Documentaries were the first films ever made. In itself “Documentary” is just a storytelling medium and not a film genre. Originally it was supposed to demonstrate filmmaking technologies, but since then it has served as a historical record and one of the most powerful ways to educate and influence an audience, for better or worse.
The Hollywood Tribune, therefore, presents to you the Top 5 Best Documentaries of All Time.
We start this list of top 5 best documentaries of all time with a movie from the silent era, shot and edited by couple Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova. The film shows early life in major cities across the newly formed Soviet Union. They use the camera to show the mundane lives of ordinary people using split-screens and double exposures.
Other scenes of this film show slow motion, free frames and tracing shots which makes it look futuristic. The film was dismissed by film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, but in recent times filmmakers and critics have recognised it’s important. This film also went ahead to show that the camera is only limited by a director’s imagination.
4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Runtime – 2hr. 55min.
Next on the list of top 5 best documentaries of all time is the documentary, directed by Steve James which follows two African-American high school kids from Chicago who are obsessed with basketball. The film is less about what happens on the basketball court and more on how race, social class, education, values and community effects pretty much everything around you.
The film was shot for more than 250 hours of footage, and the result is simply unforgettable.
3. Baraka (1992)
Runtime – 1hr. 38min.
We could have gone with either of Ron Fricke’s Chronos or Samsara, but for our list of top 5 best documentaries of all time we selected Baraka instead. The film, directed by Ron Fricke explores the themes using a compilation of life/human activities, natural events and it is shot in 152 locations in 24 countries across six continents.
It the most recent film to be photographed in 70mm Todd-AO format, and also the first film ever to be restored and scanned at 8K resolution. Critic Roget Ebert writes, “If a man sends another Voyager to the distant stars and it can only carry one film on board, that film might be Baraka”.
2. Sans Soleil (1983)
Runtime – 1hr. 44min.
The French documentary directed by Chris Marker is perhaps the finest first-person documentary as we follow a traveller as he journeys between San Francisco to Africa and then Iceland to Japan. The film is more of a virtual essay, and he tries to make a point that context does matter when one is interpreting memories.
A female narrates letters as the traveller remembers the place in a particular way, but the images show us something different about it, which is disconnected and the director argues that our perception can be skewed.
1. Shoah (1985)
Runtime – 9hr. 27min.
The French film directed by Claude Lanzmann is about the Holocaust. The director Claude Lanzmann spent 11 years conducting interviews with survivors, witnesses and even Nazi perpetrators during visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland which includes extermination camps.
The nine and a half-hour film does not use archival footage but instead allows each survivor to speak for themselves, which in return makes the viewer not escape the unimaginable things each survivor suffered. Critic Roger Ebert described it as “one of the noblest films ever made” and wrote “It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness”. Thus Shoah tops our list of top 5 best documentaries of all time.
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