Jiro and son Takashi, in Jiro Dreams of Sushi

12 Father’s Day Docs:  Stepping Out of Dad’s Shadow

June 17, 2017 by Craig Phillips in Lists

Relationships with our dads can be complicated, as reflected in a collection of diverse, very worthy documentary films we’ve selected for Father’s Day viewing consideration. All of the dads depicted here had a major impact on the lives of their children in one way or another, even if not in every instance for the best. A majority of the films we found focus more on father-son relationships, rather than father-daughter, but we did pull out a couple of strong films on that side of things.

These are just some of our recent favorites; feel free to suggest more in the comments.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

David Gelb’s lovely little film (which aired on Independent Lens) is not just the portrayal of master sushi chef Jiro Ono, whose tiny 10-seat, 3-Michelin stars restaurant is based in a Tokyo subway station, but also a story of story of father and sons: Jiro’s youngest, Takashi, left Jiro’s restaurant to open a mirror image establishment while the older son, Yoshikazu, still works for his dad with the aim of eventually taking over the business (even while Jiro seems like he wants to work for eternity in pursuit of perfection). There’s a hint of resignation in Yoshikazu’s situation but mostly reverence for his legendary father.

Streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime (Dox or Magnolia Selects).

George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey

This tribute to a filmmaker father is a must for cinephiles: George Stevens Jr.’s’ portrait of his dad, Hollywood film director George Stevens. Alongside tons of clips from the many films in the elder Stevens’ lengthy career (which includes Giant, A Place in the Sun, Gunga Din, Swing Time, and many other classics), the film also includes precious home movies and private footage (Stevens shot the only color footage of the landing at Normandy), and more standard interviews with those who knew him. But ultimately this is the story of a son rediscovering who his father was, through multiple channels: a gifted artist and a good man.

Available on the Criterion Channel.

Daddy Don’t Go

This American Black Film Festival winner is about four disadvantaged fathers of various backgrounds in New York City struggling to beat the odds and defy the “deadbeat dad” stereotype. Nick Schager in Variety wrote of Emily Abt’s film, “maturely and poignantly captures the reality…A depiction of not only paternal devotion and sacrifice, but also the difficulty of breaking cycles of personal and parental neglect and trauma, this stirring film derives much of its power from its non-judgmental, warts-and-all perspective on its subjects.”

Streaming on the Starz channel and via Kanopy.

See also the POV short film: American Promise: Teaching Fatherhood

Daddy & Papa

This inspiring Independent Lens film by Johnny Symons is a great one to celebrate Pride Month as well, portraying the struggles and triumphs of gay fathers and their children, told with humor, honesty, and eloquence.  “In this remarkably lucid documentary, filmmaker and gay father Symons traces the evolution of his paternal feelings while also following the stories of a wide range of gay families.”— LA Weekly

Available to stream via Kanopy, and on DVD.

Five Broken Cameras

A West Bank Palestinian journalist, Emad, gets a camera after his fourth son Gibreel is born and subsequently captures five years in the life (with five different cameras, as the title suggests), as Gibreel celebrates birthdays in the dangerous world around him. How a film set in a disturbing reality also manages to be so funny and warm is kind of a miracle, but Emad and Guy Davidi’s Oscar-nominated film does just that. Here are people trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, to live life where there are kids’ birthday parties and roads are paved, while bombs go off and children are arrested by Israeli soldiers.

Streaming on Kanopy, Fandor, and SundanceNow.

Stories We Tell

Actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley’s multi-layered, fascinating story of her search for her (possibly) “real” father, and relationship with the father who really raised her, Michael Polley. As well as a portrayal of her own complex mother, an actress. Polley uses unusual storytelling methods at times here to get at a greater truth. With whatever “tricks” she employs here, ultimately, it’s to a purpose and all quite moving.

Available for rent on most streaming services.

The Other F Word

Flawed but engaging look at fatherhood through the eyes of aging punk and hard rockers-turned-dads as they try to raise children despite the complications of their careers. I confess even as a punk rock fan I was not a huge fan of most of these bands (NOFX, Rise Against, Blink-182), but found these dudes endearing, even if the film could’ve been more probing. As Jeanette Catsoulis wrote in The New York Times, “Men who never expected to live long enough to start families now find themselves torn between punishing tour schedules and the determination to attend a father-daughter dance. And instilling values in your offspring is a tad more challenging when, like Fat Mike of NOFX, you have a dominatrix tattooed on each arm.”

Streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Eagle Huntress

This inspiring and gorgeously shot film follows Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl in Mongolia who trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her Kazakh family to be an eagle huntress. It’s the story of father and daughter, too, as her dad Nurgaiv defies tradition and helps her learn to train golden eagles, and then captures and trains her own eaglet. After winning a competition, the film shows the journey of father and daughter as they travel together to the mountains in the winter in her final steps to becoming a fully-fledged eagle huntress in the extreme cold.  

In an Australian newspaper article that also addresses the question some critics had on how real everything depicted in the film is, director Otto Bell talks about what he really felt was the heart of his film: a story about a dad and his daughter.

Available for rent on various streaming platforms.

Thank You For Playing

Get out your handkerchiefs for this beautiful tearjerker about Ryan, a video game programmer who, after he learns that his young son Joel has cancer, begins documenting with his wife their emotional journey over two years creating the game “That Dragon, Cancer,” which evolves from a cathartic exercise into a critically acclaimed work of art that sets the gaming industry abuzz. The resulting video game is a poetic exploration of a father’s relationship with his son, an interactive painting, a vivid window into the mind of a grieving parent. And the film mirrors the game, finding intimacy and catharsis in an unimaginable situation.

Available for rent on most streaming services.

My Nazi Legacy

A chilling portrayal of two sons whose fathers served the Nazi Germany regime, one who essentially cannot process his patriarch’s role in the atrocities, the other who has come to terms with it with resentment and acceptance. David Evans’ film uses renowned British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands as a guide, as Evans probes (and prods) the these two adult sons while investigating their fathers’ stories. Not the most traditional way to “celebrate” fatherhood, My Nazi Legacy is nonetheless is an important look at the way sons overcome (or don’t) the burden of guilt.

And now, to end on a happier note:

Life Animated

This oscar-nominated film tells the inspiring story of Owen Suskind, who as a child was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and unable to speak or understand speech (“it was like someone had kidnapped our son,” his dad remembers), until his family discovered they could communicate with him through Disney animated films. Owen’s father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, later wrote a book about it which became the basis for this wonderful film by Roger Ross Williams. We see Owen today, a more articulate young man about to graduate from a special school which will be followed by him trying to live more independently, while alternating going back to a childhood jumbled by his developmental disorder. 

Through his love of films like Aladdin (Ron does a very good Gilbert Gottfried-as-Iago the parrot) and The Little Mermaid, Owen started to pick up language, and gained an ability to more effectively relate to real-life situations through these films. (When his older brother Walter was mad about turning nine, Owen told his parents, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”)  

It’s a beguiling film, unflinching in its portrayal of the challenges of autism, and of loss and rediscovery in a family that never lost sight of love for one another, whatever life dealt them.

Streaming on Hulu.

[For a similar story see also the documentary The Horse Boy, Rupert Isaacson’s story of his son discovering his condition improved when he comes in contact with horses and other animals. The family then makes a journey to Mongolia as part of their quest for healing.]


See the Independent Lens film Accept the Call, which is about a very complicated, challenging relationship between father and son but one that ultimately demonstrates hope for redemption and mending a relationship.

Available currently on PBS Passport.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.