10 Incredibly Sad Documentaries
If truth is stranger than fiction, than surely truth can outmatch fiction in emotional engagement. Some of the most powerfully downbeat moments, scenes, and stories in the realm of film come from documentaries. Those who claim that the form is only good for educational or advocating purposes are severely mistaken. Here are just ten outstanding examples of how nonfiction film can take a viewer on a cathartic emotional rush. Lars von Trier said that a movie should be “like a stone in one’s shoe,” and all of these more than match that description. They are listed not in some arbitrary “ranking” of their sadness, but in the order of their release.
Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1995)
Married directors Steve Ascher and Jeannie Jordan turned the camera on Jordan’s parents to document their attempts to save the family farm. All great westerns are about the end of things, and this film, as a Midwestern, depicts the end of a way of life, as independent farmers succumb to the strains of a new age. As the Jordans’ efforts to salvage their home fail one by one, they slowly realize that their time is over.
SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)
Kirby Dick’s portrait of performance artist Bob Flanagan is an almost unbearable experience, and that’s owed just as much to the emotional intensity on display as Flanagan’s graphic acts of self-harm. Flanagan, suffering from cystic fibrosis, lived far longer than those with that disease are supposed to, and he attributed this to his sadomasochistic habits. But death came for him nonetheless, and his attempts to grapple with the end are as searing as they are strangely uplifting.
Perhaps the most overlooked work from Steve James, celebrated director of Hoop Dreams and last year’s The Interrupters, this film follows the relationship between James and Stevie Fielding. In college, James was a Big Brother to Stevie, but upon reconnecting with him after years apart, he finds Stevie living in squalor, addled by the crippling mental scars left by years of abuse. James tries to help Stevie the best that he can, but the troubling question of whether that’s even possible looms over the proceedings, and lingers long after the movie is finished.
Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)
Hubert Sauper traveled to the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, and found a world of desperation in this Oscar-nominated doc. The churning cogs of globalization have forced the impoverished residents of the Lake into taking drastic measures to survive. But not everyone makes it, and one person featured in the movie died during filming. These people’s faces and stories worm their way into the memory and refuse to leave.
The Bridge (2006)
For one year, Eric Steel kept cameras trained on the Golden Gate Bridge. During this time, twenty-four people jumped to their deaths from the Bridge, and he caught almost all of them on film. Through interviews with the deceased’s friends and family, this movie explores the reasons behind suicide, and these people’s choice of the Bridge to make it happen. If seeing on-screen death isn’t enough to make one break down, the devastated reactions of loved ones will.
An oft-ignored Holocaust from World War II gets its due in this film from Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman. During the Japanese occupation of China, the city of Nanking was the site of brutal atrocities committed by the invading army. This film is a cavalcade of disturbing inhumanity and unforgettable images. Survivors, perpetrators, and actors reading primary documents draw a vivid picture of the horrors of war.
Deliver Us From Evil (2007)
Amy Berg examines the phenomenon of child sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church, focusing on Father Oliver O’Grady and the children he victimized over the decades. Equal parts creepy and enraging, the movie showcases how institutional cowardice destroys lives. By the time one father breaks down during an interview and screams that there is no God, his shattered worldview may be contagious.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008)
Quite possibly the crowning member of this list, Kurt Kuenne’s deeply personal account of what happened to his best friend is one of the greatest documentaries of the 00’s. After Andrew Bagby was murdered in 2001, his girlfriend, who was strongly suspected of being his killer, was revealed to be pregnant with his child. When the woman fled to Canada, Andrew’s parents pursued to maintain a relationship with Zachary, their grandson. The way this movie builds and dashes hope absolutely devastates, as the story continues to take unexpected, upsetting turns. This is Kuenne’s attempt to preserve the good times, and that only makes it all the more depressing.
October Country (2009)
Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri spent a year with Mosher’s family, and it may be impossible to find an odder assortment of people. All of the Moshers have their own kind of personal pain, and they must work through unplanned pregnancy, run-ins with the law, and old grudges. This is a story about ghosts, and these characters’ pasts won’t let them improve their lot in life. It’s a tragic, seemingly unstoppable cycle.
The Arbor (2010)
Another documentary about cycles, this one about the unending entrapment of poverty. Clio Barnard profiles the deceased playwright Andrea Dunbar through unusual, experimental methods. Actors lip-synch to interviews with Dunbar’s family, and perform excerpts of her plays. Dunbar died young and left her children twisting in the wind, and they went on to repeat many of her mistakes, sometimes with blisteringly bad consequences. A deeply evocative presentation of a specific kind of life, this movie will make you feel the hopelessness of having no prospects.
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