It is safe to assume that nearly everyone has cried from the emotional power of a film. Sometimes these are tears of sorrow, as the viewer empathizes with a character’s tragedy. Other times, the tears come from an overwhelming rush of emotion, as a response to the sheer beauty or joy of a scene.
This potential for emotional impact that film possesses, grows stronger when the narrative is telling something true. While this has been exemplified through hundreds of devastating documentaries aiming to make viewers aware of the ugly sides of the world, it can also be seen in the films that make us cry from their beauty.
Beauty has a vast spectrum. Many films are aesthetically enchanting through their colors and movement. However, beauty also has the potential to exceed aesthetics, and exist in the realms of thought and emotion.
This list contains ten hand picked documentaries that capture beauty in all forms. While some of the films on this list hold only one form of beauty, there are a few gems that have managed to capture multiple.
1. Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory (2014) Directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett
“Alive Inside” emanates hope. It gives viewers a glimpse at the life of Dan Cohen, a social worker whose mission is to give music therapy to elders suffering from dementia. Dan has discovered that when patients listen to their favorite songs from the past, they are also given the gift of the memories engraved in the melodies. Thoughtfully edited, the documentary contains glimpses of videos and photographs from the patient’s past, allowing the viewer to relive memories with them.
In the patient’s reactions to the music, one sees the beauty of this film. Their sunken posture and empty faces transform within seconds after putting on the headphones. As many of them dance, a new light shines in their eyes. These precious moments are what makes the documentary so moving. Along with raising questions surrounding what role and place elders have in current American society, “Alive Inside” unveils the power of music and the beauty of memories and age.
2. Samsara (2011) Directed by Ron Fricke
“Samsara” is a meditation in that it solely observes the diverse beauties of planet earth; there is an absence of opinion. This was done intentionally, so as to give the film a universal language, encouraging the feeling of connection between the subject matter and viewers. Shot in twenty five countries, Samsara contains everything from the banal, to the disturbing and a healthy portion of breathtaking.
Intending to create a film whose format would not be quickly deemed outdated by the rapidly evolving digital standard, Fricke chose to shoot on 70mm film, resulting in timeless footage. “Samsara’s” music score was not created until the picture lock was complete. This was done in order to assure that the flow of the visuals was strong enough on its own, and did not use music as its crutch.
The word, samsara, comes from Sanskrit and refers to the endless cycle of existence that all living things are endlessly wandering through. In Indian religions, it is believed that individuals should aim to escape the dull, repetitive cycle of samsara in order to reach a higher level such as nirvana.
It seems that Fricke’s view on samsara is quite the contrary. The documentary does a full world circle that weaves through the layers of humanity, creating vibrant shots including a baptism, Bali dancers, and endless nature.The beauty captured in this documentary shows that “Samsara” is anything but mundane.
3. Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2001) Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer
Employing the elements as his canvas, and the earth as his paint colors, Andy Goldsworthy formed land art pieces in France, Canada, Scotland and the United States. The camera bears witness to Andy’s tedious, complex work ethic; a process that ironically never fails to birth delicate pieces that appear to be incredibly natural and effortless.
Andy’s art pieces takes form to their surroundings so gracefully that it is as if they were meant to exist there, just as a plant or stone might. Pieces often juxtapose movement and stillness, visualizing the passing of time through how they transform.
There is unarguably aesthetic beauty present in this documentary. However, there is further beauty in the thought and themes behind each piece: death, birth, time, and the way that Andy looks at the world.
4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) Directed by Werner Herzog
Sitting in a valley in Southern France, the Chauvet Cave holds the oldest known cave paintings in the world, dating back to 32,00 years ago. Herzog believes this cave was where the modern human soul awakened and that the paintings live on as a symbol of the creator’s dreams. Herzog gained exclusive access to the cave in 2010, accompanied by a small group of geologists, historians, and scientists.
Listening to the experiences of those who entered the cave, and the dramatic effect that the paintings had on their thoughts and dreams adds a mystical layer of depth to the documentary. The beauty in this film lies in the paintings, that are both aesthetically striking as well as mesmerizing because of their age.
5. Pina (2011) Directed by Wim Wenders
“Pina” is a tribute to the deceased German dance choreographer Pina Bausch. The documentary features dancers from Pina’s company performing her dance choreographies. The filming was done using a 3D camera in order to bring the viewer into the dancers’ spaces. Performance locations include theatre stages, a bus, city streets, and stunning landscapes. Each dance portrays a certain emotional theme of life such as trust, struggle, strength, and joy.
After working closely with Wenders on the plans for the documentary for twenty years, Bausch died unexpectedly from lung cancer. The dancers performed the pieces while Bausch’s instructions were still fresh in their muscle memory, making the documentary a record of her vision.
There is beauty continuously emanating from this film within the movement of the dancers and the feelings they are capable of forming. Different dances strike chords for particular individuals. Every viewer will surely find a dance that touches them.