Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Documentaries and Debate

I apologize for the slightly off-topic post, but I think this is the space to do this, so...I'm following the long line of distinguished "I Just Saw" bloggers in teaching the Debate course at Pitt this spring. I thought I would turn to you all for some recommendations.

Here's the conceit of the class: Documentaries make great starting points for debate. 4 people pick a documentary that appeals to them, show 10-15 minutes of it to a public audience, and then have a public debate about some issue that the documentary raises. Imagine a debate about Wal-Mart's effect on the working class after viewing Robert Greenwald's new Wal-Mart movie. Or about foreign aid after watching Born into Brothels. Or about Google's impending world domination after watching the Flash film Epic 2015. Or about the dying coral reefs after watching Coral Reef Adventure.

Ok, maybe not the last one, though it is a fine film. But you get the idea.

I'm interested in a) what documentaries really rock your socks (or tacos, in Max's case) and b) if there are any thrilling critical reviews, essays, books, etc. that you think would be good resources. I'm not really thinking about having them read "documentary theory" but it wouldn't hurt if I knew a thing or two about it. Any other thoughts in general?

Have at it.


Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 12/22/2005 06:16:00 PM that...

I don't know I kind of feel like any documentary discussion needs to start with a few films, definitely including The Thin Blue Line, a masterpiece about police corruption and the "Blue Wall of silence", The War Room, which i admit is overused but just provides a really interesting snapshot of a campaign

another fascinating one i recently was called "Taking on the Kennedys" about a low level fellow who decides to take on young patrick kennedy in a rhode island congress race- just fucking fascinating- Patrick is a total incompentent and openly admits to campaigning just on his family's name recognition and does a whole bunch of ludicrous shit

also just as a public service, the following bands are really rocking tacos: Built To Spill, The Arcade Fire, and The Weakerthans  

Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 12/22/2005 06:17:00 PM that...

oh and "Capturing the Friedmans" about a family torn apart by accusations of a father's interest in child pornography is totally fascinating as well- very recent however  

Blogger maxwell noted on 12/22/2005 06:49:00 PM that...

Great documentaries:

I've been teaching w/ the 4th world war for the last year & it rocks. It is a montage of resistance struggles from around the globe. It combines the struggles of zapatistas, South Koreans, South Africans, & loads of other folks in a well made doc. It is a great example of how documentary films can elicit bias via music & editing. It is also a heart-rending film, although omri will consider it liberal claptrap.

The argument that is hard to get across to folks is the fairly unified struggle that folks across the globe deal with. Whatsisname calls it transversal struggles -- issues that cross borders. It's nice to have one doc cover privatized water in South Africa, capital flight out of Argentina, and the huge demonstrations in Genoa in one smooth way. Narrated in part by smooove Michael Franti, it's a winner.

I also rock a lot of the undercurrents documentaries. A crew of UK folks who gathered video footage of almost every protest and demonstration in UK (and in later years the globe). It offers incredible depth, complexity and hope -- any sense that resistance is dead goes away when you see hundreds of thousands of folks kicking the state's ass again and again. There are 10 years of the documentaries, and some are old, but all are gold.

I like it cuz it allows me to pull out really specific examples. If I need footage of an all-woman plowshares anti-militarism protest I can find it, if I need "nudists against GMOS" or a giant street party taking over a freeway construction -- it's all in Undercurrents. I got the marist library to order all 10 of them when I got there, I urge your local library to do the same.

The witness is the greatest documentary ever made in my opinion. As a tool of persuasion, it is really savvy. It is a great animal rights film, offering us the story of Eddie, a tough Brooklyn construction contractor who becomes an impassioned animal advocate. Rather than films that gross you out w/ images or overwhelm audiences with statistics, the Witness offers a compelling narrative that folks can identify with and great film-making.

I have a huge bin of activist videos, including some recent ones I was planning on reviewing. I'll try to get on that soon.

I will be including parts of the Jay-Z documentary reviewed on these pages in 3 of my classes next semester.

Nice thread Damien.  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 12/24/2005 12:50:00 PM that...


Great question, thread. The one thing you might want to consider when selecting documentaries is choosing ones that can articulate the argument within a 10-15 clip. So many documentaries really take time to develop.

With that said, this year at CNU, there is a documentary series where the director talks about the film after a screening. We have already seen Born into Brothels. Next semester is the Enron film (I think this would make a great survey for a business ethics debate). I forget the name of it, but there is a wonderful documenray on prayer in school, very balanced (I'll dig up the name and send it to you). Hearts and Minds is pretty old, but with the war in Iraq, you can find some relevance for it.

I'll think of some more and get back to you.

Great idea to approach the debate class.  

Blogger Omri noted on 12/26/2005 06:39:00 PM that...

Maxwell: First of all, it is liberal claptrap. Second, I notice you left out "Palestine" from your list, which always seems to figure prominently in all the _other_ descriptions of the documentary I've read. ;-)
Damien: there are several very good documentaries on media and campus left-wing bias. While I don't think you'd be interested in most of those, one that I do recomend is "Pallywood". It's by progressive pro-Israel BU professor Richard Landes, and covers the creation of war-time spectacles in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It's about 15 minutes, and can be downloaded from