I generally stick to fiction – you won’t find a lot of posts about documentaries here. That’s about to change.
The last few weeks were challenging. I have looked at this blog on numerous occasions and thought, NO – I can’t. Going back to #31DaysofHorror feels wrong, in light of the real world horror I and so many others feel after the results of this election.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t feel bad about it at all. There are those of you who will call me a “special little snowflake” and tell me to “buck up, buttercup,” because this is reality. This is who won. Donald Trump is the next President of the United States.
You’re right. So what do I do now?
It’s time to get back to work.
For me, that’s back to film school. And when I’m down, uninspired, and generally lacking for an explanation, I can’t think of anything better to turn to than a good documentary.
Documentaries wake us up.
They enliven us to the stories of those we have never met and might never meet. They uncover narratives of the disenfranchised, the elite, those in power, and those with none. Good documentaries show us what reality looks from other perspectives – and they shake us up.
Documentaries inspire cooperation.
More than half of this country is protesting, while others damn those protests as little more than the complaints of sore losers. No matter your opinion, reality is this – people are scared and people are estranged. This is the time to find common ground.
Viewing documentaries from all sides of the political spectrum can be an enlightening way to do just that. To see things that are outside ourselves and our own comfort. Hopefully to gain empathy and understanding so we can work together to stay safe and make positive change.
Documentaries you can watch RIGHT NOW.
What follows is a list of ten documentaries that you can watch today that will better your understanding of the political climate in our country. It’s in no way exhaustive of the many stories that are relevant at the moment, but it’s a start.
In curating these choices, I’ve tried to choose films that deal with issues that will inevitably be effected by the incoming administration. I have tried to choose films that represent many different experiences. Most of all, I believe there is something beneficial for every person and every viewpoint to take away from each.
As documentaries inherently go, each has its own implicit bias (we’re human – you can’t get rid of it). But as with all the best examples of the genre, each presents its story with a raw and open stance. I hope you’ll watch them with that same level of open mind and open heart.
After Tiller (2013)
Directed by Lana Wilson, Martha Shane
One of the only doctors in the country able to perform late-term abortions, Dr. George Tiller was the subject of scrutiny, threats, and eventual assassination. After Tiller documents the experiences of his fellow staff and the few other doctors still providing these types of abortion services. Especially moving are the volunteers who escort women into appointments through throngs of protestors, and remain to comfort them through an incredibly difficult experience. A testament to the need for skilled, safe, women’s reproductive care (and those who dedicate their lives to it).
Directed by Ava Duvernay
Ava Duvernay continues to dominate film with this Netflix documentary on the perils of American prisons. If you doubt that black men (and women) find themselves caught and suppressed by the very structure of our penal system, this is a necessary eye-opener. 13th refers of course to the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery, but maintains it within the confines of imprisonment. Duvernay’s documentary does a masterful job at highlighting the systemic injustice that loophole has brought forth.
What Our Fathers Did: Our Nazi Legacy (2015)
Directed by David Evans
For some, the rise of a populist like Donald Trump – a man who campaigned on highly discriminatory rhetoric – is a call back to fascism and the rise of other infamous demagogues. That history is not easily forgotten in Germany, where the descendants of members of the Nazi party are forced to confront the acts of their parents over and over again. What Our Fathers Did follows two sons of prominent Nazi officials; one of whom swims in guilt, while the other rests in a state of seemingly permanent denial. It’s an arduous journey for both the viewer and these men, but their story is important to hear when we consider the long-term effects of our actions on others, and on our own children.
Welcome to Leith (2015)
Directed by Michael Nichols, Christopher Walker
Welcome to Leith is a primary example of the contemporary Neo-Nazi movement at work. It documents the attempt of Craig Cobb to move to the small town of Leith, North Dakota, with plans to forcibly recreate it as a “safe space” for fellow white supremacists. The neighbors aren’t pleased. His tactics are aggressive, violent, and always just skirting the law. It’s not only an excellent primer for how the Neo-Nazi party has operated in recent decades, but perhaps a way to better understand how the self-proclaimed “alt-right” operates – with passive aggressive suppression.
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
Directed by Barbara Kopple
One of the most important documentaries ever made was directed by a woman in 1976. Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning film documents the labor strike of miners in Harlan County, Kentucky. The work is hard, dangerous, and underpaid. Owners of the Brookside Mine undermine the workers abilities to unionize, denying their contracts and hiring scabs. Kopple and her camera uncover the drama at the mine, but also in the homes of the workers. In particular, the wives of the miners and their efforts to support their husbands and their families. The film shines a light on the blue collar, predominately white class of the rust belt that is still chronically underserved by our government today.
The Immoderation of Me (2002)
Directed by Sandra Maischberger
The best documentary on Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is a made for tv special that you can find in its entirety on YouTube. Director Sandra Maischberger was able to interview the elderly Riefenstahl just before her death in 2003. It’s a fair and sometimes heartbreaking look at a woman who became a household name as the leading documentarian and propagandist of the Nazi party. Riefenstahl is particularly important in understanding how propaganda works, and how those creating it don’t always understand (or admit) that what they’re making is heavily influenced and highly dangerous.
The Flat (2011)
Directed by Arnon Goldfinger
In defending the appointment of Stephen Bannon as White House Chief Analyst, many note his support of Zionism as proof he cannot be anti-semitic. Watching The Flat will remind my fellow Jews that the Nazi party once supported Israel: as a means to push Jews out of their country and a precursor to what would become extermination. What Arnon Goldfinger finds, as he arrives in Israel to clean out the apartment of his grandmother Gerda, is a part of German-Jewish history that is rarely spoken about: the close ties of some Jews and a few Nazi officials. A complicated relationship between religious/ethnic identity and nationalism that continued through and after the Holocaust.
Stonewall Uprising (2010)
Directed by Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
Stonewall Uprising chronicles the uprising of members of the gay community at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NYC in 1969. Not only does it remind us of the tremendous uphill climb our LGBTQ citizens have had to gain basic civil rights, but it shines a light on the importance of protests as a means to be heard.
Remote Area Medical (2013)
Directed by Jeff Reichert, Farihah Zaman
Another more recent look into the state of rust-belt America: specifically the lack of healthcare available in areas of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Remote Area Medical (RAM) is a non-profit that opens an annual pop-up medical clinic at the NASCAR speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. With populations living in rural areas and a lack of medical professionals available to serve them (few are able or willing to live in the area), the RAM clinic is often the only option for routine medicine like vaccines, dentistry, and the basic health care many of us take for granted. The film is available to stream on Netflix.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein
If you want to gain an understanding of film propaganda (in a year of fake news awash on Facebook, you should), it’s best to start with its master. Under the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein was not only a master filmmaker and editor, his mastery of the craft made him one of the predominant propagandists of all time. Watching October (available in the public domain and in its entirety on YouTube), one is immediately drawn in by the booming sounds, sights, fast cuts, and hyper masculine power in Eisenstein’s vision of Soviet Russia. A reenactment in documentary style, October is an incredibly engaging visual feat that imbues its viewer with very real feelings of strength and national pride. It is also a fiction.
Documentaries inspire action.
That’s my hope for this list.
Let these ten films rile you up. May they wake you, inspire you, and lead you to other films, other filmmakers, and other movements.
Most importantly, I hope they encourage you to take up a position beyond the comfort of your couch.
What are the films that inspire you to keep going when times get tough? What documentaries do you wish your fellow Americans would get around to watching? Leave them in the comments and let’s get a great big to-do list going.