Tag Archives: knowledge

Knowledge Begets Wisdom: A List Of Recommended Documentary Films

Have you ever had one of those moments when you just wanted to sit back and relax to some informative variant or another about the beauty, mystery, and/or stupidity of our strange existence?

Does anyone remember 1970’s public television? When some disaffected scientist’s voice would describe the mating habits of the Australian Dingo? Well, the documentary film has come a very long way since those slow days when making the choice to spend your free time learning was painfully boring, and those audio samples are relegated to the likes of music by Boards Of Canada. Whether it be the works of Michael Moore’s biased dissertations, Ron Fricke’s audio/visual tapestries, Danny Schechter’s brilliant investigative journalism, or the new age revelations of glorified infomercials, such as “The Secret”, learning about ourselves, our world, and our universe has never been so enjoyable as well as informative.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I truly look forward to a day when soulless corporations, at least as we know and understand them, will meet their demise. But one company, Netflix, has actually managed to enrich my life through providing me with a quality array of great films and documentary, both quickly and inexpensively. With that said, I’d like to recommend the following films with hopes that you won’t have to waste too much time trying to figure out what to watch. I too hope that you will gain and put to use the knowledge and wisdom you are sure to acquire about the oft overlooked reality that stealthfully affects us everyday.

If you have any great recommendations, please let me know so I can add it to the list…

Politics and War…

No End In Sight: This in-depth, Oscar-nominated documentary from filmmaker (and former Brookings Institution fellow) Charles Ferguson examines the decisions that led to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the handling of the subsequent occupation by President George W. Bush and his administration. Featuring exclusive interviews with central players and detailed analysis, the film pulls no punches as it chronicles the twists and turns America took on the path to war.

WMD: Weapons Of Mass Deception: Independent investigative reporter and filmmaker Danny Schechter’s documentary focuses on how the media shaped people’s views of the Iraq War through their intense coverage from the war’s inception through February 2004. Schechter’s film examines provocative theories such as the Pentagon’s involvement in media messages, how new methods such as satellites and embedded journalists affected media coverage, and the competition between media outlets.

Zeitgeist: Produced by Peter Joseph, was created as a nonprofit expression to inspire people to start looking at the world from a more critical perspective and to understand that very often things are not what the population at large think they are. IMPORTANT NOTE: The introduction, being the first ten minutes, or so, is cheesy, amateurish film making. Skip it.

Iraq in Fragments: Honored with an Oscar nod and prizes for editing and cinematography at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, director James Longley’s striking portrait of a nation divided presents a collage of images and commentary from ordinary Iraqi citizens coping with the effects of war, political unrest, religious feuds and an uncertain future. Moving beyond the abstract, the film powerfully captures the indelible humanity of those living in a country defined by conflict.

Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers: Private contractors are getting rich while everybody else is suffering: This is the point director Robert Greenwald makes — passionately — in this 2006 documentary. Using whistleblower testimony, firsthand accounts, financial records and classified documents, Greenwald levels charges of greed, corruption and incompetence against private contractors and shows the subsequent devastating effect on Americans and Iraqis.

War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death: Based on Norman Solomon’s revealing book and narrated by actor Sean Penn, War Made Easy exposes the government’s and the media’s purported history of deceiving the American people and leading us into war after war. Using archival footage of past presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and both Bushes, and media correspondents like Walter Cronkite, the documentary sheds light on propaganda pushing and draws parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

The Weather Underground: A sobering documentary about a group of 1960s “committed freedom fighters” known as The Weather Underground. A radical offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen didn’t just march or sit in; they rioted and bombed — not to change the American political scene but rather to destroy it. The organization was part of a global trend of revolution that sprang from the belief that not acting against violence is violence.

Why We Fight: Filmed during the Iraq War, this documentary dissects America’s military machine with a keen eye to answering the question: Why does America engage in war? Through personal stories of soldiers, government officials, scholars, journalists and innocent victims, the film examines the political and economic interests and ideological factors, past and present, behind American militarism. Winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Award.

911 In Plane Sight: This provocative documentary probes the theories behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, focusing on live video footage captured that day that aired only once on TV and was never shown again. The film examines alternative causes of the crash on the Pentagon and questions whether the damage was inflicted by a 757. The documentary also asks if explosives might have been already present in the World Trade Center and aboard United Airlines Flight 175

Orwell Rolls in His Grave: Documentary filmmaker Robert Kane Pappas presents a riveting argument for his theory that America is under an Orwellian watch with the rise to prominence of the radical, right-wing Republican party, an ascent aided, unwittingly or not, by the mainstream media. Here, Pappas interviews an impressive roster, including Center for Public Integrity director Charles Lewis, legal analyst Vincent Bugliosi and liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.

Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties: Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress passed a series of legislations known as The Patriot Act, which is designed to assist law enforcement in preventing future terrorist attacks. Take an inside look at this controversial bill through the eyes of legal analysts and constitutional experts as they examine the possible dangers The Patriot Act poses to our civil liberties and individual freedoms.

The Peace!: Amid an escalating war in Iraq, rising terror levels and the threat of nuclear attack, a growing body of intellectuals, religious leaders and community organizers are getting tough with their questions about peace — and that’s no oxymoron. To shed light on the answers, filmmakers Gabriele Zamparini and Lorenzo Meccoli record a variety of speakers, including Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu, Scott Ritter, Pete Seeger, Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal. NOTE: The first half is good, but it loses all of its steam toward the end.

Bowling For Columbine: Famed filmmaker and left-wing political humorist Michael Moore tackles America’s obsession with firearms in this Oscar-winning documentary. Focusing mainly on the Columbine massacre in April 1999, Moore also visits a Michigan bank that gives new customers a free gun, recites statistics for gun deaths in the United States and interviews folks ranging from National Rifle Association spokesman Charlton Heston to shock rocker Marilyn Manson.

Business and Economy…

The Corporation: This documentary charts the spectacular rise of corporations as a dramatic, pervasive presence in our lives. Filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott present a timely, entertaining critique of global conglomerates as they chronicle the origins of corporations, as well as their inner workings, controversial impacts and possible futures. The pros and cons are weighed via interviews with social critics such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

In Debt We Trust: Filmmaker and former journalist Danny Schechter (WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception) investigates Americans’ ongoing love affair with credit cards and the staggering level of personal debt it’s created, paying special attention to the relationship between Congress and the credit card industry. In a modern society that’s increasingly “financialized,” consumer debt is so common that extending credit has become highly lucrative.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room: Based on the book of the same name by Peter Elkin, director Alex Gibney’s documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at the powerful energy company whose downfall forever changed the landscape of the business world. With a blend of fascinating footage, fast-paced interviews and a wealth of information, this film is a serious lesson in the potential trappings of dishonesty and unethical behavior dogging corporate America today.

Roger and Me: In this blistering, satirical documentary, ex-journalist Michael Moore gives a personal account of the tough times in his hometown of Flint, Mich., after the General Motors plant was closed in the mid-1980s. The film revolves around Moore’s dogged attempts to gain an interview with Roger Smith, the elusive and well-insulated head of GM and the man responsible for massive layoffs that eliminated more than 30,000 jobs and left the town destitute.

America: Freedom to Fascism: Acclaimed filmmaker Aaron Russo directs this thorough investigation into the creation of the Federal Reserve and the controversial legislation (or lack thereof) that requires all American citizens to pay income taxes. Through revelatory interviews with key members of Congress, a former IRS Commissioner, tax attorneys, agents from the IRS and FBI, and various authors, Russo demystifies federal income tax and the creation of money. NOTE: It’s not a particularly well produced film, but the historical information and interviews are excellent.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash: Produced by award-winning filmmakers Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack, this documentary examines the world’s dependency on oil and the impending chaos that’s sure to follow when the resource is depleted. Straight from the headlines, this hot-button topic may represent the world’s most dire crisis. Through expert interviews, the film spells out in startling detail the challenge we all face and underscores our desperate need for alternative energy.

Maxed Out: Investigating both the personal and the national debt owed by Americans, this thought-provoking documentary explores the staggering financial burden we live with every day and exposes how the contemporary financial industry is set up in ways that can harm unwitting customers. With both sobering facts and black humor, Maxed Out unveils the consequences of our debt addiction, including its contribution to the vanishing of the American middle class.

Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price: Producer, director and activist Robert Greenwald takes aim at the corporate giant that’s come to symbolize big business in America: Wal-Mart. Blasting the box-store Goliath for allegedly paying substandard wages, skimping on employee health benefits and eviscerating communities, this hard-hitting, emotional documentary profiles the struggle of everyday folks from around the country who’ve committed themselves to fighting the mega-retailer. NOTE: Though I believe this documentary is poorly produced, the interviews and information is invaluable.

Media…

Outfoxed: Rupurt Murdoch’s War on Journalism: Finally, a no-holds-barred documentary on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which has been criticized in some quarters as running a “race to the bottom” in television news. Offering an in-depth look at the dangers of burgeoning corporations that take control of the public’s right to know, the film explores Murdoch’s ever-expanding media empire and its impact on society. Media experts such as Jeff Cohen and Bob McChesney are interviewed.

Control Room: This documentary peers into the controversial and often dangerous operations of the 7-year-old Al Jazeera news network. Although it often enrages its own people, the news outlet has become the most accepted informational resource in the Arab community. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim gains extraordinary access to Al Jazeera journalists and examines the risks they confront on a daily basis.

Science…

The Elegant Universe: Brian Greene, a Columbia University physics professor and best-selling author of The Elegant Universe, hosts this fascinating exploration of string theory. Beginning with an overview of general physics concepts, Greene moves on to a straightforward and visually stimulating explanation of the more recent string theory that unites relativity and quantum mechanics. A profile of Einstein and an explanation of his theory of relativity are included.

Connections 1: How did a test of gold’s purity in 500 B.C. lead to the invention of the atomic bomb? James Burke, host of this beloved 1978 TV documentary series, makes this and other beguiling connections between history and science. Combing through 12,000 years of history, this Sherlock Holmes of science finds clues that led to various modern inventions. Burke’s droll humor, careful reenactments and stirring use of classical music helped to make this a BBC hit.

Connections 2: History links seemingly disparate past events to form a fascinating whole in this intriguing show featuring British intellectual James Burke, who makes connections between such moments as the invention of the French loom and the creation of computer giant IBM; the naissance of the steam pump and the production of carbon paper; and the use of water pipes and the streamlining of carburetors. What results is nothing short of educational magic.

Connections 3: Intrepid host James Burke connects the seemingly random dots between one scientific or historical event and another, creating a fascinating, weblike tableau of the past in this popular Learning Channel series. Learn how the invention of the superconductor and the study of oceans are linked and how the exploration of a plethora of other topics, including geysers and handwriting analysis, helped shape the world as we know it today

Environment…

Baraka: The relationship between humans and their environment is the subject of this mesmerizing visual study from Ron Fricke, the cinematographer and editor of Koyaanisqatsi. The images — which Fricke gathered from 24 countries — range from the daily devotions of Tibetan monks and whirling dervishes to a cigarette factory and time-lapse views of the Hong Kong skyline. Diverse world music accompanies the visuals.

The 11th Hour: Actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary on the global environmental crisis paints a portrait of a planet at risk while also offering some exciting and radical solutions for making life on earth sustainable. Tapping the brains of leading scientists and thinkers — including Stephen Hawking and Mikhail Gorbachev — the film ultimately delivers a hopeful message: Our planet may be in crisis, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late change.

The End of Suburbia: This provocative documentary, a regular on the film-festival circuit, examines the history of suburban life and the wisdom of this distinctly American way of life. A post-World War II concept, suburbia attracted droves of people, giving rise to sprawl and all that comes with it — good and bad. How has the environment been affected by this lifestyle, and is it sustainable? Canadian director Gregory Greene dares to ask all the tough questions

An Inconvenient Truth: Director-producer Davis Guggenheim (HBO’s “Deadwood”) captures former Vice President Al Gore in the midst of waging a passionate campaign — not for the White House, but for the environment. Laying out the facts of global warming without getting political, Gore makes a sobering impression in this Oscar-winning doc on the audiences who hear his message, urging them to act “boldly, quickly and wisely” … before it’s too late to act at all.

Microcosmos: Critters of the small kind are featured in this interesting look at the seldom-explored world of insects, snails and other undersized creatures as they go about their daily lives. By using unique microscopic cameras and powerful specialized microphones, this highly praised French documentary gives new meaning to “a bug’s life.”

Culture…

Baraka: The relationship between humans and their environment is the subject of this mesmerizing visual study from Ron Fricke, the cinematographer and editor of Koyaanisqatsi. The images — which Fricke gathered from 24 countries — range from the daily devotions of Tibetan monks and whirling dervishes to a cigarette factory and time-lapse views of the Hong Kong skyline. Diverse world music accompanies the visuals.

The Story Of Weeping Camel: This unique documentary follows a Mongolian camel that’s rejected her newborn white colt. Throughout her difficult delivery, the camel is aided by a family of shepherds, who instantly notice the mother’s rejection and make valiant efforts to warm the mother to her child. Now, all hope lies with the family’s two young boys, who must travel across the Gobi desert to find a healing musician. Will the violinist’s ritual do the trick?

The Up Series: In 1964, Michael Apted interviewed a group of 7-year-old kids in England, all from different backgrounds and with big dreams, and has tracked their lives every seven years since. Now, those kids are 49 years old, and this intriguing documentary series reveals how their individual journeys are a microcosm of Britain as a whole. You’ll see how the kids who once had goals of going to college ended up living the dream or falling by the wayside. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Because each volume of this series was filmed at 7 year intervals, if watched in succession, the viewer must put up with some repetition due to an introductory summary of each subjects’ past, effectively catching the viewer up to all that had come before. Nonetheless, it is a truly unique and profound series, and should be viewed like such: 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up… and in 2012 it will be followed by 56 Up.

Born Into Brothels: This Oscar-winning documentary is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in Calcutta’s red-light district, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Spurred by the kids’ fascination with her camera, Zana Briski, a photographer documenting life in the brothels, decides to teach them photography. As they begin to look at and record their world through new eyes, the kids awaken to their own talents and sense of worth.

Religion…

Zeitgeist: Produced by Peter Joseph, was created as a nonprofit expression to inspire people to start looking at the world from a more critical perspective and to understand that very often things are not what the population at large think they are. IMPORTANT NOTE: The introduction, being the first ten minutes, or so, is cheesy, amateurish film making. Skip it.

Jesus Camp: This riveting Oscar-nominated documentary offers an unfiltered look at a revivalist subculture where devout Christian youngsters are being primed to deliver the fundamentalist community’s religious and political messages. Building an evangelical army of tomorrow, the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D., is dedicated to deepening the preteens’ spirituality and sowing the seeds of political activism as they’re exhorted to “take back America for Christ.”

Fall From Grace: For years, the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have preached a message of intolerance and hatred, aimed at homosexuals. This compelling documentary shines a spotlight on Phelps and his followers, widely condemned as a hate group. K. Ryan Jones’s debut takes a hard look a church that claims that everything from the poor economy to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks can be tied to God’s wrath over so-called sexual deviance.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple: How could one man persuade 900 people to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana? That man, of course, was Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones, and this film tries to answer that question by providing a portrait of the demented preacher. Using never-before-seen footage and audio accounts of two Jonestown survivors, documentarian Stanley Nelson paints a chilling picture of a social experiment gone horribly awry.

Health…

Super Size Me: On the heels of recent lawsuits against McDonald’s, director Morgan Spurlock takes a hilarious and often terrifying look at the effects of fast food on the human body. For one month, Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s food, ordering everything on the menu at least once and “super-sizing” his order if asked. With obesity on the rise, Spurlock’s film begs the question: Where does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility begin?

Sicko: Michael Moore sets his sights on the plight of the uninsured in this eye-opening, Oscar-nominated documentary. In the world’s richest country, 45 million people have no health insurance, while HMOs grow in size and wealth. Moore also explores the widespread use of antidepressants and their possible link to violent behavior. With his trademark humor and confrontational style, Moore asks the difficult questions to get to the truth behind today’s health care.

Art…

Rivers and Tides: This amazing documentary from Thomas Riedelsheimer won the Golden Gate Award Grand Prize for Best Documentary at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival. The film follows renowned sculptor Andy Goldsworthy as he creates with ice, driftwood, bracken, leaves, stone, dirt and snow in open fields, beaches, rivers, creeks and forests. With each new creation, he carefully studies the energetic flow and transitory nature of his work.

Personality…

The Eyes Of Tammy Faye: Tammy Faye Bakker’s journey from traveling evangelist to weepy, scandal-scarred cult icon is chronicled in this tongue-in-cheek documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. The film (which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival) details the affair that ended the PTL Ministry of Tammy and husband Jimmy Bakker as well as Tammy’s emergence as a hero to alternative-lifestyle communities. RuPaul Charles narrates.

Pumping Iron: In 1977, this independent documentary shone a light on the world of bodybuilding, unaware that it would launch one man’s multimillion-dollar career and forever change the face of bodybuilding and physical fitness. Starring five-time Mr. Olympia winner (and now mega-movie star) Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie follows the then 28-year-old bodybuilder as he competes for his sixth title. Includes interviews with Schwarzenegger, outtakes and more.

When We Were Kings: Legendary boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman travel to Zaire for the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight title bout in director Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary. At the time, Foreman was world champion, and Ali was supposedly past his prime. Financial and legal issues shelved the film for two decades, but this glimpse of Ali in the years after his moral opposition to U.S. military service showcases a sporting and cultural milestone.

New Age…

What the $*! Do We Know!?: The neurological processes and “quantum uncertainty” of life are explored in this film. Thrust from her mundane life into an Alice in Wonderland-like world, Amanda (Marlee Matlin) must develop a brand-new perception of the world and the people she interacts with. Interviews with various experts are interspersed throughout the film, which combines narrative, documentary and animation. IMPORTANT NOTE: This film is so poorly acted and produced it’s laughable, however the interviews and general message are invaluable.

The Secret: Believed to have been in existence for thousands of years, The Secret is only now being shared to the world. It’s supposedly what brought success to such greats as Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Andrew Carnegie. In this video, The Secret is revealed and taught by over 50 teachers, including writers, philosophers, doctors and scientists, to empower viewers to achieve success in their careers, relationships and health. IMPORTANT NOTE: This too is very poorly produced, almost to the effect of being a sappy infomercial. I also think it’s message is misdirected, putting too much effort into convincing the viewer that what should be “attracted” is superficially material in nature. All this aside, if the viewer can understand the message that lurks beneath the surface this revelation can be life changing.