Inspired by the surprisingly successful education expose Waiting for Superman (which is backed by massive marketing dollars for a doc), USA Today lists 11 documentaries that shook the world, that made a big difference in their time.
The first five are:
1. Wrecking of the Battleship Maine, Burial of the Maine Victims (1898) Thomas Edison. An "actuality" widely shown to raise public ire and support for the Spanish-American War.
2. Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) Esfir Shub. The first acknowledged compilation film, it traces Russian history from 1913 to 1917, using "home movie" footage of the family of the last Russian czar mixed with images of starving peasants. Useful propaganda for the Soviets.
3. Triumph of the Will (1935) Leni Reifenstahl, Carl Ruttmann. A huge, staged Nazi Party rally on film. Useful propaganda for Hitler.
4. Why We Fight(1942) Frank Capra. The whole series, especially the Oscar-winning Prelude to War, made the case for America entering World War II. Originally intended for the troops, it became useful civilian propaganda in theaters.
5. Night and Fog (1955) Alain Resnais. The world's first look inside the Nazi death camps, combining color and black-and-white film with newsreels, Allied footage and stills to tell a horrifying story. Haunting and unforgettable, it is also an almost perfect piece of filmmaking. The shots taken at Auschwitz were replicated by filmmaker Steven Spielberg in the 1993 film Schindler's List. Only after this film were many people even able to speak about the Holocaust.