True Films

I present here the best general interest true films I've found. I define true films as documentaries, educational films, instructional how-to's, and what the British call factuals - a non-fiction visual account.

As dogged as I have been in tracking down great true films, I have seen only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 that have been made. So I am ready for more. However I will only list true films and documentaries that are available as VHS tape or DVDs at consumer prices. In other words, films that are easy for most people to see upon request. I won't include films that are only shown in theaters, or available via high-priced rentals, or simply out of print.

If you know of an available amazing true film that I've missed please recommend it to me.

Kumare


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This film is a useful and serious extended prank. An Indian-American kid from New Jersey returned from a guru quest in India convinced gurus were only ordinary people with the job title of “guru.” The documentary begins when he decides to become a fake guru to prove that people only project guru-ness onto ordinary people like himself. He takes the name Kumare, adds a fantasy backstory, plus a made-up religion with made-up rituals and invented yoga moves. Over the span of four months he gathers a room-full of true believers in Arizona (filming the whole time), and teaches them that they “have a guru inside them” and that he is just an illusion. Much to his surprise he finds himself deeply bonding with his students who claim he is really helping them. He’s a pretty good guru! This makes his final “unveiling” or confession to them all the more painful, riveting, and uncomfortable even for viewers. Unlike the prank movie Borat, this one has a point, and it is a complex, unexpected, and subtle point. Are the people who follow him really fools, is Kumare’s deceit really noble, and will the now enlightened disciples be furious or forgiving? The true parable is spellbinding, funny, moving, and profound. A must-see.

– KK

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Kumare
Vikram Gandhi
2012, 85 minutes
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted October 11, 2013 at 11:10 am | comments
in category Culture


All In This Tea


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Take something as simple and ordinary as tea, then dig deeply into its roots to show that it is far more complex, subtle, varied, challenging and interesting than you would have ever believed. That’s the recipe for a delicious documentary, and this one delivers. A fanatical tea drinker in California becomes a connoisseur of fine teas, and then goes on to restore now forgotten traditions of organic artisan tea growing in China. Along the way he reveals the fascinating intricacies of how tea is hand-crafted, almost like a bottle of wine. This low-key journey into the hinterlands of China will completely transform your idea of tea.

– KK

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All In This Tea
Les Blank, Gina Leibrecht
2007, 70 minutes
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted December 20, 2012 at 5:00 am | comments


Being Elmo


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This is another one of those films that is far more interesting than the title would suggest. It follows the unlikely trajectory of a black kid from the tough side of Baltimore who finds his genius as the invisible soul of a furry puppet with a high voice on public TV. In a flash of inspiration after many decades of struggling as an unknown puppeteer, Kevin Clash re-invents Elmo as a being who radiates unconditional love, and thus elevates this overlooked character (and himself) into universal stardom. (After this film was released Clash resigned over sexual accusations, but it does not detract from brilliance of his creations, or his impact on our culture.) The insight offered in the film that even puppets have to be ABOUT something, was worth the ride for me. It is also a pretty good view into the dynamics of what makes the foam Muppets believable as beings.

– KK

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Being Elmo
Constance Marks
2011, 96 minutes
DVD, $13

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:00 am | comments


Jiro Dreams of Sushi


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The Tokyo sushi chef Jiro has done the same thing at work every day for 60 years, no vacations, no holidays. He says he has loved every day of this repetition. The secret to his happiness is that everyday he tries to make his sushi even better than the day before. According to his customers he succeeds since his tiny 10-seat shop in a subway station is sold out a year in advance at $300 per meal. This documentary is an insightful and inspirational portrait of a craftsman seeking mastery, and the quest for perfection. Jiro’s life is now an inspiration for others following mastery as a way to find their passion. Oh, and the film is also a tremendously great view of the quality of work that world-class sushi really entails. You’ll look at sushi differently now. This is a deliciously perfect film about a perfect craftsman.

– KK

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi
David Gelb
2011, 82 minutes
$1, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted December 6, 2012 at 5:00 am | comments


Cave of Forgotten Dreams


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Master documentarian Herzog invites you to join his rhapsody as he examines very recently discovered 30,000-year-old cave paintings — the most intact and pristine old paintings we know about. This film will move you back in time while he connects you with the neolithic painters who worked their art. Despite the vast time shift, and the geographic relocation, and the inaccessibility of the cave, you will feel, as Herzog intends, that these were painted by your uncle just last week. They will make sense and you’ll feel you made a journey. (The original was filmed in 3D which may be worth seeking out.)

– KK

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog
2010, 90 minutes
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted November 29, 2012 at 5:00 am | comments


Project Nim


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This is an amazing film. What would happen if you raised a chimp as a human in an ordinary home and taught it sign language from infancy? Would it learn language? A professor and his hippie girlfriends tried this experiment during the 1970s with a chimp named Nim. Everyone of the dozen of humans who raised and cared for the chimp, bonded and communicated with Nim as if he were human. Nim was raised by a free-love mother who never disciplined him. When he got too strong to handle he was sent off to an animal farm where a long-haired hippy befriended him, and hung out everyday with him for years; he and Nim often smoked joints together. The farm ran into financial difficulties so, despite the outrage of his human family, Nim the “talking” chimp was sold to a research center where he was the subject of “medical experiments.” Finally he was rescued. Amazingly, Nim was filmed for much of his life so the director was able to put together this fantastic visual biography. Woven together with interviews from all the principle characters in Nim’s life we get an intimate record of this grand but misguided adventure. A hundred questions are raised by the experiment and many are answered by this superbly crafted film. I recommend it highly.

– KK

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Project Nim
James Marsh
2011, 93 minutes
DVD, $9

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted November 22, 2012 at 5:00 am | comments


The Parking Lot Movie


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This small portrait of over-educated parking lot attendants in a college town is surprisingly entertaining. The guys profiled rank at the bottom of society’s status, but become the “Gods of the Corner Lot” and enter into a constant battle with the owners of expensive cars and SUVs. Their whole war with the “parkers” is all in their heads, and since they spend a lot of time sitting in their tiny shack doing nothing, they live in their heads. The great joy of this film is that it gets you into their big heads. Their tiny patch of sub-culture is charming and amusing.

– KK

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The Parking Lot Movie
Meghan Eckman
2010, 71 minutes
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted November 15, 2012 at 9:32 am | comments


Bill Cunningham New York


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Bill Cunningham is the long-time photographer for the New York Times who, at 80 years old, still rides his bike around the streets of New York shooting street fashion — or folk fashion — what people actually wear. Today there are hundreds of blogs chronicling this vernacular fashion, but for decades Bill Cunningham was the only one. He is an odd, but sweet genius. He unfashionably has worn the same blue blazer for 30 years, works all the time, ignores money, lives by himself in a tiny closet of an apartment stuffed with his photo negatives, and is a man marching to the beat of his own drum. There is a legitimate zen quality to his style and manner. While his subjects may be swayed by wealth, celebrity, and the superficial, he seems immune to them. This film is not about fashion; it’s about someone who has successfully invented their own occupation, and their life. It is uplifting. I smiled the whole time watching it.

– KK

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Bill Cunningham New York
Richard Press
2011, 90 minutes
$3, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm | comments


Darkon


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This is a great film about very ordinary people trying to break out of their humdrum lives. The subjects are the type of people who once seem utterly odd, but now … less so. They are the folks who dress up in historical costumes and role play in fantasy worlds. They are members of Darkon, a live-action role-playing game that’s been continuing for 25 years. Every two weekends hundreds of Darkon enthusiasts take over parks in the DC area and stage physical battles for imaginary cells on a paper map. They use foam padded weapons with intricate rules of combat. Everyone takes the game and their roles almost creepily seriously. The elf clan speaks elfish to each other! It’s a combination of martial arts, Dungeons & Dragons, re-enactments, World of Warcraft, and a 25-year strategy board game. Sales clerks become white knights, house dads become heroes. Maybe. We follow the dreams of an upstart wannabe king as he challenges the reigning imperial army to several foam battles. It is what he lives for. The entire time this film magically transverses that very thin line between: grow up, “it’s only a game” and “all life is a game,” this too counts. The extreme dedication of these multitudes to this surrogate world is both pathetic and totally inspiring. Their enthusiasm is no more misplaced than say someone who spends years trying to put a tiny white ball in a hole in the grass. But it is a hundred times more creative. This film captures the immense passion by which these misfits pursue their vocation. It’s a great view of the human spirit. All hail Darkon!

– KK

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Darkon
Luke Meyer, Andrew Neel
2006, 90 minutes
DVD, $20

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:58 am | comments
in category Play


Exit Through the Gift Shop


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Think of this as a documentary version of Inception. There are layers of truth and fiction that lead down many levels. The subjects being filmed are sometimes also making the film, and sometimes the subject of a real obsessive documentarian, but it is never clear what level you are watching. On the first level this is a documentation of street art beginning in the 1990s — and at this level alone it is worth watching. Street art means not just graffiti and stickers, but ironic stenciling, performance art, and even pranks in the manner of the guy who nailed his own painting on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. That guy was the street artist Banksy, famous for both brilliant pranks and for keeping his real name and face unknown. For the first time Banksy is filmed in in action, pixelated. But who is filming him in this documentary? Is Banksy directing or someone else? This film itself is a prank about street pranks. It is a piece of street art, as much as a documentary can be, as indicated by its title reference to the moneyed art world of galleries (please exit through the gift shop). It is a fun ride and its intimate journey into late night urban art will really help you appreciate what street artists are trying to do (way beyond vandalism), and why it probably is the art of our times.

– KK

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Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy
2010, 86 minutes
$2, Amazon Instant Video rental

Official website

Read more about the film at Wikipedia

Rent from Netflix

Available from Amazon

Posted May 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm | comments