Favorite Foreign Documentary Films

“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

Wasteland (Brazil)

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.


Fly safe,


10 thoughts on “Favorite Foreign Documentary Films

  1. Fabulous list, Jayne. A couple of weeks ago (in Australia) I saw the Intouchables. Perhaps not a documentary but based on a true story this should win an Oscar this year!

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