Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds” (1974), his Oscar-winning investigation into the Vietnam War, changed the way we look at US foreign policy and also the way we looked at documentaries. Without the distancing conventions of narration and authorial intrusion, the film (available from Criterion Collection, dual format Blu-ray/DVD, and on Hulu and iTunes) confronted the viewer with history, its perpetrators and its victims.
Here are five films from the past decade that have stirred Davis’s heart and mind, as well as his outrage.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
“Michael Moore’s film is a truly penetrating exposé of the Bush administration’s many deceits after 9/11,” Davis writes about this Cannes Palme d’Or winner. “It punctures the hot air balloon of fear-mongering that led the US into two wars that are both unnecessary and cruel. Astonishingly, Moore makes you laugh until you gag at the arrogance and destruction wrought by the Bush years. Not the least of Moore’s accomplishments is arousing such an enormous audience that he proved documentary films can play successfully in theaters.”
Jesus Camp (2006)
Directors Rachel Grady and Heidy Ewing gained intimate access to a Pentecostal summer camp and made a film that, as Davis describes it, “patiently and insightfully showed how the young brains of children could be washed and bleached by treacherous ‘teachers’ trying to make them into fundamentalist Christians as intolerant of disagreement as their counterparts in fundamentalist Islam.”
My Country, My Country (2006)
“Laura Poitras [director of the just released “Citizenfour,” about NSA documents leaker Edward Snowden] made a film about an Iraqi family caught in our war yet managing to survive not only its physical damage but also the emotional anomie caused by foreign occupation. The film is a miracle of compassion in the midst of American folly as our forces try to remake a culture of which we are thoroughly ignorant.”
Stories We Tell (2012)
“The Canadian filmmaker [and actress] Sarah Polley went looking for her dead mother,” says Davis. “Instead she found her father — and ultimately, through a thicket of lies and deceptions, herself. This film totally violates my own filmmaking principle against staging events in documentaries — and it does this so seductively and convincingly that Polley wins the game.”
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Davis describes Malik Bendjelloul’s film about an obsessive search for a singer who disappeared in the 1970s as “the documentary equivalent of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.’ In this case, Godot was missing and presumed dead until suddenly he was found in the revelation of talent and appreciation that reveals Sugar Man’s humanity, which is both humble and generous.” Davis adds that as an Academy member this was the only best documentary nominee he voted for that actually won an Oscar.