Top 10 Documentaries Where Crimes Were Committed On Camera
We tend to expect a certain kind of behavior from people on camera; namely, the non-criminal kind. The fact that we might later be watched by someone, especially someone who could punish us, is supposed to keep us in line.
Oftentimes, in surprising ways and to shocking extents, it turns out not to inhibit behavior at all.
10. Harlan County USA
This film features perhaps the most brazen crime ever recorded on film by a police officer, and towards none other than the camera crew. The film focuses primarily on mine workers in Harlan County, KY going on strike. Their strike led to them being abused, arrested and, as time wore on, shot at. The movie features a slow-motion shot of the leader of strikebreakers looking like he’s actually shooting into the camera. Later, cameraperson Hart Perry is physically attacked by a thug.
God knows why they thought they’d get away with that, since the leader of the group seemed to be media-savvy enough to ask director Barbara Kopple if she had a film permit, when she tried to interview him earlier in the film. On the commentary track, Kopple described how she used the footage to get him arrested.
9. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
Fred Leuchter was a designer of execution instruments, asked in 1988 by the defense team of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel to check if a feasible claim could be made that there had not been Zyklon B gas released. He went to Auschwitz, and trespassed onto forbidden areas of the camp to collect concrete samples from the chambers so they could be tested. This was completely illegal, and doubly so, since this was back when the Iron Curtain was still up.
It’s certainly understandable why Leuchter thought he might need to go to Auschwitz and videotape himself collecting samples. That is, until you consider that it would be pretty much impossible for him to confirm the samples he turned in for testing were the same bits that he videotaped himself collecting. Anyway, his methodology was so unscientific that he merely destroyed his career without providing evidence of anything.
8. Roger & Me
This is the movie that launched Michael Moore’s career, and portrayed how mass layoffs devastated Flint, MI in the 1980’s. In it, Rhonda Britton, a relative of a laid-off former GM auto worker who was plunged into poverty, began selling rabbits for “Pets or Meat.” She apparently was perfectly willing to provide footage of her bunny brood cruelly imprisoned in undersized cages, where they could barely move and were “peeing on each other.”
In probably the most shocking single shot of the film, she kills one, skins, and dresses it. What’s weird about this is that, because she’s not meeting any regulations for caring for her rabbits or selling the meat, she looks over her shoulder and whispers “…I’m not supposed to be doing this.” She says that to a camera crew. Apparently she got away with it though, as she was free to appear as the subject of Moore’s follow up movie, Pets or Meat.
7. Aileen Wuornos: Selling A Serial Killer
In 1992, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield tried to interview America’s alleged first female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos (the inspiration for Academy Award winner Monster.) However, they ran into trouble, needing to give her lawyer, Steven Glazer, $10,000 first. The film’s focus seems to shift more to the people trying to profit from Wuornos for most of the run time, as Broomfield gets chummy enough with Glazer that he plays music for him, gave him rides, and eventually became relaxed enough around him that he smoked marijuana joints on camera. This guy, mind you, is a lawyer trying to squeeze money out of the guy filming him.
The documentary was so devastating to Glazer’s career when it was released that, when Broomfield made a post-Monster follow-up about Wuornos’s execution in 2003, Glazer told him in a courtroom “F*** you and your documentary.”
6. Hoop Dreams
This is the story of two aspiring professional basketball players from Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee. The two live in relative poverty during their attempts to be drafted by the NBA. Arthur Agee’s father, Bo Agee, is trying to kick a drug addiction for most of the film, as he reconnects with his family.
His addiction is so bad that, when he visits his son during a basketball practice on an inner city court, he goes to do a drug deal just a couple dozen feet from him, knowing the camera’s there. Probably he assumed the crew would only be interested in filming his son. It would have been pretty hard for them to miss the scene, since Arthur looks over at him.
5. Hearts and Minds
One of the first, and most controversial, films to criticize the Vietnam War directly, this 1975 Academy Award-winning film features a bizarre sequence of two soldiers with prostitutes. For one, there’s the fact two soldiers were apparently fine with being filmed with prostitutes at all. For another, the language they use is oddly clean under the circumstances. One describes the “hickies” he gave the woman he’d hired. The other one says, as he’s about to have sex, “if my girl back home could see this, she’d flip.”
4. Man On Wire
Phillipe Petit could hardly keep his April 7, 1974 performance – tight-rope walking from one Twin Tower to the other – from being filmed by SOMEONE. However, the relative obscurity into which his high-profile stunt fell is really surprising. Especially considering a 1986 film of it was made prior to that fall from grace.
Reviewer after reviewer has described his act in terms of it being the artistic equivalent of a heist (it being a really risky form of trespassing at the end of the day.) This really makes it surprising that Petit was released from custody as quickly as he was. As inspirational as the story is, and impressive as the act was to see, imagine how inspiring it could have been to people with less benign intentions.
3. Super High Me
Doug Benson’s 2007 movie was inspired by how, when he saw Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, it just him hungry for McDonalds. So he aped Surplock’s famous “Do X for every day for thirty days” gimmick, to demonstrate that smoking weed every day for thirty days had an almost negligible effect on his health.
Now, he did this in California, where it was not yet legal for him to smoke the stuff, in any way, shape, or form. Unless he had some secret disease that he wasn’t telling anyone about, he was basically committing a crime a day for 30 days. At least, as he claimed, he didn’t drive a vehicle for those thirty days
2. Land Without Bread
A 1933 parodic documentary, this travelogue by film aficionado Luis Bunuel mocks an isolated, poor Spanish community called Las Hurdes, as a place stuck in a more barbaric time. He shows children being left to die in the middle of town, deformed little people, and animal mutilation, much of which was blatantly staged.
We don’t mean he pretended to kill animals; no, we mean he killed animals to pretend something else happened. For one scene, he shot a donkey while it was climbing a mountain, in order to demonstrate how impossible it was for a donkey to climb said mountain. For another, he had a donkey smeared with honey, and then smashed a beehive next to it, to ensure it was stung to death. Anything to drive home the point that this was a horrible place to be, especially if you were a donkey.
As a result of all this chicanery, the movie was banned in its home country; decades later, another documentarian, who came to ask people about the original film, received death threats designed to deter any thoughts he might have had about making a sequel.
1. Exit Through The Gift Shop
It’s not often that the subject of a documentary switches a movie up, and makes it about the original filmmaker, but it’s exactly the sort of media-savvy move that street artist/vandal Banksy would make. His 2010 film, that was supposed to be about him, is actually about obsessive self-recorder Thierry Guetta, and it became one of the most acclaimed films of that year. His description of the process of editing the film, that it was “hours of watching sweating vandals fall off ladders” is both funny and candid, and gives some idea of how much footage of people breaking the law was shot.
Though to be fair: whatever you think of graffiti as an artistic expression, you have to admit it’s better than watching animals get killed.
Dustin Koski was smart enough to not let the crimes he committed writing Six Dances to End the World be filmed.