There is strength in numbers. Nowhere is that more true than in the relationship between government and its people. Some of the most watershed moments in history have been born out of large political gatherings, whether they’re peaceful demonstrations for improved rights or violent coup d’etats to overthrow heads of state. And some gatherings have been emblematic of a darker chapter in history, never to be repeated. We’ve rounded up five of our favorite historical documentaries that examine the power of political mobilization. Some will inspire you, some will anger you, and some might even terrify you. But they will all open your eyes to some of the most unforgettable moments in history.
In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a coup d’etat in Chile that deposed the Popular Unity government of socialist president Salvador Allende and ended civilian rule by establishing a military junta. The coup itself was a day of bloodshed, but it also sparked a wave of unprecedented violence that would claim the lives of thousands of Chilean leftists and imprison 40,000 more.
“Battle of Chile” is a three-part documentary that chronicles the perfect storm of political unrest surrounding the military coup. The series begins by looking at the rightist opposition to Allende’s unexpected victory, which began in Parliament but then spilled out onto the streets and turned violent. With the left weakened and divided from the civil unrest, the right was able to methodically lay the groundwork for an overthrow. The actual coup itself is documented in vivid detail, including Allende’s last message to the public, footage of the military assault on the presidential palace, and a televised presentation of the new military junta.
Some consider the most heartbreaking aspect of this saga to be the downfall of socialist president Salvador Allende, an inspiring but controversial leader who dreamed of a socialist Chile at a time when the war between communism and capitalism occupied much of the international stage. “Salvador Allende” follows his remarkable rise in such contentious times, which ultimately also contributed to his demise. Allende perished in Pinochet’s military assault, but the circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Did he die fighting off the troops or did he commit suicide before he could be captured? Both exalted and disparaged, Allende remains one of the most fascinating and misunderstood figures in history.
Like a David vs Goliath story with a tragic ending, this documentary chronicles South Africa’s first post-colonial massacre. In 2012, mineworkers in one of South Africa’s biggest platinum mines began a strike for better wages. Six days in, the police used live ammunition to suppress the strike, killing 34 miners and injuring many more. “Miners Shot Down” tells the story over the course of an increasingly tense seven days, from the perspectives of three of the strike leaders and using archival and police footage. By striking, these low-paid workers went up against multiple powerful forces—their mining company, Lonmin, The African National Congress, and their allies in the National Union of Mineworkers. Sadly, the powerful won.
It might sound like the premise of an extremely dark dystopian novel, but in 1939, 20,000 Americans poured into Madison Square Garden in support of Hitler. Created entirely from archival footage, the short film is a series of eerie juxtapositions: Nazi banners displayed among American flags, the pledge of allegiance is conducted between Sieg Heils, and the marquee outside innocuously announces a hockey game under “Pro American Rally.” But given the events of recent history, this haunting film isn’t just a shocking piece of history—it’s a reminder that history can always repeat itself.
In 2007, Burma saw its largest uprising since 1988. Known as the Saffron Revolution, 100,000 people took to the streets to protest the government’s lifting of fuel subsidies, which made diesel and petrol prices skyrocket. What started out as peaceful demonstrations led by students, activists, and Buddhist monks became a massacre when the government started cracking down, arresting and detaining hundreds of protesters and killing 31. But the world might have never known about the atrocity if it hadn’t been for a group of citizen video journalists known as the Democratic Voice of Burma, who secretly recorded the events and smuggled the footage out of the country. The resulting documentary is one of the most rare glimpses inside of a closed and heavily censored society.