A Brief History of Documentaries That Changed the World


A couple of weeks ago, an interesting comment popped up in one of our posts. On Tuesday, January 25th, we wrote (as countless other blogs did) about that morning’s Oscar nominations — the snubs, the surprises, etc. The next day, this comment from “ANGA” appeared: “Claims in the film Gasland have been widely documented to be untrue. See the investigative documents for yourself here,” followed by the URL for a “truth about Gasland” page. Here’s what’s interesting about that comment: all we did in the post was mention Gasland — we listed it, among the Best Documentary nominees, without comment.

At risk of getting ourselves mixed up in this controversy over the accuracy of Gasland, we will merely note that we’ve seen the film and it seemed awfully convincing to us; that Fox has responded to each of the claims being lobbed against him; and that ANGA is a high-profile natural gas company which certainly benefits from Fox’s reportage coming into question. The fact that they have the resources to troll the Internet and comment on blogs that so much as mention the film gives you some idea of what a documentary filmmaker is going up against when taking on big targets like this.

Whether Fox’s film ends up actually changing the way ANGA and other natural gas companies do business remains to be seen. But the discussion about the potential power of the lone documentary filmmaker got us thinking about other nonfiction films that changed things — from altering the cultural conversation to changing policy to actually saving lives. We’ve listed a few of our favorites below; feel free to add to our list in the comments.

Harvest of Shame (1960)

The great Edward R. Murrow’s swan song at CBS was this one-hour documentary for the CBS Reports series, which aired the day after Thanksgiving, 1960 — an airdate chosen purposely, to show Americans still full from their Thanksgiving feasts the conditions of the migrant farm workers who helped provide that food. The film was evocative, enlightening, and impassioned, closing with a typically eloquent Murrow summation: “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused, and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.”

The film certainly shed a spotlight on the plight of the migrant worker, though whether it actually changed their way of life is debatable; when CBS’s Katie Couric did a follow-up story on the film’s 50th anniversary, she found that much was still the same.

Titicut Follies (1967)

Acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman was just starting out in the field when he directed this searing slice of cinéma vérité, which was shot at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Wiseman’s cameras caught the unsettling treatment of inmates, who were frequently bullied, force fed, and humiliated by the institution’s staff. State authorities (clearly fearing repercussions from the film) tried to prevent it from being screened, on the grounds that Wiseman had violated the patients’ right to privacy. Though it was shown at the 1967 New York Film Festival, Massachusetts Superior Court judge Harry Kalus ultimately ruled that it should not only be pulled from distribution, but that all copies should be destroyed (!). Wiseman thankfully managed to appeal that decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, but they ruled that the film could only be shown to doctors, lawyers, judges, health-care professionals, social workers, and students; the court effectively banned the film from general distribution, a ban which held until 1991, when a Superior Court judge ruled that enough time had passed to render the privacy concerns moot (PBS aired it in 1992).

But perhaps the most interesting sidebar is the 1987 lawsuit against the institution, in which the families of seven inmates who died there sued the hospital and the state. Attorney Steven Schwartz argued that the film’s suppression kept the hospital operational and thus able to abuse its patients; he told the jury that there was “a direct connection between the decision not to show that film publicly and my client dying 20 years later, and a whole host of other people dying in between.”

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Perhaps the most famous case of the power of documentary film is the story of The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’s spellbinding “nonfiction noir,” which literally saved a man’s life. The film tells the tale of Randall Adams, a drifter who wandered into Dallas, Texas on Thanksgiving weekend, 1976, got into the wrong car when his ran out of gas, and ended up on death row for the murder of a Dallas police officer. He was convicted on the slimmest sliver of clearly unreliable testimony, and anyone who did even a modicum of poking into the case could probably guess that the guilty party was “little David Harris,” the 16-year-old runaway on a crime spree who gave Adams a ride and shared a few beers with him at a drive-in movie that fateful weekend. But only Morris, one of the best interviewers in the business, got what amounted to a confession out of Harris, by then on death row for another crime.

The attention surrounding the film (and not only Harris’s confession, but the convincing evidence that several witnesses had committed perjury) led to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturning Adams’ conviction. The Dallas County District Attorney’s office declined to retry Adams, who was released from prison in 1989 after serving more than 12 years and coming within 72 hours of being put to death.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Michael Moore’s 2002 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary had its detractors — some charged it with playing fast and loose with the facts — but it renewed the debate over gun violence in America and led directly to a change in one major company’s policies. Late in the film, Moore accompanies Mark Taylor and Richard Castaldo, two victims of the Columbine shooting, to K-Mart’s corporate headquarters in Troy, Michigan. Both young men still had K-Mart bullets lodged in their bodies. Moore informed the poor corporate flack that they were there to “return” the merchandise. At first blush, the sequence appeared to be the kind of uncomfortable ambush that Moore frequently staged on his TV shows — mostly done for the sake of the camera and the viewer. So even Moore was shocked when, the following day, a K-mart spokesperson announces that their stores would no longer sell handgun ammunition. “We’ve won,” he said, in disbelief. “This has never happened before.”

Super Size Me (2004)

Morgan Spurlock’s comic doc (a nominee for the 2004 Best Documentary Oscar) was an ingenious movie stunt: the director/narrator would spend one month eating only McDonald’s food, with rules requiring that he eat everything on the menu, always clean his plate, and “super-size” his meal if offered. The results are not surprising: he gains 24 pounds, increases his body mass and cholesterol, and basically makes himself miserable. Spurlock didn’t make McDonald’s terribly happy, either, but he just might have made them change their business model: as a tacked-on epilogue notes, six weeks after Super Size Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Mickey D’s quietly stopped offering the “super-size” option, and has since attempted to create and highlight healthier (or supposedly healthier) menu options like salads and wraps. McDonald’s hilariously insisted that the discontinuing of “super-sizing” was unrelated to Spurlock’s much-buzzed film. Uh huh.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

The environment had always been Al Gore’s hobby horse. He worked on environmental issues as a congressman and senator, wrote Earth in the Balance shortly before becoming Bill Clinton’s running mate, and became a fierce advocate of climate change awareness after leaving public office, giving frequent speeches and PowerPoint presentations that became the basis for Davis Guggenheim’s fast-paced film, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film’s tremendous box-office success (it grossed $49 million) and Oscar attention refocused the national conversation on environmental issues. Though it has been the object of derision by some climate change deniers and Gore foes, it is frequently taught in classrooms around the world.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Let’s be clear about this: Kurt Kuenne’s first-person documentary may very well be the saddest movie we’ve ever seen. But if you can take it, it is also one of the most moving and powerful. (You can go watch it on Netflix Instant; we’ll wait.) Kuenne documents the bizarre murder of his friend Andrew Bagby, who is gunned down in a park in 2001. The prime suspect is his girlfriend Shirley Turner, who flees to Newfoundland and announces she is pregnant with Bagby’s child. Bagby’s parents follow her, to wait out the lengthy extradition process and to see their grandchild — which involves spending time with (and, to a degree, supporting) the woman they’re certain killed their son. And then… no, we can’t go there, because don’t want to spoil the movie, and we don’t want to short out the keyboard with tears. Anyway, in 2003, David and Kate Bagby set out to change the Canadian laws that let Turner roam free, even as a murder suspect; in 2010, “Zachary’s Bill” (aka Bill C-464) was signed into law.