Every ten years since 1952, Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute’s monthly magazine, polls directors and critics, asking them to identify the ten greatest films of all time, without ranking them. Sight & Sound then counts the number of mentions of each film and produces two lists of the greatest films of all time, one based on directors’ lists, the other based on critics. The once-a-decade Sight & Sound lists have become a major cultural event. When the last one appeared in 2012, the headline was that, for the first time since 1952, Citizen Kane had been knocked out of the top place in the polls, replaced by Vertigo in the critics poll and Tokyo Story in the director’s poll. The polls become the subject of enormous critical and even popular attention, with traditional film critics, bloggers, podcasters, and commenters all weighing in their meaning. This blog even wrote about the poll: I posted a piece musing about what the poll – and the reaction to it – suggested about the changing formation and function of film canons; Andy Seal, in one of his first guest appearances on USIH before becoming one of regular bloggers, wrote a brilliant response to my piece.
Last week, Sight & Sound published its first ever critics and directors polls on the greatest documentary films of all time. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera topped both lists, with Sans Soleil, Shoah, Night and Fog, The Thin Blue Line, and Nanook of the North also appearing, in different places, in both the critics’ and the directors’ top tens (the top fifty films chosen by the critics and the top thirty-five chosen by the directors can be found in the links above). Though the arrival of the documentary polls was widely reported, so far at least it seems to have attracted less attention than the 2012 polls did. This might be related to documentaries being a more specialized product (though the rising presence of documentaries in our film culture has a lot to do with the creation of this poll) as well as to the absence of story of canonical change. Perhaps the next documentary poll will elicit a flood of commentary about why Man with a Movie Camera is such a persistent (or fleeting) choice on top of the poll. But what immediately interested me about the documentary lists was the role that history played in them.
Like narrative film, documentary film (and the culture of criticism around it) can be a fascinating object of historical study. But documentary film is also a medium in which filmmakers do history. Of course, narrative films can also deal with history. But because it is nonfictional, documentary film is both closer to what we as historians produce in our traditional, written medium and is potentially a more interesting challenge to our standard historical practice.
The Sight & Sound critics list of the top fifty documentaries contains thirteen films that seem to me to be focused on history (Shoah, Night and Fog, The Sorrow and the Pity, Nostalgia for the Light, The Act of Killing, The Battle of Chile, The Emperors Naked Army Marches On, Histoire(s) du Cinema, The Fog of War, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Culloden, Seasons, and Waltz with Bashir), six other films that deal with the past, though perhaps not in a fashion that one would label historical (The Thin Blue Line, Grizzly Man, Capturing the Friedmans, Crumb, Close-Up, and Man on Wire), and half a dozen more that grapple with the past at least in passing (The Up Series, F for Fake, Harlan County U.S.A., Roger & Me, Handworth Songs, The Hour of the Furnaces). That’s almost half the poll. Though many of these listed films touch on the American past, the only one that grapples as directly with U.S. history as, say, Shoah deals with the Holocaust or Waltz with Bashir considers the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, is The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s extended conversation with Robert McNamara. And few if any of the films deal with intellectual history. Film history is represented by Los Angeles Plays Itself and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema (descriptions of the latter film(s) suggest that Godard takes an intellectual-history approach to his topic, but I haven’t seen Histoire(s)).
Consider this an open thread on these issues: What do you make of the Sight & Sound documentary polls and the more muted reaction to it than that received by the 2012 polls? What are your favorite U.S. history and intellectual history documentaries? Are you upset that Ken Burns is absent from both polls (I’m not, for what it’s worth)? Or any other question that the polls raise for you.