Many documentaries aspire to change the world, but few actually succeed. Here is a list of brave films which set out to challenge the status quo - with some remarkable successes.

Many documentaries aspire to change the world, but few actually succeed. Here is a list of brave films which set out to challenge the status quo - with some remarkable successes.
Celebrating must-see documentaries from the last 50 years. Image from Grierson-winnning Crip Camp.

This year’s BBC Grierson Trustees’ Award honours veteran Roger Graef, who died earlier this year at the age of 85. For many decades Graef shone a spotlight on human rights through his films about criminal justice. In 1982 he headed up the team making the first ever fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Thames Valley Police. It included an episode entitled A Complaint of Rape, featuring three policemen aggressively questioning a rape victim. Its broadcast reverberated around the world and two days later led to Margaret Thatcher asking questions in Parliament about it. “Slowly but quietly, it changed the way that police handled rape victims,” Graef says in this short film about the episode.

“I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other - as in truth they did.” These 1979 words by African American writer James Baldwin accompanied notes for an unfinished project looking at his three murdered friends, Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. They serve as the jumping off point for director Raoul Peck’s exploration of race relations in the USA - I Am Not Your Negro (2016, watch on BBC iPlayer), in which he masterfully juxtaposes Baldwin’s words with contemporary footage.


I Am Not Your Negro: Raoul Peck (2016)


Also in 2016, Ava DuVernay’s searing 13th (Watch on Netflix) takes as its starting point the grim reality that while the USA has just 5% of the world’s population, it hosts 25% of the world’s prisoners. DuVernay skillfully draws a through-line from that stark fact back to the 13th amendment’s loophole outlawing slavery “except as a punishment for criminality”, and its devestating repercussions.

13th: Ava DuVernay (2016)


Crip Camp (2020, watch on Netflix) celebrates the successful challenging of the status quo. Co-directors James Lebrecht and Nicole Newman use abundant archive from the 1970s to look back at how a small groundbreaking summer camp for teens with disabilities - including Lebrecht - fostered a civil rights movement that eventually led to groundbreaking legislation protecting disability rights.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution: James Lebrecht and Nicole Newman (2020)


As women in Iran today bravely act out in the face of decades of oppression, Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s 1998 film Divorce Iranian Style (Watch on BFI Player) makes for all the more riveting viewing. The observational documentary takes us inside a courtroom in Tehran, where women are given a brief amount of time to argue for a release from abusive marriages.

In Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s compelling 2013 film Blackfish (Watch on Netflix), a combination of archive footage and testimony from a string of former theme park workers led to widespread global revulsion of the treatment of whales held in captivity. The film led directly to SeaWorld ending its orca breeding programme three years later.

When Molly Dineen headed to the English countryside in 2007, she thought her film would be about the foxhunting ban. But she soon encountered a completely unexpected range of issues facing farmers. The BAFTA award-winning film The Lie of the Land focused on the extreme measures farmers have to take trying to survive modern economics which prioritise cheap processed foods.

“Why didn't we stop climate change when we had the chance?” That’s the question poised by Pete Postlethwaite in Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid (Watch on BBC iPlayer). A compelling eco-thriller, Postlethwaite plays a survivor in the future looking back at archive from a devastated earth. Released in 2008, with the help of one of the first crowdfunding campaigns, the film was ahead of its time in recognising that global inaction was leading directly to accelerated climate change.


The Age of Stupid: Franny Armstrong (2008)


What inspirational films stick in your mind? Let us know at… @griersontrust | #Grierson50 

Published: 7 November 2022

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