You can see Director Bao Nguyen’s Be Water as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. The documentary, released in June 2020, tells the story of Bruce Lee’s return to Hong Kong to work in film and explores the difficulties he faced along the way using rare archive footage, interviews, and Bruce’s own writings.
Long a movie buff, Bao told ESPN he remembers the first time he saw Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and how he was blown away. It was the first time he’d seen a lead actor who resembled himself.
Today Bao is an award-winning independent film and commercial director based in LA and Vietnam. These are just some of the films that inspire him—in no particular order.
1. Hoop Dreams
This was the first documentary I recall seeing as a child. I was a huge basketball fan and very into the mythology of the ’90s Chicago Bulls. This film demystified the glory of the era in many ways. The story was both intimate and epic—a guiding principle I try to follow in my own film work.
Directed by Steve James
2. Up the Yangtze
Seeing a filmmaker who looked like me make a film that was so beautiful and honest made me think making films was not beyond my reach. Watching Yung Chang’s first film showed me representation is not just important on screen but behind the camera as well.
Directed by Yung Chang
3. Listen To Me Marlon
This film is the perfect portrait of an artist—raw, unflinching, deeply personal, and poetic.
Directed by Stevan Riley
4. The Beaches of Agnes
Agnès Varda’s voice is so present in her films. She’s the epitome of director as auteur.
Directed by Agnès Varda
5. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On
I was absolutely blown away by this film when I watched. I saw it at a film festival on a whim, and it changed my perception of documentary filmmaking. I recommend watching without reading anything about it beforehand.
Directed by Kazuo Hara
6. Let’s Get Lost
I find the best documentaries about artists somehow take on the intrinsic form of the artist they’re documenting. Like its subject, the famous jazz musician Chet Baker, this beautiful black and white film directed by fashion photographer Bruce Weber is a free flow improv of beautiful images and dark, touching moments.
Directed by Bruce Weber
7. Who Killed Vincent Chin?
Part musical, part courtroom drama, and complete senseless tragedy, this is a must for every American. It’s an example of how flawed the criminal justice system is in our country and how unfounded prejudice and systemic racism affects all communities, past and present.
Directed by Renee Tajima-Peña and Christine Choy
This film could be considered a mild form of child abuse or the most beautiful moment of adolescent discovery captured on film. Watch and figure out for yourself.
Directed by Viktor Kossakovsky
A version of this article originally appeared in Sixtysix Issue 05 with the headline “Cinema That Stirs.” Subscribe today.