10 Life-Changing Documentary Recommendations From Sean Cousins

Aug 13, 2020

Documentaries have had a resurgence in recent years, exposing a "sinister corner of the human condition" or "giving our scrambled thoughts a fresh focus and clarifying purpose". Lucky then that our Head of Screen & Media Sean Cousins is a seasoned documentarian who has worked with ABC, SBS, National Geographic, Animal Planet and more.

"Documentaries continue to fascinate because they are not formulaic or predictable, like so many Hollywood films have become," Sean says. "At their best, documentaries are 'the creative treatment of reality' as it was put long ago. We see ourselves at our best and worst, and we are reviled, inspired, shocked or uplifted."

As Sean mentions, ten recommendations aren't enough, but if you're new to documentary watching, it's a great way to start being challenged or rewarded by the diverse medium.


Sean calls this the "granddaddy of who dunnit style documentaries"—directed by master filmmaker Errol Morris, you can see where popular docos like Making A Murderer and The Staircase grabbed their influences. Thin Blue Line follows the trial and conviction around the murder of a Texas police officer, and drew controversy in the '80s for including reenactments, something which is pretty commonplace today.

"This is perhaps Errol Morris' most approachable and enjoyable film, and how many films can you say created an entire genre? It features old school film noir-inspired images shot on film and a timeless soundtrack by Philip Glass," Sean explains.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)

A mini-series directed by Andrew Jarecki, here's another recommendation for the crime lover. Here you can see homages to Thin Blue Line as a captivating story about billionaire New York real estate heir Robert Durst unravels.

"Don’t google the story before you watch the series!" Sean warns. "The surprise ending is one of the most remarkable ever filmed and it's worth the investment of nearly six hours to get there."

Amy (2015)

Amy Winehouse's tragic death in 2011 shook the world and shone a light on the plagues of fame, such as the intense media coverage she was under during her career. 

This film by Asif Kapadia travels through the singer's life, her joys and struggles, and met critical acclaim upon release. "The archival footage is so moving in its innocence and intimacy. She really was writing about her life experiences in those songs, which I didn’t appreciate until I saw this film," Sean says. 

searchING for Sugarman (2012)

Singer-songwriter Rodriguez found belated fame after two fans sought to find out whether the musician's rumoured death in the 1990s was true. This Malik Bendjelloul-directed documentary follows their journey in chasing down the musical enigma. 

Sean describes Searching For Sugarman as "a wonderfully crafted film utilising the artist’s music, animated sequences, great interviews and a ‘who dunnit’ structure to tell a story that it is hard to believe is not made up."

METALLICA: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

"I didn’t intend to choose so many docos with musical themes!" Sean says, but we think musical docos are some of the best out there. Even if you're not a Metallica or heavy metal music fan, you'll want to watch this for the simmering drama.

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky during a three-year period when the band was mired in turmoil, Sean says Some Kind of Monster is "equally epic and homebrew" with much of the footage from smartphones, and that "it says so much more about the lifestyles of bonafide rock stars: hubris, jealousy, egotism, all the other sins and virtues commonly found around the top end of the music business are laid bare for us to see."

Gimme Shelter / Grey Gardens / Salesman (1970 / 1975 / 1969)

Sean loves the Maysles Brothers, the duo who directed all three of these documentaries using their "judgement-free observational style" and influenced a filmmaking generation thereafter.

Gimme Shelter reveals the lead-up to and after the ill-fated Altamont Concert, and is "almost a morality play", while Grey Gardens is a "tragic and beautiful... story of two spinsters living in a crumbling mansion clinging to times past". Salesman, on the other hand, is a "black and white portrait of the lost art of door-to-door bible sales in 1950s/60s America. It could read as the perfect metaphor of American capitalism."

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)

Banksy is renowned for his guerilla, political art style and Exit Through The Gift Shop shows just how influential he can be. Following French street artist Thierry Guetta who starts the film as a shopkeeper who loves street art, Guetta attempts to locate and befriend Banksy, "only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner".

"Despite its meta qualities, this film gets closer to 'revealing' Banksy and his motivations than any other film about him has done," Sean suggests. 

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Here's one for the basketball fans who are keen to explore a touching story. Plus, Sean's sell for this film is pretty convincing: "How many documentaries would be considered a masterpiece? This film could be one." 

Described as a "simple film", Hoop Dreams by Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx revolves around African-American students who dream of becoming professional basketball players. "I challenge you not to be touched by the dashed dreams of these young men who each encounters a variation of the invisible barriers that exist in the U.S education system and society beyond the school gates."

In My Blood it Runs (2020)

An Australian documentary by filmmaker Maya Newell, In My Blood It Runs covers Arrernte Aboriginal boy Dujuan as he grows up in Alice Springs and navigates a colonised education system, Aboriginal country, and his future.

"A wonderful film on many levels and a film all Australians should see," Sean recommends, and we couldn't agree more. Following a Collarts-exclusive panel with the director, Arrernte leader and advisor William Tilmouth, and co-founder of National Indigenous Youth Coalition Hayley McQuire, Collarts has acquired a lifetime streaming license of the film so students can watch to their heart's content.

Homework (1989)

"The great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami made this after realising he was having
difficulties assisting his son with his homework. Seems like a timely film for this list in the
COVID-19 era when many parents are home schooling their kids with mixed success," Sean points out.

Shot on beautiful 16mm, Homework is a collection of interviews with boys at Shahid Masumi school about what challenges they face completing their homework. A simple idea flourishes into a thought-provoking film about encouragement versus punishment.

Honourable mentions: Finding Vivian Maier (2013), Stories We Tell (2013), The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), Baraka (1992).

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