Veteran film journalist Ian Haydn Smith has put together a fascinating resource in his book Well Documented about the documentary film, exploring one-hundred examples of the form and suggesting other related titles one may wish to seek out.
From groundbreaking series such as The Up Series, Life on Earth and An American Family to event films such as Touching the Void and Tokyo Olympiad to biopics like Amy and sport documentaries like Murderball and When We Were Kings, this book seeks to explore the films which make you think.
It is personal rather than definitive, but casts its net wide across countries and filmmakers. Agnès Varda’s work is here, as is Bill Morrison’s found footage from archival films, and Raoul Peck’s look at James Baldwin’s unfinished book (I Am Not Your Negro).
An early example of documentary made with dranatic license, Robert J Flaherty’s Nanook of the North stands as a must-see from the silent era. Nearer to our time, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell looks at family and the secrets they keep.
A beautiful hardbound book which boasts interesting illustrations, Well Documented is bound to start both exploration and argument about what is and isn’t included.
What it will do is make you value the films in the list you have seen, and perhaps seek out those you haven’t.
You may also think about what you accept and consume as ‘documentary’, whether staged or not (Netflix’s Making a Murderer being one case in point).
You can purchase Well Documented now in hardback or Kindle formats. It is published by White Lion Publishing.