Documentaries Worth Watching

3 November 2010


In recent years many feature-length documentaries have managed to break out of their niche market and gain showings in major theater chains. Most of these are political exposés of a muckraking character. The very fact of a book or a film being an exposé ought to be enough to warn us away from it. A couple of days ago I mentioned the disappointment of listening to Jeremy Scahill’s book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, though I failed to mention that it was billed as an exposé.

I have enjoyed documentaries for many years, long before their mainstream arrival in theaters. I am just as happy to learn from a film or recorded lectures as from reading a book. Until recently I had particularly enjoyed wildlife documentaries on PBS, but since the digital signal conversion in the US I have not updated by television and as a result have not watched any television since that time.

In this forum I have repeatedly mentioned Kenneth Clark’s great documentary Civilisation: A Personal View. This is available for purchase on DVD, and I formerly had it, until it was stolen in the theft I experienced last June. But, in any case, it is fortunate that this great effort is readily available. Not all documentaries are as easily accessible. And, in fact, it is only with the expansion of video and DVD technology that television documentaries have been made available. Before videotapes and DVDs, a television broadcast was nearly as unique as a theatrical performance; either you saw it or you missed it, but you didn’t get a second chance.

Now we get a second chance for some worthwhile television, but not for all. And now there are also other outlets in addition to videotapes and DVD — most importantly, Youtube. Some months ago I mentioned that, after I had discovered Jonathan Meades, that I tried to purchase his documentaries but could not obtain them in the US, but then I turned to Youtube and found all or at least most of them available for free (other than the baseline cost of access).

I just had this experience again. I was thinking about Gwynne Dyer’s 1983 documentary series, War: A Commentary by Gwynne Dyer, which I watched during its original broadcast on PBS. I looked for it on, but like the Meades’ documentary, it was not to be found, even on used, dated videotapes. But then I searched on Youtube, and there it was: most if not all of the episodes of the series. There is so much thought put in the commentaries by Meades and Dyer that such things are not to be merely watched, they are to be studied. One ought to pay attention, think about what is said, take note, and follow up on references. With this kind of active viewing, there is much to be learned.

One of my favorite documentary series is that by the historian John Roberts, The Triumph of the West, a 13 part BBC series from 1985, broadcast in the US on the A&E network. I expected to be interested in this, so I videotaped it at the time of its original US broadcast. These tapes are now my only access to the show. I have lost some of the episodes, but still posses most of it. Every once in a while I check to see if it has been made available on DVD; I hope that it is someday, as I will definitely purchase it when it comes available.

As an example of a television series that has become utterly inaccessible I was going to mention Hazel Barnes series Self Encounter: A Study in Existentialism. Hazel Barnes was the translator of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and in 1962 she wrote and presented this series ten programs for National Public Television — the same era as Route 66 (which I recently mentioned in Broken Lives), the Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits, all television favorites of mine. If there was ever a “Golden Age” of television, this was it. I have made many attempts to locate the Self Encounter series, and even corresponded with a fellow who had collaborated with Hazel Barnes in a reconstruction of the series. In her autobiography, The Story I Tell Myself, Barnes wrote that she attempted to locate the series but was informed that the original tapes had been recorded over for other purposes. The series seemed to have been as lost as the greater part of the Satyricon of Petronius.

However, just today, as I was searching again, I came across the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute webpage that says, “Hazel produced a series of ten programs for National Public Television that were broadcast in 1962. Entitled ‘Self Encounter: A Study in Existentialism,’ they contain much material that is relevant to psychologists. Long thought to have been lost, they have been recently located in the Library of Congress by Jeffrey Ward Larsen and Erik Sween. Copies are currently available in the University of Colorado archives.” Needless to say, this has raised my hopes of getting to see the series. And even if I don’t get to see it, it is gratifying to know that this work has not been lost to history.

. . . . .


. . . . .

8 Responses to “Documentaries Worth Watching”

  1. Gerolf T'Hooft said

    re: Self Encounter: A Study in Existentialism

    Dear Mr. Nielsen,
    Indeed, the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute webpage mentions: “… Copies are currently available in the University of Colorado archives”; but there I couldn’t find any lead. I too would love to see Hazel Barnes’ tv-series! If you have any succes, please keep me posted.
    All the best,

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. T’Hooft:

      I, too, and waiting and hoping that “Self Encounter” is made available to the public, whether someone releases it to Youtube or issues a DVD. I would gladly buy the set. Now that we know that original has been rediscovered, I assume that it is only a matter of time before it escapes from the archive. I’ll let you know if I learn anything, and, likewise, please tell me if you find out more about it.



      • Gerolf T'Hooft said

        Dear Nick,

        I contacted Betty Cannon at the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute.
        She wrote to me:

        Hi Gerolf,
        There are copies of these episodes. The University of Colorado Library has them, and they are looking into making them available.
        You might want to contact Deborah Fink at Deborah.Fink@Colorado.EDU

        I’ll send Deborah an e-mail. We’ll wait and see…

        Best wishes,


        • geopolicraticus said

          Dear Gerolf,

          Thanks for keeping me in the loop. Maybe you will shake them loose and the programs will become available, to everyone’s benefit.



  2. lisa shaw said

    Gerald and Nick,

    Has anything ever come of your search for “Self Encounter”? I would also be happy to buy or rent this documentary series just for the chance to watch it.

    Thank you.


    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Lisa,

      I haven’t learned anything new since the above exchange. I’m still waiting for the series to be made available to the public.



  3. Jack Mitchell said

    Thank you for this very helpful post.

    • geopolicraticus said

      You’re welcome. To the above-mentioned documentaries I would add “the Long Search” hosted by Ronald Eyre, “The Day the Universe Changed” by James Burke, “Ancient Lives” and “Byzantium” both with John Romer, and, perhaps the greatest documentary of them all, “The World at War.”

      Best wishes,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: