The Great Documentary List Debate

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‘Twas Oscar season again recently and film pundits everywhere were weighing in with their predictions and “best of” the year’s crop. Listmaking does seem to be an innate part of the human condition, but what about the propensity to pronounce some artifact the best of the year, decade or century? The line between choice and fetish of ten seems thin, as’s compilation of over 600 of the year’s best,“best of” lists makes clear.

While lists of consumer goods might not ignite a heated debate, things get a little testier when it comes to art. What are the top 50 paintings in the world,or musical compositions, or films, and who gets to decide?

A recent post– about-its-list-of-best-documentaries in doc filmmaker Magnus Isacsson’s newly minted blog sparked uproar on the DOC discussion list and the blog. Magnus himself was reacting to a piece in the LosAngeles-based International Documentary Association’s (IDA) journal featuring “the top 25 documentaries of all time,” in which only three of the 25 picks (Winged Migration byJacques Perrin, Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog), respectively # 20, 22 and 24, came from outside the U.S. and only 1.5 director/producer credits included women (Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, and Born into Brothels co-directed by Zana Briski).

Some 2,800 members voted on an original ballot of 700 titles, and were allowed an additional five choices of their own, making the resulting 25 even more outstandingly monochromatic. The lack of any contextualization, annotation or acknowledgement of its white bread, narrow view of documentary production, with limitations in terms of gender, history, geography and ethnicity, is difficult to fathom.

The IDA bills itself as “serving the global documentary community,” while the vast majority of its members according to President Diane Estelle Vicari are younger filmmakers from the U.S.and Canada. She is saddened “…that the younger generation of filmmakers is not more aware of the history and international realities of doc making…”, blaming the U.S. media and its focus on a very narrow field of commercially released documentaries.

Vicari says that the list has gone beyond the website and is being discussed passionately on blogs, among filmmakers and with audiences. It did indeed spark outrage on the indie web site “Cinematical” which further pointed out that three of the films were by Michael Moore. Blogger Anthony Kaufman. html picked up on the story, crying “Shame on the International Documentary Association for going the facile way of the American Film Institute, with their incessant, ultimately meaningless, hierarchical lists that do more to raise the profile of the organizations and their sponsors—in this case Netflix, provider of screeners—than really shine a light on the best of movies.”

Debate is good, but does such a list have any meaning beyond reinforcing stereotypes about the fairly narrow worldview we know exists south of the border? Are “best of” lists of any kind always necessarily suspect, or at least limited to the vision of the listmaker? Are they ever useful? If we allow for their (limited) usefulness, should their makers always announce their biases, penchants and preferences upfront? Should “political correctness” be a factor in compiling lists?

Most importantly, what are the criteria we use to establish documentary “bests”? Presumably lists are compiled not only for the benefit of documentary fans, but also to contribute something to the practice of documentary filmmaking. What can we as filmmakers learn about our craft by consulting lists? While we can all agree on what makes a great documentary—a good story, strong issues, great characters, real access, formal innovation, emotional weight, good writing—viewership remains a subjective, individual act. Are some films “worthier” than others by their subject matter, regardless of their formal qualities?


At the very least then, lists need to be accompanied by two things: transparency of criteria and compilation methods, and annotations that articulate why the film is deemed to be among the greats.

Googling “best documentaries” turned up some pretty interesting things—not in terms of films but of the underlying (economic) logic of cultural hegemony. For one, the IDA list of 25 best docs was item number 7, after the usual suspects (Amazon, IMDB, both having almost identical lists to IDA). Again, Resnais was there representing the rest of the world along with Nanook of the North and Man with a Movie Camera.—“the best documentaries on earth”—2000 of them, again heavily U.S. weighted, were organized alphabetically, beginning with Kevin Costner’s 500 Nations, followed closely by 30 years of National Geographic specials. Some great stuff is to be found on this list, including the ACLU Freedom Files, and The Agronomist, but overall, international diversity is weak. It seems access here is limited only by a film’s availability from Amazon.

DocBox, the online journal of the Yamagata Documentary Festival. seemed a good place to start for some potentially more “serious” listmaking. However, in thetenyearsofissuesperused,there’snot one mention of “best of” or “top ten”or top anything.Lots of discussion though about authors, about women filmmakers, about themes in documentary or a particular country or region’s documentary production over various time periods. DocBox co-editor Ann Yamamoto had thistosay:

“To my knowledge, DocBox never really considered making a ‘best of’ list. Rather than trying to establish some kind of authoritative perspective, I think DocBox much more tried to shed light on documentaries from as many diverse perspectives as possible.

“If DocBox were to have tried such a ‘best of’ list, I think it would have set out some very specific criteria—maybe best documentaries that changed the possibilities of cinema? Idon’t know what it would be…Or perhaps calling together a specific group of people, and asking them for their own personal‘ best of’ lists.

Could the need to create “best of” lists have something to do with proximity to the occidental heartland? POV publisher and filmmaker Barri Cohen thinks so: “My main thing—apart from outrightly hating these lists—is that they are by definition exclusive and thereby shine a hot light on all the pretensions and biases of the listmaker—his (and it is usually a ‘he’) age, class, ethnicity, etc. Hence, the usual suspects of ‘masters’ (literally) and most of the films cited are between 1940 and 1980 and Continental to boot.”

The European Documentary Network (EDN– created a list for its publication DOX a few years ago to mark the 50th edition of the magazine (see sidebar). Billed as “…50 of the most important personal, political, poetic, shocking and ground-breaking documentary films… ”, it makes no claim to “definitiveness”, shines in its diversity as compared with the IDA list, and gains in credibility through the addition of personal essays on each film.


DOX editor Ulla Jacobsen feels that this kind of “best documentaries of all times” list can serve to hype documentary and create publicity for it, making it attractive to a broader audience. She recognizesthe inherent danger of producing such a list without revealing its source, generally likely to reproduce dominant (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and Northern) discourses about the genre. While DOX did its best to achieve a greater representation of non-Western filmmakers, she admits the list was not ideal, especially as concerns gender balance.

The online documentary forum D-Word hosted its own discussion, initiated when the Boston-based Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film (http://www. published its list of 100 best documentaries, culled from a nexhaustive polling of its members. The editors note that approximately half the films have been made since 2000, all but twosince1960. Could it be that what these lists tell us is about our collective ignorance of documentary film history?

Filmmaker James Longley posts the following: “Can we trust the list?…They ranked a documentary about spelling bees at #8 and Night and Fog at #29… Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie was left off the list in favor of films like Outfoxed by Robert Greenwald, for example. I mean, nothing against Greenwald, but Marcel Ophüls is clearly in a different league altogether…” (
Which brings up the whole question of “worthiness”, which Longley goes on to address: “I think a great doc on the Holocaust is more “worthy” than a great doc about penguins. But if I’ve already seen 100 Holocaust docs and it’s my first penguin film, well maybe I’d feel drawn to the flightless waterfowl…A Global Warming Penguin Holocaust Musical—now that would be a sure-fire winner at the Academy. Or is that Happy Feet? It’s so confusing…” Indeed.

Toronto filmmaker Barry Greenwald was one of the first to weigh in following Magnus’ initial post, suggesting a collectively developed Canadian- inspired list with a global perspective. But could organizations like DOC, RIDM (Rencontres inter- nationales du documentaire), HotDocs, and AARQ (Association des réalisateurs et des réalisatrices du Québec) compile a list reflective of “Canadian” sensibilities? Are the latter so diverse or distinct as to doom such an effort to failure? What if different film groups compiled their own lists, thus feeding a pool of knowledge about great works we would not easily have access to, and in the process, paying tribute to one’s own filmmaking community?

Lois Siegel, an Ottawa-based filmmaker and teacher, is one who takes the view that lists should be specific rather than all encompassing. Her website features, among other things, her own personal documentary favourites. Perhaps that’s as far as lists should go—overtly personal, serendipitous, based on what one has access to, with no pretence to being anything definitive or best, simply designed to feed the knowledge pool and encourage discussion.

Marianne Raulet, director of Montreal’s Rencontres internationales du documentaire (RIDM, had this to say: “I think lists are indicative of the artistic sensibilities of those who perspective, they can be quite revealing. For me, they are valuable and interesting in as much as I appreciate and recognize the listmaker’s artistic judgment.”

RIDM programmer André Paquet had himself completed a list-making exercise some 20 years ago for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the National Film Board (see sidebar). He admits that lists are always biased and subjective, and tried to counter balance his own personal tastes by consulting a wide range of film personalities in compiling the final selection of 52 films.

The program, says Paquet, constitutes one history of the documentary, as seen by the likes of Santiago Alvarez, Emil de Antonio, Peter Von Bagh, Michel Brault, Haile Gerima, Jill Godmillow, Bernard Gosselin, Joris Ivens, Johan Van der Keuken, Allan King, Bonnie Sherr-Klein, Jean-Claude Labrecque, ArthurLamothe, Richard Leacock, Colin Low, Mira Nair, Julia Reichert, Helga Reidemeister, Jean Rouch, Henri Storck, and Klaus Wildenhan. Interesting to note that while several women were consulted, the final list included exactly 2.5 films made by women.

I was perplexed that few of the lists consulted included works by Chris Marker. Here in Montreal, he has a cult following, though possibly his films are too “essayistic” to qualify. In the end, I had to face the fact that few, if any, of my own personal favourites had made many lists—the likes of Kim Longinotto, VictorKossakovsky, Pirjo Honkasalo, Andrei Sokurov, Heddy Honigmann, Peter Forgacs, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Donigan Cumming, all filmmakers who have pushed the boundaries of the genre.

Does canonizing a small (in historical and stylistic terms) range of works then only serve to limit the possibilities of documentary? The last word will go to you, dear reader, and your choices for the best documentaries in the history of the world,or just your own personal favorites.

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