50 documentaries you need to see

Ten of the best nonfiction film-makers today choose their own favourites, from serial killer stories to meta pranks.

Joshua Oppenheimer

The Texan directors feature debut, The Act of Killing (2012), and its follow-up, The Look of Silence (2014), explore the aftermath of massacres in Indonesia. Both were nominated for Oscars.

Joshua
Joshua Oppenheimer, photographed at home in Copenhagen. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

Salaam Cinema, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1995

For this film, Mohsen Makhmalbaf announces a casting call: thousands of people turn up and theres a riot to get in. Each participant is channelling their worries and hopes into the desire to be in a film. He interacts with them in this dictatorial way, which makes the film ultimately about power and authority. He demands that people cry on command. One woman becomes so frustrated that she does start to cry, so he says OK, youve made it. And shes so happy, but then theres the disappointment as she realises this was her moment on screen. She thought thered be a script and a real film to make afterwards. Its a devastating, beautiful film.

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A scene from Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami.

Close Up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990

A man pretends to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the director of Salaam Cinema. He insinuates himself into a familys life out of loneliness, to make friends. At one point the family realise hes not really the director and have him arrested. The film follows this mans trial in an Iranian court, and then the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf meets the man and takes him to the family.

The impostors fragility ultimately embodies what it means to be poor and struggling in life, and through that you feel how sad it is that we live in a world where people are measured by wealth and power, and the cruelty that any human being could ever feel insignificant.

Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978

This was Errol Morriss first film. He was taking his time with it so Werner Herzog promised If you finish this film I will eat my shoe, which he did. Its about two families in California who run pet cemeteries, and it looks at humans relationships to their pets. Its an odd mystery, a pet. We eat animals, we use them for labour, but then we keep them in our home as objects upon which we project love that we maybe lack elsewhere. Morris has these carefully crafted tableaux: theres one continuous shot where a woman has a 15-minute lament, complaining about aspects of her life, and thats where the film becomes something altogether greater and more mysterious.

Loss Is to Be Expected, Ulrich Seidl, 1992

This was made shortly after the fall of communism in eastern Europe and it looks at two communities on either side of the Czech-Austrian border. Theres an elderly man in Austria looking for a new wife, and he meets a lone single woman on the Czech side of the border.

There are these amazing scenes where they go on a date to a funfair and then to a sex museum. Shes much more sexually comfortable than he is, which is a source of incredible comedy. But its about desire and love and the fulfilling of our quotidian needs and the necessary, wilful blindness towards our deeper needs because ultimately, to contemplate those needs is to contemplate our own mortality.

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A scene from The Hour of the Furnaces. Photograph: Tricontinental films

The Hour of the Furnaces, Octavia Getino and Fernando e Solanas, 1968

This is a furious, angry film about neocolonialism in Argentina, and its the most devastating look at colonialism Ive seen in nonfiction films. The sections about Argentinas oligarchy, and the exploitation on which they thrived, are so poetically rendered that you relate to the horror of dictatorship purely through your emotions.

It was made secretly and was screened at illegal opposition meetings, in defiance of the authoritarian rule. People were arrested for screening it. I imagine that seeing it at the time you would come out feeling like youd have to do something about the situation. There are sections of The Act of Killing where I surely had this film in the back of my head. KB

Lucy Walker: The Up series showed me what the medium was capable of

Director
Director Lucy Walker. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

British director Lucy Walker has been Oscar-nominated twice, for Waste Land (2010) and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011). She is currently working on a remake of Buena Vista Social Club.

Hoop Dreams, Steve James, 1994

Hoop Dreams follows two very talented African American boys in Chicago who get a basketball scholarship to go to a prestigious, predominantly white high school. It follows them for five years and its a spectacular example of a longitudinal documentary where you get to glimpse the machinery of life. You get a real sense of time unfolding and the big forces that act on us. The twists and turns are subtle, nothing much happens, and yet it feels incredibly dramatic and compelling because its so well crafted and the characters are so beautifully rendered. I watched it repeatedly when I was making my first film, Devils Playground, because it follows young people through this pivotal period in their lives, and I was trying to understand how you could get so much narrative, emotion and character into a film. Theres a scene where the mum is icing a birthday cake for her sons 16th birthday. Its an interview, in the sense that the film-maker is asking her questions and shes talking to camera, but it doesnt feel like one, its so much more cinematic and compelling and the activity is so perfect.

Streetwise, Martin Bell, 1984

This film had its beginnings in a photojournalism assignment for Life magazine by the photographer Mary Ellen Mark about a group of street kids living in Seattle. She persuaded her husband, Martin Bell, to make a film about them. Its just so intimate that its hard to believe the film-maker is actually in the room with these kids. Its like hes put on a cloak of invisibility. I could have chosen any number of cinema vrit masterpieces but for some reason this moves me. Ive made quite a few films with young people and its fascinating because the plot of their lives is so close to the surface: one conversation can change the course of your life when youre young in a way that is rare when youre older and you can capture that nano-second when the course of a lifes direction is altered. When you put a camera and a film crew into a room, the observers paradox is almost always true you cant capture life because youre in the way of it. But these kids seem unaware of the camera and theyre behaving in a way that feels like life unfolding. The filmmaker is so present with them, you cant help but understand what theyre going through, and to understand is to feel empathy and to want to help.

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The Five Obstructions by Lars Von Trier.

The Five Obstructions, Lars von Trier and Jrgen Leth, 2003

In this underrated film the iconoclastic Danish director Lars von Trier challenges experimental film-maker Jrgen Leth to remake one of his earlier films, The Perfect Human, five times, each time with a different creative constraint. The first obstruction imposed by von Trier, for example, was that the film had to be made in Cuba, using shots of no more than 12 frames. Another was that it had to be made as a cartoon. Its basically these two creative egos going up against each other and it gives a fascinating insight into the film-making process, what goes on in a directors head and how you cope with stress and constraint and challenge. Its delicious and playful and theres never a dull moment watching these two maestros needling each other.

The Gleaners and I, Agns Varda, 2000

This film was made during the early days of the hand-held digital camera, when for the first time you could capture something high-quality enough to show on a big screen on a camera that would fit in your handbag. Its an essay about the people who pick through other peoples leftovers, whether it be the remains of the harvest in the countryside, or in cities. Its very casual, but Varda is so astute and the quality of the film-making is such that it becomes something very beautiful, a meditation on life. Were having this golden age of documentary right now and its being driven by technology. In the past you would need to write a script first because the editing process was so laborious but now you can shoot a whole bunch of stuff and capture life in a way that you couldnt before and this film, shot by a 72-year-old woman using a very low-key format, shows you just what level of artistry is possible.

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Jackie in 21Up, 1978. Photograph: ITV

Up series, Michael Apted, 1964

Im fascinated by longitudinal film-making and this series, which has followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were seven years old, showed me what the medium was capable of. This series is head and shoulders above any other attempt to record dramatically a whole human life. And because its a whole group of people, you learn not just about the individual but also about the system in which theyre living. I cant think of any other artefact in our culture that can tell us so much about Britain in our lifetime and how society is evolving as this body of work. Its illuminating and fascinating and its one of the things that inspired me to do the work that I do. JOC

Alex Gibney: Fake home movies dont bother me you might as well object to dreams

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Going Clear director Alex Gibney. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Alex Gibneys award-winning films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012). Last year he released documentaries on Scientology and Steve Jobs. He says: I dont believe in five best films. But I do believe in influential films. These are five of mine.

Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, 1955

What really impressed me about this film was its concision. Its about the Holocaust, but it has a simple and horrible beauty to it, because it describes the terrifying nature of the Holocaust through a powerful series of images and a narration that was specific, naming the collections of items of the prisoners and survivors. Its the cruel poetry of detail that is so heartbreaking: the handles of the ovens, the fingernail scrapings on the ceilings of the cells. We see piles of combs, shaving brushes, shoes and a vast mountain of human hair. It took something so horrible but found a way to go to the heart of the matter through simple details.

Gimme Shelter , Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin 1970

Here you see the Rolling Stones on tour singing about sympathy for the devil, but their posturing about satanism blows back at them at the Altamont music festival. Its structured like a detective story: it starts with a murder a Hells Angel stabs somebody who seems to have a gun in the audience and then you go back in time. Maybe one of the most powerful scenes is of the Stones listening to a playback of Wild Horses in the studio. Its stunning in its simplicity. That film went way beyond a concert show; it celebrates music but its really about a moment in time and how dark forces get unleashed. Its powerful both in its observation and its analysis, which is a rare combination.

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Leon Gasts When We Were Kings. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

When We Were Kings , Leon Gast, 1996

This is maybe the greatest sport film ever made. It has wonderful cinema vrit footage of the Rumble in the Jungle, the famous 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Gast has the most magnificent material, particularly in Muhammad Ali on a run, dancing, gooning for the camera, at his most charismatic. And then the brooding figure of George Foreman. But Gast wasnt able to put that footage together, and in comes Taylor Hackford, shoots some interviews with people who were there, notably George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, and through their recollection you also have a sense of analysis and understanding rather than mere observation. So its combining those two things in the film that really is magnificent.

Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley, 2012

This is a detective story thats very much in the first person. Its about identity, trying to understand your childhood, and ultimately paternity. Sarah Polley is digging back into the relationship between her mother and father, who she discovers isnt her biological father. In some quarters she was criticised for using a series of fictional home movies that she manufactured, but it didnt bother me at all they might as well object to dreams and memories, because those are everyday recreations. The trick is finding the poetry in them. Its a very powerful film about memory and exploration and love, because she comes to appreciate her adoptive father in a way she might not otherwise have done.

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Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary.

Waltz With Bashir , Ari Folman, 2008

Part of the small but growing category of the animated documentary, Waltz With Bashir is really a film about repressed memory, and the recollection of Israeli soldiers trying to understand why theyre having these nightmares. The idea of using animation to convey what is mostly going on inside their heads, in their imaginations, is such a powerful one. It doesnt become clear until almost the end that the soldiers all took part in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacre in Lebanon in 1982. And the very end of the film includes just the slightest bit of real footage: a woman wailing in the wake of that massacre. It really is one of the most poignant films about the trauma of war. KB

Kim Longinotto: All the good TV documentaries are on the BBC at the moment

Film-maker
Film-maker Kim Longinotto. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

British film-maker Kim Longinotto tackles themes such as female genital mutilation (The Day I Will Never Forget) and women fighting abuse (Sisters in Law). Her most recent film, Dreamcatcher, is on Chicago women trying to leave the sex industry.

Shermans March, Ross McElwee, 1986

I saw this at film school, then watched it again at a festival a couple of years ago and thought it was so charming, so good. It has a very simple premise. The director is meant to be making a film about General Shermans march through Georgia during the American civil war, but he falls out of love with the idea. Instead, the film becomes about his attempts to find a girlfriend, shot as a kind of video diary an approach that was completely new at the time. Its so candid and affectionate and lovely, and everyone at the festival loved it. Not many films bear rewatching, but this one does.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Nick Broomfield, 21

Nick Broomfield has become much more serious and political in recent years and this is a difficult and committed film. Its about a man who was arrested in 2010 for killing as many as 100 prostitutes in Los Angeles over a period of 25 years. Whats extraordinary is how he managed to get away with it for so long the police didnt pursue because his victims were mostly black prostitutes. Its a very timely film, in terms of Black Lives Matter and police abuses in the US, and I thought he got it just right. Its also a really good crime story.

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Solar Mamas.

Solar Mamas, Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief, 2012

This is a film about Bedouin women trying to get solar energy in their village in Jordan. It follows one woman travelling to a college in India to become a solar engineer. I like it because its not saying, Oh, look at these poor women. Instead, it shows women actively changing their lives and I found that very inspiring. So many documentaries tell you what to think. This one doesnt it puts you straight into the story and you get to know the characters just by watching them. It was part of a very good BBC series on poverty. Thats where all the good TV documentaries are at the moment: on the BBC.

Virunga, Orlando von Einsiedel, 2014

I watched this in the cinema, which was good because its very beautifully filmed a real spectacle. Its set in a reserve in the Congo, which is home to the last mountain gorillas on earth and it follows the people who are trying to save them, as well as the corrupt people trying to get the land to drill oil. Theres a moment when the people in a neighbouring village are attacked. It was filmed so well, I dont know how they did it. Youre right in the thick of it and you feel so angry, because you know it all comes down to corruption and greed.

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Five Broken Cameras.

Five Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi, 2011

This is about a Palestinian man who films the destruction of his villages olive groves by the Israeli army. His cameras keep getting broken by the Israelis, hence the title, but he just kept filming. I think he was feeling: Theres an incredible wrong being done to my people, Im going to film it, even if I die doing it. Then he linked up with an Israeli film-maker, who edited the footage. I remember people saying he shouldnt have worked with an Israeli, but I thought it was so great that they came together and made something very powerful which showed us what is really going on in Palestine. KF

James Marsh: In my view there should be no boundaries to film-making

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James Marsh at the 2015 Palm Springs film festival. Photograph: C Flanigan/Getty Images

James Marsh is a British film-maker, best known for the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (2008) and the acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything.

Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929

This was the first truly subversive, playful documentary. Its notionally a day in the life of a city in the Soviet Union and so it has, on a purely sociological/historical level, great value. But what it does beyond that is to show you the means of production: the filming, the cutting room, the editing all the things that are going into the making of this film. Its way before its time, the Tristram Shandy of documentaries, if you like. Its so inventive and it has techniques that, 87 years later, still look pretty revolutionary: the freeze frames and slow motion. Its just full of inventive and brilliant formal ideas as well as being a very beautiful film to watch. And its informative too, showing us the Soviet Union in a halcyon period before Stalins terror, when you felt that things were still possible in a new political context. Of course we now know that Vertov suffered in the Stalin era, as many other independent artists would have done, but theres a sort of optimism and a playfulness to it that you wouldnt expect from a Soviet documentary from 1929.

Le Sang des Btes, Georges Franju, 1949

This is a documentary about an abattoir that was made in Paris just after the second world war. If the film had been shot in colour it would be unwatchable, its so gory and weird and disturbing, but its in black and white and so it becomes a bit more abstract. There are images in that film that I think are some of the most powerful Ive ever seen. Theres a surreal sequence where lots of sheep have been beheaded and theyre all dancing without their heads on this conveyor belt. Its like a bit of choreographed horror, but its all real. The director Georges Franju went on to have a career doing very artistic horror movies in French cinema, most famously a film called Les Yeux Sans Visage.

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The War Game by Peter Watkins.

The War Game, Peter Watkins, 1965

In this film, Watkins takes a possible scenario a nuclear attack on London and shows you very carefully, each step of the way, what is likely to happen. It was banned by the BBC for many years because it was just too harrowing a depiction of a reality that everyone at that time was very concerned about: this was in the middle of the cold warand at the time there were dozens of warheads pointing at us. Its like a documentary made by Brecht youre staging something to flush out a reaction in the audience, and that reaction is one of utter horror. Some people would say this is not a documentary because everything was staged, but its a speculative documentary the director is saying: This is how it could be and Im going to show you this in a way thats very truthful.Its very responsible, even if the imagery is very disturbing: youre seeing bobbies firing at people in the street, people with their clothes burned off. His information is sourced directly from the government and based on scientific fact, so the bed of it is factual, and people responded to it as if it were a real documentary.

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