By no means definitive, our Bucket List Docs are a starting point to see classics from some of our famous doc maestros.

By no means definitive, our Bucket List Docs are a starting point to see classics from some of our famous doc maestros.
Celebrating must-see documentaries from the last 50 years. Image from Grierson-winning For Sama.

With our screens currently saturated with true crime of all shapes and sizes, it’s hard to remember just how fresh the form was some years ago. Paul Hamann’s Grierson-winning 14 Days in May chronicles the last days in the life of American death row inmate Edward Earl Johnson. It shocked UK viewers when it first aired on the BBC in 1987 with the criminal justice system’s unrelenting march towards death of the mild mannered inmate. 

The following year, Errol Morris brought us another true crime story from America. The Thin Blue Line contained recreations according to conflicting eyewitness accounts of the murder of a Texas police officer. The innovative approach was too much for the straightlaced Oscars, which refused to allow it into the documentary category - but the film went on to win many other documentary awards. 

Shock lies at the heart of the controversial multi-award winning The Act of Killing (2013). The film created a huge stir through its approach, where director Joshua Oppenheimer gets Indonesian genocidal perpetrators to re-enact their crimes in the style of their favourite film genre. 

Grizzly Man - Werner Herzog (2005)

The voice of the director drives four very different docs in our selection. In 1989 Michael Moore burst onto the scene with Roger & Me, in which Moore manages to make his pursuit of GM corporate head Roger Smith, into a profoundly funny, thought-provoking and unlikely box office success. A decade later Agnes Varda, the only female director of the French New Wave, embraced the portability of new digital cameras to get close to her subjects, making the intimate and whimsical The Gleaners and I. In Grizzly Man, German auteur Werner Herzog muses about his discovering of  “a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil” in the 100 hours left by Timothy Treadwell, documenting his life and violent death amongst the grizzly bears he loved. And in 2019’s For Sama, Waad al-Kateab records the stress of living under constant bombardment in an underground hospital in the midst of Syria’s civil war. Crafted with co-director Edward Watts, the film is an eloquent, poetic and immersive war documentary, styled as a love letter to al-Kateab’s young daughter Sama (watch on All 4).

Two additional American classics round out our list. Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994) follows young African-American basketball hopefuls from Chicago over five years. For Americans unused to seeing real lives play out on screens, the doc was a gripping watch - Roger Ebert went on to name it the best film of the decade (watch on BBC iPlayer).

The aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis make for two of the most memorable documentary contributors ever in Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 classic Grey Gardens. Living in a condemned house in New England, the eccentric pair open their hearts to the filmmaking brothers, in a documentary that remains popular nearly half a century later. 

These are just a few of the classic docs which honour the spirit of John Grierson’s definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”.

What would make your bucket list? Tell us @griersontrust #Grierson50. 

For Sama - Waad al-Kateab (2019)



Published: 5 October 2022

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