Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: The 10 Greatest Moments in Documentary Film, Part 1

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It’s been a while since I’ve done a list (see my 10 most lugubrious docs and the 10 sexiest) — and as an unabashed advocate of the genre, here’s another. What makes for a great moment in a documentary? That can sometimes be a complicated issue, because some of the “greatest” moments are also the saddest, and it’s pretty callous to glorify other people’s tragedy. My standard for “great” here is pretty much those moments when I, as a viewer, feel that the documentary I am watching is transcending itself, and reaching out to me in a truly transportive, radical way. Sometimes, it’s a moment that demonstrates the medium at its best, and other times, it’s purely something that elicits my emotional reaction (or course, the two are not necessarily exclusive). Check these out and let me know if you have your own.

10: Roger & Me — I can pinpoint the moments when I first fell in love with documentary film. One was watching Koyanasqaatsi accompanied by a live performance from Philip Glass; the other is sitting at the Thalia theater in Providence, Rhode Island, watching Roger & Me. The moment with the woman who skins the rabbits was just so jaw-droppingly funny/real/sad that it had me at the edge of my seat — and opened a window to how powerful docs could be.

9: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) — Maybe it’s because I saw this recently, but toward the end of this riveting film, there’s a reunion moment that had me in tears. POV will be airing this later in the year (see the trailer here) so I won’t go into detail, but I defy anyone to watch this without getting weepy.

The Betrayal

The Betrayal, by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath will air on POV in 2009.

8: The Kid Stays in the Picture — The opening sequence of this film — from the raising of the red curtain to the thrilling effects of pictures floating in three-dimensional spaces, accompanied by Robert Evans‘ bizarre narrative voice — was the perfect introduction to a film that bathes in its own Hollywood mythologizing.

7: Grizzly Man — It’s not when Timothy Treadwell gets eaten that gets me; it’s when he says, “I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals.” And he did. This makes me realize I’ll have to do another list — the greatest doc characters. Treadwell is definitely in my top five.

Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog

6: Bowling for Columbine — I may be going against the grain here, but when director Michael Moore interviews Charlton Heston, the moment is so wrong, so exploitative, and yet so fascinating to watch that I have to put it on this list. Maybe it shows us that Moore’s brilliiant, or that he’s a bastard — but either way, it’s all about what he does best.

I’m sure you’re dying to know the five doc moments that made it to the top of my list — but you’ll have to check back next Monday! Until then, what are the documentary moments that really stand out for you? Let us know in the comments below.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Ruiyan

    FOREIGNID: 18228
    A few moments that came to mind right away:
    - In “Spellbound,” Neil, the young Indian-American boy whose father has hired hundreds of people in India to pray for his success in the spelling bee, falters when asked to spell “Darjeeling.” Darjeeling, of course, is an area in India, as well as the name of a tea. In that moment — coincidental and amazing and heartbreaking all at once — you’re reminded of history and colonialism and class and maybe the untold stories of Neil’s family’s struggles. Neil fails to spell “Darjeeling” correctly and is eliminated from the competition, tripped up on a word that comes from “his” culture. A reminder that real life is not only stranger than fiction sometimes, it has a far more biting sense of irony.
    - In “Harlan County USA” a thug working for the mining company tries to break up the picket line with his gun. Filmmaker Barbara Koppel gets threatened on camera. Even decades later this moment still manages to shock and give insight into the intensity of labor conflict. Later in the film a woman (one of the miners’ wives) pulls a gun out of her bra. You watch and think: This is what “class warfare” means. For me, this is why “Harlan County” is one of the best docs of all times.

  • edgertor

    FOREIGNID: 18229
    i love grizzly man, and i also love grizzly bear man:

  • Alan

    FOREIGNID: 18230
    In Sherman’s March, when the Easter bunny walks into the background during the discussion of the anti-Christ…. also, moments later, when McElwee ask the garage owner how his son died, and we see all of this proud, stoic man’s pain flood his face as he says, simply “it was cancer”. Incredible.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 18231
    Wow, I’m definitely going to have to see Sherman’s March again. I forgot both of those scenes. It gave me a chill just to read your description of them. As for Spellbound—yes, I was thinking of that scene as well as the first time we’re in the bedroom with the crazy weird boy with the goofy laugh. But the Darjeeling moment is really so much more—there’s so much truth in that moment that it feels like the celluloid could just about melt.

  • Vacapipopo

    the graph isn’t complete it appears to me either.  Not sure how accurate your tally is for each film. I see errors with Buck for example. 

  • Izisharp

    What about “Into Eternity”!?!?! Made my overall top 10 of the year. Fascinating film that challenges us to alter our perspective big-time (by millenia!) when considering nuclear power/proliferation/waste.

  • Elizabeth Tadic

    This list is completely arbitrary. What about the great Australian documentary for 2011 “Mrs Carey’s Concert”?