Autostraddle Roundtable: We Love Documentaries

Nora, Fashion and Beauty Editor

1971 (2015) // Netflix

This film is about a group of friends living outside Philadelphia who become fed up with FBI’s intimidation of anti-Vietnam War activists. The crew plans a caper, stealing thousands of files from their local FBI office and submitting them, pre-Watergate, to The Washington Post. If nothing else, watching lawmakers of the era actually work together to protect Americans is pretty shocking.

The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 (2011) // Google Play, Amazon

The footage used in this documentary was shot in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and was lost for 30 years in the basement of Swedish Television! It features Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and various other luminaries discussing race, economics, incarceration, and power in mid-20th century America. Between the subjects’ knowledge and the extremely groovy footage, this film is thoroughly worth a rainy day watch party.

The Imposter (2012) // Netflix, Google Play

In 1994, Nicholas Barclay disappeared from San Antonio, Texas; three years later, a young man in Spain identified himself to authorities as the missing teen. I feel like I still don’t fully understand what’s going on in this documentary, but its extreme weirdness makes it worth watching. Bonus: this shirt.

KaeLyn, Staff Writer

We Were Here (2010) // Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube, Google Play

The actual best documentary about the historical and more importantly, the community impact of the AIDS Epidemic, featuring survivors and advocates from the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic. I show this every year in my LGBT history class and it is the best I’ve seen to truly feel what AIDS was and meant if you were lucky enough to not live through it.

Kuma Hina: A Place in the Middle (2014) // Netflix, YouTube, Google Play

This documentary follows Kuma Hina, a Native Hawaiian community leader, kumu (teacher), and māhū (transgender woman) that explores the struggle between Pacific Islander culture and Western colonization in Hawaiʻi. Kuma Hina encourages a young girl to take the lead role in an all-male hula troup as she teaches and practices the cultural traditions of Hawaiʻi in an increasingly Westernized world. This movie is so real and beautiful, it will cut you delicately.

Before You Know It (2012) // iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu

This film follows three gay seniors as they navigate community, self-identity, and love in our community that prioritizes youth and beauty. It’s a really beautiful documentary that’s surprisingly hopeful? It will definitely change how you feel about gay elders.

Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson (2012)

There’s a newer documentary about Marsha P. Johnson that is on the festival circuit and is coming to Netflix soon, but I haven’t watched that one yet. This 2012 doc is available free from the filmmaker on YouTube and it’s really heartfelt and lets Marsha speak for herself, including a ton of clips from a 1992 interview before her death. I love hearing her words directly from her mouth and it makes me heart hurt every time I watch it because she deserved so much more.

Priya, Staff Writer

The Keepers (2017) // Netflix

This 7-episode series follows the investigation into the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik. A harrowing tale that soon weaves in scores of people beyond Cesnik, this documentary series struck me in the heart. It’s powerful, emotional, and, in my opinion, so incredibly We find out what Cesnik may have been up to in her last days, but unlike a true crime documentary, finding her killer turns out to be one of the least importa

Heather Hogan, Senior Editor

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing (2005) // Amazon

Yep, what Kayla and Erin said.

Hoop Dreams (1994) // Netflix

I watched Hoop Dreams when I was the a freshman on my high school basketball team. It was a profound experience. It’s the first time I ever felt like a piece of art was actually being honest with me. I love a happy ending. I love a good Disney movie, even. But it was life-changing in the most important ways to witness how the intersections of oppression conspire against minorities in America, especially young black kids, no matter how talented they are or how hard they work. I grew up in one of the most racist places in the country with everyone around me insisting racism was over. Hoop Dreams was the ruthless truth. It remains the truth.

13th (2016) // Netflix

Essential viewing.

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  1. I really need to rewatch the Celluloid Closet. I saw it in a film class in collage over a decade ago and thought it was really interesting(also remember it being mostly focused on cis-gay men). I wonder now that I am out how I would find it.

  2. The UP series is so amazing. My roommates and I watched it together in grad school, and we would anxiously await each netflix dvd with such anticipation. I had forgotten about Neil until just this moment reading this post, but I about had a full-blown come apart watching his story unfold. Neil broke me, but luckily put me back together again by the end.

  3. “Southern Comfort”
    I think it’s on Amazon video in the US? If not, do yourself the favor and get the DVD.
    It could have been an entirely different story, following Robert, a trans man dying from ovarian cancer in Georgia, but it’s not what you think. It’s warm and full of love and friendship and family and I still think about this movie, over ten years after having seen it at some festival.

    Another one would be “Silver Girls” a German documentary about three prostitutes over 60 that I caught at a festival and it was just so beautiful and liberating, watching the women free themselves from societal expectation that I hunted down the DVD after it was finally released.

  4. The Lion in Your Living Room for the Cat People-it’s all about CATS and how they came to be living with you. Did we domesticate them or did they choose to be domesticated? What’s up with feral cats? Find out by WATCHING THIS DOCUMENTARY!!!

    The documentary about the creators of Wallace and Gromit is good: A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman. I didn’t realize how big of a thing they were/are in Britain, so that was interesting. CHEESE, GROMIT!

    “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is about this man who decides to take care of wild parrots living near his home in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. It is really sweet and will probably make you cry. I’ve seen it a few times because my Mom loves birds.

    If you want to learn/be horrified about Scientology, there’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” I wasn’t at all interested in learning about this until my Mom wanted to watch it and then I was HOOKED! Scientology is AWFUL! Apparently the book the doc is based on is even better, and then there’s Leah Remini’s doc and book which I haven’t seen or watched but want to.

  5. Has anyone seen Jesus Camp? Because as someone who was indoctrinated at a Christian camp from a very young age, that film left me WRECKED. It’s really, really good though.

    Also Tickled by fellow Kiwi David Farrier is brilliant and weird and a total mindfuck. You can’t imagine where it’s going even in the midst of watching it.

    • Jesus Camp! That film was seriously disturbing but also super fascinating. I read somewhere that the camp has been closed for a while now and somewhere I saw an article that caught up with the kids now that most of them are adults and they’re pretty much as messed up/traumatized as you’d expect.

    • Jesus Camp was so well done. Considering it was about the topic it was, I thought it did an incredible job giving you “a look at the culture” of the religion vs. a biased view showing you “the horrors” of it all and allowed you the space to make opinions on it all for yourself (which obviously is that it’s terrifying). It was nominated for an Oscar I believe…and has a woman director and editor so yay for that!

  6. Just had to come here to reiterate what Erin, Kayla and Heather all said about Shut Up And Sing. Best documentary of all time. I saw it for the first time ten years ago in my first year sociology class, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.

    The other documentary I would highly recommend, which I found randomly on Netflix one day a few years ago is Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, which I suspect many people here are going to be interested in. One caveat is that I wish they’d talk to more women, or queers, or POC, but I still found it really illuminating.

  7. If, in these dark times, you want to see a doc that’s a little lighter (to get your mind off things for an hour), allow me to recommend Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday. It’s about the world of motorcycles in the 1970s. It covers different racing events (street racing, enduro trials, dirt tracks, hill climbing, ice tracks, etc). It follows a handful of individual racers over the course of a year, so you get invested in their personal tragedies/victories (it has some good humor, too). Also, it’s got a lot of Steve McQueen.

  8. I love documentaries so I always love to see ones recommended that I haven’t seen! One of my favorites, especially when I need something uplifting, is First Position, which is about young ballet dancers competing to gain spots on elite dance companies (I’m fascinated by talented young people and this one was a bonus because it didn’t also feature overbearing stage parents). I also second the recommendation for Pink Ribbons, Inc and there’s a book that the documentary was based on.

  9. OMG thank you for this comprehensive list! This is all I will do every waking moment. Documentaries are my jammm. ps. I finally have a working computer for the first time in almost a year and I’m so excited because that means I will be better about commenting cause I hate typing on my phone!!

  10. Amazing selections and thank you all for adding new material to my gigantic list.

    I think one of the first documentaries I saw was La República Perdida (The Lost Republic). It’s a 2 part series, released in 1983 and 1986, about the history of my country, Argentina. The prime focus are the repeated Coups d’état we had, starting in 1930 and finalizing in 1983 (we had 6, because it seems we’re morons that like to repeat the same mistake over and over again hoping to get a different result). Still is one of my favorites and can’t help myself for watching it at least once a year.

    Other of my favorite documentaries are “The Corporation” (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, 2003) and “Memoria del Saqueo” (Fernando “Pino” Solanas, 2004).

    One that I considered essential viewing, although is very recent, is “Trapped” (Dawn Porter, 2016). I just need to add one thing to let you all know why is important: “Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt”.

  11. If you have seen, and enjoyed, “We Were Here” or “United in Anger: a History of ACT UP” I cannot recommend the documentary “Small Town Rage: Fighting Back in the Deep South” highly enough. It is about the Shreveport, LA chapter of ACT UP and it’s so moving and so stunning.

  12. SUCH AMAZING SUGGESTIONS! The ones I have seen from the list are top-notch.

    For The Bible Told Me So is excellent and supremely moving. I can also second Jesus Camp. And Going Clear (about Scientology) is really enlightening.

    …it turns out I love documentaries about religion/cults!

    ALSO Hot Girls Wanted – both the film and the subsequent series on Netflix (the incredible Rashida Jones is behind it) – is a fascinating look into pornography and various other topics related to 21st century sexuality.

    British documentary presenters Reggie Yates and Stacey Dooley (individually) front some excellent stuff. I can particularly recommend Stacey’s Young Sex for Sale in Japan and Reggie’s Extreme Russia series.

  13. so excellent! love love love these suggestions — in particular, Paris is Burning, 13th and Hoop Dreams.

    Of my top-shelf documentary picks, I would also add The September Issue, I remember watching it and completely not understanding why everyone thinks Anna Wintour is terrible — I just felt that this was an excellent editor-in-chief in action, and I have an absolute decisiveness-crush on Anna Wintour.

    Also, I absolutely fell in love with 20 Feet from Stardom, the documentary about back-up singers. *wistful sigh*

  14. Going Clear – the documentary about scientology and it’s history. If you’re into anything about cults or religions this is a must see. I was legitimately on the edge of my seat the whole time just in awe with every piece of information brought to the table.

  15. OMG I have so many opinions on this topic!!

    Let the Fire Burn – The story about how in 1985 the Philadelphia Police bombed a building occupied by the members of MOVE a black liberation organization. It uses news footage, MOVE promotional videos, and footage of the commission that followed.

    If a Tree Falls – Follows a member of Environmental Liberation Front in the months leading up to a trail for arson and terrorism in relation to several fires set by the group as a form of environmental activism in the Pacific Northwest.

    Planet Earth – All the amazing animals and landscapes you could ever hope for.

  16. BUT ALSO, “Helvetica” is a great documentary about everyone’s fav ubiquitous sans-serif that I tried and failed to trick three different friends into watching with me –

    “do u like documentaries?”
    “ok cool this one looks sweet let’s press play faster than u can read the title”

    “… Mick is this a movie about a font”

    – before accepting my fate & watching it alone


  17. Has anyone seen Child of Our Time? It follows children born in January 2000, and at first conce trated on childhood development, but is really interesting to see the impact of that social changes in childhood have on children, imo. Probably influenced by the UP series.

    Also the docu that jumped to mind was Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. I remember watching it when it first aired, and it was the firdt time I had seen mental illness talked about so frankly and without judgement on TV. I’ve watched it every couple of years since, and they did a 10 years later episode last year.

  18. I have cried through We Were Here several times. It is a powerful look at how a community was devastated. One of the few things that makes me cry juzt thinking about it is the AIDS quilt. This documentary made it even more poignant.

  19. On the “charming / uplifting” front:

    Did you watch Christopher Guest’s Best in Show and love it? Then you should watch “Chicken People,” about the world of competitive chicken breeders. The people are so sweet and lovely, their chickens are adorable, and their stories are a delight. I watched it on a flight back from Brazil and fell head over heels for it.

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