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David Ehrlich

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David is the Senior Editor of Film.com. His interests include the New York Rangers, movies about movies, and regretting this personal bio.

The 10 Most Intense Documentaries Ever Made

Immersion is one of the virtues of documentary filmmaking that narrative features aren’t easily able to match. For all of Hollywood’s emphasis on spectacle and additional dimensions, not even a $300 million 3D blockbuster can offer the kind of transportive, “you are there” experience that a good documentary filmmaker can muster with the right circumstances and a decent digital camera. Cinematic verisimilitude is a historically problematic idea, but the best documentaries have a way of seducing you into their world while maintaining the mutual agreement that some version of what you’re watching actually happened, a gambit that underscores the immediacy of a scene in a way unique to the form, upping the the stakes with the kind of suspense that only exists in real life. It’s not that fiction films can’t seduce you into a breathless state of anxiety and anticipation (exhibit A: the Alamo Drafthouse armrest that I squeezed to death during the SXSW premiere of “Kill List”), but that some documentaries have the power to rattle you by simply by turning up the dial on the world you think you know.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s “Leviathan,” which opened in limited release last Friday, is one such documentary. A bracingly visceral and wordless portrait look at (in, and beneath) a commercial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast, “Leviathan” is kind of like watching “The Deadliest Catch” in a D-Box theater where the seats have been designed to kill you. Or, since reductive analogies are so much fun, perhaps it’s better to frame it as “Finding Nemo” meets “Crank 2.” The filmmakers attached a mess of tiny GoPro cameras along ship’s hull in order to fully capture the chaos required for the daily catch, and the approach — while seemingly abstract — ultimately allows for a purity of expression that traditional film language doesn’t seem to believe itself capable of achieving. You’re not just there, you’re everywhere. And it. Is. Intense.

Leviathan Trailer July 2012 from Sensory Ethnography Lab on Vimeo.

And so, in honor of “Leviathan,” we give you our list of the 10 most intense documentaries ever made. Proceed with caution.

10.) “BURDEN OF DREAMS” (1982)

While the films of Werner Herzog might seem to be a natural fit for a list like this, even his most dire and extreme documentary work is imbued with a certain stripe of playfulness that amplifies their wonder at the expense of their blunt force  (save for perhaps “Lessons of Darkness,” which observed the aftermath of the first Kuwaiti War from a God’s-eye view). Of course, documentaries about Werner Herzog are a different story altogether. Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” is the most insane making-of documentary that any feature film has ever inspired (it makes “Heart of Darkness” look like a studio EPK). The production of Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” was one of the most notoriously troubled in movie history, spanning four brutal years in the jungles of Peru, where Mick Jagger was recast, one of the locales offered to murder lead actor Klaus Kinski, and the physical feats involved in shooting began to become more impressively demented than those of the story the film was written to tell.

The Most Harrowing Scene: Fitzcarraldo was a rubber baron whose love for opera was such that he was determined to build a theater for his beloved art in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, a process that ultimately required him to drag a steamship over a mountain. But Fitzcarraldo had the good sense to break the ship down into individual pieces and drag them to their destination one by one, whereas Herzog — the Conquistador of the Useless — had to one-up his hero by lugging the entire ship over the terrain. It’s impossible to watch his indigenous crew operate the pulley system without holding your breath.

9.) “LA SOUFRIERE” (1977)

Just kidding, here’s a Herzog film. First there was Chekhov’s gun, followed by Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, and then there was Herzog’s giant smoking volcano in the background. In some ways, “La Soufriere” may actually be the most Herzog film of them all. Who else, upon learning of an imminent and catastrophic eruption on a small Caribbean island, would immediately grab a camera crew and rush to the scene? Herzog traveled to the eponymous volcano on the island of Guadeloupe in order to speak with the few indigenous people who refused to evacuate, the filmmaker characteristically fascinated by these stubborn villagers and their relationship with nature and near-certain death.

The Most Harrowing Scene: The film only runs 30 minutes, and the threat of disaster looms heavy over each one of them, but the film’s most nail-biting moment may actually be an anecdote Herzog relays about the volcano’s previous eruption, and the one man on the island who survived its wrath.

8.) “HOW TO DIE IN OREGON” (2011)

Peter Richardson’s right to life doc goes from 0 to “weeping uncontrollably” faster than any other movie ever made. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s hard to compete with a film that opens by observing a terminally ill cancer patient taking a lethal dose of  Secanol in real-time. The man’s death, which transpires before our eyes with grace and dignity, appropriately sets the stage for the film to come, which engages with the fight to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the titular stage. Essential viewing that is nevertheless extremely difficult to watch, “How to Die in Oregon” absolutely obliterates the conventional definition of a “happy ending,” giving a face to one of the preeminent issues our time.

The Most Harrowing Scene: When the woman whose narrative anchors the film looks into the camera and says “I’ll know when my life isn’t worth living anymore. In which case, my choice will seem easy and obvious. And I’ll be grateful.” It’s a simple moment of quiet testimony, but those words echo with seismic energy, as the viewer is forced to consider the value of their own time, and how it conflates with one of the preeminent issues of our age.

7.) “GIMME SHELTER” (1970)

One of the cinema’s most breathless powder kegs, “Gimme Shelter” chronicles the most infamous debacle in rock history (pre-Creed era). Co-directors David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were on hand for the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969 when one of the most popular bands on the planet played a free show to over 300,000 people, and had only a phalanx of riled up Hells Angels as security. The carnage that ensued may never be forgotten, thanks in part to this film.

The Most Harrowing Scene: “There were four births, four deaths, and an awful lot of scuffles reported.” Mick Jagger listens to a radio interview with a Hells Angel the day after the disastrous show, and the emotions play across his face in bold as he tries to process the events, and his role in enabling them to happen.

6.) “THIS IS NOT A FILM” (2011)

And the judges say… it counts! Jafar Panahi’s fiction-documentary hybrid (which here is a stand-in for an entire generation of self-reflective Iranian docudramas) proves that such distinctions are ultimately meaningless, as the famous filmmaker — jailed in his home for ill-defined crimes against the state — explains from his living room the next movie that he had intended to make. Of course, footage we’re watching, shot entirely on consumer equipment such as Panahi’s iPhone, ultimately became his next movie, a playful but righteous polemic that subverts the circumstances of his confinement by turning his apartment into a hall of mirrors, unraveling the nature and necessity of creative freedoms in a world that’s interested in neither.

The Most Harrowing Scene: It’s tempting to cite the (not) film’s explosive finale, or the seemingly incidental elevator ride in which Panahi encounters a garbage collector who serves as an obvious amalgam of all the characters he’s ever created. Nevertheless, the biggest gut-punch may be the scene in which Panahi is choked by a profound frustration when trying to walk us through his next script. Walking away from his workspace on the floor in disgust, Panahi tearfully rues, “If we could tell a film, why would we make a film?”

5.) “THE ACT OF KILLING” (2012)

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary introduces us to the men behind the Indonesian death squads that mercilessly executed more than a million “Communists” when the military staged a coup d’état over their national government in 1965. I saw it all the way back before lunch today, and it’s already a dark horse contender for the most intense documentary every made. Executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and acquired by Drafthouse Films for a theatrical release this summer (a perfect double-feature with “Fast Six”!), “The Act of Killing” is a complex and horrifying look at a world where the bad guys won, and had to live with themselves. An astonishingly grim examination of personal memory and collective forgetting, Oppenheimer’s documentary is like an unholy mashup between the work of Abbas Kiarostami and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life,” as he invites his proud subjects to recreate their atrocities on film.

The Most Harrowing Scene (spoiler alert?): There’s not much room for debate here, as the film ends with a scene of unspeakably violent catharsis, Oppenheimer’s primary subject — a wiry old executioner — suddenly reconciling himself to the slaughter of thousands. The sounds his frail body makes as it digests an unfathomably odious personal history are unlike anything you’ve ever heard (I hope).

4.) “LAKE OF FIRE” (2006)

It’s pretty easy to understand why Tony Kaye’s (“American History X”) epic profile of abortion in America might be an intense thing to watch, if only because it’s, well, an epic profile of abortion in America. Not every documentary can end with finding Sugar Man, you know? An unflinching and even-handed look at the ongoing battle for reproductive rights in this country, “Lake of Fire” presents both sides of the argument and every shade in between, culminating with…

The Most Harrowing Scene: The graphic, largely unedited depiction of an abortion. And, despite having years of industry wisdom at his disposal, Kaye refuses to ease the tension by having Morgan Freeman narrate the procedure. And now, the super fun part begins for yours truly, as I have to trawl Google for a suitable image to place above this blurb (yeah, it was ultimately easier to just embed the entire film below).

3.) “KOYAANISQATSI” (1983)

Godfrey Reggio describes the films that comprise his renowned “Qatsi” trilogy as “unmediated visualizations, symphonic portraits of our planet in which the cinema is empowered to observe the infinitude of life on this planet. That may not sound like a party, but Reggio has an innate understanding as to which images — when paired with certain tracks by composer Philip Glass — have the capacity to function as windows to a divine catharsis. A rocket exploding in slow motion; a gaggle of Las Vegas showgirls staring into the camera; a time-lapse look at Times Square during rush hour, in which the people zip about at such a speed that they begin to resemble the flow of information inside of a computer chip. It’s hypnotic stuff, and the velocity of Reggio’s montage will awe you into a dumb stupor.

The Most Harrowing Scene: The entire middle portion of the film, in which our planet goes into warp speed and the interconnectivity of modern civilization leaps out at you like a hidden image in one of those Magic Eye designs.

2.) “THE EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON” (1987)

It can be difficult to even read about Kazuo Hara’s documentary without feeling a little bit queasy, and if your morbid curiosity doesn’t extend to stories of cannibalism, you may want to simply jump past this entry. Hara’s film follows the one-man redemption tour of a man named Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old veteran of the Japanese army who served in New Guinea during World War II. Haunted by the events of the time (especially those in which he was an active participant), Okuzaki leads Hara’s camera on a search for his former comrades as he tries to find the men responsible for murdering two of the people in his unit. As we learn the story about his unit was cordoned off from supplies in New Guinea and left to fend for themselves, the details about the missing men begin to add up in the most horrifying of ways.

The Most Harrowing Scene: It’s rare that title cards at the end of a film provide a movie with some of its most astonishing moments, but the ultimate fate of Kenzo Okuzakim, which Hara isn’t able to capture with his camera, retroactively shades everything we knew about him until that point. Warning: The following clip is disturbing. Duh.

1.) “NIGHT AND FOG” (1955)

The last thing the world needs is another stunned summation of Alain Resnais’ 32-minute still-life of the Auschwitz and Majdanek concentration camps, so I’ll simply say that this austere look at the aftermath of a genocide endures as one of the definitive portraits of the Holocaust for good reason.

The Most Harrowing Scene: There’s hardly an image in this film that won’t scar your memory for life, but the shot that haunts me most is one that reveals just how close civilians lived to these factories of death, carrying on their daily lives as the greatest atrocities of the 20th century took place on just the other side of a barbed-wire fence.


Categories: Lists

Tags: Alain Resnais, Burden of Dreams, David Ehrlich, How to Die in Oregon, Jafar Panahi, Koyaanisqatsi, Lake of Fire, Leviathan, List, Night and Fog, The Act of Killing, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, This is Not A Film, Werner herzog

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