Thursday, June 17, 2010

Recent Docs

When I first committed to being a VISTA in Pocahontas County, I did a lot of contemplating about what my new life would be like.  I would be living in a town much smaller than what I was used to, and a quick Google Maps search informed me that the nearest cinema or bookstore was an hour's drive over a mountain away.  I tend to be a big tv watcher (I love anything with a strong story and compelling characters and have watched the entirety of quite a few series), but I knew that the house I was living in did not have cable, and I wasn't at all sure what the deal with internet access would be (we're getting it today, actually--yay!).  Between the local library and my mother's Kindle, which I thoughtfully hijacked, I figured I was pretty well set for books.  But I know myself and how I react to boredom, so I decided to take the next step--I signed up with Netflix.

At first, I filled my queue with episodes of a couple different beloved British murder mystery series, and was content.  Then one happy day, I stumbled across what would become my favourite category on the Netflix site: Documentaries.  I love to learn, but have trouble getting into nonfiction books.  However, having information presented in an audio or visual medium is right up my alley.  I've seen more than a few docs over the last weeks, and since they've become such an important part of my life, I think I'll periodically share them here, just in case anyone else decides to check them out!

Cracking the Maya Code - This tells the story of the centuries-long effort to decipher the written language of the Maya people.  I have always loved the visual look of Maya glyphs and my brief visit to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula only whetted my appetite for more information.  The doc, produced by PBS and only 50 minutes long, is FASCINATING.  I could watch it over and over again.  Of course, the story it tells is the main reason it's so interesting, but the film is clear-cut and flows very well.  Best of all, watching it is super easy.  It's available in its entirety on Hulu, Youtube, or on  You can also get the DVD from Netflix or watch it streaming.

My Grade: A+

The Rape of Europa - This film is a must-see for lovers of art and World War II buffs alike.  Telling the story of the art stolen by the Nazis during the War, as well as the efforts by groups such as the Monuments Men to save as much of Europe's treasures as possible, this is a feature-length film (2 hours) and makes every second count.  This is an extremely compelling doc, which unfolds like a well-written drama.

My Grade: A+

Expo: Magic of the White City - I added this to my queue even though the reviews it got on Netflix weren't great, because I love the history of world's fairs, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in particular.  Because I am a giant nerd.  The information was good, but the cinematography was laughably bad at times.  Especially one bit of film which was used over and over again of a belly dancer.  It wouldn't have been quite so irritating except that it was a modern recording so it stuck out like a sore thumb and the maker used it in odd places.  If you really want to learn about the Expo, read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.  All the info you could want about the fair, plus a serial killer!
My Grade: C

The World's Greatest Fair - Now this is a film about a world's fair done right.  Unlike the previous fair, I knew next to nothing about the 1904 fair, beyond what I learned from my many viewings of Meet Me in St. Louis as a girl.  I loved this film.  It relied on contemporary photography in a sort of Ken Burns-esque way (and did it well) rather than trying to fill in with modern film clips like the ones which irked me so much in Expo.  It's broken into several chapters, many of which deal with the rampant racism present, whether intentional or not.  All in all, I learned a ton from this film and loved every minute of it!

My Grade: A

The Vikings - This is another PBS-made documentary, originally appearing on NOVA, but unlike Cracking the Maya Code, it's twice as long.  I will admit knowing next to nothing about the Vikings, and except for a great admiration for Norse carvings, have never had much of an interest in learning more.  I don't know what made me add this to my queue, but I am SO glad I did.  It was a great film, entertaining and informative.  They used a fair amount of clips of modern reenactments of events, but they were done so well that they didn't bother me a bit.  Although it was made in 2000, the companion website has a lot of neat things, such as a video of a simulated Viking village and a program that writes your name in Runes.  Fun!
My Grade: A

Others I watched: Journey into Amazing Caves (B), and Grey Gardens (DNF - Did Not Finish)

Please let me know what you think of this--I had fun putting it together, and would love to do others (I have quite a few more docs in the old queue).


  1. Check out My Flesh and Blood, good Doc with a heart wrenching ending, Also check out "Sandwiches that you will like" by the PBS station in Pittsburgh also along the theme of worlds fairs there are a couple on early amusement parks which are very entertaining..

  2. Chris! I wondered if you were going to stop by again. Thanks for the suggestions! I miss you on facebook :(