Most of the best documentaries have them — a moment when you can’t believe what you are watching. As a viewer, you feel like the floor has fallen out from under you, and you are no longer watching a documentary, but you are actually entering an alternate experience. It’s transformative when a filmmaker captures something so remarkable, you can hardly breathe. I present to you my top ten list of the most unforgettable moments in documentary history. And I invite you to contribute your favorites in the comments section below. These moments are why we love documentaries so much, and why we believe it’s a filmmaking genre without equal.

Warning: Major spoilers below…


#10. Gimme Shelter

“Come on people, let’s be cool.”

The killing scene at the Altamont concert is an incredible document of crime mixed with concert footage. While the Rolling Stones play, the crowd rushes the stage, and a gun-toting audience member gets killed by the Hells Angels. And as Mick Jagger replays the scene in a sound studio, we watch the death of a man, as well as a cultural moment.


#9. God Grew Tired of Us

A mother’s reunion

This documentary about the lost boys of Sudan breaks my heart. It tells of the boys being relocated to America, where one of them is reunited with his mother after twenty years. When she arrives in the Syracuse airport and sees her son for the first time, she lets out a heart-piercing wail and collapses to the floor. The intensity, the clashing of cultures and the pure dramatic high of the moment, is at once baffling and cathartic.


#8. Crumb

Maxon’s string cleansing

The already wild and weird world of R. Crumb goes off the rails when director Terry Zwigoff interviews Crumb’s brother, Maxon. R. Crumb may be disturbed in an ultimately redemptive, artistic way, but his brothers are pathologically so. (One brother, Charles, killed himself not long after Zwigoff was done filming.) But it’s Maxon, who sits on a bed of nails, who takes the film to its most absurd height when he demonstrates his cleansing ritual of swallowing string which he then excretes.


#7. The Lottery

The lottery

You can blame the system, the unions, the charter schools, or what have you for our failing education system, but you can not help be devastated by the entrance lottery from this film. When the actual lottery takes place, the looks on the parents as their chances of getting their kids into a good school are diminished are awful to watch. But it’s the innocence in the eyes of the children, who can’t fathom how we’ve failed them, that really hurts.


#6. The War Room

James Carville’s speech

D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign recorded how its managers, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, turned an unlikely candidate into a winner. Of the many shockingly raw moments, it’s on the night before the election when we finally see the brilliant Carville at a loss for words. He’s overcome with exhaustion and emotion, and his sharp tongue is for once slowed, as he delivers one final great speech about labor, love, and how “we changed the way campaigns are run.”


#5. Eyes on the Prize

“Dar he.”

Combining oral history with stirring archival footage, this landmark PBS series captures the killing of Emmett Till, and his subsequent trial, like never before. Till’s sharecropper uncle, Mose Wright, deserves to be on the same pedestal as Rosa Parks, having stood up to accuse a white man of a crime. When he does so in Eyes, told through a still photograph and a retelling by his grandson, it’s utterly chilling, and ultimately redemptive — even if the goons got off, the nation was changed.


#4. Paradise Lost

Ravings at the scene of the crime

Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky dig deep into this case of botched justice that just recently saw the accused, the West Memphis 3, exonerated. The filmmakers sure made a compelling portrait of their innocence. But it is when the film directs its attention to John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims, that the film takes on truly surreal proportions. In every way, Berlinger and Sinofsky suggest that Byers is a suspect. When they film him at the crime scene, he raves and rants. Are they capturing ludicrous grandstanding by a nutjob? Is this brilliant police work? Hard to know, but it sure is riveting.


#3. Salesman

One last sales call

One of the saddest characters in documentary history, bible salesman Paul Brennan, can’t catch a break. Throughout this Maysles brothers classic, he’s on a slow slide downwards, until by the end of the film he accompanies a co-worker on a call. His congenial pitch and exaggerated smile is paper thin, exposing a lost man. His partner suggests he needs a spark, to which Brennan responds, “Sometimes it isn’t a spark. You need an explosion.” But you know he’ll get neither.


#2. Bowling for Columbine

The Charlton Heston interview

Whether you admire it or condemn it, Michael Moore’s gotcha interview of a clearly infirm Heston is remarkable to watch. For Moore, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment when the National Rifle Association president gets caught like a deer in headlights. For many audience members, it’s a shameful exploitation of an aging man who deserves more than this.


#1. Harlan County, USA

The gun thug

Tensions are high in this Oscar-winning documentary about a coal mining strike in Kentucky. But when a mining company hire, Basil Collin, lazily waves his gun first at picketers, and then at director Barbara Kopple’s camera, the stakes become clear: this is not a movie. This is life. With real thugs. And real lives are at stake. It’s the smoking gun moment you’d think could only happen in a Hollywood film.


That’s my list of unforgettable moments in documentary history. Contribute your favorites in the comments or follow the reactions on POV’s Facebook page.

Published by

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