Top French Documentary Films
If you’re going to become one with French culture, films are going to be a big part of the journey.
French films in general are a big point of pride for the people of France, especially Parisians. The French have produced some of the most renowned films in the world that have crossed boarders in spite of language barriers.
You might recognize the titles of Amélie or La Vie d’Adèle, both filmed on the streets of Montmartre in Paris .
In less of an international spotlight, French documentary films are also doing their rounds within the independent cinemas of the city; some of which I consider to have been personally life changing.
Get the subtitles ready and tissues within reach…
Je suis Charlie
By Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte
On a tragic day in 2015 the people of Paris faced a terrorist attack of the headquarters of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ magazine. A total of 12 people were killed in the attacks.
By the end of the year, filmmakers Daniel and Emmanuel Leconte released a tribute documentary in which they explore the events leading up to that day and the attack itself.
Recounts are made by various individuals on their experiences both preceding and on the day of the event.
It’s fascinating, and heart wrenching.
There are a lot of newspaper clippings used throughout the film, but the translations for each headline are conveniently included in the subtitles so one should have no trouble keeping up with the story.
If you’d like to connect with the neighborhood where the attacks took place while in Paris, you’ll find the headquarters in the north of the Bastille, in Paris’ 11th arrondissement. If you didn’t know the history of these streets, you’d take a free guided walking tour right past the Charlie Hebdo building and not even realize it!
By Cyril Dion
Many who watch this film remark that it should be compulsory viewing for all human beings. I can only agree.
Demain in English means “tomorrow”. The film is a slow exploration of the different ways that a few individuals in the world are working for a better demain, today.
Instead of the usual “the world is ending” narrative, filmmakers Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion have opted for a more optimistic approach. They reveal current social and environmental challenges and then explore solutions being practiced around the world.
The intent being a feel-good yet highly educational documentary film through which humanity can gain both awareness and first hand evidence of a brighter future.
Also worth noting: this film was made possible through crowd funding initiatives. More proof of what is possible when we work together as a society.
By Xavier de Lauzanne
You’ll need both the tissues and subtitles for this next one. Les Pépites stands for ‘Little Gems’, and it’s a real tear jerker, but in the best possible way.
This documentary tells the story of a retired French couple named Christian and Marie who flocked to Cambodia to help 10,000 impoverished children by opening up a school.
The story is beautiful, as is the cinematography. The filmmakers have made strategic choices involving panoramic shots and emotional lighting that feed the soul even without the heroic narrative.
This story is an important one, as the experiences of retirees from France are not often documented especially once they leave the country. Les Pépites is a must see for anyone in need of a pick-me-up, a restoration of faith in humanity or simply something aesthetically pleasing to gaze at for an hour and a half.
Les Plages d’Agnes
By Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda was a French film director as well as a photographer and artist.
She was bron in Belgium but spent most of her life in Paris, where her legacy lives on since her very recent passing earlier this year. She is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in the south of Paris; one can visit her grave at any time.
The Les Plages d’Agnes film is autobiographical and follows Varda around on the eve of her 80th birthday as she recounts the highs and lows of her life. It’s an in depth look at events that shaped the artists life from the early years, and fascinating to hear from the woman herself.
Les Plages d’Agnes is considered a must watch for anyone with even a mild interest in French cinema.
While I’m on the subject of Agnès Varda I must recommend a second film made by the icon herself: Faces Places. It’s a wonderful documentary in which she and a photographer travel around rural France creating wall murals from real life individuals. The film is a mix of both English and French and is easy to watch.
Voyage à Travers le Cinéma Français
By Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier is widely regarded as the godfather of French cinema. Directly translated, Voyage à Travers le Cinéma Français means a “journey through French cinema”, and that’s exactly what this documentary is.
Over the course of three hours, Tavernier walks us through the best directors, actors, writers, composers and cinematographers of French cinema throughout history.
He shares feedback on works and scenes, explores creative choices made by each contributor and relays the message of evolution on the French cinematic front very clearly.
It is thought that there was no better artist alive who could have created such a captivating piece of documentary film on this subject. Tavernier’s in-depth knowledge and passion for the industry allows for an unparalleled performance throughout.
Following its release in 2016, the film won the César Award for Best Documentary.