With this collection of films, we look at some memorable docs acclaimed for their skilful examination of 20th century events.

With this collection of films, we look at some memorable docs acclaimed for their skilful examination of 20th century events.
Celebrating must-see documentaries from the last 50 years. Image from Grierson-winnning Once Upon a Time in Iraq.

Two films on our list took notably different approaches to the recounting of the horrors of war. The 1973 The World at War series, produced by Jeremy Isaacs, skilfully interwove archival footage from the Imperial War Museum with interviews from those at the heart of the conflict. Narrated by Laurence Olivier, the 26-part series for ITV was the most expensive ever made at the time (watch on UKTV Play). French director Claude Lanzmann spent 11 years making Shoah, a nine-hour odyssey through the Holocaust. In it he eschews any use of archival footage, instead focusing on testimonials from witnesses he divided into three categories: survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. (Watch on BFI Player)

Hailed as “a new kind of thriller”, in 1999 critics embraced the unfolding narrative presented in Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning One Day in September, examining the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Berlin Olympics. Macdonald has cited as his own inspiration Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, which won the Oscar two years earlier. Gast’s 1974 footage of a mesmerising Mohammed Ali was originally second fiddle to his original assignment to film a soul music festival in Zaire. Two decades in the making, the film is celebrated as a classic of sports documentary. (Watch on Prime Video)

Man on Wire: James Marsh (2008)


The events of 1974 feature again in Man on Wire, the 2010 Oscar-winning film by James Marsh. It has a key interview at its heart: Phillippe Petit, who gleefully recalls his high stakes high wire walk between New York City’s twin towers. Petit’s own abandoned film forms the core of much of the archival footage, giving insight into the mindset of the protagonists. (Watch on Prime Video and Apple TV)

Archive is employed playfully in prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The 2005 film, depicting the rise and fall of “former nerds”, can now be seen as a prescient foreshadowing of the greed at the heart of the 2008 economic crisis. 

Smiling “girls in pearls” from the pages of Country Life Magazine form the starting point for a very different type of history programme in the Wonderland episode High Society Brides. Hannah Berryman’s film asks five of the eligible young women featured in the magazine’s pages to look back at their lives from the distance of some decades, often with poignant results. 

Noting that there are many reasons the eight-hour series shouldn’t work, the Guardian calls OJ: Made in America “one of the most in-depth looks at race and America that’s ever been committed to film.” Directed by Ezra Edelman, the Oscar-winning series foregoes a narrator to let a long line of Simpson’s acquaintances and other players in the grim 90s double murder recount how race relations were integral to the jury’s verdict. (Watch on BBC iPlayer) 

OJ: Made in America: Ezra Edelman (2016)


It’s the voices of everyday witnesses and family who take central stage in the multi-Grierson winning Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation. James Rogan’s three-part 2018 BBC documentary uses a strikingly dark background to interviews to give the film a strong aesthetic. A quarter century after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the series makes clear that the conversation around race in Britain needs to continue. (Watch on BBC iPlayer)

Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation: James Rogan (2018)


That ordinary people can give gripping testimonials is also evident in the double Grierson-winning Once Upon a Time in Iraq (2020). Directed by James Bluemel, the five-part series brings fresh storytelling to the narrative of the Iraq war, with nuanced accounts from unexpected voices. (Watch on BBC iPlayer)

These are but a few of the many notable documentaries taking a nuanced look at recent history. We’d love to hear from you about your favourites. Head over to twitter to share your thoughts #Grierson50 

Once Upon a Time in Iraq: James Bluemel (2020)


Published: 10 October 2022

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