The 20 Greatest Documentary Filmmakers of All Time
Documentary filmmakers come in a variety of shapes and forms. By their nature they are working outside of a system built for ascension, career and profit. There are no apprenticeships and you’re lucky if you are getting paid. They are making films out of passion for a specific topic and until recent decades hardly thinking that many eyes will ever see the finished product, much less pay money to do so.
As a form of cinematic expression, documentaries have been lost behind a wall of judgmental viewers who see the work as educational, news gathering, and riveting only in terms of subject or character. However, with the ascendance of digital filmmaking, growing platforms for film-viewing such as Netflix, SnagFilms, and film festivals, as well a few key successful TV shows and movies, documentaries are suddenly taken not as the unfortunate nerd to a popular narrative brother, but as equals in terms of entertainment value and maybe even one up in terms of artistry.
Yet, much to the surprise of modern viewers, documentaries as they exist now are not groundbreaking, boundary-pushing and expressive purely because of the imagination of their creators. In fact, since the moment people began capturing life onto celluloid, there have been men and women picking up their cameras and attempting to elevate a certain truth about life around them. The following list is an attempt to shed light on twenty of the most important documentary filmmakers in history.
Surely, there are hundreds of others who belong on this list, but my intention with these twenty is to show those who not only provided viewers with a new way of thinking about nonfiction but whose shadows loom long in influencing documentarians that came after.
I’ll be the first to admit that leaving out the likes of Dziga Vertov, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jem Cohen, Jonathan Demme , Emile DeAntonio, Robert Drew, Rob Epstein, Vladko Gilic, Kirby Dick, George Hickenlooper, Joris Ivens, Barbara Kopple, Allan King, Humphrey Jennings, John Marshall, and many others is not only arguable but maybe downright idiotic. Alas, I believe these twenty can stand next to any of those, and I’d argue no grouping has had greater significance.
Please note that all filmmakers are ranked in alphabetical order.
1. Michael Apted
One could argue that nobody has devoted more of their life to one project than Michael Apted. Beginning in 1964, Apted embarked on his Up series by filming 14 seven-year-old children in the United Kingdom with the plan to revisit the children every seven years. Now going on its seventh installment, the kids have blown past their teens and adulthood into senior age and along the way the stories have been remarkable, some subjects have followed an expected path, others have hit rock bottom, others have made 180s from one film to the next, and others have fallen away completely.
In Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, critics applauded the fact that Linklater captured twelve years actually passing on film. More than just the stunt, Boyhood like the Up series, focuses on how at the core of all film is time. What’s powerful about Apted’s films are the multitudes of angles that can be drawn from the stories. We can read the triumph of those doing better than expected or the disappointment of failing to live up to assumed expectations.
For Apted, the only thing that is assured about life is that it will go on and the only guarantee from one film to the next is that seven years will have passed. Perhaps most striking is how little the world may change even as the faces get a little older and the voices a little more worn by miles of experience.
More than one of the subjects carries the wounds of their parents from one film to the next, something that may or may not be gleaned from their early feelings. Part of the enjoyment of the Up series is revisiting past installments to look for hints about what’s to come. Life, as Apted sees it, may not take the paths that we most expect, but there are breadcrumbs that trail each and every one of us to where we end up.
2. James Benning
Patience, curiosity, and an eye for the kind of characters or situations that will bring about organic moments to tell a story; that, in the simplest way, is what defines a good documentarian. In the case of James Benning, the camera only has to relax and capture elements of natural life as they exist in this complex, enormous world. And in doing so, Benning like Andy Warhol, adds another definition to documentary film work, the one where we as a collective culture look in at some needle point, something that may have always been there and gets taken for granted, or something new and dynamic that’s hidden behind a wall of chaos and hustle and bustle.
In a recent documentary that featured discussions between Benning and protégé, Richard Linklater, Benning says that he doesn’t think student filmmakers should try to make good films, but try to find new ways of seeing. Take for instance, Benning’s Ten Skies (which is currently available in full on YouTube). The camera gazes upwards at clouds, transforming and turning in on themselves. At the risk of sounding both reductive and too heady, the viewer is meant to consider exactly what occurs above our heads by looking at it at length.
The experience delivers many waves. First, the anxiety of boredom that comes when you settle into a film you know is going to be 94 minutes of staring at clouds. Then the engagement of what it all means. Perhaps in Ten Skies, you can harken back to that moment when you were young, laying on your back and those clouds weren’t just clouds but they were living breathing creatures watching over your world. Or maybe you are intellectualizing the gases emitted by the atmosphere to manufacture this thing we call sky. What you know though, is this isn’t CGI, it’s not crafted or drawn in and thus it’s a purely organic experience, not only with a film but with your life.
You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder why James Benning can make a body of work out of filming something like clouds, but others can’t. For some, it could be the postcard majesty of the locations and the images themselves, such as RR, where we are seeing scenic locale in the Pacific Northwest, as if continuous establishing shots from John Ford movies that never were. Or maybe it’s a matter of unseeing what we are used to seeing, such as the talking heads who do not speak at all in Twenty Cigarettes.
What they are doing is smoking butts, and we as viewers are engaging with them not based on performance but on activity. Perhaps what elevates Benning is his ability to capture nuances and crawl into nuanced portions of our brains. There are no easy outs when you are looking. As Kenneth Cosgrove on Mad Men says about a Rothko painting, “I don’t know what it is, but I feel something.”
3. Les Blank
Les Blank, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, had the intention and the ability to disappear into rarely seen cultural landscapes, allowing his camera to capture celebratory moments of ritual and joy without imposing any point or meaning.
Blank, though this may sound insulting, was one of the first filmmakers to bring us what has now become common on unscripted television: a world just outside our windows that we manage to never seen. He did this by using the basic tenants of drama, seemingly ordinary people, living relatively unassuming lives, who for the time we are with them are propelled into the extraordinary, whether by way of strumming magically on a guitar or attempting to haul a boat to a get a shot in a movie.
The bulk of Blank’s work looks at Americans living in the south, who play music, cook savory food, and delight in the small pleasures of regional life. It’s fitting that the word “pleasure,” appears in the title of one of Blank’s most beloved films, Always for Pleasure. It’s the operative way to describe a Les Blank experience. Where as many filmmakers, especially in nonfiction, set out to expose a darker truth lying in the underbelly of a world seemingly immune to its existence, Blank instead shows a people learning to do what they can to get the most pleasure out a world that may otherwise be bleak.
While they make up a small amount of Blank’s filmography, he is perhaps best known to most viewers for his collaborations with Werner Herzog and indeed these films went far in both capturing a most difficult man as well as helping to propel him into a cult icon.
In The Burden of Dreams, Blank goes behind the scenes as Herzog attempts to make Fitzcarraldo, a challenging production about a man descending into the jungle. Herzog and his crew literally descend into the difficult terrain only to find untenable situations at every turn. In his usual style, Blank allows his camera to simply capture the drama on screen without ever overtly striking an opinion or playing for laughs.
Hearts of Darkness and Lost in La Mancha may be more heralded as succinct works about productions on the brink of collapse, but no better film exists than The Burden of Dreams about the craziness that comes with attempting to achieve an artistic vision and the charming persistence of that very insanity.
4. Stan Brakhage
If fiction can confound people who make the efforts to classify the degree to which manipulation disturbs reality, then experimental cinema defies classification altogether. However, at the core of experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s work is always a hands-on approach that makes his relatively impenetrable points both personal and relatable. This quality stems from the foundation of Brakhage’s films being based in nonfiction.
While he may be known as the guy who glued fly wings to film strips, he often shot and edited in and around his cabin the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Brakhage focuses on the atmospheric forms of the natural world.
Perhaps his most famous work, Window Water Baby Moving takes the shape of an experimental experience about child birth. The camera and the editing puts the viewer into the room with the woman delivering the baby, creating a realistic view not only of the process but the delirium of those many stressful hours prior to the miracle of delivery. Yet, this film has been known to be shown in classrooms as a result of the reality it portrays.
If you are new to Brakhage you must simply take his films in as your mind’s eye chooses. Often you’ll find yourself just trying to figure it all out. However, if this is another go around with the challenging filmmaker, it’s worth it to watch a few of your favorites as if you are experiencing a purely nonfiction film. The result may be illuminating and surely will be nothing less than exhilarating.
5. Ken Burns
Ken Burns’ stately form of TV-ready history documentaries could easily be the stuff that lazy substitute history teachers pine for. In other words: stiff, academic, fact-filled and, most of all, boring. Yet, Burns has made a career of turning public broadcasting, knowledge-filmmaking into Must See Entertainment that has, in the ensuing years, proved as valuable to return to as they seemed upon first viewing.
As Michael Moore became a figurehead for the national push to take seriously documentary films as a theater-going option, Burns is considered a pioneer of nonfiction in the living room. Something that today, with Netflix and HBO Documentary Films, seems commonplace.
Using found footage, straight forward voiceover and modestly framed talking head interviews, Burns allows his exhaustive research to do the majority of the work. His films come to life as might the stories of an elder relative propping you on their knee and recounting their past. A regal, all-knowing grit seeps from Burns’ pictures allowing them to find the intricacies of some of America’s most famous historical events.
For America, the past has always been an idea, something to revere and assume ownership over, as if we’ve moved on, improved, or grown. Burns’ films are littered not only with moments, but nuances of character that show above all else that humans will, without fail, always just be human. It’s to Burns’ credit that he presents these characterizations with the reverence of a loving veteran and the compassion of a diligent journalist.
6. Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog is quoted as saying, “The boundary between fiction and ‘documentary’ simply does not exist,” and surely no man has walked as seamlessly from one type of film to the next. You get the impression that for Herzog there is no difference, even if the end products are occasionally uneven, they are as lived in and gritty as the persona surrounding the man himself.
While Herzog’s work never lacks a tender, intellectual eye, or keen artistry, he’s as linked to his work by process as any filmmaker in recent memory. He’s a macho man whose presence as a person going into the shit and telling a story is as heralded as many of the outcomes.
This is especially true of his documentary work, even the ones wherein he’s on the other side of the camera, such as Les Blank’s The Burden of Dreams or Werner Eats His Shoe. We’ve all heard the stories about Herzog being shot by a gun on camera or pulling a gun on actor Klaus Kinski in order to get him to follow a direction. Perhaps risking your life for your art is at the core of nonfiction work, because if the audience receives your efforts as a risk then that risk itself may be imparted.
Is it possible to separate Herzog – the idea – from Herzog – the filmmaker? As with so many artists whose personalities precede them, the answer is, “No.” But in Herzog’s case, that’s not a bad thing. If one trait defines Herzog, it’s a brutal honesty that not only shows bravura but also an inherent vulnerability.
Take for example, the moment in Grizzly Man when Herzog listens to the audio of his subject being fatally attacked by a bear and tells the man’s mother never to listen to it in her life. Or the moment in Into the Abyss when Herzog fearlessly tells his subject – an inmate on death row – that he doesn’t like him even if he doesn’t think he deserves to be murdered for his crimes.
Where many filmmakers attempt to illuminate a certain truth by relating an experiential idea to the audience, Herzog understands that there’s a screen between his work and the viewer and thus the truth he explores is achieved by relating to him as a filmmaker. In turn, there is little difference between the myth of Herzog and the engagement with a Herzog film. That in itself is a truth, especially in a world so self-aware and interconnected that it can hardly be lost in art.