The Real World : A Scary Place

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart 10 November 2007

Not all documentaries measure their success simply by box office receipts. Some succeed by transforming the lives of the people they feature, others by changing the way we think or by provoking change in the things they criticise. Above all else, documentaries are the one genre of film that can genuinely change the world.

While they had retreated from the public domain and into the preserve of intellectuals for a long time, documentaries are back with a vengeance. Following the success of the likes of Nick Broomfield and, of course, the ubiquitous Michael Moore, everything from the career of U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (The Fog of War) to spelling competitions (Spellbound) has been dutifully recorded on celluloid.

With Michael Moore back up to his old tricks, using new film Sicko to attempt to change US healthcare policy, The Cambridge Student gives you five documentaries that changed the world…

1. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

When Errol Morris started to interview people for a documentary on death row in Texas he uncovered flaws in the conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a policeman. Remarkably, when interviewing David Harris, the key witness for Adams’ conviction, Morris secured a confession from Harris that he himself was guilty of the murder. The film righted a grave wrong and saved an innocent man from the electric chair. Not that this stopped Adams from suing Morris on his release from prison – now there’s gratitude for you…

2. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Not many films help their star to scoop an Oscar and (more astonishingly) a Nobel Peace Prize, but An Inconvenient Truth has had a far greater impact than just helping Al Gore to fill his trophy cabinet. This documentary is seen as so important that the government are sending copies to all secondary schools, although climate change deniers tried, and failed, to use the courts to block this. It has helped bring the climate change debate to the fore, changing the attitudes of people all over the world.

3. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Max Ophüls’ four hour marathon helped change an entire nation’s attitude towards the war. It exploded the myths of a nation pulling together to bravely resist the Germans and instead showed how many Frenchmen went along with occupation because it seemed the thing to do. In doing so, it made the exploits of those who did resist seem all the more heroic. So incendiary that French broadcasters initially refused to show it, special security guards were hired to defend cinemas from right wing demonstrators when they finally did.

4. Olympia (1938)

Leni Riefenstahl’s account of the 1936 Olympics changed filmmaking by setting the rules for capturing sport on camera. She had towers constructed in the stadium and built platforms for tracking shots. Cameras were attached to balloons and dug into the earth. Newly developed zoom lenses gave the impression of movement and picked out detail in the crowds. Despite its fascist sensibilities, Olympia’s lyrical portrayal of the athletic body and the aesthetics of sport remain stunning. The techniques Riefenstahl pioneered are still to be seen whenever we watch any sport on the screen today.

5. Super Size Me (2004)

Corporate America is not an easy thing to change but six weeks after Morgan Spurlock’s film wowed the audiences at Sundance, McDonald’s removed the ‘supersize’ option from its menu. They also introduced a revamped and healthier menu the day before the film was scheduled to go on general release. It’s hard not to feel that one man on a shoe string budget had made a documentary that was fun to watch and helped to change the behemoth of the fast food industry.Rudolf Eliott Lockhart

ot all documentaries measure their success simply by box office receipts. Some succeed by transforming the lives of the people they feature, others by changing the way we think or by provoking change in the things they criticise. Above all else, documentaries are the one genre of film that can genuinely change the world.

While they had retreated from the public domain and into the preserve of intellectuals for a long time, documentaries are back with a vengeance. Following the success of the likes of Nick Broomfield and, of course, the ubiquitous Michael Moore, everything from the career of U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (The Fog of War) to spelling competitions (Spellbound) has been dutifully recorded on celluloid.

With Michael Moore back up to his old tricks, using new film Sicko to attempt to change US healthcare policy, The Cambridge Student gives you five documentaries that changed the world…

1. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

When Errol Morris started to interview people for a documentary on death row in Texas he uncovered flaws in the conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a policeman. Remarkably, when interviewing David Harris, the key witness for Adams’ conviction, Morris secured a confession from Harris that he himself was guilty of the murder. The film righted a grave wrong and saved an innocent man from the electric chair. Not that this stopped Adams from suing Morris on his release from prison – now there’s gratitude for you…

2. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Not many films help their star to scoop an Oscar and (more astonishingly) a Nobel Peace Prize, but An Inconvenient Truth has had a far greater impact than just helping Al Gore to fill his trophy cabinet. This documentary is seen as so important that the government are sending copies to all secondary schools, although climate change deniers tried, and failed, to use the courts to block this. It has helped bring the climate change debate to the fore, changing the attitudes of people all over the world.

3. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)

Max Ophüls’ four hour marathon helped change an entire nation’s attitude towards the war. It exploded the myths of a nation pulling together to bravely resist the Germans and instead showed how many Frenchmen went along with occupation because it seemed the thing to do. In doing so, it made the exploits of those who did resist seem all the more heroic. So incendiary that French broadcasters initially refused to show it, special security guards were hired to defend cinemas from right wing demonstrators when they finally did.

4. Olympia (1938)

Leni Riefenstahl’s account of the 1936 Olympics changed filmmaking by setting the rules for capturing sport on camera. She had towers constructed in the stadium and built platforms for tracking shots. Cameras were attached to balloons and dug into the earth. Newly developed zoom lenses gave the impression of movement and picked out detail in the crowds. Despite its fascist sensibilities, Olympia’s lyrical portrayal of the athletic body and the aesthetics of sport remain stunning. The techniques Riefenstahl pioneered are still to be seen whenever we watch any sport on the screen today.

5. Super Size Me (2004)

Corporate America is not an easy thing to change but six weeks after Morgan Spurlock’s film wowed the audiences at Sundance, McDonald’s removed the ‘supersize’ option from its menu. They also introduced a revamped and healthier menu the day before the film was scheduled to go on general release. It’s hard not to feel that one man on a shoe string budget had made a documentary that was fun to watch and helped to change the behemoth of the fast food industry.

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart