A Brief History of Documentaries That Changed the World

A couple of weeks ago, an interesting comment popped up in one of our posts. On Tuesday, January 25th, we wrote (as countless other blogs did) about that morning’s Oscar nominations — the snubs, the surprises, etc. The next day, this comment from “ANGA” appeared: “Claims in the film Gasland have been widely documented to be untrue. See the investigative documents for yourself here,” followed by the URL for a “truth about Gasland” page. Here’s what’s interesting about that comment: all we did in the post was mention Gasland — we listed it, among the Best Documentary nominees, without comment.

At risk of getting ourselves mixed up in this controversy over the accuracy of Gasland, we will merely note that we’ve seen the film and it seemed awfully convincing to us; that Fox has responded to each of the claims being lobbed against him; and that ANGA is a high-profile natural gas company which certainly benefits from Fox’s reportage coming into question. The fact that they have the resources to troll the Internet and comment on blogs that so much as mention the film gives you some idea of what a documentary filmmaker is going up against when taking on big targets like this.

Whether Fox’s film ends up actually changing the way ANGA and other natural gas companies do business remains to be seen. But the discussion about the potential power of the lone documentary filmmaker got us thinking about other nonfiction films that changed things — from altering the cultural conversation to changing policy to actually saving lives. We’ve listed a few of our favorites below; feel free to add to our list in the comments.

Harvest of Shame (1960)

The great Edward R. Murrow’s swan song at CBS was this one-hour documentary for the CBS Reports series, which aired the day after Thanksgiving, 1960 — an airdate chosen purposely, to show Americans still full from their Thanksgiving feasts the conditions of the migrant farm workers who helped provide that food. The film was evocative, enlightening, and impassioned, closing with a typically eloquent Murrow summation: “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused, and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.”

The film certainly shed a spotlight on the plight of the migrant worker, though whether it actually changed their way of life is debatable; when CBS’s Katie Couric did a follow-up story on the film’s 50th anniversary, she found that much was still the same.