, where atop the mountains astronomers from all over the world gather to observe the stars. Nostalgia for the Light finds him observing archeologists digging for evidence of ancient civilizations at the base of the same mountains where, 25 years prior, political prisoners were “disappeared” by the Chilean army after the military coup of September 1973, provoking existential questions about humankind and the reckoning of the past with the present.
WATCH: Prime Video
OJ: Made in America
Produced and directed by Ezra Edelman, OJ: Made in America is a five-part miniseries that investigates race in America as told through the life and notoriety of OJ Simpson. Simpson’s early start in football and eventual unravelling through the trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman take center stage in the film, but the larger narrative is indicative of the larger spectacle of race, celebrity and sports that consumes America.
Our Time Machine
S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun’s 2020 documentary is centered around artists Maleonn, who creates “Papa’s Time Machine” in the aftermath of his father’s dementia diagnosis: a wondrous time-travel adventure performed on stage with life-size mechanical puppets. Through the play's production, he confronts his own mortality. Maleonn finds grace and unexpected joy in this moving meditation on art, the agonies of love and loss, and the circle of life.
The Painter and the Thief
Desperate for answers about the theft of her two paintings, a Czech artist seeks out and befriends the career criminal who stole them. Throughout the rest of The Painter and The Thief, directed by Benjamin Ree and released in 2020, we find the thief and the artist back in the same space, only this time, the thief is having his portrait painted. The two somehow form an improbable relationship and an inextricable bond that will forever link these lonely souls.
Serial, Season One
Serial’s first season gripped audiences around the world thanks to Sara Koenig’s meticulous, gripping narrative skills, all the makings of a classic whodunit, but above all, the delicate balance of emotional storytelling with relentless investigative journalism. The murder of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed’s alleged involvement, along with the complex layers of race, family and socioeconomic status, continues to be one of the most enduring narrative arcs in documentary audio.
Shirkers was a Singapore-made 1992 cult classic—or it would have been, had Director Sandi Tan's 16mm footage not been stolen by an enigmatic American collaborator. More than two decades later, Tan, now a novelist in LA, returns to the country of her youth and to the memories of a man who both enabled and thwarted her dreams. Somehow she stumbles upon the original film footage as well, reinterpreting and reassembling it into something she had never imagined—resulting in the magical and enigmatic Shirkers, released in 2018.
St. Louis Superman
Bruce Franks Jr., a 34-year-old Ferguson activist and battle rapper, takes center stage along with his family and community in St. Louis Superman, an inspiring documentary short about making meaningful change at the grassroots level. When Franks gets elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives, he learns to overcome both personal trauma and political obstacles to pass a bill critical for his community and city.
Stories We Tell
Documentaries are a potent tool to learn more not just about the subject, but the person behind the camera as well—and Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary is a testament to that fact. By experimenting with the documentary format, Polley interviews a series of family members and friends about her mother’s death when she was age 11. The film takes viewers on a journey that is, at its core, personal but also universal in its treatment of personal relationships and self-discovery.
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Yance Ford’s Strong Island chronicles the arc of a family across history, geography and tragedy—from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle-class suburbs, to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death. As Ford investigates the murder of his late brother by a white man who never faced the consequences, Strong Island asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice.
The Act of Killing
The deeply troubling mass execution of accused communists in Indonesia never found its way into mainstream discourse or news circulation until the release of Joshua Oppenheimer’s Academy Award-nominated The Act of Killing, which provides an uncompromising account of these horrific crimes. Pancasila Youth gang member Anwar Congo revisits his memories of being in charge of the death squads carrying out the killings, and does so through the surreal lens of gangster, Western and musical films—resulting in a strangely unsettling film that provoked discussion around the world of these state-sanctioned killings.
WATCH: Prime Video
The Salt of the Earth
The Salt of the Earth tracks the nearly 40-year-long career of legendary Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Directed by his son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and veteran filmmaker Wim Wenders, the film is imbued with a journey of learning family history and Wenders’ typically panoramic visual sensibilities. As we travel across multiple countries in South America and Africa, the breadth of Salgado’s work and his deep connection to beautiful spaces makes for an inspiring, visually rich delight.
WATCH: Prime Video
From Emerging Documentary Filmmaker honoree Garrett Bradley, Best Feature nominee Time has already captivated audiences with its poetic cinematography and nuanced interplay of incarceration, family and race on screen. The story of the indomitable matriarch Fox Rich, who strives to raise her six sons and keep her family together as she fights for her husband’s release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is at the core of this incredible film, which offers a brilliant and subtle portrayal of the effect long-term imprisonment has on family structure and the daily life of an ordinary American family.
WATCH: Prime Video