From One Child Nation to I'll Be Gone in The Dark, five documentaries that are a must-watch

Documentaries, docu-series, and reality TV that flits between both these formats are littered across streaming platforms today.

Poulomi Das September 14, 2020 14:21:38 IST
From One Child Nation to I'll Be Gone in The Dark, five documentaries that are a must-watch

Someone I follow on Instagram advertised and by effect, recommended The Keepers, a spine-chilling true-crime Netflix documentary series on her Instagram Stories one evening. “If there’s one show you should be watching right now, it’s this one,” was her accompanying message. The show in question tackles the unsolved murder of a beloved Catholic nun and school teacher in the ‘90s through conversations with friends, former colleagues, students, and government officials who reveal a possible angle to her murder: sexual abuse.

At the time I watched her story, a friend and I were furiously exchanging notes about I’ll be Gone in the Dark, the six-part HBO true-crime documentary series that chronicles author Michelle McNamara’s investigation into the Golden State Killer, accused of committing over 13 murders and 50 rapes between 1974 to 1986. If you were to ask both of us, we’d probably concur that if there’s one show you should be watching right now, it’s this one. 

On the face of it, both these shows are years apart: The Keepers, which somehow never managed to dominate cultural conversation as much as it deserved to, came out back in 2017, a year after Netflix launched in the country. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark on the other hand, available to stream on Hotstar, just concluded its run early this month. Yet both these are docu-series, finding their way into innumerable watchlists with equal fervour in part due to a collective appetite for locating the fact amongst the fiction and in part because we’re gripped by a pandemic that has habituated us to cling onto records of truth, even when they are stranger than fiction. 

Although until a year ago, the kind of non-fiction storytelling which involves introducing a camera into the lives of a set of people thrust either under tragic or extraordinary circumstances, and in some cases both, was considered an afterthought in the larger scheme of things. These documentaries which include but aren’t limited to exploring true crime, reality TV, investigative subjects, sports, history, and culture were meant to be for a certain disposition if not for a select few. The advent of streaming platforms making inroads into the country’s consumption diet mirrored this assumption: Attention, thought, and money were showered generously on acquiring, commissioning, and streaming a slate of high-profile fiction titles across genres, languages, and formats. 

And then, the tide turned. Suddenly, there was a renewed interest in documenting real life than recreating it. As a result, documentaries, docu-series, and reality TV that flits between both these formats are littered across streaming platforms today. More than anything, their popularity, to my mind, stems from the fact that these are confessions of a moment of time – one that mirrors our current obsessions and anxieties, making sense in a way of the lives that we are prone to leading in a world that constantly keeps changing.

The choices now are too many but if you’re looking to dive into the non-fiction genre, these five documentaries make for a good starter kit.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream

Even though this documentary came out last year, it’s perhaps best described as a sign of our current times. Designed as a stream of consciousness essay of sorts, Frank Beauvais’ documentary is both a record of grief and a blueprint of coming to terms with it. The starting point for Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is Beauvais’ break up with his partner of four years. When his partner leaves him, all he has for company is solitude in a remote region of France. Composed of shots from over 400 films that the director watched while he was in isolation for close to five months in 2016, the film then is a product of both loneliness and cinephilia (Beauvais watched upto five features a day in these months). In under 75 minutes, Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream offers up a potent commentary that takes the time to dissect the symptoms of endless consumption, transforms into an intimate autobiography about loss and longing, and explores in frankly moving ways, what it really means to be alive. 

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is streaming on MUBI.

Three Identical Strangers

Tim Wardle’s acclaimed 2018 documentary about a set of three identical triplets who were separated at birth and then reunited years later only to be held hostage by a terrible secret, is an essential, enraging watch. None of the separated triplets knew about each other or their families and met each other by happenstance. What initially seems like a joyous reunion soon acquires disturbing undertones as a shocking set of revelations soon take centre place and emerges ultimately as a chronicle of systemic abuse, an almost harrowing adherence to science, and a tale of trauma that feels endless. 

Three Identical Strangers is streaming on Netflix.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark revolves around a murderous, vile serial rapist who committed a series of rapes, murders, and burglaries during three successive crime sprees in California. But that’s just one part of it. What the six-part documentary series is really invested in chronicling is a woman’s obsession. Adapted from the late journalist and true crime author Michelle McNamara’s eponymous book that was released posthumously, the show mixes archival footage of McNamara and interviews of her husband, friends, colleagues, and cops to piece together how one woman, leading an altogether quiet life, went about solving one of the most frustrating cases from her home. Throughout the six episodes, we learn as much about the habits of the murderer as we do about the dedication of the woman chasing him when even law enforcement had given up on ever catching him. The result is a rare documentary that understands the consequences that acts of violence can have on the lives of women but also has the privilege to dedicate itself to the resilience of the women, including McNamara, who reclaim the very nature of a crime.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is streaming on Hotstar.

One Child Nation

When Nanfu Wang, a Chinese-born American filmmaker became a mother, she couldn’t stop thinking about how her own mother gave birth to her under China’s one-child policy regime. What starts off a gentle exploration of how the policy affected her childhood and her family soon becomes much bigger than her and through the 89 goosebump-inducing minute runtime of the film, Wang and co-director Jialing Zhang uncover how the government worked overtime, utilising propaganda to profit off the bodies of women and the trauma of innumerable families. The result is a brave investigation and an unflinching portrait of a nation of haunted mothers and bruised children that is impossible to look at or away from.

One Child Nation is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Talking About Trees

Suhaib Gasmelbari’s evocative documentary is at foremost, a love-letter to movies, the big screen, and the people who make it happen. The protagonists are the members of the Sudanese Film Club who include a group of reluctantly retired movie directors who attempt to reopen a theatre in the city of Omdourman, outside Khartoum. Naturally, in an Islamist country where the very existence of cinema is perpetually under threat, that is easier said than done. Gasmelbari’s narrative introduces us not just to the four film directors who make up the club but also to their politically alert work, most of whom have either been banned or not preserved well enough, using them as a stand-in to explore the death of cinema and the loss of a country’s cultural language. It’s an affecting, contemplative look at how history and cinema are intertwined and why so often, losing one can feel like losing the other.

Talking About Trees is streaming on MUBI.

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