The Truth of the Matter: Our Top 6 Documentaries


The Look of Silence (Fri 12 - Thu 18 Jun), Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his groundbreaking The Act of Killing, opens at GFT tomorrow, and we’ve been discussing our favourite documentaries to tie in with its release. The screening on Sun 14 Jun (18.00) will be followed by a satellite Q&A with director Joshua Oppenheimer hosted by Louis Theroux.

Tell us about your own favourite documentary in the comments section below for the chance to win a pair of tickets to The Look of Silence. Competition closes Wednesday 17 June.

Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d'un été)

Ostensibly a socio-political study of Paris in 1960s, Chronicle of a Summer features anthropologist filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin interviewing a group of Parisian residents, beginning with the question ‘Are you happy?’ before expanding to more political topics (including the Algerian War). These interviews offer an insight into a time and place, with the artists, factory workers and students offering their hopes and dreams for dissection. However what makes the film truly unique is the way the filmmakers frame these interviews, discussing what it means to be on camera and if one can ever act sincerely with the knowledge they are being filmed, and even showing the footage back to the interviewees to analyse the ‘realities’ they have created on film. An incredibly ahead-of-its-time piece of filmmaking that has only gained relevance as we edge closer to our big brother state, Chronicle of a Summer deftly critiques the constructs of verity, artificiality and subjectivity in the documentary form.  

Sean Greenhorn
Programme Coordinator

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Leviathan

2013 experimental documentary Leviathan was the first film I saw in Cinema 3 – and what an experience! Immersive to the point I had to concentrate on a small patch of carpet to prevent myself from falling victim to sea sickness, Leviathan treats the viewer like a piece of flotsam, subject to the whims and fancies of a ruthless sea. Set on a fishing trawler in the North Atlantic, and using GoPro cameras, we are forced to inhabit the roles of a myriad of things – both dead and alive. This is not just fly-on-the-wall filmmaking; we are flung headfirst into the action. Slapped onto deck amongst the rolling eyes of decapitated fish, we solemnly await our turn to be butchered. De-finned, and chucked back into the sea, we escape the wheeling cries and sharp beaks of seagulls, only to be plunged below the waves and surrounded by hundreds of floating starfish which have been dislodged from the sea-bed by nets dredging for shellfish. Falling like coral stars around us, the scene is beautiful, and it takes a moment for the brutality of the situation to sink in. There is so much more that could be said about this film; it is a fascinating insight into both deep sea fishing, and the lives of the fishermen themselves.

Jane Hartshorn
Marketing and Press Officer 

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The Times of Harvey Milk

One of the biggest steps taken by an American state in history is the focal point of Rob Epstein’s documentary about the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California. Milk, unapologetic about his sexuality at a time when it was barely accepted by society, managed to generate enough support to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, an unprecedented feat. However, he served for just ten months before tragedy struck: Milk, along with San Francisco’s Mayor, was assassinated by ex-Supervisor, Dan White. The ensuing trial caused a sensation.

This film, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, is built around interviews with Milk himself, as well as various colleagues and friends. It paints a detailed portrait of Milk, a forthright and determined politician with a wicked sense of humour and a kind heart, and also illuminates life in 1970s San Francisco, a place which became a Mecca for the LGBT community. The depiction of the devastation felt by the city at his death highlights his important position in LGBT history and beyond, while the documentary itself draws attention to the legacy of an inspirational person taken too soon.

David Rush
GFT Volunteer

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

A documentary about rivalries between players of the arcade game, Donkey Kong doesn’t initially seem like the most tantalizing prospect but, trust me, it’s a wonderfully engrossing story. It follows Steve Wiebe’s attempts to beat the Donkey Kong high score of reigning champion Billy Mitchell who had achieved the highest scores in the 1980s. Mitchell is portrayed as a cocky self-promoter (he has a line of hot sauces and declares himself the ‘Sauce King’ of Florida). Wiebe, on the other hand, is a down on his luck family man who at one time had musical aspirations. Another central figure is Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies which tracks high scores in arcades in the US. After reading about Mitchell, Wiebe focuses on beating the record score and submits a video of himself to Twin Galaxies doing so. However, things do not go quite as he expects and there are twists in the tale. The best documentaries are able to get you interested in a subject you might otherwise not be – The King of Kong is absolutely one of those; it’s made with the affection of a sports movie. You wind up taking this almost as seriously as the people involved.

Peter Wilson 
Film Discussion Group

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Next Goal Wins

This is the story of the American Samoa football team entering the regional qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup. A team best remembered for (and still scarred by) losing 31-0 against Australia ten years earlier. A team that is at the very bottom of FIFA’s international rankings. Don’t let the fact that it features football put you off, this is a sports film that non-sports fans can love. As with many documentaries, the less you know going into the film, the better, but suffice to say, it’s got big themes here – about brotherhood, nationhood, courage, the search for redemption, personal loss – its lingering pain and its ability to galvanise, even transgender issues. All of this handled sensitively without excess sentiment or sensationalism. It also happens to be occasionally very funny. Beautifully shot and frequently touching, it’s just a joyous, winning film where everyone comes out of it well – everyone on screen is charming, humble and just plain decent. In a world where top-level sport is frequently becoming less palatable, it’s a timely reminder of the considerable good that sport can do and of why people love it so.

David Gattens
Head of Finance

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My Name is Salt 

A recent documentary, My Name is Salt, written and directed by Farida Pacha, is an eloquent and beautiful but heart-rending story of an Indian family in the Gujarat who go every year to extract salt from the vast desert. All the family is involved, even the small children, in the extremely laborious tasks, even when they have no boots to protect their feet. Director Pacha says: ‘This is not a social issue film, even though the story of the salt people and their exploitation is a shocking one. What attracts me is the more fundamentally tragic question at the heart of their existence: what compels them to return to the desert to labor tediously year after year, generation after generation? What meaning do they find in this existence?’ Instead it is an observational film, without even a voiceover, and the director makes no comment on the way of life but allows us to seek for ourselves what meaning we can extract from the family's austere existence. The director further notes: ‘The rewards are few, but still they take pride in making the best and whitest salt in the world. The film ends with the monsoon: the desert is inundated with rain water and all their salt fields have been washed away. The next year the family must return to start the process all over again.’ At the end it made me think what a soft life most of us have here in the 'civilised' world. 

Marion Cobban
GFT Volunteer

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