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The 20 Greatest Documentary Filmmakers of All Time

03 May 2015 | Features, People Lists | by Zac Petrillo

Werner Herzog

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

LONDON - FEBRUARY 18:  Acclaimed film-maker Michael Apted poses for photographs after he was awarded the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on February 18, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Nicholson - WPA Pool/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Michael Apted

Photo by Ian Nicholson – WPA Pool/Getty Images

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.

49 up

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

Wien, Viennale 2012. James Benning, Filmemacher;Copyright by Robert NEWALD Photographie, A-1164 Vienna, P.O.Box 13. Bank: ERSTE Bank, A-1010 Vienna, Am Graben 21; BIC  Bank Identification Code (swift code): GIBAATWWXXX; IBAN  International Bank Account Number: AT48 20111 0000 4422 015; UID Number: ATU 124 254 00; Veröffentlichung honorarfrei NUR im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung über die Viennale 2012. Jede Verwendung, Verwertung und Vertrieb über eine Bild- und/oder Presseagentur ist untersagt. Publishing free of charge ONLY combined with reporting about the Viennale 2012. *** Local Caption *** James Benning, amerikanischer Regisseur (u.a. ONE WAY BOOGIE WOOGIE, EASY RIDER)

Wien, Viennale 2012. James Benning, Filmemacher;Copyright by Robert NEWALD Photographie

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.

ruhr

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

This image provided by Harrod Blank shows an undated image of his father Les Blank. Blank, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who focused his camera on cultural corners ranging from blues music, to garlic lovers, to shoe-eating artists, died Sunday April 7, 2013 at age 77, his son said. Blank died at his home in Berkeley, Calif. nearly a year after being diagnosed with bladder cancer, Harrod Blank said. (AP Photo/Harrod Blank)

AP Photo/Harrod 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.

Burden_of_dreams

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

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.

Window Water Baby Moving

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

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.

The Central Park Five

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-at-Polunsky-Unit-in-Texas

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.

Grizzly Man (2005)

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.

 

 

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  • Michael Moore over Errol Morris? FACKING BULLSHIT!!!!

  • gustavomda

    Where’s Eduardo Coutinho?

  • Where is Martin Scorsese?

    • Facundo

      nah, it isnt that good making documentarys to be on this list

  • Veronica Clarke

    Great article, thank you.

  • the dog

    Pretty silly list. Where is John Grierson, you know the guy who invented the term “documentary” and then supervised the production of thousands of them? Where is Dziga Vertov, whose Man With the Movie Camera was voted Best Documentary of All Time by several hundred filmmakers and film scholars? And Wolf Koenig (who invented the “Ken Burns process” when Ken was still in daycare and was part of the National Film Board’s Unit B – which dominated innovative documentary in the 1950s and pretty much invented direct cinema? And where is Joris Ivens? Ricky Leacock? Wim Wenders? Or Esfir Shub (who invented the compilation film)? or for that matter any woman other than everyone’s favorite Nazi? Jonas Mekas (who has made 70 years of autobiographical diary films) would have been a better choice than Stan Brakhage for experimental doc maker. Stan would probably not even want to be on the list. I think you got shortchanged in your Documentary 101 course. Go get your tuition back.

  • gemma rogers

    This is not an accurate list of the ‘greatest documentary filmmakers of all time’ – this is a list of white male documentary makers with a couple of token women.

    • klokker1

      Oh please

    • Jagi

      GTFO with that crap.

      • Katharine Round

        Why? She makes a very good point!

        • Big Ulf

          yes she does make a very good point.

  • Rean

    Where the hell is Ron Fricke?

    • FunnyFaceKing

      Ron Fricke is an American film director and cinematographer, specializing in time-lapse photography and large format cinematography.

  • Duke Duke
  • Katharine Round

    I know it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list – but only one woman? And no-one who isn’t white? Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, Ari Folman, Joan Churchill… Let’s not perpetuate the idea that directors only come in one form.

  • Aitor

    enough with “where is this, where is that” questions. if you know your film makers & movies that good, then write your comprehensive lists, and share with us, please! otherwise you look arrogant and silly.

  • Marcos Afonso

    Where’s Eduardo Coutinho?

  • thelivingmanpart2

    Your list is flawed because you included only one woman, and because you missed Ondi Timoner… Dig! We Live In Public, these are masterpieces……..

  • Emre Kara

    This list should have included Robert J. Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, Nick Broomfield, Kirby Dick, Rob Epstein and Ron Fricke.

  • Mike ‘Baba’ Roberts

    Louis Therroux

  • Aidy Shaw

    Adam Curtis is well worth a look. The Mayfair Set, Bitter Lake and The Power of Nightmares are all worth a look.

  • Jen Dee

    Where is Chris Hegedus? She and Pennebaker work together equally like the Maysles. Sexism!!!