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(Credit: Claire Boxall)

Film

Louis Theroux names his five favourite documentaries of all time

@Russellisation

Just like David Attenborough can be seen as an icon of nature documentary filmmaking, Louis Theroux can be viewed as one of the most influential factual interviewers of the contemporary medium. Sporting an unkempt head of hair, large rimmed glasses and a pair of excavating eyes, part of Theroux’s allure is in the facade of his appearance, presenting himself as if he is none the wiser, despite the fact that he is analysing every word. 

The softly-spoken British cultural idol is known for his deft ability to extract moments of honesty even from the most tight-lipped interviewee’s, having travelled to hostile events and places across the world to question some of the most controversial figures around. 

Speaking to The Guardian, Theroux was critical of his early career breakthrough, commenting: “Mainly I was distracted by my appearance, voice and how I came across. The way my hair is piled on top of my head. The faint mid-Atlantic twang in my accent…I was definitely a little bit of a tool, but what was harder to know was whether that was an obstacle or part of my gift”.

Using his own facade of ignorance as a key part of his act, Theroux’s mild-mannered demeanour makes him a friendly face to confide in, despite his brain intricately working out the best approach for his next cutting question. 

Having gifted audiences over 40 separate documentaries and one feature-length film, Theroux is known as one of the most famous factual filmmakers of contemporary entertainment. But what about his own favourite documentaries? Sitting down with Pan Macmillan, Theroux revealed his top five top picks of all time, choosing some of the finest factual movies of modern cinema. Let’s take a look. 

Louis Theroux’s five favourite documentaries:

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

Causing a monumental impact when it was released in 2012, Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking documentary The Act of Killing follows the former Indonesian death-squad leaders who are asked to create a dramatic retelling of their unspeakable crimes. Using elaborate Hollywood-inspired scenes and even musical numbers, the film is utterly surreal, utilising a peculiar form of storytelling. 

As Theroux states, “The kind of amazing, brilliant breakthrough storytelling device that Joshua Oppenheimer uses…it becomes a kind of a process for them to take a reckoning…there’s a very humanistic value at the heart of it”. 

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

As Theroux describes, Dear Zachary is “about bereavement, it’s about loss, it’s about family,” telling the story of a filmmaker who decides to memoralise the life of his murdered friend. Whilst there is far more to this twisted tale, Theroux would prefer to keep the plot under wraps saying, “I’m reluctant to say too much about it; it’s a heart-rending piece of work”.

A painful, emotionally wrought exploration of a tragic lost life, Dear Zachary is a beloved documentary, with Theroux concluding, “No one I’ve ever recommended this to has failed to be profoundly moved by this film…it’s just a wonderful film”.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)

Whilst this movie might be directed by the infamously mysterious guerrilla artist, Banksy, the film does little to actually explore the artists own work, preferring to focus on the “nature of street art and merchandising in particular,” as Theroux describes. In equal parts a “light and funny” and “thoughtful piece of work,” Exit Through the Gift Shop follows various street artists from around the world, including Mr. Brainwash to Space Invader.

“I think it’s a great example of a documentary in which one of the contributors, one of the subjects of the documentary, kind of takes over and takes the film in a completely unexpected direction,” Theroux explains about the documentary. 

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (Andrew Jarecki, 2015)

Switching his attention from feature-length documentaries to serialised factual entertainment, Theorux’s fourth choice goes to the HBO show The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Examining the life of the famous real estate icon and his connection to a series of violent unsolved crimes, The Jinx is a case of real-life horror that feels like it’s being solved before our very eyes.

“Beautifully constructed using interviews and archive and also reenactments,” the film becomes a “tango between the director and the guy,” as the relationship between filmmaker and subject becomes ever-more complicated. 

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)

Well known as one of the greatest documentaries of modern cinema, Errol Morris’ exploration about a man on death row who is wrongfully accused of muder is, as Theroux states, “an extraordinary piece of work”. From the influential filmmaker behind The Fog of War and Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris’ 1988 is one of his most celebrated, highlighting the corruption of law enforcement that remains a pertinent problem to this very day. 

As Louis Theroux describes, “It’s a classic…it’s just a great example of how powerfully the truth comes across when it isn’t forced, when you’re not being told what to think but you the viewer put the pieces together and arrive at the truth”.