Media Rights – Judith Ehrlich’s Shortlist

The Shortlist article series is your opportunity to learn about the films that inspire intellectual, artistic and activist leaders—leaders like Judith Ehrlich. We asked Judith to share her favorite films and her thoughts on the power of documentary to change the world.

So what films make Judith Ehrlich’s Shortlist? Keep reading to find out.

Who is Judith Ehrlich?

Filmmaker Judith Ehrlich

Judith Ehrlich is a nationally known documentary filmmaker whose cogent and inspirational films deal with the themes of personal risk, conscience, dissent and commitment to ideals. With Rick Goldsmith, Ehrlich is the co-producer and co-director of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which was nominated for the 2009 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and has won ten international film festival awards including the Grand Jury Prize at IDFA and the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review. The film is currently enjoying a theatrical run and will soon be available as a personal-use DVD. With Rick Tejada-Flores, Ehrlich coproduced and codirected the ITVS documentary, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, a story of men guided by principle to take the unpopular position of pacifism in the face of World War II. This revealing look at questions of war, conscience, activism and the spiritual life of committed individuals was broadcast nationally on PBS in 2002 and rebroadcast in 2007. It won both major US film history awards in 2003.

Judith Ehrlich on the Power of Film

I started out my career as an educator, a school director and curriculum developer. Decades ago when I saw the premiere of Errol Morris’s film, Gates of Heaven I first fell in love with documentary and thought: “That’s what I want to do.” I am still madly in love with documentaries, and love to teach. I feel blessed to be able to do both and see them as intimately related. For me the power of documentary is the power to teach on a much larger scale than in the classroom. A documentary that works for me touches on a personal level in the way a talented teacher reaches her students.

A well crafted documentary uses the stories of real people to open minds and hearts, to develop empathy and shake up our world view, to recognize both the painful limitations and astounding limitless of the human experience; to go where one cannot, to understand “the other”, to develop new perspectives and be given the opportunity to discern truth from artifice, to be shocked and angered, softened, amazed and outraged by our fellow travelers on the planet and the planet itself.

I do believe these real stories have the power to change the world in small ways. A strong documentary can simply entertain or it can actually challenge our prejudices and assumptions, and even inspire an audience member to be a better citizen, a kinder person, to right wrongs and demand more of one’s government and oneself.  It can plant an idea like “maybe war, unbridled greed and political corruptions aren’t inevitable” . . . just maybe. I hope my work has opened a small window on the power of non-violence and on acting from conscience. While I aspire to the role doc pioneer John Grierson set out for himself and the documentary genre, “It is as a hammer, not a mirror, that I have sought to use the medium”, I also feel a mirror isn’t a bad goal either. I appreciate story and character-driven, archival and historical documentaries, verité style filmmaking as well as Michael Moore’s docs with their unrepentant political agenda and unique sense of humor.

The hours I have spent in the theater, classroom, in front of a television or even on my computer screen watching the work of fellow documentarians has brought me to tears, helpless laughter, fear and loathing and utter amazement. I am thrilled to be in the company of the talented, dedicated and impractical storytellers who take up this challenging and satisfying line of work.

Judith Ehrlich’s Picks

Here are my favorite documentaries as of today, and in no particular order:

Man on Wire: I left the theater awestruck by the storytelling. It is a film about a topic that holds little interest for me and about a character I found less than loveable. Yet I was mesmerized from the opening scene to the closing credits by the film craft, the dramatic timing and the sense of suspense. Daniel Ellsberg made his sole suggestion during the production process when he called me after seeing the film and said, “Can you make that kind of film about me”. Our “man on wire” walked a tightrope with the lives of millions of Vietnamese and Americans in the balance. I believe I was inspired by Man on Wire to try to convey that feeling of suspense with life in the balance in the treatment of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

Fog of War: It is hard to choose among Errol Morris’s brilliant films. While it was his first film Gates of Heaven that planted the idea of becoming a documentary filmmaker, Fog of War is his film that I show my documentary history students every semester and revel at the craft. The intricate brew of the Philip Glass soundtrack providing the heartbeat for a single interviewee of questionable motive and morality speaking straight to camera, combined with stunning archival footage and brilliant recreation is simply a masterwork in my opinion.

Born into Brothels: This film took me for a ride I just loved. The sense of alternating pathos and elation buoyed by a miraculous soundtrack, impossibly colorful images and hopeful, open faces are simply irresistible. This is the power of a documentary when years later each of the children is a character I carry with me.

Videocracy: I just saw this doc at DocAviv in Israel and thought it was one of the most chilling ever. It combines a compelling topic with dazzling editing, archival footage and a narrative of great wit. I left the theater shaking my head thinking, “You couldn’t make up this story” . . . one signature of a great doc. I always thought that electing Silvio Berlusconi Prime Minister of Italy would be like electing Rupert Murdock president of the U.S. The reality is even more frightening and wildly entertaining.

A Good Man: This charming film was my personal favorite at the incredible documentary smorgasbord of Amsterdam’s IDFA. The good man is an Australian sheep rancher with a quadriplegic wife who decides to build a brothel in their little outback town to support his family. It is filled with ah ha moments, belly laughs and the joys and sorrows of naïve dreams and selfless devotion.

Darwin’s Nightmare: I think the reveal is often the most important element of great documentary making. This film is about contemporary Africa, fishing, environmental damage, sexual exploitation, cultural destruction and eventually arms dealing. It takes you down a road and then takes an unexpected turn that is simply jaw-dropping.

Grey Gardens: OK, I have a big crush on Al Maysles. He can’t do much wrong in my book. I always have to flip a coin to decide whether to show my class Salesman or Grey Gardens, but after seeing the brilliant HBO feature based on the doc this year, I love the original even more. There is something alternately painful and inspiring about Big and Little Edie and their absolutely unique, self-assured and yet appalling life style. This film is about memories, the paralysis of privilege, the variable nature of sanity, about love and raccoons.

The Five Obstructions: I find Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth’s documentary a fascinating exercise in the construction and deconstruction of an experimental narrative film. It is also a moving portrait of the attempt by a student to save his teacher and the power of art to heal a wounded soul. It has some of the most indelible images I’ve seen in documentary— particularly the shocking scene of Leth in tuxedo eating a fine meal with the backdrop of Bombay’s poorest partially visible behind a scrim.