“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director. “ Alfred Hitchcock
Favorite Documentary Films in A Foreign Country
As I get older, photography and documentary films fascinate me. It is capturing that moment in time that will never be the same. Documentary films are like reality TV but with good editing and less manufactured drama. Watching a movie that takes place in a foreign country is a way of traveling for me. I can see things that I would not see as a tourist. It is learning the mentality, resilience and heart of the people. I am always amazed at how much I have in common with someone in a village in Africa, or a woman in a burka . At our core, human beings are not very different. Apparently we need to be reminded of this all the time. They are in no particular order and you can probably get them on netflix or watch them on HBO.
Burma VJ (Myanmar)
Director: Anders Ostergaard
Stars: George W. Bush, Ko Muang, Aung San Suu Kyi
Using smuggled footage, this documentary tells the story of the 2007 protests in Burma by thousands of monks. Burma’s videojournalists risking torture and life in jail make undercover videos and news reports with small hand video cameras. They smuggle the tapes out of the country to the international media. I saw this film after I planned to go to Burma (Myanmar) and instead of frightening me, it made me feel that there were so many brave people in this country. How many people would be filmmakers if it meant risking their life every day?
A Small Act (Kenya)
Director: Jennifer Arnold
Writers: Jennifer Arnold, Thomas Schlesinger
A young Kenyan’s life changes drastically when his education is sponsored by a Swedish stranger. Years later, he founds his own scholarship program to replicate the kindness he once received. It is a true story of the ripple effect of a single act of kindness. You always get back more than what you give. It is my favorite documentary film. I gave it as Christmas gifts one year.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Japan)
Director: David Gelb
Stars: Jiro Ono and Yoshikazu Ono
A documentary on 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, his business in the basement of a Tokyo office building, and his relationship with his son and eventual heir, Yoshikazu. It is also a good insight into the Japanese mentality about family and obligation.
Buena Vista Social Club (Cuba)
Director: Wim Wenders
Writer: Nick Gold
Stars: Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez
Aging Cuban musicians who had performed at a music club in Cuba in the 1940’s and fifties, were brought together to play with guitarist Ry Cooder on an album entitled Buena Vista Social Club. (the club’s name) Wim Wenders documented the performances and lives of these musicians. It was a resurgence of their careers and the golden age of Cuban Music. They only enjoyed it for a short time because they died soon after.
Born Into Brothels (India)
Director: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
Stars: Kochi, Avijit Hlader and Shanti Das
Born into Brothels follows the lives of seven children. Their mothers are prostitutes in the red light district of Calcutta. The children are given cameras and taught to see the world. It won the Academy Award for best documentary film in 2005. It is another example of how teaching the arts to underprivileged children can only help. I love this movie.
The Desert of Forbidden Art (Uzbekistan)
Writer -Directors: Tchavdar Georgiev, Amanda Pope
Risking being denounced as an ‘enemy of the people,’ Igor Savitsky rescues 40,000 forbidden fellow artists’ works and creates in a far desert of Soviet Uzbekistan a museum now worth millions.
Pray the Devil Back To Hell (Liberia)
Director: Gini Reticker
Stars: Janet Johnson Bryant, Etweda Cooper and Valba Flomo
This film tells the remarkable story of the courageous Liberian women who came together to end a bloody civil war . Thousands of women — ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters, both Christian and Muslim — came together to pray for peace and then staged a silent protest outside of the Presidential Palace. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, they demanded a resolution to the country’s civil war. Their actions were a critical element in bringing about an agreement during the stalled peace talks. Pray the Devil Back to Hell honors the strength and perseverance of the women of Liberia
Director : Lucy Walker
Stars: Vic Muniz, Zumbi, Taio, Sulo, Isis
Wasteland is filmed in the world’s largest garbage dump Jardin Gramacho outside of Rio de Janeiro Brazil. It is here that artist Vic Muniz and the garbage pickers ‘catadores’ create art. The project evolves into photographic portraits of the garbage pickers out of the garbage. It is a beautiful transformation story of art and the human spirit.
An African Election (Ghana)
Director: Jarreth J. Merz, Kevin Merz
Writers: Erika Tasini, Shari Yantra Marcacci
This political film follows the elections in Ghana in 2008. Anyone who takes their vote for granted should see this third world democracy struggle to have a fair election.
Koran by Heart (Egypt)
Director: Greg Barker
Koran By Heart follows two boys from Senegal and Tajikistan, and a little girl from Maldives – who go head-to-head with kids nearly twice their age in the pronunciation, recitation and memorization of the Koran during Ramadan. It the oldest Koran competition and takes place in Cairo. They are caught between fundamentalist and modern Islam. It shows our similarities more than our differences.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (France)
Director: Werner Herzhog
Writer: Werner Herzhog
Stars: Werner Herzhog, Jean Clottes and Julien Monney
The film ( shot in 3D) follows an expedition into the Chauvet Cave in France, home to the most ancient cave drawings known to have been created by man. This pristine artwork dating back to human hands over 30,000 years ago is almost twice as old as any previous discovery.
Beneath the Veil (Afghanistan)
Director: Cassian Harrison
Stars: Saira Shah
This is a documentary film made in 2001 about the conditions of women living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. It is brutal and barbaric and worst of all true.
Al Wei Wei Never Sorry (China)
Director: Alison Klayman
Al Wei Wei is China’s most famous artist. The film chronicles Weiwei’s struggle for human rights within his country and his use of art and social media to rally global audiences to his cause. I am a big fan of him and his work. When he was in jail, I signed the petition to free him. Apparently because of the internet, it went on my permanent record. It was interesting for me to see this in depth film.
Let me know some of your favorite foreign documentary films.
also, see favorite foreign films.