Top 10 Most Difficult Documentaries to Make
VOICE OVER: Ryan Wild
WRITTEN BY: Andy Hammersmith
When it came to making these incredible documentaries, the process was anything but seamless. For this list, we'll be looking at any non-fiction film that was considered hard to make. Our countdown includes "Free Solo", “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse”, “The Act of Killing”, and more!
Top 10 Most Difficult Documentaries to Film
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Most Difficult Documentaries to Film.
For this list, we’ll be looking at any non-fiction film that was considered hard to make. We’ll look at factors like grueling schedules, dangerous circumstances, and obstacles that hindered the production.
Did we miss one of your favorite documentaries? Let us know in the comments below.
#10: “Free Solo” (2018)
Filmmakers charted climber Alex Honnold's unprecedented ascent of El Capitan. His risky climb was completed "free solo," which means he didn’t have safety gear. As a result the camera crew needed to rig their equipment so they didn't disturb Honnold. Along with the physical constraints of the project, the climber and crew dealt with the danger. Viewers squeamish about heights will definitely find the feats on display to be very challenging viewing. If you think it was tense to watch, imagine how the camera crew felt as they documented the precarious feat. Taking hours to complete, each camera position needed to be perfected to capture each precise moment. Throughout "Free Solo," the edge-of-your-seat thrills and intricate photography make for one of cinema’s scariest ascents.
#9: “Harlan County, USA” (1976)
Director Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary covers a 1973 mining strike in Kentucky. The film follows the local miners and their wives as they fight the poor working conditions at the Duke Power Company mine. While filming a massive strike demands a ton of strategy and organization, the crew were also right alongside the strikers every step of the way. As company men drive their cars through the picket lines, cameras stand strong to capture the moment. Not only that, a group of thugs shoot at the strikers late at night while the filmmakers capture it all. Putting herself in danger, Kopple managed to tell this endearing story of human determination and was rightfully rewarded for it.
#8: “Restrepo” (2010)
Embedded with an Army regiment in Afghanistan, directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger captured the day-to-day grind of U.S. soldiers abroad. Within this setting, the constant threat of attack hangs over the troops and the filmmakers that tell their story. A particularly stressful part of the film has cameras show part of a real operation where one soldier lost their life. While other documentaries about wars are told through archive footage and interviews, this one gives viewers a firsthand and visceral look at the conflict. For skillfully executing a complex shoot in a less than hospitable environment, “Restrepo” deserves praise for its uncompromising results.
#7: “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” (1991)
When she began filming a behind-the-scenes documentary about "Apocalypse Now," Eleanor Coppola had no idea how hellish the whole thing would become. The first-time filmmaker documented her husband Francis Ford Coppola as he attempted to salvage the seemingly cursed project. Through budget overruns, inclement weather, and health scares, the director continued to document the on-set disasters. It’s harrowing to see both the state of the production and Coppola’s sanity in such rough shape. With help from George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr, the editing was finally completed over a decade later with newly filmed interviews. It’s a testament to Eleanor Coppola that she persevered and pushed forward to complete the project.
#6: “Hoop Dreams” (1994)
The seminal sports documentary “Hoop Dreams” follows the journey of two Black Chicago teenagers as they’re recruited to play basketball. Filmed over several years, the in-depth movie explores the economic and social effects on Arthur Agee and William Gates. Vying for the NBA, the two players and their families make a number of sacrifices to play for a prestigious high school. Director Steve James' extensive shooting schedule gave the project a ton of rich content while also making the laborious effort look easy. Through hundreds of hours of personal moments and basketball games, the film manages to weave everything together in a masterclass of direction. Ultimately, the filmmaker’s perseverance paid off. The movie easily stacks up against the best sports documentaries ever.
#5: “Burden of Dreams” (1982)
“Burden of Dreams” reveals the insurmountable odds against Werner Herzog on the set of his movie “Fitzcarraldo.” Documentary legend Les Blank follows the filmmaker as he deals with unruly cast members and an insane production in Peru. Herzog schemes his way through a series of complications, including having to restart the film from scratch after losing his original cast. However, those problems are nothing compared to the difficulty of towing a real boat up the side of a hill. The movie is ultimately a combination of oddly humorous mistakes and uncompromising artistry. Its honest approach makes sure we see all the unplanned horrors that come with filmmaking. Capturing the despair and determination of the artistic process, “Burden of Dreams” recounts it all in strenuous detail.
#4: “Citizenfour” (2014)
If you ever wondered about the story behind Edward Snowden’s historic 2013 data leak, “Citizenfour” recounts the tale exactly as it unfolded. The former consultant to the NSA met with director Laura Poitras in Hong Kong. Once on camera, he unleashed revelations about government surveillance for the first time. Snowden’s words had the potential to put everyone involved in legal predicaments or worse. The footage gets especially frightening when the filmmakers, journalists, and the whistleblower plan their escape from the city. As a particularly important snapshot of history, “Citizenfour” captures a courageous crew and subject risking it all for the greater good.
#3: “The Act of Killing” (2012)
Director Joshua Oppenheimer took an entirely unique and perilous path to recount the mass deaths that occured in Indonesia. The director asked former squad leaders to reenact their crimes in artfully staged recreations. While risking his own safety, Oppenheimer asks the ones who took lives to confront their most violent tendencies in a risky scenario. Ultimately, the documentary reaches a cathartic moment for the men onscreen as they contemplate their sins. This film has a gripping companion piece from the victims' point of view. The equally difficult and praiseworthy “The Look of Silence” had the same filmmaker asking those who suffered most to give their take. Between its groundbreaking construction and fearless creators, “The Act of Killing” remains one of the landmark documentaries of the 2010s.
#2: “Shoah” (1985)
It's fair to say that any documentary, no matter the subject or length, will be a challenging experience. This is even more apparent with "Shoah," a nine-hour film exploring the Holocaust. The eleven year project contains tons of emotional interviews and copious amounts of research. Both the perspectives of the victims and the perpetrators in Nazi-occupied Poland were shown to give a deep dive into the event. What began as a shorter project grew exponentially as the director continued to record witnesses. It's apparent that the length of the production, along with the subject matter, was incredibly difficult to complete. Listed as one of the most comprehensive documentaries ever, the commitment of "Shoah" produced a daunting and detailed look into history.
#1: The “Up” series (1964-2019)
In 1964, filmmakers followed the lives of fourteen British children in the documentary "Seven Up!" The crew returned seven years later to examine the resulting changes in their lives. As a testament to the series' creators, the project continued, in seven-year intervals, until 2019. Among the longest documentary series ever, director Michael Apted and his collaborators made history with an extensive decades-long production examining the complexities of the aging process. This incredibly large time commitment wouldn't be possible without the painstaking devotion of the crew and the continued cooperation of the subjects. Unparalleled in its runtime and scope, this series represents the pinnacle of difficult documentary filmmaking.