Dad doc subject William Kunstler with future filmmakers Emily and Sarah (Photo by Maddy Miller)
Dad doc subject William Kunstler with future filmmakers Emily and Sarah (Photo by Maddy Miller)

What better way to honor the run up to this Sunday’s Father’s Day than a round up of some daddy-centric documentaries? These are by no means films that put pops on a pedestal. In fact, sometimes, we see dads at their worst. Life ain’t all like Father Knows Best, and documentaries have been there to document that.

Spoilers ahead…

Take Capturing the Friedmans, for instance. One of my favorite documentaries of all time, Friedmans tells the story of a seemingly normal Jewish family in Long Island, that finds the dad, Arnold, and one of his sons, Jesse, accused of child molestation. Despite some sweet home videos, this is a family that was led by a failed father.

It is a complex and ambiguous story that reveals a terribly sad dad, torn up by his own inner demons. (It’s clear he was into child pornography and that he confessed to crimes — and was convicted — but it’s unclear exactly how he acted on it.)

Vote for your favorite Fathers’ Day documentary in our Cavootle poll. »

On another grim note, there’s my favorite film to mention, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, the tragic story of a father killed by the mother of his child, and the sad aftermath — thanks to lame laws in Canada, the mother kills herself and the son. Director Kurt Kuenne tries to immortalize a father with a film for a child who never lives to see it. The word “tragic” doesn’t suffice. The one silver lining is Zachary’s grandfather (and grandmother), who manages to carry the burden and struggle through. If there’s a place for dads who’ve endured the worst kind of suffering, he’s earned a spot.

But enough about the rough stuff. There have been a fair number of documentaries created by children who honor their famous dads, such as My Architect, about Louis Kahn, and POV’s own William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. A particularly good subgenre of dad docs is the average-Joe filmmaker with cerebral reflections on his non-famous father. Alan Berliner and Doug Block, directed, respectively, Nobody’s Business and 51 Birch Street, in which the filmmakers turn their gaze on their most intimate relations. They’re not glitzy or as scandalous, but still deeply moving. And then Block’s The Kids Grow Up, about his daughter, is also highly revealing in its depiction of a father’s struggle to let his child grow — and go. Not surprisingly, POV has championed both these directors, who embody point-of-view filmmaking.

A poll of the best Father's Day Documentaries
Vote for your favorite Father's Day documentary in this Cavootle poll.

There are actually plenty of dad docs out there, from the truly out-there, such as Channel 4’s Bodyshock: Dad’s Having a Baby, about a transgender man who gives birth (I saw part of it, and what I saw was quite poignant), to more general, mainstream tributes, such as ABC’s The Story of Fathers & Sons, Spike TV’s True Dads with Bruce Willis (Bruce Willis!), and The Evolution of Dad. But, for me, I like a doc that depicts a father without being too obvious about it, one in which you see the profile of the dad in the rearview mirror. Take The Horse Boy, for example, a film about an autistic boy who finds solace in the company of horses. The kid’s parents take him to Mongolia to tap the boy’s connection to the animals. The film is as much a moving depiction of a dad’s journey as it is about its title subject.

Looking for a Father’s Day documentary to watch online? Download the PBS app for iPhone or iPad and watch My Reincarnation before it airs on PBS!

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen