Fight the power: documentaries to unleash the activist in you

Children in poverty, rape in the military, mass murderers at large Oscar-nominated director Lucy Walker picks 10 powerful documentaries to galvanise you into action

The documentaries praised on these pages are all ones that fired me up, galvanised me into action, but they should not be considered my top 10 favourites of all time because there is just too much work that has meant too much to me. There are films that have brought justice to individuals such as The Central Park Five (directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon) about five black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of raping of a white woman jogging in New York in 1989.

In this category, I would also mention The Jinx (directed by Andrew Jarecki) about the real estate heir Robert Durst, accused of murder and the subject of a manhunt; and The Thin Blue Line (directed by Errol Morris) about a man sentenced to death for a crime he didnt commit. Then there are films that are such titans that it seems a waste of time to consider them again here. That list would be topped by Davis Guggenheims An Inconvenient Truth, about Al Gores mission to get the planet to wake up to global warming.

The Up series (1964-present)

7 Up, Michael Apteds original 1964 documentary following a group of British children. Our most recent meeting with them was in 56 Up. Photograph: ITV

To care for your fellow creatures is to want them to be happy and prosper, to want to change what is causing them to suffer. To see director Michael Apteds series which has followed the lives of 14 British children since 1964, when they were seven is to be confronted by social inequality. You quickly realise the evil of imagining that life is played on a level field, and that individuals can be judged fairly, or at all.

Whats shocking is to see how much is already determined by the time someone has turned seven. A fairytale of social inequality, this ongoing series, so groundbreaking in format and ahead of its time in every way, offers the clearest look at contemporary Britain. To know the world, its joys and its sufferings, is to want to change it. And this series, like the best work in any medium, helps me to know the world.

The Gleaners & I (2000)

Agns Vardas The Gleaners & I. Photograph: Zeitgeist/Alamy

This might not quite fit the galvanising notion, but Agns Vardas film is no less vital a work. And, personally, I respond more to being gently inspired than harangued. My activism comes from my love for the world: I am a film-maker not an activist. I trust the audience and want to respect them by giving them the space to create their own meaning, their own responses.

Varda travels the French countryside, as well as the city, to find and film various groups of gleaners as they hunt for food, knicknacks, and discarded items. Her film has me thinking, looking, experiencing gleaning, in fact. Varda notes that her work is another kind of gleaning, which is artistic gleaning. You pick ideas, you pick images, you pick emotions from other people, and then you make it into a film.

What I gleaned from this film helped me make my film Waste Land. Released in 2010, it focused on the lives of Rio de Janeiros rubbish-dump dwellers and inspired practical change throughout Brazil, as well as individual behaviour. When I think of what might flash before me on my deathbed, I hope it will be the impact of my film.

The Invisible War (2012) and The Hunting Ground (2015)

The personal possessions of one servicewoman featured in The Invisible War. Photograph: Cinedigm/Docurama Films

These films by the formidable team of director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering dont just tell riveting stories they break those stories and follow them up, creating a massive impact and bringing positive change. The investigative reporting is as strong as the film-making, fearless and commanding.

The Invisible War lifted the lid on sexual assault in the US military. It featured interviews with veterans recounting their assaults and identified common themes, such as the lack of an impartial justice system and reprisals against survivors. The documentary has been praised for its influence on government policies aimed at reducing rape in the armed forces.

The Hunting Ground followed that up by transforming our understanding of sexual assault on college campuses by arguing that educational institutions are failing to deal with it adequately. Lady Gaga co-wrote the song Til It Happens to You for the film. It was nominated for an Oscar and she performed it at the 2016 Academy Awards, notably introduced by vice-president Joe Biden in a rare political moment for the event. With her on stage, survivors of sexual assault revealed parts of their bodies with things like Not your fault written on them. It may not have won a gold statue but, for most viewers, it won the Oscars outright for its emotional power.

The Farm: Angola, USA (1998)

Prisoners head out on farm labour duty at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Photograph: Bill Haber/AP

Everything you need to know about human justice is here in this film, directed by Liz Garbus, Jonathan Stack and Wilbert Rideau. Set in Americas infamous maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana, the film follows the lives of six inmates who tell their own stories of life, death and survival in a place few will ever leave. It still makes me cry not because of the cruelty of the legal system and its representatives, but because of the breathtaking grace of the so-called felons.

The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014)

Lack of remorse The Act of Killing.

The first of Joshua Oppenheimers documentaries looks at the individuals who took part in the Indonesian mass killings of 196566. When Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the president of Indonesia, gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry took control of a powerful death squad and targeted communists. Anwar, who is said to have personally killed 1,000 people, recounts and re-enacts his killings for the cameras. What makes the film extraordinary is the lack of remorse, even the glee, as they put on costumes and cackle to recreate the crimes even as compatriots recall tortured relatives.

The Look of Silence, meanwhile, focuses on the story of one man whose brother was murdered and who confronts his killers. Again, none expresses sadness, though the daughter of one is evidently highly moved. Its with the second film that these works resolve and achieve masterpiece status in my mind.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Ideally, I would actually include everything Michael Moore has ever done, up to and including 2015s Where to Invade Next, a sort of travelogue full of lovely inspirational stories about countries where things get done right. But Bowling for Columbine, about the 1999 high-school massacre, was Moores big breakthrough. Sometimes we need these bright lights on a dark night. We gather together and remember. Good things can be accomplished, lessons can be learned.

13th and I Am Not Your Negro (both 2016)

Two astounding new documentaries. The title of the first, by Ava DuVernay, refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution, which outlaws slavery in the US. The film progresses from that to the horrors of mass criminalisation and the prison industry.

The second, by Raoul Peck, is narrated by Samuel L Jackson and is based on an unfinished work by James Baldwin about civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

These documentaries demand to be seen now. I dont even want to delay you by listing any more. Just stop reading and track them down right now. This is your call to action. Go!

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