We are big fans of the documentary in our house, as our Netflix queue reveals. Having a teenager, we certainly see our share of churned-out, hyped-up Hollywood action flicks, don’t get me wrong. But the movie nights that seem to resonate with us are those spent engaged in lives and issues – some very sophisticated and complex – presented in such a personal way that we can’t help but be affected – sometimes extremely so. Without exception, these films have expanded our cultural I.Q., sparked new dialogue as a family and given us much to think about as conscientious global citizens.
Our list of favorites rated 1-5 suitcases includes:
Six blind Tibetan teenagers set off on a gripping adventure as they attempt to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. Considered cursed in Tibetan culture, blind children are often hidden away to live as pariahs. Determined to challenge that perception, the kids gear up for a demanding expedition led by climber Erik Weihenmayer — the first blind man to scale Everest — and learn some lessons about life along the way.
Running the Sahara (2008)
America’s Charlie Engle, Canada’s Ray Zahab and Taiwan’s Kevin Lin embark on an unprecedented quest to traverse the entire Sahara desert — on foot. Along the way, the runners encounter the beauties and hardships that accompany modern African life. Narrated by Matt Damon, the heart-pumping documentary tracks the athletes on their unbelievable journey through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Egypt.
BOS note: These three guys put themselves through absolute living hell – so far beyond missing toenails and blisters. Their journey is epic. If they can cross a continent, we can surely walk around the block. C’mon!!
Born Into Brothels (2004)
British filmmaker Zana Briski’s Oscar-winning documentary is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in Calcutta’s red-light district, where their mothers work as prostitutes to ensure their survival. Spurred by the kids’ fascination with her camera, Briski decides to teach them photography. As they begin to look at and record their world through new eyes, the kids awaken to their own talents and sense of worth.
BOS notes: This is incredibly powerful and emotional – difficult to watch at parts, but that’s India. As with “Blindsight”, this is another example of the resilience of kids.
Up the Yangtze (2007)
When the Three Gorges Dam makes life hard for the Yu family, daughter Yu Shui must take a job aboard a cruise ship, where she enters into a dizzying microcosm of modern China. Meanwhile, her parents face the rising waters of the Yangtze. Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang’s beautifully photographed film of China’s peasant life and cultural upheaval was nominated for Best Documentary for the Independent Spirit Awards.
BOS notes: I didn’t know about the flooding of the Yangtze prior to the film. Also – such a stark contrast from the poverty of her family and the shocking (though typically Western) excess of the cruise passengers.
Everest: A Climb for Peace (2008)
The film chronicles the spectacular journey of 9 ‘peace climbers’ from different faiths and cultures as they attempt to summit Everest. The focus is on Palestinian Ali Bushnaq and Israeli’s Dudu Yifrah and Micha Yaniv, who come together and set aside their differences to forge a path of teamwork and cooperation in an attempt to summit the world’s highest peak. This however, is easier said than done. Their nations have been embroiled in a brutal war for years; each believes they are on the right side of that war and each knows that on Everest the cooperation of your teammate is a matter of life and death.
BOS notes: Really interesting to see how the extreme difficulty of the mountain slowly breaks down the barriers between the Palestinian and Israeli climbers, ultimately beyond the conflict they share.
In 1955, Tobias Schneebaum disappeared into the depths of the Peruvian Amazon. A year later, he emerged from the jungle naked and covered in body paint … a modern-day cannibal. Now, follow the stranger-than-fiction tale of Schneebaum’s return to the jungle in 1999, 45 years after his original visit, to reunite with the tribesmen he grew to love and who haunted him for nearly half a century.
BOS note: This is definitely quirky – Tobias is a character, to say the least, which makes the story even more interesting and entertaining.
Smile Pinki (2008)
Pinki is a five-year old girl in rural India born desperately poor and with a cleft lip. The simple surgery that can cure her is a distant dream until she meets Pankaj, a social worker traveling village to village gathering patients for a hospital that provides free surgery to thousands each year. Told in a vibrant verite-style, this real-world fairy tale follows its wide-eyed protagonist on a journey from isolation to embrace.
BOS notes: This is a beautiful and important film in all respects. Pinki is captivating and steals your heart.
Death In Gaza (2004)
Documentarians James Miller and Saira Shah planned to produce an in-depth look at the culture of martyrdom and hate pervading the Middle East. In 2003, they chronicled the lives of three Palestinian adolescents growing up in war-torn Gaza. Miller and Shah also wanted to show the Israeli side of the dispute, but during filming, Miller fell victim to the conflict when Israeli forces killed him.
BOS notes: Heavy, heavy film – to experience war through the eyes of kids and see the cycle of hate perpetuated should be a major concern for all of us. The fact that James Miller was killed making this film makes the message even more poignant.
In his directorial follow-up to the breakthrough hit Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock gamely tries to one-up the U.S. government by finding Osama Bin Laden. The wry documentarian reportedly shot more than 800 hours of footage while scouring every nook and cranny of Afghanistan and the Middle East in pursuit of the infamous leader. The film had its much-anticipated world premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
BOS notes: So entertaining – moments of total hilarity. Memorable quotes – “Yoo hoo! Osama!” (Spurlock speaking into a cave in Afghanistan). Even the trailer is funny.Makes me think of Albert Brooks’ classic film, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.”
Daughter from Danang (2002)
This documentary follows an adopted American woman — one of thousands of Vietnamese children who were separated from their families and flown to America in 1975 — who gets more than she bargained for when she’s reunited with her birth mother. The film emphasizes how much culture, rather than innate physical characteristics, can shape an individual. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.
BOS notes: This is intense – the discomfort Heidi – who is the “All American Girl” raised in Tennessee – feels when meeting her biological mom and family is powerful. The beauty of her mom’s spirit, never giving up on seeing her daughter, is incredibly touching – just a tragic situation in all.
The Beauty Academy of Kabul (2006)
Proving that vanity and the pursuit of beauty are universal, this 2004 documentary tracks a group of American women (including some Afghan émigrés from the 1980s) who open a beauty school in Afghanistan. Though there are culture clashes aplenty, moments of true kinship also transpire over curling rods and comb-outs as these women from divergent worlds labor in the name physical beauty in director Liz Mermin’s refreshing film.
BOS notes: Such a touching film and good insight into life for women in Afghanistan. Amazing, strong women.
And because it is so strange and yet so oddly amusing…
Hippie Masala (2006)
Seeking enlightenment, and perhaps a more profound drug experience, many hippies of the 1960s and ’70s were fascinated with India. The six Westerners in this documentary stayed there, forging new lives in the beautiful country. Cesare found himself in yoga, Robert paints, Hanspeter took up farming and Meera chose solitude, while sisters Erica and Gillian are always looking for the next big party — but all are on a quest to find themselves.
BOS notes: Bizarre yet amusing – an odd assortment of characters who smoke a lot of hash.