DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Aug 14 2013

Documenting Life in Film

by Rebekah B

Au Palais du Louxor, cinema ParisGrowing up, I only saw three movies in the theater.  I specifically remember which ones: Bernard and Bianca, E.T., and The Meaning of Life (Monty Python). This rarity sparked a desire and love for film in me, and when I moved to Paris at age 19 to go to art school, I quickly became addicted to the cinematic arts. Paris is an amazing city for film, with hundreds of theaters, large and small, including some very unusual theaters. Every day, you can see movies made in every country, projected for the most part in V.O. (original version, with subtitles). The photo to the right was taken by my former teacher and photographer, Lesly Hamilton, at the Louxor, Palais du Cinema in the 10th arrondissement, quartier Barbes.  The Louxor was built in 1921 and is famous for its elaborate Egyptian style mosaics.  Recently entirely renovated, it re-opened in April of this year. Click on the links if you would like to see more photos.


Documentary films are a genre that many people enjoy.  The fairly recent phenomenon of reality shows of which the documentary might be called the avatar, shows evidence for humanity’s thirst for real experiences.  One patron at the library confided to me that documentaries are her “best reality shows.” She also said that when ill in the hospital, documentaries on the themes of veteran’s rights, the state of health care, and other social welfare related issues helped her to keep up with continuing education requirements in her field as a social worker.

Vision is the primary sense with which we humans perceive our world, and culture helps us to understand ourselves and to relate to one another.  As global economics, world travel, and social media have extended everyday communication far beyond the borders of the familiar, it is important for all of us to be informed about how to better our world and to know more about cultures beyond our own.  It is the unique privilege of humans to witness life, and if we are truly paying attention and homage to our surroundings, to create works of art that reflect what we see.

Documentary films are a wonderful way to catch a glimpse of how others experience life in places and circumstances very different from our own, as well as to improve awareness about issues that are immediately important to our everyday lives.  Many festivals around the world celebrate documentary film, from Atlanta to Helsinki, Amsterdam to  Beijing.  Every continent – even Oceania – is represented.

I have discovered many wonderful, thought-provoking, and entertaining documentaries within the DCPL collection.  Perusing IMDB’s top 100 documentaries since 2000, I found several that I too had watched and loved, some that I know we have in our collections but have not yet seen, and yet others that are not available through DCPL. While each of us enjoys life through the particular filter created by our temperament and interests, documentaries on every possible subject can be found—from art to politics, environmental issues, animal rights, health, unsolved crimes, history, quirky personal stories, theater, education, music, travel, fashion…

Here is my own top ten.  Hope you explore the 650 plus films in the DCPL documentary collection (excluding tele-films) and find your own favorites. Each title is connected by hyperlink to either the title in our library catalog, or (if we don’t have it,) official movie website.

1. Wasteland, directed by Lucy Walker 2009

Brazil’s most famous contemporary artist, Vik Muniz, travels to Jardim Gramacho, then the world’s largest garbage dump in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.  He chooses a small group of catadores, people who eke out a living picking recyclable materials from the constant flow of garbage.  Desperately poor, the catadores are inspiring individuals, and Muniz and his project demonstrate how art and the opportunity to re-imagine one’s life can be inspirational and transformative.

2. Garbage Warrior, directed by Oliver Hodge , 2007

Visionary architect Michael Reynolds uses ordinary discarded materials such as plastic water bottles, aluminum cans, and used tires to build entirely off the grid self-sustainable homes, maintaining 70 degree temperatures year-round with zero consumption of fuel or electricity. Even food and water are produced in these dwellings.  His license to practice architecture revoked by the State of New Mexico, the film shows Reynold’s battle to promote radically sustainable housing as well as his right to practice his art.  An incredibly inspiring film!

3. 5 Broken Cameras, directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, 2011

Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer in the tiny village of Bilin, began filming in 2005, at the birth of his youngest son Gibreel. At that time, the Israeli army began building a barrier wall between the village and the Gaza settlements.  Beautiful olive groves were decimated, and the peaceful protests of the villagers were met with increasing violence.  The film is incredibly human, and is a very touching and personal testimony to the value of artistic expression.

4. Bag It, directed by Jeb Berrier , 2010

Funny as well as full of cutting edge information about the effects of plastics and other chemicals on our health and that of our children, Bag It is a very unique and entertaining film.  Jeb Berrier takes his investigation very personally, especially after finding out that his wife is expecting his first child.  If you are interested in protecting the health of your family, of humanity at large, and that of our planet, you need to watch this film.

5. Farmageddon: the unseen war on American family farms, produced and directed by Kristin Canty, 2011

A mom whose son suffers from allergies investigates why she can’t legally purchase raw milk in her state. As she digs deeper, the purpose for the film is revealed: it becomes obvious to the filmmaker that average American consumers cannot easily purchase healthy, locally produced foods without undue interference from the U.S. government.  The film tells the stories of several small family-run farms and co-ops whose operations are radically disturbed by government agencies.  Concerned that  freedom of choice for average American consumers is at stake, film director Kristin Canty documents this state of affairs.

6. Marwencol, directed by Jeff Malmberg , 2010

This film documents a WWII fantasy world constructed by Mark Hogencamp.  The protagonist of this film was viciously beaten by five men outside a bar in 2005, and he emerges from a brain damaging coma, creating his own therapy and way back to health by constructing an imaginary world.  Marwencol is an elaborately detailed miniature Belgian WWII town that Hogencamp builds in his backyard. In Marwencol, Hogencamp acts out his own life and fantasies, which he photographs.  One day, a New York photographer discovers Hogencamp’s world and photographic art, and removes him from his comfort zone, elevating him to celebrity and the New York City art world.  A touching and unusual film.

7. Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma, directed by Patrick Reed, 2009 (information)

Canadian medical doctor and winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with French NGO Medecins sans frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Dr. James Orbinski revisits gruesome war zones of Somalia and Rwanda where he worked saving lives in previous years. Searching for the meaning in his experiences, Dr. Orbinski is a realist and a true humanitarian.  This film is difficult to watch, but it is highly educational—teaching us how to truly create change in the difficult political and social schema of the 21st century.

8. Exit Through the Gift Shop, a Banksy film, with Thierry Guetta with Joachim Levy, 2010

Los Angeles based eccentric clothing retailer, Frenchman Thierry Guetta, obsessively films everything in his life.  Having lost his mother at a young age, he wants to make sure his children have access to all details of his own life, if he were no longer there to be with them.  He decides that he wants to meet international graffiti celebrity, the elusive Banksy.  As he tracks Banksy and other graffiti artists around the world, Guetta decides to become an artist as well, and the film is as much about this unusual man as it is about contemporary art and street art.  An intriguing and amusing film.

9. Project Nim, directed by James Marsh, 2011

The heartbreaking story of a young male chimp, Nim, taken from his mother in a lab shortly after birth for the purposes of a sociological and anthropological experiment in the 1970’s.  A scientist from Columbia University in NY places the young chimp with a large unstructured family living in a Manhattan brownstone.  Instructed to treat the chimp as they would a human baby, Nim is deprived of contact with other chimps.  As he grows, he becomes incredibly strong and aggressive, as is normal in a male chimp. Project Nim follows the life of the chimp and expresses the ambiguities of the natures and intelligence of both humans and our animal cousins.

10. In a Dream, directed by Jeremiah Zagar, 2008

A very touching and personal artist documentary about married life and mosaics in Philadelphia.  In a Dream recounts the life tapestry of Julia and Isaiah Zagar, a compulsive and extremely talented mosaic artist.  Over the past 30 years, Isaiah Zagar, with the unfailing support of his spouse, covered over 40,000 square feet with broken tiles, dishes, mirrors and various objects, including his family in his images while often so engrossed by his art that he forgets to participate in their lives from day to day…

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joyce B. August 15, 2013 at 11:18 AM

This is a wonderful post. I have a BFA in film and actually worked on some documentary films way back when. These films you list sound very interesting, most I had not even heard of. I’ll definitely be checking them out. Thanks!

Hope L September 11, 2013 at 9:54 AM

Jimmy, just watched Nanook of the North – loved seeing how an igloo is made! Thanks for the tip!

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