As The Economist seems to concur, there has been a rise recently in the popularity of documentary films. It is true that documentaries can suffer when they fall prey to the temptation to misrepresent facts, to be voyeuristic, or sometimes to be just plain boring, but a well-crafted documentary can be fascinating, educational and inspiring. They tend to confirm the cliche that truth is stranger than fiction, and they often expose the very real and visceral effects of life in a broken and fallen world.
With this in mind, I offer to you 10 of my favorite documentaries, in order of their release:
Seven Up! (1964-present). In 1964, director Michael Apted chose several British school children and interviewed them on camera about their lives and hopes for their future. Seven years later, he did the same thing with the same children, and continued the process every seven years all the way to 2012, when “56 Up” was released.
Hoop Dreams (1994). Shows the challenges facing two inner-city boys in Chicago who dream of one day playing in the NBA. It’s good to dream, but it’s good to be realistic too.
Spellbound (2002). Follows the disciplined and committed efforts of eight teenagers who want to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee. I never thought a spelling bee could be so tense.
My Flesh and Blood (2003). California resident Susan Tom adopted 11 special needs children, and spends all of her time caring for their peculiar and very severe needs.
Murderball (2005). Shows young men overcoming the obstacles of their physical paralysis by excelling in the sport of wheelchair rugby at the Olympic level. Helps to show that trails and setbacks can actually be the occasion for new opportunity.
God Grew Tired of Us (2006). Follows the adventures of some young Christian Sudanese men who fled their homeland to escape Muslim persecution and ended up coming to the USA. We get to watch as they adjust to life in a culture very different than their own.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006). Disturbing review of the mass suicides in Guyana in 1978, showing how ultimately dangerous bad theology and cultic personalities can be.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2007). You don’t have to be a fan of the heavy metal band Anvil to appreciate the band members’ undying determination and constant love for music and for one another.
Man on Wire (2008). In 1974, a French tightrope walker, along with a team of helpers, managed to elude security to climb all the way to the top of the World Trade Center and walk between the Twin Towers. Somehow they also managed to bring along some filmmakers to capture the whole thing in this movie.
Collision (2009). Follows a series of debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian pastor Douglas Wilson as they discuss the question of whether Christianity is good for the world. It is especially illuminating to watch Wilson employ a more presuppositional apologetic as he dialogues with a very formidable opponent.