…which film would you say is the most influential on the form? Which one best defines everything a documentary should do? Which one do you love watching over and over and over again?
That could be 3 different films. Could even 3 documentaries encapsulate all of documentary? How about 10? 20? 50? And who gets to decide? Those who make them? Those who study the form? Those who consume the films?
The real questions should be this. Why are we so damned obsessed with ranking? Why are we convinced that there must be one ultimate documentary that somehow represents all that documentaries have to offer? Do other fields do this? Do cooks debate the greatest dish? Do lawyers bicker over the greatest case? Do scientists argue the best discovery? Why do we waste our time with such frivolous, petty lists?
I’d much rather hear from people what films had the greatest influence upon them and why. Such a list immediately accepts that none-of-us have seen all the documentaries ever made. It also expresses the rather personal, subjective nature of all of these lists, putting front and center the fact that every film has a unique effect upon an individual. Finally, since most lists of the “greatest” or “best” films are an invitation for argument, a list comprised of films that inspired an individual are more of an invitation to discover than debate.
Thankfully, P.O.V. is letting a few individuals do this. Tom Roston talks about Powers of Ten. Caveh Zahedi gets to wax about Ed Pincus’ Diaries. Other talk about Southern Comfort or Sherman’s March. So much more is learned by reading how these films have shaped other’s perception of what a documentary can be and do.
Trying to think of my own list of influential films I could find no place to really stop my list and what entered my mind may not have been the most influential. Surely, the full list would be long, but it would certainly include:
And those are just the first dozen to pop in my head. No sooner do I write them down then I think of another dozen more that have shaped how I view documentary films. A second later, in a flash, I remember the most trivial moment of an obscure documentary, one I would hardly classify as great, but that one moment is so full of wonder that it has left its mark on me. There are just simply too many great documentaries, too many great moments.