10 Great Documentaries Dealing With The Subject of Death

6. Grizzly Man (2005)


What is it worth living for? Or, reformulating the question, what is it worth dying for? For Timothy Treadwell the answer is clear: a life worth living and a death worth dying can only take place among the grizzly bears of an Alaskan reserve.

Werner Herzog’s film, intercalating images directed by Treadwell himself with interviews of his friends, relatives and nature experts, depicts a journey of human signification of a man who died in the habitat he valued. Between the love for the nature and his personal beliefs in a peaceful coexistence between the man and the beast, Treadwell becomes a highly captivating figure, as fascinating to follow as the wild gestures of the grizzly bears.

The distressing effects of the film are not produced due to death as an abrupt interruption or unexpected event, but precisely by the opposite: the nonviolent anticipation of death as a possibility, compelling the film viewer to understand the mindset of Timothy Treadwell. Under his alleged madness, he had many truths to tell us.


7. The Bridge (2006)

The Bridge

Possibly one of the most polemical documentaries ever produced, “The Bridge” portrays death through the Golden Gate’s Bridge, in San Francisco, one of the most common suicide places in the world.

During one year, Eric Steel and his camera crew had cameras pointed towards the bridge, waiting for unexpected happenings. Even though the film was labeled as exploitive and voyeuristic, Steel affirmed that the priority of the team was always to intervene, by calling the responsible authorities, in case of suspicion of any suicide attempt.

The interviews with relatives and friends of the victims generate a familiarity with the background of each figure, approximating us from their personal stories and conceivable motivations. The falling bodies captured by the film – echoing the falling bodies of the 9/11, despite the evidently different circumstances – produce perplexity and unrest, revealing the fragility of humanity and the smallness of our own bodies.


8. We Were Here (2011)

We Were Here (2011)

Through the stories of four gay men and one woman, “We Were Here” is a soulful, heartbreaking and collective chronicle about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic – or, as it was commonly called, “the gay plague” – told by those who lived surrounded by death and mourning.

Portraying the gay neighborhood gathered around San Francisco’s Castro Street in the early 1980’s as a place of sexual freedom inhabited by a dynamic and political community, David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary film is as much about activism and social struggles as it embraces the intimacy of individual involvements.

An immersive journey about the complexities of one of the most horrifying events in our recent history narrated by real war heroes, “We Were Here” reminds us that the AIDS epidemic traumas are still far from any definite closure.


9. United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012)

United in Anger A History of ACT UP (2012)

A central piece in the recent documentary wave concerning the traumatic happenings of the AIDS crisis, “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP” is, together with “We Were Here” and “How to Survive to Plague”, a film about those who weather the storm and those who died trying.

By using rare archival footage and a collective of voices, the documentary of Jim Hubbard establishes an emotional and physical cartography of the fight against social indifference conducted by the members of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).

Between ashes thrown in the wind and human streams, kisses and shouts, the bodies depicted in the film are used as the main forms of political activism. Isn’t it the only thing to do when there is nothing else to lose?


10. The Act of Killing (2012)

The Act of Killing

Controversial and inflammatory, “The Act of Killing” has already taken its place in the history of cinema. Receiving many attacks regarding its ethics and boundaries, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film follows the most influential death squad in North Sumatra, responsible for the anti-communist massacres of 1965-66.

One of the central and unforgettable sequences of contemporary cinema takes form as a cathartic moment in which the squad leader Anwar Congo, after showing to the film crew the place where he used to do the tortures and killings, tries to throw up in vain. An agonizing and unintentional self-exorcism from a man that, like any other member of the death squad, is outwardly proud of his appalling past.

Edified upon re-enactments of the lived horrors and carnages, the documentary uses the authentic murderers and their memories to reconstitute the past through fictive, sadistic and merciless ways. Asphyxiating and thought-provoking, “The Act of Killing” is a haunting journey.

Author Bio: Carlos Pereira studied Film Directing in Lisbon and Barcelona and Cinema Studies in Stockholm. He would like to die making films. Some excerpts of his work as a film director can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/carlosmartinspereira.