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Sam Gonçalves’s non-fiction favourites

“The list of non-fiction works below are some of my favourites in their respective mediums; not just because they illuminate the facts but also because they so expertly show what the facts can illuminate about us”
words – sam gonçalves
location – glasgow, scotland

My high school history teacher was a fascinating character who didn’t hold much regard for the traditional way the subject had been taught. Every few weeks he would introduce a new theme and teach us about a collection of historical events that were relevant to it. On the theme of ‘incarceration,’ we were taken through the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus in the labyrinth, then guided into the Haitian Revolution before finally arriving at the formation of the modern criminal justice system. 

Hayden White once wrote that the making of non-fiction work is all about ‘transforming knowing into telling.’ The job of the storyteller, then, is not just finding the facts – it’s also finding the ways in which they connect. It is about shaping a path through what happened in order to make a point about why it happened at all. 

The list of non-fiction works below are some of my favourites in their respective mediums; not just because they illuminate the facts but also because they so expertly show what the facts can illuminate about us.

01_Janet Malcolm

Malcolm’s entire body of work, from an author who once described herself as a connoisseur ‘of the small, unregarded motions of life,’ is worth your time. Read her blistering curiosity navigate through the justice system, psychoanalysis and the practice of journalism itself. The latter is perfectly captured in the very first line of her seminal book, ‘The Journalist and the Murderer.’ It reads: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible.”

02_F for Fake

The docudrama by Orson Welles might be considered more of a video essay than a film. It takes a meandering and charming path in order to explore issues of truth and authenticity. Not only is it visually captivating, it’s also packed full of anecdotes and asides brought to life by Welles’s intense persona.

03_Really Long Distance

When dipping into podcasts, it would be hard not to mention ‘This American Life.’ The radio show has been delivering hour-long audio documentaries since the mid-90s, and can boast of some of the most emotionally devastating pieces of non-fiction in existence. My favourite is a single Act, lasting 22 minutes, in one of their episodes. ‘Really Long Distance’ by reporter Miki Meek is all about collective grief and the structures that support it. Unmissable.

04_The Act of Killing

Anwar Congo led one of the most powerful death squads in North Sumatra, Indonesia, following a failed coup in 1965. He is said to have killed over one thousand individuals himself and yet, decades later, is still openly revered by certain factions in the country. In the early 00s, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer met with Anwar and his partner and simply gave them the opportunity to re-enact their murders. What comes next is a shocking journey of self-reflection and exploration of how evil is often justified.

05_Amazing Grace

Although I accept my take here may be subjective, there’s no doubt in my mind that Aretha Franklin has the most divine voice humanity has managed to capture in an audio recording. This 2018 concert film puts together footage from 1972, which up until then was almost entirely lost due to the filmmakers’ inability to sync sound and visuals. Completely devoid of interviews or talking heads, the film features Ms. Franklin going back to her roots and singing with the Southern California Community Choir. Every song is filled with the political and personal undertones present in that community, while at the same time seeming somewhat heavenly. A visit from an angel. This might be my favourite film of all time.

06_Conquest of the Useless

Though Werner Herzog has some masterpieces of documentary in his filmography, my recommendation here is for his journals while shooting the epic ‘Fitzcarraldo.’ The famously chaotic and disastrous production echoes the film’s story of hubris and the crushing force of nature. The book gives you an idea of what it was like to work on a set like that, through the unintentionally funny [though that lack of intentionality is debatable] and poetic asides from Herzog.


07_Stories We Tell

This self-exploratory documentary by the brilliant filmmaker Sarah Polley is a straightforward portrait of her family’s history – or so it seems. Polley’s style gives the audience too much and nothing at all of herself, all at the same time. It ultimately ends in a novel way when it comes to non-fiction film, further enforcing the thesis behind the whole project. It is a worthwhile and playful addition to the documentary canon.


08_Rádio Novelo Apresenta…

I have to start this entry with an apology, as this brilliant series of weekly podcasts is only available in Portuguese. But maybe if enough English speakers subscribe they might translate some of their most beautiful episodes… Until then, I couldn’t not include them here. The weekly episodes presented by Branca Vianna capture some hyper-specific and sometimes whimsical, sometimes sobering experiences of living in Brazil. I find so many of their stories deeply touching, especially the work from journalist Natália Silva. Similarly to Janet Malcolm, I consume her work with a notepad in hand, hoping to learn some of the expert craft displayed.


09_Greater Govanhill & the Community Newsroom

I’m biased about this last entry, being tangentially involved, but Greater Govanhill is an indispensable example of what journalism and non-fiction can do within a community. In the Southside of Glasgow, the magazine has been a staple of the local area. It’s told stories of everything from food and entertainment to community engagement and activism. The team have also opened a community newsroom, in partnership with The Ferret, in a process of democratising local journalism that is rarely even attempted in the UK nowadays. Whatever the future of non-fiction might be, I’m sure its keys are held by people-first approaches like this one.


As we enter Spring, there’s no better way to pass time than letting one of the names above hold your hand and guide you through their jungle of knowing.

Happy trails!

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