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Documentaries that changed how we view the world

Documentaries that changed how we view the world


Documentaries can be some of the most powerful and thought provoking films to feature on our screens, both large and small.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most revolutionary or critically acclaimed  documentary films released in the 21st century so far:

Lift (2001)

A beautiful short that took a slant against journalistic documentary filmmaking, Lift explores the lives of ordinary people inside the lift of a high-rise building located in East London.

The capital is well known for being a city where neighbours don’t talk to each other, but this documentary embraces a small cluster of people and ties them together with rustic filmmaking and rich storytelling.

Since release filmmaker Marc Isaacs has gone on to create Calais: The Last Border (2003), The Curious World of Frinton-on-Sea (2008), and The Men who Sleep in trucks (2016).

March of the Penguins (2005)

Quite possibly the first blockbuster documentary this side of the millennium, taking £127.4 million in at the box office, March of the Penguins signalled the start of a new era in Hollywood documentaries.

Produced by a crew of only four people, the entire film was created on two specially modified XTR super 16mm cameras.

With production lasting 13 months, March of the Penguins stands as one of the greatest tests of documentary filmmaking in history.

Breath-taking in almost every respect, the piece manages to capture the sheer desolation of Antarctica while at the same time embracing its wild and barren beauty.

A documentary that puts to question life itself, it changed how people saw wildlife films and opened the doors for filmmakers looking to create documentaries with large budgets.

The Solitary Life of Cranes (2008)

Regarded by many as a city symphony, and by others as an ode to London, The Solitary Life of Cranes is a critically acclaimed film that explores the secret life of the capital from the eyes of crane operators.

Removed from the ground, the film enables audiences to see the ordinary world in an extraordinary and thought provoking way, revealing a very different existence from the one that we know.

Although the film remains a landmark documentary today, the production was reportedly a laborious affair as film crews struggled to lug two HDCAM kits and a 16mm kit up 70 meter high cranes.

Although such a film will not be as difficult today, thanks to our wonderful drone cameras, a great interview with director Eva Weber can be found here:

Man on Wire (2008)

Another Hollywood documentary, which raked in $5.3 million at the box office against a $1.9 million budget, Man on Wire is different to our other films namely because it is the only one that relies on reconstructions and archive footage to deliver its narrative.

Recently adapted into a feature film featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the piece is a splendid and often grandiose drama portraying Philippe Petit’s illegal high-wire walk between the World Trade Centre buildings in New York.

Crafted much like a heist film, the film reminded filmmakers and audiences alike that acting and drama can be a part of documentary filmmaking just as any other aspect.

Planet Earth II (2016)

Debuting in the autumn of 2016, Planet Earth II was last year’s showcase programme from the BBC.

A sequel to the original 2006 Planet Earth series, Planet Earth II was met with critical acclaim and was actively compared to the original, with critics celebrating the advancement of filmmaking techniques while at the same time deploring the change in our natural world.

From drones to Go Pros, the filming of the series was titanic, with one week of raw footage equating to just one minute of actual show time.

What’s more, the film crew had to hang around locations for days before animals became accustomed to their presence.

It goes without saying that it will be a long time before we encounter a documentary series on the scale of Planet Earth II, but with that in mind, here’s one of the most memorable scenes from the show:

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