A well-made documentary needs to have 3 key ingredients –
- A fresh, unique, interesting topic
- Good production values and direction that take advantage of the medium (ie, – it needs to be more visual and fast-paced than a book, otherwise I’d just read the book)
- It needs to be upfront with its thesis – or have none at all, and try to be an actual documentary (in the literal sense)
Sadly – those 3 come together much too infrequently. It seems like the choices are usually the umpteenth remake of the Search for Sasquatch (great production, poor topic); something like General Orders No. 9, which was a fascinating topic with beautiful photography…and the pacing and production of a photo gallery that puts you to sleep. Or something like Inside Job, Waiting for Superman, or King Corn that are all engaging, well-produced, and have an interesting topic…but leave you feeling like you’re in the director’s cherry picking orchard and not getting the full story.
Even sadder is that good documentaries are even rarer on television – which is left serve to show re-runs of known topics.
So I was happy to find amazing 25 minute documentaries being produce by Al-Jazeera. I came across a series called Risking It All that, despite being 2 years old, only has 700,000 views. If you are looking for short, well-cut, informative documentaries of topics you’ve never seen. You should check these out.
Risking It All – Across Mexico
This documentary covers the journey of an El Salvadoran couple as they make their way to America to start a better life. On this side of the border – we tend to think that the most dangerous part of the journey is the American/Mexican border crossing. The most dangerous and lengthy portion is the 2000+ mile trek across Mexico from Guatemala.
Risking It All – Truck Driving Through Congo
I’ve read several books about The Congo and find it to be powerful to see how resourceful and creative people can be despite a government and outside forces that are rapidly un-developing the country. This documentary covers the journey of a truck from Lubumbashi to Bukama (which Google Maps says will take 6 hours and 33 minutes – though it ends up taking a month). The journey provides a fascinating snapshot of how things work where you have to be 100% self-sufficient.
Risking It All – Truck Driving Across Pakistan
This documentary covers the same general topic as the one about Congo – except this guy travels over the Himalayas in his truck. I actually lost my breath seeing some of the drop offs this guy had to navigate. I had heard stories of US soldiers (including my Grandpa) who had to navigate these kind of roads – but to see footage of it was amazing. The guy actually gets stoned on hashish in order to summon up the courage to drive it (not that it really adds to the safety though).
Risking It All – Traveling Among Bolivian Mountains
These people live in the Andes mountains with no roads. So they install a network of zip lines across mountains with gaps 1000s of feet deep. Insane. And kids even commute to school via these contraptions.
Risking It All – Traveling By River in Brazil
I actually couldn’t finish watching this one – because it’s a bunch of little kids doing absurdly dangerous child labor.
Risking It All – Piloting in Colombia
“The light from a mobile phone is enough to repair an airplane’s engine in Colombia” says the narrator. I had my jaw open the entire time on this one. It’s about pilots who fly 70+ year old DC-3 airplanes (that are all falling apart) over the mountains and Amazon jungle to small dirt strips in isolated villages. The episode ends with them transporting 1 1/2 tons of gasoline in jerry cans in their airplane to a village. I have no idea who volunteered for the camera man’s job.