Filmmaker Marty Syjuco's 10 Life-Altering Documentaries
1. The Cove (2009)
I saw The Cove at its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and it was an electrifying experience. Proving that a well-crafted documentary can be as engaging as narrative fiction, this film thoroughly deserves its Academy Award. It follows a team of activists on an undercover mission in Japan, and, using spy cams worthy of James Bond, they uncover devastating ecological crimes, including the slaughtering of dolphins, in a secret cove. I tried to remain dignified (Sting and Trudie Styler were seated in front of me), but it was a challenge to contain my emotions watching this nail-biting thriller. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, I cried, I screamed, I accidentally kicked the back of Sting’s chair… and I cried again.
2. Paradise Lost (1996)
There are many parallels between this tragic story and Give Up Tomorrow. Paradise Lost, the first of a remarkable trilogy, showed me that film can be used to expose injustice. I saw that police frame-ups, wrongful convictions, and trial by publicity are universal problems. I was impressed how this film and the campaign to “Free the West Memphis Three” became a cause célèbre that caught the attention and support of A-list celebrities like Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Eddie Vedder.
3. Super Size Me (2004)
This film about fast food changed my life! I scored a ticket to the world premiere in New York because of my job at Focus Features. At the time, my diet included lots of cheap but tasty fast food. This film proved two things: that we are what we eat (cheap but tasty!) and that docs can be funny too. I still remember they served mini-cheeseburgers at the after party. I was so disgusted at the thought of eating fast food that I asked my date to take me somewhere healthy. We went to the East Village to a restaurant called Caravan of Dreams, where I tasted raw food for the first time. I still remember it so well. We had “live” nachos.
4. Bunso (2005)
I saw this film at an event screening and knew immediately that I had to meet the brilliant Filipino filmmaking team of Ditsi Carolino and Nana Buxani. Their film really opened my eyes—I realized we have an abundance of Filipino stories that need to be told and shared with the world, and documentary film is one way of getting our stories out there. Incidentally, Bunso was filmed in BBRC prison in Cebu, the same prison where Paco, the main character of Give Up Tomorrow, was incarcerated for a few years. Bunso is a beautiful example of a film that can fuel social change. It was screened in the Philippine Congress, moving lawmakers to change the law to keep children out of our prisons.
5. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Using a combination of old stock home videos and contemporary talking head interviews, this character-driven documentary displays the craft and mastery of a gifted editor. Director Andrew Jarecki had set out to make a film about clowns and children’s birthday party entertainers in New York City, including the popular clown David Friedman. During his research, he discovered that Friedman’s father and brother had been convicted of child sexual abuse, and so Jarecki decided to focus on this storyline instead. This documentary weaves a complex story that doesn’t provide any cut-and-dried answers, ultimately leaving viewers to ponder and decide for their own. This film haunted me for months and we went back to it several times during the editing of our film. Capturing the Friedmans was nominated for an Oscar and, in my opinion, should have won.
6. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Michael Moore’s scathing political film about George W. Bush and the War on Terror inspired us to have courage to take a stand, to tackle controversy head on, and to be critical when it matters. I was so happy when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was the first time this award was ever bestowed on a documentary film. Love him or hate him, Michael Moore is a beacon of courage to us fledgling filmmakers who try to effect change through our films. Last year, it was a huge honor when we won the Activism Award at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, and meeting the big guy himself was a dream come true.
7. Conviction (2010)
Not exactly a documentary, but this film is based on a real life story. Starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank, Conviction is a must-see for anyone interested in social justice. It is the story of a sister’s lifelong struggle to free her innocent brother from prison. The performances are just amazing. While the story of wrongful conviction is heartbreaking, it is also an inspiring tale about courage and tenacity. What I love most about this film is how this case gave birth to the Innocence Project—an incredible organization from the U.S. that uses DNA evidence to reopen cases. Their work has already exonerated over 300 wrongfully convicted—some of whom were on death row for over 20 years. I’m beyond excited that a local chapter is being launched here—the Innocence Project Philippines.
8. Food, Inc. (2008)
So after I saw Super Size Me, I gave up fast food burgers. Well, after seeing Food, Inc., I gave up meat entirely and turned vegetarian! This film about the business of food had a profound effect on my life. That disturbing scene of the wobbly chickens made me think about where our food comes from, and the devastating impact that the meat industry has on the environment. We must work toward a healthy body and a healthy planet.
9. Don’t Stop Believin’: Every Man’s Journey (2011)
The latest film from acclaimed Filipina filmmaker Ramona Diaz is a true crowd-pleaser, showing that documentaries can also be festive and fun. A rags-to-riches Cinderella story, this film celebrates local Pinoy singer Arnel Pineda, as he copes as the new lead singer of the seminal ’80s band Journey. I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year and was singing and dancing with all the other Pinoys there! Director Ramona Diaz is truly an inspiration. Her earlier film Imelda paved the way for docs to play commercially in Philippine cinemas.
10. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Last but certainly not least—this is the film that rocked my world. Directed by Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris, this film brought to light the story of Randall Dale Adams, an innocent man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Because of the strong evidence displayed in the film, the case was reopened and reviewed, and after serving 12 years in prison, Randall was released! Talk about changing the world. Like Give Up Tomorrow, this film asks the hard question of how many more innocent citizens are rotting in jail cells all over the world. The answer may be an inconvenient truth we’d rather not face. Speaking of Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary would have been number 11 on my list.