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    Docs That Rock!

    Jan Wahl

    By Jan Wahl–

    Some of my favorite movies are fascinating documentaries. They educate, inspire, entertain. I can be taken to a new realm of knowledge, history can be opened up, and surprises are everywhere.

    When I was a teen, I saw The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’ exploration of the collaboration of the Vichy government and Nazi Germany during World War II. From the resistance fighters to the collaborators, this detailed documentary sparked an interest in the film that remains disturbing and fascinating. I started a journey into others in this nonfiction genre and was rewarded, as I am to this day.

    There are filmmakers whom I will search out, with the help of Google and YouTube. Les Blank is an example, a quirky artist who has shed light on unusual subject matter. My favorite is Burden of Dreams (1982). In the jungles of Peru, director Werner Herzog is shooting his epic Fitzcarraldo. Blank takes us on a journey with a crew trying to carry a steamboat over mountains, with actors’ egos and an obsessed director who will stop at nothing to get his vision of perfection. Follow this one up with Peter O’Toole as a mad director in 1980’s The Stuntman. If you still are considering a career in film after those two, I’ll pray for you.

    Their names are Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. They have made some of the best documentaries around. Winners of two Oscars, five Emmys, and three Peabody Awards, they make documentaries from the LBGTQ community to music legends. I became a true fan when I saw one of the best ever made, 1995’s The Celluloid Closet. We travel on a 100-year history of gay and lesbian imagery in Hollywood. Lily Tomlin narrates the film that features archival footage, smart stars, and writer commentary … no wonder many of us return to it at least once a year. Google these two fine filmmakers and watch all of their inspired work.

    She changed sexuality in film forever, with her impact still being felt. There was nobody like Mae West, an artist who broke barriers and had the courage to be authentic. American Masters produced a film as intriguing as the woman herself: Mae West:  Dirty Blonde (2020). She amazed Broadway, then later Hollywood, as she tore the covers off conventional gender and sex roles and gave us a chance to laugh at sexuality along the way. This important cultural figure believed women could not only enjoy their own humor and bodies, but also that they didn’t have to be punished for it. I have been obsessed with the divine Miss Mae from an early age and thought I knew all about her until I saw this informative and intelligent documentary. Do not miss it!

    Bombshell was the name of my number one Top Ten Film of 2019. It is also the title of a fine documentary from 2017:  Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. A movie star, you ask … who cares? This woman has a story well worth telling and remembering. The Austrian beauty bravely ran from a Nazi industrialist husband to Hollywood, becoming the star we know.  But under the glamour was a talented, inquisitive mind who was able to invent products and electronics. Some of her inventions include today’s frequency hopping, Bluetooth, and other important technology. Her beauty was not always an asset and it is hard not to feel she should’ve had a happier finale. The story is unusual and fulfilling on many levels, from science to art.

    Ken Burns has given us epic documentaries, often opening up this genre to many who would have missed it. Baseball, the Civil War, the Roosevelts, and our country’s parks are just a few of his topics. The one I devoured is Prohibition from 2011. The 18th Amendment and its era are carefully explored and explained, giving context and clearing up the rumors about gangsters and government. Some found it dry, but I was thrilled with the knowledge and period detail, finally understanding this American experiment.

    There are so many documentaries, providing us with a wonderful, entertaining chance to learn!

    Emmy Award-winner Jan Wahl is a renowned entertainment reporter, producer, and teacher. A member of the prestigious Directors Guild of America, she is regularly featured on KPIX television (every Monday morning starting at 6:15 am) and on KCBS AM & FM and other media outlets. To read and listen to her reviews for KCBS, go to: For more info about her remarkable life and career: Check out her entertaining and informative videos at

    Published on November 19, 2020