The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    William K. Wolfrum's picture

    Tell me about a good documentary

    I'm a documentary fan, and even with my other-worldly Internet research skills, I often come up dry when searching for a new documentary. Thus, I am creating this post where you, the reader, can tell me, the documentary watcher, what to watch.

    I'll give a list and some comments of some docs I've seen:

    Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father: I'm still in tears from this one.

    The Cove: I liked this epic save-the-dolphins tale so much I interviewed the director.

    Exit Through the Gift Shop: A movie about graffiti artists that turns out much more thought-provoking than you'd imagine.

    Hoop Dreams: I've seen this epic twice and it still gives me plenty to ponder.

    That's just a start. Mind you, I've seen quite a few. But, since i discover a new documentary I'd like to see nearly every day, I figured some guidance would help. Give me some suggestions.


    Crossposted at William K. Wolfrum Chronicles


    Catfish -- just superb....

    Watch One Percent, a documentary about the richest one percent in America. Directed by Joe (?) Johnson, the grandson of the founder of Johnson & Johnson, it shows just how scared/cautious the ridiculously wealthy are when asked to openly talk about their inheritance, estate, etc. 

    Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the new Herzog doc, is incredibly appealing to me - though haven't seen. About the opening of a major cave painting site in France. Inside looks throughout, and its Herzog in 3-D! Reviewed in NYT today.

    Here's an older one I keep meaning to rewatch.   Thanks for reminding me. :)

    18 with a Bullet


    Here's a Wapo review I found when searching for the exact name of the doc.  


    WalMart - the high cost of low price was interesting, though a bit old news at this point. Carrier, a PBS documentary series that, to my mind, revealed the different classes on a US aircraft carrier was very good in spots, though it resembled a reality show at times.

    But the best has been all those British documentaries about the wizard school. Funny how you never see that reported by the MSM.

    The Interrupters, by the team behind Hoop Dreams, looks like vital viewing and is coming out this summer.

    Watch "From Dust to Glory"! If you are interested in motorsports or just any hard determined competition waged in the right spirit there is a race that makes NASCAR look like sissy stuff. This race is way more than putting your right foot down and turning left. The Baja 1000. Experience on a dirt bike enhances appreciation for the skill, but the teamwork, comradery, and setting make this race spectacular and the documentary gets my adrenalin flowing and has me jumping up and down and leaning into turns with the riders. I cough up dust after watching it. From the advertisement for the video: 

    "An action-adventure documentary chronicling the most notorious and dangerous race in the world--the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000. Rivaling the Indy 500 and 25 Hours of Daytona, the race across Baja's peninsula is unpredictable, grueling and raw--just like the uncharted American West of yesteryear. To capture the vast desert panoramas and intense action of the race, the film team utilized, fifty-five cameras, four helicopters, a four-passenger buggy camera car and a crew of over eighty people. Thousands of participants, generations of families and racing icons such as Robby Gordon, Mario Andretti, Jimmy Vasser and Motorcycle Supercross legend Mike Mouse McCoy joined together to experience the thrill and glory of the infamous race--an event of sheer human determination".

     Spectators sometimes booby-trap the course just to watch the "fun". I think I saw Miguelito in there somewhere.

    There are two older documentaries that still resonate and give me shudders. The first is Edward R. Murrow's 1960 CBS program, "Harvest of Shame", about the treatment of migrant farm workers in the U.S .(Not that it has ended because of Murrow's reporting.  It's still going on.)

    The second, "Facing the Truth", is by Bill Moyers and was produced in 1999, recounting the Truth and Reciliation tribunals in South Africa when apartheid finally ended.  I'll never forget the voices of the mothers whose sons were maimed and murdered by the whites.  Pure poetry as they describe first their agonies and then their ultimate paths to forgiveness. 

    This is from the original announcement about the program: 

    "Millions of Americans were caught up in the struggle to end apartheid," according to Moyers. "Through direct action supporting the struggle for democracy, through efforts to persuade corporations, universities, and foundations to disinvest in the racist South African regime, and through intervention by politicians from Robert Kennedy to Andrew Young to Jesse Helms and Patrick Buchanan, the United States and South Africa became deeply entangled in the second half of the 20th century. There were moments during our filming in South Africa when I thought I was staring into a mirror image of our own nation. America is still wrestling with its own heritage of discrimination and injustice. We thought that by looking at South Africa's attempt to move beyond a racially divided society -- to reconcile and forgive the past -- we might learn something for our own future."


    But when I want lighter documentary fare, I watch this.

    I had to look up the name, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), which concerns corruption and kidnapping in Sao Paulo, Brazil - and frogs. I saw it a few years ago, and took it to be accurate, but in looking up the name found this review that calls it an exaggeration or fabrication for American audiences. Hmmm. One of the interviews that stuck with me was a kidnapper making himself out to be a Robin Hood-like presence that funnels money to the starving class - a lot like the justifications of some Somali pirates.

    I also found another documentary about kidnapping, Sequestro (Kidnapping), which purports to follow the elite Sao Paulo anti-kidnapping squad.

    I recommend Food Inc.

    Saw an offbeat one of PBS this week that can't remember the name of, someone else may have seen it. It's in the camp of A-man's blog earlier in the week on the Baltimore beating.

    Subject is a cross dresser, named Mark. Walks into a bar--just kidding. Seriously, Mark was in a bar in Kingston New York. He's a drunk. Apparently told a guy he was a cross dresser and when he left the bar he was beaten senseless-literally, by five young guys. The beating erased his brain.

    He invented a physical therapy and an alter ego life in one process--he made up a one'sixth scale town fashioned with junk, and peopled with G.I. Joe's and barbie dolls and reinvented his life by making up stories, setting the scenes, putting himself in them and photographing them. The photographs are startling, showing the enormous art talent and imagination of this tortued soul. I found the film redemptive. He made the impossible comeback, inventing every small step of it.

    As he says in the film. No one on this earth has a right to judge anyone else.


    The Last Waltz - directed by Martin Scorese about the final performance of the Band.

    Night and Fog - The holocaust.

    When We Were Kings - About the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire.

    F is for Fake - directed by Orson Welles about art forgery and lying.

    Crumb - about comic book artist Robert Crumb.

    Harlan County, U.S.A. - coal miners

    Grey Gardens - about the cousins of Jackie Kennedy

    Why we fight - WWII - Frank Capra's response to Nazi propaganda

    Woodstock and Monterey Pop ... just for the music. 

    Great list! Every damn one of them.

    i am too lazy right now to link but I am nuts about nature docs. The Blue Planet must be seven hours in length and there are so many others. Oprah, Pierce many great narrators.

    Works best when I am depressed. I somehow fly with the elands on the plain or with those fish in the ocean or the birds flightless or not....

    The feel for nature docs was imprinted in my brain as a kid watching those Disney shorts before the movie and right after the cartoons.

    Here is a partial synopsis from the makers of "Occupation 101".

    "The film covers a wide range of topics -- which include -- the first wave of Jewish immigration from Europe in the 1880's, the 1920 tensions, the 1948 war, the 1967 war, the first Intifada of 1987, the Oslo Peace Process, Settlement expansion, the role of the United States Government, the second Intifada of 2000, the separation barrier and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, as well as many heart wrenching testimonials from victims of this tragedy."

    What do they mean first wave of Jewish immigration in the 1880's?  Jews were here from the beginning.

    Just a reminder.

    Yes, Jews came over the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, then stayed until Northern Exposure.

    So you are one of those progressives.  I realized after I saved that it would likely draw you out.

    FWIW, my mtDNA is Cherokee. :D


     What do they mean first wave of Jewish immigration in the 1880's?  Jews were here from the beginning.

    I guess that depends on what is meant by "here" not to mention what is meant by "the beginning".

    "The film covers a wide range of topics -- which include -- the first wave of Jewish immigration from Europe in the 1880's, the 1920 tensions,..."

     The reference was to emigration by European Jews to what is now Israel, not to the U.S.A, and when that began on a large scale.

     Here is a link to opinions of the documentary at

    Oops....sorry about that.

    Guess my knee-jerk reaction shows where my ethnocentrism lies and how (over)sensitive I have become to Zinn-esque revisions of US history.  One too many maps and history showing immigration to the US from 1830 onward as if there was none before.  That and the standard depiction of american indians as sad dupes or victims.  Maybe some were, but not all, not by a long shot.

    Now that I have paid better attention, Occupation 101 looks interesting but only increases my puzzlement about Israel.  

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