Top 5: Mary McDonagh Murphy

The independent filmmaker, a Scarborough resident, on her five favorite documentaries


Documentary writer, director, and producer (Cry for Help, Digital Days) Mary McDonagh Murphy won six Emmy Awards during her 20-year tenure as a producer at CBS News. Her most recent film is Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, about the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

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1) Restrepo (Outpost Films/National Geographic Entertainment, 2010)
This riveting feature-length documentary, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, follows a platoon of 15 United States soldiers on a terrifying deployment in Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley. “It’s all war, no politics,” Murphy says. “And were it not for co-directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington—Hetherington died in Libya in April—we would never know about any of this.”

2) Harlan County USA (Cabin Creek Films, 1976)
In this Academy Award winner, director Barbara Kopple takes the viewer inside a miner’s strike in a small Kentucky town to show exactly what it took for workers and their families to fight the powerful coal companies. “This film is about people who are willing to die for what they believe in,” says Murphy.

3) When We Were Kings (Gramercy Pictures, 1996)
Murphy describes director Leon Gast’s fascinating chronicle of the buildup to the Mohammad Ali-George Foreman 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in what used to be Zaire as “rich, deep, full of texture, and as much about boxing as it is about history, culture, and identity.” Almost as compelling as the film itself, adds Murphy, is Gast’s own story and his epic struggle to get the movie made.

4) Harvest of Shame (CBS Reports, 1960)
On display here, says Murphy, are the shocking conditions of migrant farm workers, along with some classic writing by Edward R. Murrow. “Harvest of Shame makes a political statement on behalf of the working poor. You can debate whether that sort of thing belongs on network news, but this is powerful stuff.”

5) Family Business (Icarus Films, 1982)
In this film, one of six in the landmark PBS Middletown series documenting ordinary lives in Muncie, Indiana, director Tom Cohen follows Howie Snider, a former Marine colonel who owns a Sharkey’s Pizza Parlor, as he tries to stave off bankruptcy. “Director Jonathan Demme once told me this is one of his favorite documentaries of all time,” says Murphy, “and you can see why.”

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