Where to find the best in new documentaries? In the brave new world of digital streaming.
By Neil Giordano
The world of documentary film is caught in a paradox.
On the one hand, more documentaries are being produced today than ever before while the quality and diversity of the genre — as well as the diversity of the people behind the cameras — serves as a model for what (we can only hope) will be cinematic practice in the future.
Still, despite the prolific splendor of the genre, the market for documentary features has shrunk, at least in terms of traditional theatrical release. Even for the biggest names in documentary filmmaking, theatrical distribution has become elusive, including on the independent and arthouse theater circuit. But there is a way to take in the wealth of new documentaries — the kind you won’t find at your local movie house (even Cambridge’s Kendall Square or Brookline’s Coolidge Corner). You’ll find them in brave new world of digital streaming.
A few years ago the “straight-to-video” marketplace was dismissed as strictly low rung. Now it is a thriving bazaar of top-shelf cinema. Netflix, Amazon, Film Struck, along with cable networks such as HBO and Starz, are slowly become the primary distribution platform for A-list documentaries.
Streaming Docs is my new quarterly or bimonthly (these services change their offerings at a fast pace) guide that will review the best among the current streaming documentaries.
City of Ghosts (dir. Matthew Heinemen) and Last Men in Aleppo (dir. Firas Fayyad)
The past year saw an impressive number of outstanding films that examined the open wound that is Syria’s civil war, now in seventh horrific year and counting.
City of Ghosts is part documentary, part real-life horror movie. Starting off in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s nominal capital, the film follows the underground efforts of an activist media collaborative (#raqqaisbeingslaughteredsilently). It is made up of individuals who risk their lives to distribute video that shows life as it is inside ISIS-controlled territory; these brutal glimpses of totalitarian theocracy in action are not for the weak of stomach. Even more compelling is the group’s mission to serve as a counter to ISIS’s Hollywood-style propaganda efforts. Eventually, ISIS operatives begin to insidiously root out the activists and the story shifts to Europe, where group members choose to live in exile while continuing to smuggle out the truth as best they can — while avoiding detection. The film’s final scene is astonishing — it will give you a new definition of the “War on Terror.”
Last Men in Aleppo is a feature-length exposition of a story that was first explored in 2016’s highly praised documentary short The White Helmets (which earned Netflix its first Academy Award nomination for film production).T he new feature delves further into the heroic efforts of the civil defense teams who rescue survivors of the endless air strikes and military incursions that are turning Syria’s cities to rubble. Perhaps the most disturbing images are not those that show the heinous deaths and dismemberments these men confront on a daily basis. It is the sight of them tracking fighter planes in the sky, trying to figure out who on any given day is bombing them (Russia? The Syrian government?). The confusion is a simple and chilling reminder of the absurdities of an endless war.
City of Ghosts: Amazon; Last Men in Aleppo: Netflix
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (dir. Steve James)
Another Oscar contender this year, Abacus does more than illuminate a sad and (unjustly) forgotten footnote in the 2008 financial meltdown (as far as the mainstream news is concerned). The film is a look at an immigrant success story — a vision of American dreamers fighting back against government betrayal. After the subprime mortgage scandals triggered the Great Recession, there was finger-pointing at the big guns of Wall Street. But the only bank to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud turned out to be the tiny Chinatown-based Abacus Federal Savings Bank — they were an easier target than mega-banksters such as J.P. Morgan. The story pits the Sung family (the bank’s owners) and New York City’s Chinese immigrant community against a district attorney who means to use this prosecution for political gain. The individual members of the Sung family make for compelling advocates for the underdog — their candid on-camera moments and the family’s vindication pack a powerful one-two punch.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Amazon
Rat Film (dir. Theo Anthony) and The Force (dir. Peter Nicks)
Two superb films that provide an unadorned look at the troubled institutional and social histories of major American cities in the twenty-first century. Rat Film is just that — a film about rats, specifically in Baltimore, where the city’s rodent problem is juxtaposed with its legacy of racism. The Force is a verite (and compellingly intimate) portrait of the troubled Oakland Police Department: long-standing charges of racism and brutality spurred a court-ordered remediation of its leadership and training policies.
Rat Film, Amazon; The Force, Netflix
Dawson City: Frozen Time (dir. Bill Morrison)
A found footage documentary of the most unusual and rewarding sort, Dawson City: Frozen Time is stitched together from pieces of hundreds of early twentieth-century nitrate silent film prints and newsreels, all of which were discovered in a cache in 1978 in Dawson City, a remote town that was once a hub for the Canadian Gold Rush. The celluloid, in various stages of decay, is astounding — the images are beautiful and nostalgic, historical and ahistorical. The film also serves up glimpses of a past that (perhaps) would best be left buried. There are some interviews and archival stills, but the eye-filling assembly of old footage/memories tells a magnificent story.
Dawson City: Frozen Time, Film Struck
The B-Side: Elsa Dorman’s Portrait Photography: A beguiling, highly personal documentary by Errol Morris about his longtime Cambridge neighbor, a portrait photographer renowned for her use of one of the few remaining Polaroid limited-production large-format cameras. They chat, reminisce, and leaf through American cultural history while considering what it means to create in a dying medium. Netflix is currently streaming this and many of Morris’s older gems to coincide with its release of the director’s Netflix-produced series Wormwood.
78/52: There’s nothing like a film about a film. In this case the subject is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with a sharp focus on the iconoclastic shower scene, infamous for its transgressive use of montage. It is a segment of celluloid that changed American film editing — forever. Amazon, coming in mid-February
The Work: An underseen masterpiece of observational cinema that is also a monument to the virtues of patience and access. Filmmakers Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous spent years gaining the trust of prisoners at Folsom State Penitentiary before filming them during four days of intense group self-help therapy. Is rehabilitation possible for men who have been convicted of committing horrible crimes? Amazon
The Good Postman: A small gem that offers another look at the Syrian civil war, but from a wholly different perspective. A small border town in Bulgaria is a stopover — or maybe a new home — for refugees pouring in from Syria via neighboring Turkey. While the story is a bit of a slog in its first half (documentary editing is a highly underrated art), the film hits its wonderful stride when the eponymous postman runs for mayor. He is up against two of his garrulous compatriots (the trio would make a fine scripted film) and the incumbent. The candidates proffer clashing opinions about what the town’s future should be, and what to do about the refugee “problem.” Amazon
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.