Athlete A, Boys State, Dick Johnson is Dead, Time, 76 Days: Documentaries that defined 2020
In this pandemic year, documentaries — films and series alike — filled a void left by theatrical releases.
Documentary isn't that D-word for film lovers anymore. Nearly a year of distancing ourselves from theatres, and four years of a certain Donald took care of that. In a pandemic year, documentary — films and series alike — filled a void left by theatrical releases. Stuck in our homes this year, we got a front-row seat to the inner workings of Boston's City Hall, an intimate portrait of a wife's dogged crusade against a rigged justice system, a high-school summer camp which explained America's political divide, and testimonies of the brave gymnasts who brought down serial predator Larry Nassar along with the powerful institutions that enabled him.
The surge of interest in documentaries in the last decade or so has led to a renaissance, thanks in large part to streaming services. Particularly, docuseries like Making a Murderer, Wild Wild Country and Tiger King became identity markers for Netflix, dominating the cultural conversation till the next big thing arrived ready for consumption. Docs are cheaper to produce, and leave the company sufficient budget to make second-rate tentpoles like Bright and 6 Underground. If it also means they will continue writing Martin Scorsese and David Lynch blank checks to make whatever they want to make, we aren't complaining.
Greater access to a world of documentaries has led to an increased demand from subscribers, and a simultaneous demand for quality. Though the algorithms mostly generate a whole catalogue of mediocre true crime documentaries, there are hidden treasures if you search hard enough. 2020 was no different.
Garrett Bradley's Time, easily one of the year's best films, shares its ethos with Herzog's documentaries. It is a "feature film in disguise", as he would call it. Bradley follows Sibyl "Fox" Richardson, a woman fighting a system which has her husband Rob serving a 60-year sentence for a bank robbery. Fox herself served three and a half years for her part in it. Rob's story is used to contextualise the racial disparity that pervades the US criminal justice system and how structural racism drives mass incarceration. By focusing on a single story behind the statistics, Bradley captures the emotional core of her subject, what Herzog described as "the ecstatic truth” as opposed to "an accountant's truth" based on cold hard facts. In parallel to Fox's crusade, we see 21 years of time lost in prison. Time captured in home videos and family albums illustrate the first steps, birthdays, and all the other missed milestones of their six sons forced to grow up without their father. These 21 years, condensed into a collection of videos, are made tangible through film. For Rob, it's a lifetime of waiting. For us, it's a film of 81 minutes.
We live in uncertain times where lies are called alternative facts, and disinformation has condemned truth to the background. It doesn't help that mass media has warped reality to an extent where it has become impossible to separate news from noise. If truth and reality have become malleable, the medium must too. It's like Brecht said, "Reality changes. In order to represent it, modes of representation must change."
There were plenty of interesting changes in modes of representation, none more so than in Dick Johnson Is Dead. In her new film, Kirsten Johnson adopts Joshua Oppenheimer’s “all documentaries are a performance” approach to a deeply personal story. She decides to face head-on that inevitable and unavoidable conclusion everyone evades: death. When her father Dick begins to suffer from dementia, she prepares herself by staging the different ways he could die: mangled by a stumble down the stairs, crushed by an air conditioner dropping on his head, slashed by a wooden plank, etc. Aside from the gallows humour, these surreal sketches infuse the film with a surprising poignancy as a father and daughter make memories for as long as dementia allows. This film as family therapy culminates in a baroque fantasy of Dick's arrival in heaven, a sequence which is cinema at its purest, where there's no distinction between documentary and feature, or reality and fantasy.
Reality and fantasy are also interweaved in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a film where brothers Bill and Turner Ross follow bartenders and barflies on the last night of a Las Vegas dive bar before it shuts down. Or so it seems. In reality, the bar is actually in New Orleans, it hasn't shut down and the barflies were brought together through casting. On paper, it sounds like one of those terrible "walk into a bar" jokes. Despite the staged reality, there's a spontaneous dynamic between these New Orleans natives, like a makeshift family coming together in grief. As they drink, dance, laugh, argue, tell stories and drink more, you see an America of failed dreams and broken livelihoods. The bar here becomes an inebriated microcosm of lonely people forced to the fringes, the film an ode to their shared sanctuary.
As always, there were plenty of the standard documentary as “cinema + journalism.” Drawing on the investigative work of The Indianapolis Star and the testimony of survivors, Athlete A directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk build a powerful social document on the institutional protection of known predators. We learn just how Larry Nassar was able to assault so many young gymnasts for so long. Cohen and Shank trace the problem to the 1970s, when Nadia Comaneci's Olympic triumph normalised a rigid training system which enforced discipline through dominance. Imported from Romania to the US by coaches Béla and Mäna Kärolyi to challenge the Eastern bloc, the system allowed people like Nassar to manipulate young girls, and created a culture which punished those who spoke out. The governing body, USA Gymnastics, went to great lengths to cover it all up. So, the film presses the urgent need for sweeping reforms, and on hearing the testimonies of Maggie Nichols and her fellow gymnasts, you realise just why we need to ramp up institutional responses to sexual abuse.
Another social issue documentary that deserves highlighting is Disclosure, which opened our eyes to Hollywood's transphobia pandemic. In a heart-breaking moment, Laverne Cox describes just how the frequently violent deaths of trans people in movies influence the way viewers see them, and the way they see themselves. In other noteworthy interviews, Trace Lysette opens up on working on Transparent, and Lilly Wachowski discusses The Matrix as a trans allegory. Based on personal accounts from these familiar trans creatives, Sam Feder surveys the living history of how the community has been misrepresented in Hollywood, going back all the way to DW Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (1914). In Hollywood's conversations for visibility of underrepresented racial, ethnic and LGBTQ communities, the advocacy for disability representation however has been a little too hushed. Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht call this out in Crip Camp. The Obamas' engaging follow-up to last year's Oscar-winning American Factory sees a freewheeling summer camp burgeon into a civil rights movement for the disabled.
In Boys State, a summer camp in Austin, Texas holds the answers to the tone and tenor of modern political discourse in the US. Every year, hundreds of high-school students from all around the country come together for seven days to simulate the American democratic process: they form a two-party political system, run campaigns to elect a governor, and pass laws. It's where Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton got their starts. We watch as the values and beliefs of these young idealists are challenged by the electoral system, and the ideological debates and personality clashes that arise from it. It sure is a grand political experiment to monitor a democracy's health, and diagnose any underlying malady. Instead, what we also see is how the more ambitious use the political system to their advantage in what turns out to be an ill-boding synopsis of politics as a patriarchal domain.
Watching Frederick Wiseman's City Hall is like watching a film at the very moment of its making. It is “direct cinema” after all. In a career spanning over five decades, Wiseman has scrutinised so many social institutions that shape democracy, he has become an institution in himself. In his new documentary, he focuses his undivided attention to the functioning of the city administration in Boston, from something as banal as garbage collection to something as fascinating as the opening of a cannabis dispensary, from something as intimate as officiating a lesbian wedding to something as large-scale as the Red Sox victory parade. It is not a fly-on-the-wall account by any measure. Wiseman is "at least 2 percent conscious" (like he once remarked) of how his portrait of the municipality — that functions in a manner consistent with the democratic ideals of the US Constitution — is a clear antithesis to the way Trump ran the country.
If the aforementioned documentaries are like cinematic equivalent of spinach, Tiger King is like a cheeseburger with fries. The adage “reality is stranger than fiction" may be overused, but it conveys a truth that is difficult to dispute. The subtitle "Murder, Mayhem and Madness" perhaps best describes the docuseries from Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin. Tracing the rivalry between two American archetypes, the white trash Joe Exotic vs hippie blonde Carole Blaskin, it gives us a staggering snapshot of unchecked capitalism in all its moral depravity. Across seven episodes, we witness the sensationalised feud between Joe (a gay, mullet-sporting polygamist who loves tigers and guns alike) and Carole (a blonde-haired animal rights activist with a fondness for leopard-print dresses) spiral into assassination plots and multi-million-dollar lawsuits with twists and turns aplenty. It's a fever dream ripe for a B-movie adaptation starring Nicolas Cage. If Tiger King becoming a cultural phenomenon was a bit of a surprise, The Last Dance becoming one was not so much. Mixing archival footage with interviews, juicy revelations with rare insights, the docuseries retraced Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98. From the insatiable binge-watcher to the old-fashioned an-episode-a-week viewer, it had everyone hooked.
We can't talk about 2020 without a word on COVID-19 and its impact the world over. In 76 Days, Hao Wu coordinates with two on-ground reporters to document the doctors and nurses diagnosing, treating, and watching over infected patients in Wuhan. Making a virtue of simplicity and intimacy, Wu's film is intended as a tribute to the health care workers. So, it is decidedly apolitical, operating within the limits of China's carefully-curated status quo. Ai Weiwei takes a markedly more extensive and political approach in CoroNation. Collaborating with a larger team of volunteers, he shows the failure of Wuhan authorities in assessing the severity of the virus, and a China not reluctant to flex its military muscle to enforce a strict lockdown. Alex Gibney also tackles the crisis in his new film, Totally Under Control, which chronicles America's response to the pandemic by comparing it to that of South Korea’s.
With isolation and the slower-paced life, what the documentaries which have driven the conversation this year have undeniably proved is: we need more stories of how everyone else is coping. Films especially allow us to be mobile, travel and live vicariously through a whole world's stories. These stories give us hope we'll come out stronger on the other side of it. Perhaps, that's one of the only things keeping many of us film lovers going: imagining all the documentaries, stories and art that will come out of it.
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