The following is a guest post.
They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I for one agree wholeheartedly. There’s a slew of outstanding documentaries out there – many of which are available in full on YouTube – but there’s only a few modern titles which truly grip us by the heart (and, quite often, the throat). Here’s my selection of the five most emotionally engaging movies of all time, along with YouTube links to the full versions for all but one of them.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
It’s two and a half hours long, but every minute of it is a riveting – and often shocking – exploration of the infamous West Memphis Three case, one of the most complex legal cases in modern history.
The main engine of the film is the question of whether the WM3 committed the murders for which they were incarcerated, and it’s a question which still draws commentary from the public at large as well as many famous activists. In addition to exposing the details of the case in an impassioned yet fairly objective manner, the documentary is also a telling portrayal of the judicial system as well as the culture of backwater America.
It pulls no punches and some of the material can be somewhat upsetting, but it raises some massive questions which are perhaps even more poignant given that the three men were released last year following 18 years of incarceration.
The full movie can be seen here:
Jesus Camp (2006)
Arguably the most controversial documentary listed here, Jesus Camp explores the North Dakota ministry Kids on Fire which was run by Becky Fischer. I say was, because the furor caused in the wake of the documentary put so much pressure on Fischer and the ministry that it was forced to close (albeit with the eerie promise that ‘they’ll be back’).
The backlash was caused by the practices used by the ministry, derided by both Christian and secular groups alike with accusations of indoctrination and brainwashing. And truly, no matter what your faith, there is something very unnerving about prepubescent kids being aggressively told they should be prepared to die for their faith in the same way that Al-Qaeda terrorists are (their words, not mine).
The provocative trailer says it all, so check it out:
Grizzly Man (2005)
The tale of Timothy Treadwell – a foolhardy bear lover who ultimately met his brutal end while trying to live with grizzly bears – is a fascinating one. It’s also a tale which could only be done justice by director veteran Werner Herzog.
And he did just that in his 2005 film Grizzly Man, an acclaimed documentary that follows the life (and, ultimately, death) of the self-styled bear expert. Treadwell is one hell of a subject for such a film; he was either a genius or a total idiot depending on which way you butter it, and purely for the record I’m of the latter persuasion. I don’t think any genius would invite his girlfriend to sleep in a tent surrounded by grizzly bears only for both to be inevitably mauled to death, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a fascinating film and one of Herzog’s numerous greats.
Check out the trailer for yourself on Youtube:
Man On Wire (2008)
Before we get to the most harrowing film ever created, I wanted to highlight a documentary which is as much a masterclass in innovative filmmaking as it is a testament to human spirit.
In 1974, Philippe Petit staged one of the most audacious acts in the history of public performance, if that’s even the right term for it. Following years of planning, the self-taught tightrope walker infiltrated the World Trade Center in NYC and fired a wire across the twin towers. On a cold April morning, Petit stepped onto the wire.
Given the incredible story, it’s a wonder the tale was little known before this award-winning documentary made a splash at Sundance and influenced students at documentary schools the world over. The film itself is utterly compelling and beautifully paced, punctuated with suspenseful moments and the numerous obstacles which stood in the way of his death-defying feat.
One of the most notable things about the documentary is that the 9/11 attacks are never referenced in the narrative, which was an intentional decision on the part of James Marsh who didn’t want Petit’s stunt to be tarnished by the atrocities which followed decades later.
And indeed, anyone who has watched this moving film will agree it brings a small amount of beauty to a site marred by so much death and destruction.
Check out the trailer here:
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
By far the most emotionally devastating documentary on the list, and one which has reduced grown men to tears. In fact, I’m yet to meet anyone who has seen Dear Zachary without sobbing uncontrollably at what might be the most harrowing true story ever committed to film.
I watched it again before writing this post, imploring my wife to join me. Knowing what was to come, I burst into a flood of tears a mere three minutes in. Knowing I never cry at films, she asked “What the hell are you making me watch?” but I didn’t give away any details.
And this is the thing – it’s difficult to talk about the film without giving away some key points in the narrative that are best left as a shock. But in essence it’s a personal memorial about a murdered friend created by filmmaker Kurt Kuenne. Kurt set out across the country documenting Andrew Bagby’s life, gathering emotional memories from their collective friends which he intends to hand to Bagby’s infant son when he grows up. What happens along the way is… well; there are no words for it.
An exploration into the very heart of evil, as well as unparalleled good, Dear Zachary will shake you to the core. And just when you think it can’t get any more gripping, it hits you with a ten-tonne sledgehammer.
In fact, it’s so brutally passionate I guarantee you’ll only want to watch it once. Just make sure you do.
The full movie can be watched on YouTube:
This post is written by Zeke Iddon, a documentary lover and consultant at New York Film Academy (http://www.nyfa.edu). When he isn’t crying his little heart out at sad films – or writing about them – he’s also fairly active on YouTube and the Internet at large.