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Documentary Playlist: We Ought to Read

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
― Franz Kafka
Like the bulk of Franz Kafka’s monumental body of work, documentaries often aim to challenge one’s views, shake up one’s beliefs, or as Kafka himself puts it, affect us like a disaster that pains us so that we adjust our behavior, correct our wrongdoings or suffer the consequences. In his view, entertainment for entertainment’s sake has no value in relation to self-improvement and cultural progress. Thankfully, countless writers and filmmakers the world over have resolved the borders between enjoyment and enlightenment, allowing artistry and amusement to fuse into work that feeds our minds and enriches our souls.
As the documentary form continues to grow, the stories that are told are often condensed versions of extensive narrative trials that have been reduced down to something cinematically heartrending, morally challenging, and artistically edifying – all within a commercially palatable 90 minute running time. So, while the resulting films often prevail as poetically political achievements in and of themselves, there are sometimes literary counterparts that either serve as the inspiration for, or the narrative expansion of the stories held within.

Of the many documentaries whose authorship stems from or extends into the literary world, these six films will, as Kafka suggests they should, wake you up, move you, and still thoroughly entertain. May these excellent documentaries, varying vastly in theme and topic, serve as cinematic extensions of their esteemed written counterparts, which have also been listed below.

Project Nim
The story of a chimpanzee who was the focus of a 1970′s experiment to show that apes could learn to communicate through sign language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Corresponding Book: “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human” by Elizabeth Hess

The Devil Came on Horseback
Follows former US Marine Captain Brian Steidle as he documents the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Upon his return to the US Steidle campaigns for international intervention and becomes frustrated by the inaction of politicians back home. Corresponding Book: “The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur” by Gretchen Steidle Wallace and Brian Steidle

Chronicles the 15-month deployment of a U.S. soldier platoon sent into the deadliest valley of Afghanistan. Corresponding Book: “War” by Sebastian Junger

The Kid Stays in the Picture
Based on Robert Evans’ autobiography, the film traces the rise and fall of one of Hollywood’s most legendary and admired producers with humour, honesty and an enormous amount of style. Corresponding Book: “The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life” by Robert Evans

American Promise
A 13-year documentary journey following two black American boys from kindergarten through high school graduation at one of the most prestigious private schools in the U.S. Corresponding Book: “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life” by Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster

Life Itself
Explores Roger Ebert’s legacy, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as his his eruptive relationship with Gene Siskel, both of which culminated in his ascension as one of the most influential cultural voices in America. Corresponding Book: “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert