Top 10 Not Well Known Documentaries


The documentary gets no love, but it’s a key part of our filmic culture.  Too often, it’s lumped in with dull depictions of science topics on PBS, but documentaries fit in genres too, from comedy to horror.  Here are ten you may not have seen.

10. “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”


A Japanese documentary, this follows the violent and crazy Kenzo Okuzaki, who fought in New Guinea in World War II.  Kenzo is trying to track down exactly what happened to two men in his old unit and, along the way, we get to see just what the horrors of war will do to a man’s psyche…and it also features one of the single most chilling moments in film, when Okuzaki learns exactly what happened in New Guinea.  Let’s just say it’ll make you ill, and as crazy as Okuzaki is, what’s frightening is how right he turns out to be.

Buy here: Emperor’s Naked Army Marches on

9. “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner”


Werner Herzog is today one of the most respected filmmakers alive, but for a while, he was just a lunatic with a camera who made really weird fiction films and even weirder documentaries.  But this one is actually a touching sports story: it’s about Walter Steiner, a world-class Olympic ski-jumper…who makes his living working as a carpenter.  It’s about the rewards of competing not for endorsements or medals but for personal achievement.

Buy here: The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

8. “For All Mankind”


Cut together entirely of footage shot from space, “For All Mankind” is not about the science of space travel or the difficulty of leaving Earth behind or a mission going wrong, but about how the astronauts feel, seeing our little blue marble from a perch few of us will ever sit on.  It’s about the beauty of Earth and the joy of space, and sadly not commonly seen.

Buy here: For All Mankind (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

7. “A Married Couple”


Think you’ve got problems in your marriage?  Meet Billy and Antoinette Edwards, a Canadian couple who agreed to let the filmmaker Allan King live with them for a year…and witness their marriage going south in ways most of us only have nightmares about.

Buy here:

6. “The Titicut Follies”


Don’t be fooled by the title: “The Titicut Follies” isn’t lighthearted.  Quite the opposite.  It’s an exploration of how the criminally insane were treated in a state-run mental institution in Massachusetts.  In fact, it’s so damning in its depiction of mistreatment and apathy that the state of Massachusetts acted to have it banned, but not before its screening triggered a wave of activism to substantially improve how we treat the mentally ill.

Buy here: Titicut Follies

5. “The Shimmering Beast”


You wouldn’t expect a documentary about a bunch of Canadians hunting moose to be a fascinating, even troubling experience…but Pierre Perrault is an acclaimed documentarian for a reason.

Buy here:

4. “C***sucker Blues”

The Rolling Stones have had a lot of documentaries made about them, including classics like “Gimme Shelter”, but this one is, to this day, only allowed to be screened if the director, Robert Frank, is present.  Why?  Because it’s the Stones and their hangers-on at their most honest…and quite possibly, in some cases, their absolute worst.  Probably the most honest picture about rock and roll ever made…and not legally available for sale.

Buy here: Sorry, but no.  Go stalk the director if you want to see this one so bad.

3. General Idi Amin Dada


Barbet Schroder made an honest, clear portrait of the monstrous dictator with his full consent…and then when he saw the completed film, he took hostages and sent Schroder a list of “suggested” edits.  Schroder complied, until Amin fell from power.  The result, even edited, is one of the strangest and oddly entertaining looks at one of the most corrupt and horrible dictators of the twentieth century.

Watch now: or buy it: General Idi Amin Dada (The Criterion Collection)

2. Godspeed, You Black Emperor


Japan is a pretty interesting society even when it’s acting normal by our standards, and this makes for a fascinating look at Japanese biker gangs in the 1970s, and why they choose to act out in a culture that so strongly emphasizes fitting in.

Watch now:

1. “F For Fake”


Orson Welles is, of course, one of the most talented filmmakers to ever pick up a camera.  Not to mention he’s a consummate liar.  So when a self-admitted liar makes a documentary about a dissembling art forger, who himself is being profiled by a man who would later be revealed to be a hoaxster…you have a documentary less about the subject and more about the fakery behind talking about a subject.  And it’s every bit as fascinating as you might think.

Buy here: F for Fake (The Criterion Collection)

Written By Dan Seitz

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  1. A documentary that should be on the top of the list is one called “Charting the Charter”, documenting the huge role the Jehovah’s Witnesses played in Canada coming to enjoy having a Bill of Rights. Try to find it and I’d bet you won’t be able to as seems to have been quickly taken out of circulation, probably due to public outcry stemming from religious discrimination against the group. It was aired on Canada’s History Channel about 10 years ago. I know it exists as I happen to have a copy that a friend recorded off Canadian television. It’s quite an eye opener.

  2. There’s three docs available from Criterion here, as well as the film that made Frederick Wiseman’s reputation. How do these possibly qualify as “not well known?”

  3. I think I vaguely remember seeing “For All Mankind” years ago. I had completely forgotten about it. Thanks for putting “For All Mankind” on your list. I wonder if there is anyway that I could see it again. Hmmm ….