Humanity’s instinct to wage war stretches back to the very dawn of history – it is both lodged deeply inside us and something that we struggle to comprehend. But as the documentary has taken shape, the willingness of filmmakers to examine war in all its diverse forms has gained ground. These 10 works – listed in alphabetical order – look at the cruelty and loss, and sometimes the bravery and necessity, of combat and conflict at a time when the camera and the weapon have become intertwined.
Janus Metz, 2010
Following Danish troops all the way through a six-month deployment at a forward operating base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Armadillo proves to be a fascinating companion piece to the similar but better known Restrepo (see below). Metz and cinematographer Lars Skee literally follow in the footsteps of the young soldiers, and are present when a patrol is ambushed by the Taliban and the battle is resolved at bloody close quarters. Afterwards, during the debriefing, they witness the adrenalin that contrasts so strongly with the boredom of soldiering. Their subjects are literally happy to be alive.
John Huston, 1945
Commissioned by the US Army, who panicked when they saw what filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) had captured in covering this bloody campaign for a key Italian village and tried to bury it, The Battle of San Pietro may appear dated now, with the score particularly intrusive and dogmatic, but it was unprecedented during World War II. With Huston’s distinctive voice supplying the narration, the 35-minute piece showed American dead even as the director emphasised that despite over 1000 casualties this was just one of many clashes.
The Civil War
Ken Burns, 1990
Honoured innumerable times, this nine-part documentary series exposed the staggering loss of life when America’s north and south went to war in 1861. Based on archival images (this was one of the first conflicts to be photographed), the testimony of historians and readings from the letters of participants both junior and senior, the series built a three dimensional world where previously only the written word had held sway.
The Fog of War
Errol Morris, 2003
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, The Fog of War captured the intellectual fierceness and careful dissembling of Robert S. McNamara, the former US Defence Secretary who has been described as the architect of the Vietnam War. Morris doesn’t pursue McNamara, he draws him out, knowing that the technocrat will attempt to instill his own view, his own governing logic, on each flashpoint in history he was witness to. There is no shortage of expertly assembled archival material in Fog of War, including fascinating taped conversations with President Lyndon Johnson, but it’s McNamara who dominates.
Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington, 2010
Following the extended mission of American troops in the northeastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, journalist Sebastian Junger and cameraman Tim Hetherington (who died during fighting Libya earlier this year) are witness to the men who literally claim the high ground and refuse to leave. Revealing the Taliban as a resilient enemy who surround the small American outpost named for a fallen comrade, Restrepo shows a war that never ceases and never grows clearer; the battle for local allegiance is as tough as any firefight.
Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.
Claude Lanzmann, 2001
French documentarian Claude Lanzmann made the definitive study of the Holocaust with 1985’s epic Shoah, but in this tightly constructed documentary he turns the desperate plans for an uprising by Jewish inmates of the Sobibor concentration camp into a heartbreaking thriller. Eschewing archival footage for the testimony of Yehuda Lerner, one of the ringleaders, Lanzmann calmly depicts the human will to survive, and also resist, evil.
David O. Russell, Tricia Regan & Juan Carlos Zaldivar, 2004
Envisaged as a comparatively cheap and quickly made extra for the DVD re-release of co-director Russell’s prescient Gulf War film Three Kings, Soldiers Pay turned into a wide-ranging and fascinating dissection of the American occupation of Iraq. The interviews range from Republican Party congressmen to returned infantrymen, from expatriate Iraqis pleased that Saddam has been deposed to doctors fearful of the lack of mental care for veterans.
The Sorrow and the Pity
Marcel Ophuls, 1969
A documentary that changed the perceptions and public beliefs of the French people, Marcel Ophuls’ magisterial The Sorrow and the Pity looked at how the population dealt with the four years of German occupation during World War II. Members of the resistance and collaborators alike explain why they acted the way they did, trying to rationalise their actions both on an individual and national level and revealing a complex response to a country’s sudden fall.
Soundtrack to War
George Gittoes, 2004
“When we’re cruising down the road,” explains an American soldier in George Gittoes’ documentary, Soundtrack to War, “we’re listening to Tupac.” Gangsta rap fueling an M1 Abrams tank – that’s the mixture of combat operations and music (be it hip-hop, heavy metal or country) the filmmaker uncovered on his four trips to Iraq. “War itself is heavy metal,” observes one baby faced US trooper and Gittoes finds a culture where music is used to prepare for action, an aural adrenalin shot at odds with songwriter’s intent.
The War Game
Peter Watkins, 1965
It was a simple statement, but comprehensive: “The effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting,” claimed the British public broadcaster in 1965, refusing to air a drama documentary about what would occur if Britain was engulfed by a nuclear war between the west and east in Europe. Watkins depicted the mass burial of corpses, police shooting looters during food riots and the steady collapse of society as radiation sickness and fallout took hold. The War Game finally screened on British television in 1985.
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