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

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Doc Soup: Top 10 Doc Films with a Social Agenda

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We’ve been talking a lot lately in the Doc Soup kitchen about really well made documentaries that actually effect change, so I’ve compiled a list of the Most Aesthetically Accomplished Documentary Films that Come with a Social Agenda. I’m not going to include war documentaries, although there happen to be several excellent ones (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, Taxi to the Dark Side and Restrepo are the first to come to mind; look for the Veteran’s Day list!) That’s a different sort of animal. This is a very subjective list, and I encourage you to give me your ideas about what you think belongs here and what doesn’t. Maybe Paris is Burning belongs here, as does Tongues Untied (POV 1991). But, honestly, those docs came out in my college years and I fear my aesthetic judgment was impaired by my activist zeal.

I give one to five ★’s in two categories: a film’s quality and its ability to promote a particular cause.


10) Supersize Me
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Fighting obesity and McDonald’s stranglehold on America ★★★★
Maybe this doc doesn’t really belong on this list because it didn’t actually have a social action plan, but if you consider the impact it had on how so many Americans perceive fast food, it had a profound effect for the social good.

9) Trouble the Water
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Fighting injustice on the Gulf Coast ★★★★
This is the sort of movie that gives the likes of JJ Abrams (Cloverfield) ideas about how to make mainstream feature hits, because it so adeptly shows life on the brink.

8) Waiting for Superman
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Improving the public education system in America ★★★★
Davis Guggenheim is the only director with two films on this list, and I think it’s because he’s a filmmaker first, and a cause-guy second. And, yeah, he’s got the money to make good-looking movies.

7) Food, Inc. (POV 2010)
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Agribusiness gone amok ★★★★
It’s not like this is a miracle in filmmaking; it’s just very well done — nicely shot, well-edited, good sound, good narrative structure, et al.

6) The Cove
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Dolphin slaughter and over-fishing in the oceans ★★★★
I guess this movie is a little silly in the way it tries to pass a dolphin cause-movie as a thriller with spy cameras and scuba gear and Japanese thugs. But it got me, and it will provide a sounding board for future doc filmmakers who want to appeal to the mainstream.

5) War/Dance
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Ending the abuse of children worldwide ★★★★
Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix use their background in nature photography to make an incredibly cinematic, sumptuous narrative about a dance contest in Uganda. If that sounds a little icky, maybe it is, but I dare anyone to come up with another documentary that makes Africa look more beautiful.

4) An Inconvenient Truth
Filmmaking: ★★★
The Cause: Raising consciousness about global warming ★★★★★
With good camera work, solid implementation of graphics, and a star (Al Gore) who was at his peak, this documentary became a phenomenon because of its ability to deliver a concise message.

3) Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Children of prostitutes in India ★★★★
Co-director Zana Briski‘s Kids with Cameras campaign has helped send children to school, and has spread to other countries like Haiti. This was one of those rare documentaries that felt like a film.

2) Harlan County USA
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Workers’ rights ★★★★
Director Barbara Kopple may not have had great technical skill, but her access to incredible characters in a remarkable moment transcends those limitations.

1) Roger & Me
Filmmaking: ★★★★
The Cause: Workers’ rights; Stratification of wealth ★★★★★
Back before he became The Mouth, director Michael Moore defined what it means to make a movie that’s a pleasure to watch at the same time that a vital message is delivered. It’s a movie that can make you laugh or cry — just like a Hollywood classic.

Now it’s your turn. Are there films that I’ve overlooked? Let me know what else you think belongs on a list like this.

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
  • Bobby Bonilla

    FOREIGNID: 31526
    Darwin’s Nightmare.

  • RT

    FOREIGNID: 31529
    This list is a really good start. (And of course, it depends on how you defined a “social agenda.) I might add The Farm and The Yes Men Fix the World.

  • lori p

    FOREIGNID: 31537
    Mighty Times The Children’s March is one of my favorites.

  • Cary Canning

    FOREIGNID: 31580
    This is a great list, but I would definitely include the documentary on one of our most important political and environmental issues of our time, the world’s water crisis, FLOW is a must see for the world!
    Great call-to-action film!

  • Elizabeth

    FOREIGNID: 31582
    After Innocence. Also, The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Both address the problem of wrongful convictions, and both are excellent.

  • Samantha Franklin

    FOREIGNID: 31583
    Excellent list. “For the Life of Me” by Jean Strauss is an amazing documentary about the plight of adult adoptees being restored their right to obtain their original certificates of birth.

  • RD

    FOREIGNID: 31584
    Black Gold, a film about the difference buying Fair Trade coffee has on the lives of coffee farmers in Ethiopia.

  • Aurora

    FOREIGNID: 31585
    Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls.

  • Blinn Combs

    FOREIGNID: 31586
    Manufacturing Consent, a documentory devoted to informing the public about how national media coverage is shaped by elite interests, is quite good, and a good deal more relevant today than when it was made.

  • Brook

    FOREIGNID: 31587
    Blue Gold, about the global water crisis and the commodification of the world’s water supply.

  • Julie Hannon

    FOREIGNID: 31588
    6 or 7 years ago, I saw a documentary called, I believe, “Social Class in America” which I found to be very powerful.

  • JT Alan

    FOREIGNID: 31589
    Marcel Ophüls “The Sorry and the Pity.”

  • Rob

    FOREIGNID: 31590
    I think all the directors deserved to have you include their names in your list.

  • Pat

    FOREIGNID: 31591
    GasLand is a very informative and powerful documentary about the destruction caused by drilling for gas in this country.

  • Brook

    FOREIGNID: 31593
    I disagree with the discription of The Cove as “silly.” I completely appreciated the spy thriller quality, as it made it much easier to take the oceans of dolphin blood. It was such an entertaining movie about a disgusting and brutal subject. And like any good Hollywood thriller, you had great characters, redemption, action, and real good vs. evil.

  • Arthur Loik

    FOREIGNID: 31594
    “Who Killed The Electric Car?” is excellent…I really wish more people would see it to instill some sense of outrage (and simultaneously, DEMAND) for these environmentally friendly vehicles. This film — as well as FLOW and Food Inc. — I believe are the most important pieces of social filmmaking out there today. They demand a change in how we think, eat, live, and view the world.

  • Lu Gronseth

    FOREIGNID: 31596
    MURDER ON A SUNDAY MORNING is a great Academy Award winning documentary.

  • Doc

    FOREIGNID: 31597
    Has anyone seen “Journeys with George”? A surprisingly candid behind-the-scenes look at George W. Bush and his relationship with the media and public on the campaign trail in 2000. I laughed, I cried.

  • Thom

    FOREIGNID: 31599
    The Take about umemployed workers occupying and running the factories and shops that were shuttered by the owners. It’s heartbreaking, inspiring and throws things like the IME and globalization into sharp perspective.

  • Andrew Barr

    FOREIGNID: 31600
    Yes..Who Killed the Electric Car is one…and also Traces of the Trade.

  • Jen James

    FOREIGNID: 31603
    “Cry of the Snow Lion” and “Sun Behind the Clouds” both about Tibet.
    Free Tibet!

  • Sueintheshoe

    FOREIGNID: 31606
    “Is there a Ruling Class in America?” , “Nobelity” “The Corporation” I love this list.

  • Jase Robertson

    FOREIGNID: 31611
    I second (or third) “GasLand”

  • Brian

    FOREIGNID: 31617
    GASLAND. Very importand stuff right now.

  • Jeff

    FOREIGNID: 31624
    There is a word for educational material with a point of view. It is called propaganda.

  • Phr33kzilla

    FOREIGNID: 31630
    What the Bleep Do We Know and the best series of documentaries of all time, Zeitgeist! There is the original called Zeitgeist, the sequel called Zeitgeist Addendum and coming in January 2011 Zeitgeist Moving Forward!

  • Phr33kzilla

    FOREIGNID: 31632
    All things, written or spoken or displayed visually, are propaganda. When you interact with anyone about anything you are propagating your particular view of the subject. So what is your point?

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 31635
    Just for the sake of clarity:
    prop·a·gan·da n
    1. information or publicity put out by an organization or government to spread and promote a policy, idea, doctrine, or cause
    2. deceptive or distorted information that is systematically spread
    I’d say that when most people think of propaganda, they think of definition #2; and that the docs presented here are neither deceptive nor distorting of the facts, nor are they systematically spread. As for definition #1; I think some of these docs could indeed be defined as propaganda. But, again, propaganda gets it evil insidious reputation because it’s associated with a powerful establishment (the Soviet Union; Nazi Germany) trying to delude the masses.

  • Saffy

    FOREIGNID: 31638
    Vietnam in the year of the Pig, The Mills of the Gods and The Fog of war: although they are about Vietnam, the messages about war transcend the decades.

  • s.a.

    FOREIGNID: 31641
    Titticut Folies by Frederick Wiseman.

  • The Situation

    FOREIGNID: 31642
    Second-ing (I think?) Manufacturing Consent!!

  • Joan

    FOREIGNID: 31644
    I ditto approve Food, Inc. and Black Gold and would give both 4 stars apiece because they bring a real spotlight on our foods and beverages that we in the 1st and 2nd World Countries consume every day without thought of where these things come from and how the people and creatures producing them are affected. I read “Fast Food Nation” long before seeing Food, Inc., but still feel this film was very well done. Black Gold was a (sad) revelation.

  • Charlotte

    FOREIGNID: 31645
    THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK got generations of GLBT to come out of the closet. And, TITICUT FOLLIES, forced a serious change in the treatment of mentally ill patients. I don’t agree with WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, I found it oversimplified and the attack on teachers union, cheap and irresponsible scapegoating.

  • Audrey Hoehne

    FOREIGNID: 31648
    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

  • Karen Sandness

    FOREIGNID: 31652
    This is too focused on recent films. One of the great documentaries of nearly 50 years ago was Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, about the plight of migrant workers. Sad to say, not much has changed since then.
    The Atomic Cafe, about how Americans were propagandized into accepting the possibility of nuclear destruction, is another oldie but goody.
    Among more recent films, I’d advise anyone who believes everything they read in the mainstream press about Venezuela to see The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which reveals what snooty country club Republican types the leaders of the anti-Chavez forces are.

  • Jody

    FOREIGNID: 31667
    LIke all of the choices, but the one about dolphins. Can we focus on humans who, if we help each other can be in a better position to help other species.
    Like the oxygen mask dropping – lets put it on humans first so we will be able to help animals.
    Another choice? How about Damned into Heaven, the documentary that brings out issues of polygamy and the lives being ruined because of the power hungry males who marry young girls and throw their sons into the streets to limit any competition.

  • Dianne

    FOREIGNID: 31668
    WalMart: The High Cost of Low Prices and I also love Up the Yangze.

  • malvinder kaur

    FOREIGNID: 31675
    i want to make docu. on female infanticide/gender bias which is reality in Indian culture…especially north….and irony today is in commonwealth games only Indian women were bringing in laurels….till today the bias is there….in a family men will be given more in terms of food…attention or anything…but not women and again the dichotomy the perpetrators are women only..conditioned by centuries of abuse….

  • s

    FOREIGNID: 31687
    inside job
    kilowatt ours
    why we fight
    the corporation
    fog of war
    the green builders
    the high cost of low prices

  • MH

    FOREIGNID: 31746
    “The Corporation” was great! I actually changed my behavior after that movie.

  • Shannon

    FOREIGNID: 31926
    What about: Farenheit 9/11, SICKO and Bowling for Columbine???

  • T

    FOREIGNID: 31962
    Wouldn’t this list make more sense and have some worth if you actually discussed the impact of these films on social issues, rather than just giving them an arbitrary star rating?

  • Meghan

    FOREIGNID: 33566
    I am a Film/Advertising student at the University of North Texas. I just wrote a blog post, for our school of Journalism blog, about Thin Line Film Fest in Denton. It’s a Documentary film festival. You should check it out and tell me what you think!

  • Sciatic Nerve

    After Innocence. Also, The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Both address the problem of wrongful convictions, and both are excellent.