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20 Character Driven Documentary Favorites From 2014

What can we say? 2014 was a cornerstone year for docs. Now, more than ever, we can cry out that “documentary is not a genre” and work to redefine the boring, dry, talking heads comes to mind when a friend suggests watching a documentary together. Documentaries can be thrillers, dramas, comedies, romance, adventures, and feel-good films. And Influence Film Club’s 20 Character Driven Documentary Favorites are a testament to that. Narrowing this list down to 20 was no easy task, but after weeks of debate we carved out a list of this year’s documentary favorites.

Advanced Style
Based on Ari Seth Cohen’s blog, ADVANCED STYLE paints intimate and colorful portraits of seven independent, stylish New York women aged 62 to 95 who are challenging conventional ideas about beauty, aging, and Western’s culture’s increasing obsession with youth.

The Case Against 8
THE CASE AGAINST 8 offers a behind-the-scenes look inside the historic case to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The film follows the unlikely legal team and the two same-sex couples who act as plaintiffs in the story of how they took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Life Itself
LIFE ITSELF explores Roger Ebert’s legacy, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism at the Chicago Sun-Times and his eruptive relationship with Gene Siskel, all culminating in his ascension as one of the most influential cultural voices in America.

Art and Craft
Beginning as a cat-and-mouse art caper concerning one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, ART AND CRAFT is rooted in questions of authorship and authenticity, eventually giving way to an intimate story of mental health and the universal need for community, appreciation, and purpose.

The Possibilities are Endless
After experiencing a stroke, Edwyn Collins could only say two phrases: ‘Grace Maxwell’ and ‘The Possibilities Are Endless’. Placed inside Edwyn’s mind, we embark on a  journey from the brink of death back to language, music, and love on an intimate tale of rediscovery.

The Overnighters
THE OVERNIGHTERS is the story of the broken, desperate men chasing their dreams and running from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields and the local Pastor who risks everything to help them.

Jodorowsky’s Dune
Exploring the genesis of one of cinema’s greatest epics that never was – cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune – this inspirational story about the power of the creative spirit establishes Jodorowsky as a master of cinema and a true visionary.

CITIZENFOUR gives audiences unprecedented access to filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s encounters with Edward Snowden as he hands over classified documents providing evidence of mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency.

India’s Daughter
INDIA’S DAUGHTER depicts the investigation of the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old female medical student on a moving bus in Delhi, India, in December 2012.

Almost There
For filmmakers Rybicky and Wickenden, Peter Anton’s home is a treasure trove, a startling collection of unseen and fascinating paintings, drawings, and notebooks, not to mention Anton himself. ALMOST THERE is a remarkable journey following a gifted artist through startling twists and turns.

Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter are four members of the Emergencies Team, the most intrepid division of the respected, international Human Rights Watch organization. E-TEAM is the personal, intimate story of how they lead their lives as they set out to shine light in dark places and give voice to thousands whose stories would never otherwise have been told.

The Look of Silence
Through its footage of perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide in THE ACT OF KILLING, a family of survivors discovers how their son was murdered and the identities of the killers. THE LOOK OF SILENCE serves as a powerful companion piece that initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

Rich Hill
Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, cousins with family connections to the community of RICH HILL, return to chronicle the lives of three boys in an examination of the challenges, hopes and dreams of the residents in rural Missouri.

Garnet’s Gold
GARNET’S GOLD follows one extraordinary man’s quixotic adventure in search of hidden treasure, in a belated rite of passage to rediscover the meaning of his life.

Finding Vivian Maier
The discovery of over 100,000 photographs hidden away in various storage lockers unveiled the story of Vivian Maier, a mysterious nanny, who is now considered one of the 20thcentury’s greatest street photographers.

That Sugar Film
Follow director Damon Gameau as he embarks on a unique experiment to document the effects of a high sugar diet on a healthy body, consuming only foods that are commonly perceived as ‘healthy’. THAT SUGAR FILM will forever change the way you think about the foods you eat and the hidden sugars lurking nearly everywhere.

Meet the Patels
Filmed by Geeta V. Patel, the sister of Ravi – an almost-30-year-old Indian-American who enters a love triangle between the woman of his dreams and his parents –in what started as a family vacation video, MEET THE PATELS is a hilarious and heartbreaking film about how love is truly a family affair.

VIRUNGA is a gripping exposé of the realities of life in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the incredible true story of a group of brave people risking their lives to build a better future in a part of Africa the world has forgotten.

Point and Shoot
With a gun in one hand and a camera in the other, 28-year-old OCD-afflicted Matthew VanDyke set off on a 35,000-mile motorcycle trip through Northern Africa and the Middle East, where he undergoes a self-described “crash-course in manhood.”

20.000 Days on Earth
Delving into Nick Cave’s artistic processes, 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH takes us deep into the heart of how myth, memory, love and loss shape our lives, every single day. Fusing drama and documentary this film is a beautiful ode to the artistic process and an intimate portrayal of one musician’s creative journey.

Spot On Directors: Orlando von Einsiedel

When Influence Film decided that we needed to start a monthly Film Club of our own, it was pretty obvious that VIRUNGA was at the top of our list to start out 2015. We watched it, we loved it, and the film deals with a gamut of issues that are worth discussing.

To start the month out right, we want to introduce you to Virunga’s director Orlando Von Einsiedel – With his documentaries spanning Africa, Asia, America and the Arctic, winning numerous awards, screening at the world’s top film festivals and encompassing everything from a skateboard school in Kabul to the tracking and arrest of pirates in West Africa, you could genuinely say that Orlando’s filmography thus far is down right impressive. Praised by critics for his fearless filmmaking and strong sense of the people and places he covers, Orlando’s eye for striking shots, combined with his compelling global investigations into social issues, have ensured that he is unequivocally an original and talented filmmaker on the rise.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

There are so many incredible people in the world. As a documentary maker I feel honoured that I get to follow such inspiring people’s lives and tell their stories. And, if in sharing these people’s brilliant lives with audiences across the globe, it can in a small way make our world a little bit better, it makes me a very happy person.

What is your own history with documentaries? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I cut my teeth in documentary filmmaking by producing journalist investigations for a number of years. I moved away from them after a while and began to concentrate more on verite films that were more positive in tone. For a long time I was most interested in looking for inspiring and hopeful stories in places more known for much more negative elements.

It was a story of hope and rebirth that led me first to Virunga although the situation on the ground changed quite rapidly shortly after I arrived and the film became something quite different. In the end, I was forced to bring the two elements of my filmmaking together (journalistic investigative work and vérité techniques) in order to wrestle the narrative into something coherent and adequately tell a story of oppositions – hope verses greed.

Is your experience with Virunga like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?

This project has really been unique and I can honestly say I’ve never experienced anything quite like it; from the dangers involved in the investigation and working throughout the war through to incredible moments with the park’s stunning wildlife and mountain gorillas. That said, the thing that stood out the most is the bravery of the park’s rangers. I’ve never met people with more honor and integrity. Over 140 have died in the line of duty in the past 15 years. I found it deeply humbling to work with these are men and women who are willing to get up each day and willingly put their lives on the line for something bigger than themselves. Virunga National Park holds the keys to the economic development of the entire region and with that comes the real potential for long-term stability and peace in a region that’s experienced 20 years of war. The rangers know this only too well.

Virunga is a beautifully shot documentary that plays more like a thriller than your typical doc – how did you come across the story of the film, and how did it develop?

As I mentioned before, I first went to Virunga National Park because I was interested in trying to tell a positive and hopeful story from Congo. The story of the park’s ambitious development projects and the rangers protecting mountain gorillas in order to drive forwards economic prosperity and peace to the region was just that. It wasn’t long however before the story started to take a u-turn with a new civil war beginning right in the park itself and a British oil company illegally exploring for oil in the park in the midst of this rapidly deteriorating security situation. As a documentary maker you need to be able to let the story take you in different directions to what you originally anticipated.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

I think there are two main things that people recognize. Firstly, they understand that what is happening in Virunga National Park really is a metaphor for a process happening throughout the world to protected areas. Secondly, they realize that if somewhere as iconic and important as Virunga National Park falls in the face of corporate interests, what is left on our planet that can be protected?

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is? What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching Virunga?

I would ask everyone to visit our website – virungamovie.com. There are a number of small actions we suggest people to do if they have been affected by the issues within the film and want to engage:

-Spread the word far and wide about the film and the issues at its heart
-Sign up to our website so that we can keep you informed about actions to support the park
-Donate directly to the park itself at virunga.org/donate
-Check your shares, pension schemes, insurance etc. You may not be directly invested in SOCO International but you will probably have shares in one of their institutional shareholders as many of them are household names – a full list of these companies is available to download on our website – and if you do, we ask that you write to them and ask them what pressure they are putting on SOCO to unconditionally withdraw from Virunga National Park and to adequately address the allegations put to them in the film.

 Are there any other important actions people can can take? On a small scale (ie sign a petition, buy eco-chocolate, etc)? What about on a big scale (donate funds, write letters, visit the area, etc)?

If there was one other thing I would say, it would be to go and visit the park. Since the film was finished the security situation has actually dramatically improved in the region and both gorilla treks and hikes to the top of the stunning Nyiragongo volcano are open and safe. It’s obviously not like going on holiday in Spain but it is an experience you will never forget and it directly benefits the park and the rangers. It’s hard to describe just how life affirming it is staring into the eyes of one of the 880 mountain gorilla left on the planet. You can get more info about this at visitvirunga.org

What are the six best documentaries…

…of all time?

-Iraq in Fragments
Hoop Dreams
Man on Wire
The Act of Killing
-Afghan Star

 …of 2014?

Point and Shoot
Case Against 8
Life Itself
-Art and Craft

…to watch if you loved Virunga? Why?

The Cove: A great example of a film using an exciting premise (a heist narrative) and a strong story to put forward a social issue and with that, bring a wider audience to the film.

-The Ambassador: Ingenious use of undercover cameras.

-Darwin’s Nightmare: Excellent film showing the complex relationships between, and motivations of, different (and often foreign) power brokers in Africa’s Great Lakes region and how the end result often leads to poverty and misery for local people.

-The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey: A film that really shows the connectedness and importance of Congo to the wider world.

Blackfish: A powerful thriller narrative about humans’ treatment of animals.

Big Men: A unique story about oil exploration and exploitation in Africa from the point of view of the oil industry.


VIRUNGA is Influence Film Club’s featured film for January. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

To stay up to date with our Film of the Month subscribe to our newsletter We Love Docs!  and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Interview by: Isis Marina Graham

Documentary Playlist: I Can’t Breathe

“I Can’t Breathe” – Eric Garner

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American New Yorker, was harassed by two police officers under the pretence that Garner was illegally selling single cigarettes. After a series of comments expressing his frustration with their unwarranted persecution Garner was forced into a chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, a tactic banned by the New York City Police Department. He managed to choke out the phrase, “I can’t breathe!” eleven times before he was pronounced dead by the city medical examiners an hour later.

Garner’s murder has been but one of several recent high profile cases in which police took the lives of unarmed black men – the shootings of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri and Oscar Grant III by Officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California remain burning examples of democratic injustice. Not only does each case observe a distinct failure to do one’s civic duty to protect and serve while keeping in mind one’s need for probable cause to take action, but more dishearteningly each highlights the fact that racism continues to haunt America and that the judicial systems in place, meant to yield justice for those who’ve been wronged, have been corrupted by this lingering racism. In response, nation wide protests have broken out, masses of people staging “die-ins” while wielding the phrases “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” as calls to action.

What’s important to remember is that these demonstrations are not just enraged responses to specific injustices, but public reminders that democracy is constructed around social action and that America should be a place where one’s race should not make them a target for suspicion and fear. Black lives do matter, and filmmakers around the world have contributed to this conversation with their varying films that dare to ask how these prejudices have come about, how as a culture we’ve tried to overcome them, and why we need to look to the future for reasons to continue to seek equality and justice for people of all colors.

These six films shine a light on racial injustice and those who stand against it.

The Central Park Five

Examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a woman in Central Park. After having spent between 6 and 13 years each in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime, exonerating the convicted innocent men.

The Black Power Mixtape

Essential viewing to anyone concerned with contemporary U.S. history, this film is a compilation of footage shot by a group of Swedish journalists following the American Black Power Movement between 1967 and 1975.

The House I Live In

For 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and damaged poor communities globally. Hear the stories of people from all levels of America’s drug war.

The Interrupters

The moving and surprising story of three brave people who aim to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. This film is an intimate view of violence, its causes, and its interrupters.

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.

Fire in Babylon

The fast-bowling, fired-up West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 80s – one of the most gifted teams in sports history – triumphs over its colonial masters, rewriting the rulebook in the sport originally handed down from master to slave.

Thank you for sharing your image: The All-Nite Images

Documentary Playlist: Often a Woman

“Any society that is silencing its women has no future.” – Hafsat Abiola

“Media images contribute greatly to how we think about ourselves in relation to others. When marginalized groups in society are absent from the stories a nation tells about itself, or when the media images are rooted primarily in stereotype, inequality is normalized and is more likely to be reinforced over time through our prejudices and practices.” – Dawn Porter, director of Gideon’s Army

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, more than 40% of the documentaries screened were directed or produced by women, though this is not the industry norm. These numbers dwindle when the catalog is expanded beyond the mountains of Park City. Unlike the absence of women from the lineage other art forms that Virginia Woolf implies in A Room of One’s Own, the voices of female filmmakers are rightfully an essential part of film history and have been heralded all the way back to Leni Riefenstahl through Agnès Varda, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Kopple, Naomi Kawase and a lengthy list of other incredible artists who’ve embraced their femininity as an asset to challenge the world around them and push cinematic and cultural boundaries by obliterating expectations of effeminate chastity.

Carrying on the documentary traditions of their directorial foremothers, female filmmakers today are forging their own paths to cinematic truth by excavating issues ranging from family and child development to nature preservation, aging, and the list goes on, all with sharp intellectual engagement and a natural maternalism, yet this natural affection for their subjects does not define them as artists. Rather, they wield it as an additional dimension of expression that enriches their creative vision with something uniquely female – something cinemas everywhere could always use a little more of.

These six films, each politically poignant and deeply emotional works, were directed by female filmmakers currently working today.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
A highly original documentary that explores how we construct our own reality through stories. Sarah Polley’s family and friends weave different narratives into a complex portrait of her mother who died when Sarah was eleven.

The Crash Reel (Lucy Walker)
U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce takes a near-fatal crash. This is the story of his recovery, which exposes the irresistible but potentially fatal appeal of extreme sports.

Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore)
Tells the stories of five members of the chess team from an inner city junior high school that has won more national championships than any other in the country, and follows the challenges these kids face in their personal lives as well as on the chessboard.

Advanced Style (Lina Plioplyte)
Based on Ari Seth Cohen’s famed blog of the same name, this documentary paints intimate and colorful portraits of seven independent, stylish New York women aged 62 to 95 who are challenging conventional ideas about beauty, aging, and Western’s culture’s increasing obsession with youth.

Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
The story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. The film shows just how nature can get revenge on man when pushed to its limits.

Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal)
An unconventional film told through the spectacular, large-scale photos by Edward Burtynsky as he visits ‘manufactured landscapes’ – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines, dams – in China and beyond

On the Way: With Cristina Ljungberg

Falling in love with documentaries means you are now destined to spend your life telling the people around you about all the great films they Absolutely Must See.  If you’re Influence Film co-founder Cristina Ljungberg, falling in love with documentaries means you don’t just limit yourself to the people around you; you instead put your brains, savvy and enormous drive towards making sure the whole world sees these important and entertaining films, because you know that docs can make a difference. In Influence Film Forum’s interview series  On Their Way Cristina fills us in on mushrooms, the 3 B’s and something called Ringly.

How do you get to work each day?

Getting to work each day on foot is an absolute gift, when it’s not raining or snowing.  It takes me about 7 minutes.

What project are you currently working on?

Influence Film Club is keeping me busy, along with supporting about 15 projects through IFFoundation.

When do you feel most creative?

I think the saying is the 3 B’s: Bed, Bath and Bus.  For me it’s more like Running, Airplane and Massage.  If totally relax and let my mind wander amazing things start happening.  I just need to remember, not only to make notes, but review them later.

What is your favourite way to relax?

On the couch, watching great films.  A documentary, of course!  Just watched Dinosaur 13 last night.

What are your current obsessions …


It’s mushroom season in Sweden.  I can’t get enough.  I know I have reached my limit if my eyes are swollen in the morning.  It’s only happened once.  I am also obsessed with foraging for wild greens.


I am still waiting for someone to invite me to swim with the whales at the Tonga Islands.  In the meantime, I am longing to go back to Vienna.


I can’t wait to get my Ringly.  I have pre-ordered this ring that will sync with my phone.  It looks like jewelry, but it’s really a bunch of technology jammed in a beautiful ring.

Reading or watching:

At home we are reading, Big Questions from Little People and Simple Answers from Great Minds by Gemma Elwin Harris.  I love the discussions that are happening at the breakfast table with my kids.

As a teenager I was completely into …

Collecting and identifying wildflowers.  I still pick them out on the side of the road or a path through the woods.

In another life I would be …

A marine biologist or scientist in the field

Cristina has been involved in documentaries since joining the team behind the award-winning documentary, THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK, as a producer. The film, which focused on the crisis in Darfur, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. Since that time, she has continued to support film projects and maintained a fervent interest in documentaries that champion untold stories. She is committed to bringing new audiences to documentary and creating spaces for engaging discussion around them.


Be sure to sign up for our newsletter We Love Docs!

Interested in starting a Documentary Film Club? Everything you need to get started can be found at Influence Film Club.

On the Way: With Dan McEnroe

Moving from New York City to Stockholm was a bit of a shock for film maker Dan McEnroe, presenting unexpected challenges but also igniting a fresh spark into his work. The change has led him into new areas of film making, including documentary. His latest project, which is a bit top-secret at the moment, addresses questions that many cities are facing. Stay tuned for that to come to light, but in the meantime let’s see what Dan has to say about ramen, bands breaking up and musical theatre in our interview series On The Way. 

How do you get to work each day?

Depends on where I’m working and what I’m carrying. Usually the train, but walking and biking are not unheard of.

What project are you currently working on? 

I’m wrapping up a music video that I wrote, directed and edited. I also did all the visual effects. This project really needed a bigger budget. I’m also working on something that I can’t say a word about other than it’s documentary. Ssssshhhh ….

When do you feel most creative?

I’m not one of those people who carves out a chunk of each day for brain work; that’s just never worked out for me. Consequently, idea and solutions hit me at weird, random times – in the middle of a workout, right before bed, during a boring conference call, etc. They come to me almost exclusively when I am not thinking about them.

What is your favourite way to relax?

I’m such a cliché: I like to hang out with my kids.

Your current obsessions …


I love to cook and I’m currently trying to teach myself how to make proper, high-end ramen. Not the salty crap you get in the stores, but the good stuff with fresh veggies and decent cuts of meat. Once I’ve got that figured out I want to take a crack at African or Creole cooking. As far as drink it depends on the weather or what I’m eating. I don’t do hard liquor at all, so it’s wine or beer for me.


Every band I like breaks up so I choose them carefully. My favourite band of recent years it LCD Soundsystem (who broke up in 2011). I really like Franz Ferdinand’s last album so, yeah, they’re doomed. I’m so sorry.


My dream trips are (in no particular order): Italy, Spain and Japan.


I’m not a gadget person. I’m something of a techie but only because I have to be for work. I have an iPhone and I like it but I have absolutely no idea why people camp out for the damn things every time a new one gets released.

Reading or watching:

I usually alternate between sci-fi and ”proper” books. I just finished Kraken by China Mieville, and next up is Empire of the City by JG Ballard. I’m working my way through Breaking Bad and Arrested Development. I really enjoy an American show called Mind of a Chef, which is not so much about cooking but rather top chefs’ influences and inspirations. It’s beautifully produced by a company called Zero Point Zero. Every show they put out looks amazing.

As a teenager, you were completely into …

Would you believe musical theatre?  I was into music in general, but as a tenor with a three-octave range I was always able to snag a part in whatever the drama club was doing that year. Believe it or not, drama club was the best place in my school to meet girls – it was an all-boys school, but thankfully they cast girls from local all-girls schools in all the female parts.

In another life, you would be … 

Something academic. I like the idea of scouring through obscure texts and getting paid for it.

Dan McEnroe is a New York-born Stockholm-based filmmaker, producer and editor. When not spending time with family he works on a variety of film projects across Europe, including one that might come under the heading of The Project That Must Not Be Named.


Be sure to sign up for our twice-monthly newsletter We Love Docs!

Interested in starting a Documentary Film Club? Everything you need to get started can be found at Influence Film Forum. 

Clubs We Love: Yogayama Docs

Up and running for more than a year, the Film Club run by Yogayama’s Gustav Roth and Johanna Nielsen focuses on bringing people together around documentary film, with an eye towards not just inspiring debate and discussion, but also inspiring club members to take action in their own lives, whether that’s on a personal level or on a larger scale. Sound familiar? We met with Gustav and Johanna to find out why they formed their monthly club and how it’s developed over time.

First things first: How did you get started?

Gustav Roth: I was working with documentaries and wanted to promote discussion and sharing around films. There had been occasional screenings at Yogayama before so it started quite casually. When we decided it should be a regular event we announced it through our newsletter, flyers as well as creating a Facebook event inviting people to the screenings. The response was amazing and we now get anywhere from 15 – 50 people attending each screening.

That’s fantastic!  So how does the club work in practice? Does the amount or type of people influence how you run the discussion?

Johanna Nielsen: We want a more organised discussion so we view the films before screening them to the group and sometimes have discussion questions ready.  Other times we just open up the discussion and let the group just run with it.

Gustav: Sometimes we put people into smaller groups, and this helps get things going. If it’s a really heavy film we give everyone an allotted amount of time to speak, which allows everyone a chance to express their opinion, which they usually want to do if it’s a big topic. It’s really about knowing how to read the group and understanding what will work best, depending on the film, the reaction, and other things.

So how do the discussions go? Do people get quite passionate? Disagree? Come to blows?


Gustav: Yeah, depending on the film discussion can be very passionate because people always have different opinions, but they’re respectful.

Johanna: What’s interesting is to see how opinions go with personality.  You say to yourself, ‘Aha! That guy is very pragmatic or that person over there is pretty emotional.’  It really shows in how they respond to the documentaries, and it helps everyone see different layers in each film.

One of the last films we screened, THE CRASH REEL, really got people excited about the idea of your passion taking over your life and how that can imprison you – or not. It was a very lively discussion, but no, it didn’t come to blows!

Do you tend to choose films with weightier subject matters?

Johanna: We tend to choose documentaries that have more of a message, that people can take with them and maybe improve their lives in some way, whether that’s on a personal, local or bigger level.  Small or big – it doesn’t matter.

So do people come away with inspiration to do something different in their lives? Do you see it actively happening?

Gustav: Yes and no. What’s good is that we have this discussion and I think that’s cool to see every time. There’s always a great discussion after the film and I think once people start talking almost everyone has something they need to share.

We’ve noticed that people get this ‘What can I do?’ feeling and we’re trying to find a way to help people put that feeling into action, to help them make a difference, to find inspiration.

Johanna: Documentaries are so impactful so if we inspire just one person, that’s great!


Have you started your own Documentary Club yet?  We’ve come up with our Ten Great Reasons to Start a Doc Club but we’re quite sure there are plenty more.  You can learn more about starting a doc club here

Spot On Docs: Point and Shoot

‘Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.’ Jonathon Swift

Prior to the advent of smart phones and digital cameras most people produced little more in the way of pictures than snapshots of family and friends.  When it came to homemade films, it was usually jumpy, soundless footage from a super-8 camera that, like still photos, faded over time in a box of memories.  The more serious work of creating images was usually in the realm of the professional or the keen hobbyist.

Today everyone is armed with the means to document their own lives, as well as the lives of others. As a result it sometimes seems that with so much visual noise special moments are only lived through the lens of a camera. As we generate this massive influx of content across the digital world the questions are this: are we trying to curate the vision others have of us? Are we attempting to control the narrative of how both ourselves and others are perceived? We’ve been told that a picture is worth a thousand words – if this is true, how many millions of words are being carelessly spilled onto the World Wide Web each day? Is the narrative we are creating sending the message we want others to hear? And which stories are actually worth hearing?

Influence Film Foundation grantee POINT AND SHOOT toys with the question of sharing, how that sharing effects who we are, and where one can find value in this visual world we live in.  On the surface the film is about a boy “becoming a man” (as the central character Matthew VanDyke would put it), yet on another level it addresses not only how we see the world but also how we see and present ourselves. Are we the fun party girl posting endless selfies documenting our good times? Are we the deeply artistic boy concerned with images that reveal shape and space?  Or are we a passionate foodie taking pictures of each and every delightful meal we prepare or devour?

In POINT AND SHOOT VanDyke uses the camera to reveal what he discovers about himself and the world around him.  Many might ask how that is different from what each one of us does on a daily basis as we stare into our phones or other devices trying to capture yet another perfect image.

It’s a question we should all consider as we endlessly take photos and videos of our busy lives: what is the purpose when we ‘point and shoot’? What do we want to say? And do we want to take away more than just a carefully crafted image of ourselves or those we care about that will end up yet another lost posting on a meaningless timeline?  Or, would we rather take time and thought to pursue the unexpected or unusual, and in the process create something more lasting both for ourselves and for future generations. Do we want to create and document real value, something that actually matters?

Next time you grab your phone to take a random picture or video, think about what you want to say and what sort of legacy you’re creating.  It doesn’t have to be a huge message but maybe it can be more than yet another throw-away snapshot illustrating the endless stream of life.

Essentially, consider your influence. It’s more important than you think.

Don’t miss POINT AND SHOOT’s Official Website, Facebook, and Twitter.

In addition to POINT AND SHOOT Influence Film Forum features a number of films that focus on the visual: VIVIAN MAIER secretly captured slices of her world in an unusual and unexpected way, while BILL CUNNINGHAM has been revealing his unique vision of fashionable New York for decades.  The citizen journalists BURMA VJ show the power of the image in effecting change when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, while AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY highlights one of the most engaged and influential artists of our time and the importance of his images being available online and in social media.

We invite you to take the time to check out the films above, as well as the loads of extra material we’ve gathered. Learn more, have fun, and share your experiences.

Real Stories, Real People – it’s what documentary is all about.

Written by: Judi Lembke

Spot On Docs: Miss Representation

“Miss Representing” Women in Media and Politics

‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’Marie Wilson, The White House Project

In 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention broke new ground by being the first Women’s Rights convention ever held in the United States. In 1963 the United States Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. In 1964 The United States Congress banned sexual discrimination in the work place. Despite these advancements and many more, in 2014 gender equality remains a battleground.

The portrayal of women in the media plays a significant role in the struggle for gender equality, and MISS REPRESENTATION, a 2014 documentary addressing this issue, does not paint a pretty picture in terms of how far we have come. The way in which women are portrayed in the media has a direct impact on how women are perceived not just by men but by other women as well.  The portrayal of women is overwhelmingly one-dimensional: sexualised and often infantilised, if a woman isn’t presented as youthful, beautiful, and infinitely desirable chances are she’s not being seen at all.  And if a woman isn’t busy turning on the male viewer then she really has no positive value as far as the media is concerned.

This, in turn, impacts women’s ability to achieve their goals.  If half the population is continually reduced to being little more than a sexual plaything then their ability to be seen – and to see themselves – as anything outside of that narrow spectrum is severely compromised.  The result is that women struggle to be accepted as intelligent, competent individuals.  Girls and younger women have it even worse: because they’re continually bombarded with the message that their worth is based almost exclusively on their youth, beauty and sexual attractiveness they tend to internalise that message, putting inordinate amounts of time and energy into living up to a severely limiting image to the detriment of setting and achieving real, long-term goals that have real value and substance.

While MISS REPRESENTATION focuses on TV, film, and advertising this highly sexualised portrayal of women is not limited to those spaces.  And often it’s women who play a key role in perpetuating these expectations, even while declaring themselves empowered.

During Beyoncé’s recent On the Run tour with her husband Jay-Z, she gyrated in front of a huge sign flashing the word ‘feminism’.  The media response was all over the map, with singer Annie Lennox calling it ‘tokenism’ and ‘feminism light’, while others gave Beyoncé props for being a powerful woman in a tough industry that is run by men. Others called her out for ‘performing for the male gaze’ and for stamping her husband’s surname on a creation that was all her own, positing that once again here was a woman pandering to the male expectations. Read one of the many reactions here.

Beyoncé isn’t by any means the first or the only modern woman to use her sexuality as part of her arsenal in the rise to power and success; anyone with access to the Internet or any other media could easily list dozens upon dozens of women who have taken the same route.

This leads to some interesting questions: does Beyoncé, or any other woman, not have the right to portray herself in any way she chooses?  It would be difficult to argue that she isn’t in control of her sexuality or her choice to represent herself in a sexual manner. Why she makes these choices – and whether those choices are right or wrong – is up for debate, mainly because while many women prefer to be seen not as just a sexual plaything, there is no denying that we are all sexual beings.  We want to be desired and fulfilled and that means different things to different people, with no one person or entity having the right to dictate how that should be done or what it means.

The main problem with portraying women solely as sexual beings is that any other point of value is ignored.  With the media overwhelmingly controlled by men, women simply aren’t getting a fair shake; if a woman is driven, ambitious, smart, and successful she is often ripped to shreds and presented as a bitch, a harpy, or maybe just someone on her period.  It is either implied or outright stated that a woman who isn’t first and foremost desirable to the male gaze is somehow unfeminine and of little value.  Despite this – or maybe because of it – a woman’s sexuality is often used to ‘keep her in her place.

Emma Watson, undoubtedly the smartest witch or warlock in the Harry Potter films, recently spoke before the United Nations to launch the He for She campaign.  She invited both men and women to come together and join her in the fight for equality, arguing that gender equality is necessary for everyone, male or female, and that both sexes benefit from a society that greets everyone on an equal basis.

Some women called her speech a simplistic, with all too obvious message. Some men said her speech was bad for men. Others hailed her for helping to reach a younger demographic, one that is continually bombarded with hyper-sexualised images of women. Read one reaction here. And yet another reaction was an anonymous group or individual threatening to released allegedly nude photos of her as part of the recent rounds of celebrity nude photo leaks which exclusively featured hacked, private photos of famous women in various stages of undress.

The take away from all of this is that once again women just can’t catch a break: if they speak out and demand (or even respectfully request) equality they are criticised for how they deliver the message and even the message itself.  On the other hand some see women speaking out about equality as wrong in and of itself, a veritable call to arms to which the only response is threat of humiliation and exposure in an arena where they are deemed most vulnerable: their sexuality.

MISS REPRESENTATION makes a strong argument for creating balance when it comes to the portrayal of women in the media. Women are not either a Madonna or a whore, they are not an intellectual or a slut; women are multi-faceted creatures with the same wide spectrum of needs, desires and ambitions as their male counterparts.

If and when the American media begins to portray women as more than just a mom, or a daughter, or a plaything – as something more than just as an extension of a man in one way or another – all of society will benefit, because suddenly we will all be working at our optimal capacity, with brains, energy, and creativity of the entire population, not just half.

Written by Judi Lembke

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

Documentary Playlist: Nothing to See Here

“He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” ― Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

“Nothing to see here, move along!” – Lt. Frank Drebin, The Naked Gun

Governments the world over have long tried to keep their less than valiant activities on the down low. These atrocities can be as massive and horrifying as the Nazi orchestration of the Holocaust, or as sickeningly insular as the abhorrent treatment US military forces imposed on Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Obviously, neither the German or US governments wanted these heinous actions to find their way into the public light. Somewhere in their being, they knew what they were doing was wrong, fearing both the legal and moral repercussions of their wrongdoing. Yet, the truth leaked out, slowly but surely.

Even today, systemic injustices continue to wreak havoc on communities around the globe – greed-filled wars are waged under the guise of democracy, poverty is implemented as a means to manage the have-nots, discrimination based on gender and sexual preference continue to hinder cultural progress, and the natural world is being ravaged by humans taking more than their fair share of what has been given to them. In each of these cases, misdirection and media convolution is being used to obscure the disheartening truth.

Yet, if you take a closer look, listen, and ask the right questions, the facts can be exhumed. What are we not being told? Who is responsible? What can we do to right the wrong?

This powerful set of films sees a variety of hushed systematic atrocities unveiled with a profound sense of political and moral urgency.

The House I Live In
For 40 years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer and damaged poor communities globally. Hear the stories of people from all levels of America’s drug war.

The Invisible War
A searing investigation into the cover-up of rape and sexual assault within the U.S. military, this film has helped change military policy.

Dirty Wars
Investigative reporter, Jeremy Scahill, delves into the heart of America’s covert wars, from Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond.

The Act of Killing
Former Indonesian death squad leaders are challenged to re-enact the real-life mass killings in the cinematic genres of their choice, from classic Hollywood crime scenarios to lavish musical numbers.

The Cove
A group of activists, led by renowned dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry, infiltrate a hidden cove near Taiji, Japan to expose a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.

Inside Job
A comprehensive analysis of the 2008 global financial crisis. Through exhaustive research and interviews with key insiders, this film traces the rise of a rogue industry which has corrupted politics, regulation, and academia.

Documentary Playlist: A Multitude of Drops

“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean! Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”     

David Mitchell’s mind-bending book, Cloud Atlas, weaves through six different time periods, from the mid-19th century to the year 2321. No matter the era similar characters emerge: there are those who prey upon others and those who are preyed upon. And then there are the few who stand up against oppression despite the consequences they suffer for exposing abuses of power.

The book evokes Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence which says that we live our lives again and again. An injustice tackled in one age returns in the next but in a slightly different form. Slaughter and enslavement, class differences, corporatocracy, truth and representation, environmental devastation, exploitation after exploitation. As time moves forward the human race becomes more endangered. Can humanity preserve itself by overcoming the animal instinct to boundlessly thrive and profit?

The 6 films in this playlist feature some of the people who have stood up against oppression and the unrestrained powers of our time. They are drops in the ocean and together a multitude of drops.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei is a renowned Chinese artist and activist who continually champions the values of democracy and human rights, and thus works in opposition to China’s authoritarian government.

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
What is a big corporation capable of in order to protect its brand? Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and his partners refuse to be bullied and silenced by the fruit giant, Dole Food Company.

Burma VJ
Witness the incredible bravery of Burmese video journalists (VJs) who risked torture and prison to document events on the streets as they were happening during the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

The Case Against 8
Offers an incredibly personal behind-the-scenes look inside the historic case to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The film follows the unlikely legal team and the two same-sex couples who act as plaintiffs in the story of how they took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pussy Riot
A feminist art collective performs a 40-second “punk prayer” against Putin’s government in Russia’s main orthodox church, decrying the corrupt entanglements of church and state. Three members are charged with hooliganism and put on trial in a post-Glasnost Russia that is becoming increasingly restrictive and regressive.

The Square
A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience. This is the real story of the the Egyptian Revolution told through the eyes of six different protesters.