27 Non-Fiction Films: An A-to-Z Retrospective


The Blogging A to Z Challenge is over for 2018! I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to once again participate and the fact that it gave be both the motivation and an excuse to watch a lot of documentary films. I also feel that it was a chance to try new things in writing blog posts, and frankly I’m really proud of many of the reviews I wrote.

But before I toot my own horn, it’s also important to recognize that the best part of the A to Z Challenge is the chance to visit other peoples’ blogs, read what they wrote, and leave some comments.  I’ve read terrific work by many different writers and had good discussions with some of them.

Here are some A-to-Z’s I enjoyed reading this April:

I plan to check in periodically with the Blogging A to Z masterlist and read back on some of the other A to Z’s I missed.  If you’d like me to read yours, leave a link in the comments.

So my own theme was to watch and review documentary films, most of which were ones I’d been meaning to watch for some time, with a few I discovered to fill in some letters of the alphabet.  Many of them were fantastic, while some were not so good, but there were no true stinkers. I had no theme of what type of documentary I would watch and they vary from history to current events, arts to science, music to sports. Despite the lack of trying some themes did pop up among the films. I think all the movies touched upon one or more of these themes:

  • Social justice, people and individuals fighting against discrimination and for equality
  • Art and the artist, what is lost and found in the creation of art
  • The human experience.  Even the science and nature movies had a strong human element

Here’s the complete list of my posts for the 2018 Blogging A to Z Challenge:

A: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
B: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
C: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
D: Decoding Desire
E: Exit Through The Gift Shop
F: Finding Vivian Maier
G: Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World
H: Hieronymous Bosch: Touched By the Devil
I: I Am Not Your Negro
J: Jane
K: Koch
L: Life Itself
M: Miss Sharon Jones!
N: No-No: A Dockumentary
O: Oklahoma City
P: Paris is Burning
Q: Quill
R: The Rape of Europa
S: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
T: Tower
U: Unrest
V: Vernon, Florida
W: What Happened, Miss Simone?
X: XXXY
Y: Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park
#: 13th
Z: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Bonus Post: Favorite Documentaries
Bonus Post: What to Watch Next

Advertisements

Movie Review: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Z” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Z” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleZidane: A 21st Century Portrait
Release Date: May 24, 2006
Director:  Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno
Production Company:  Anna Lena Films
Summary/Review:

Zinedine Zidane, the French football player of Algerian descent, is widely considered to be one of the greatest football players of all time.  In his career, he played for top European football clubs – including Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid – winning domestic league championships, Champions League titles, and numerous individual awards.  For the French national team, Zidane scored 2 goals in the championship game of the 1998 World Cup, leading France to its first ever World Cup title.  And if you don’t know him for any of those things, you probably know him as the guy thrown out of the 2006 World Cup championship for headbutting an Italian player.  Today he continues his career as a manager for Real Madrid.

This film documents one game Zidane played as midfielder for Real Madrid on April 23, 2005 against Villareal at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.  17 synchronized cameras were set up around of the stadium, all of them set to follow Zidane in real-time.  This is a high concept idea that challenges the way a spectator watches a game, which usually means following the ball rather than an individual player.  Fortunately, Zidane is usually in the center of action, if not actually holding the ball himself.

Some things one can observe from watching one player is that Zidane, late in his career, has lost a step in speed and conserves his energy for when he’s going to run.  In quieter moments we get to see him adjust his socks or share a joke with a teammate.  The microphones are also good at picking up sounds off the field that one doesn’t usually hear over the crowd. It’s a chippy game, and we get to Zidane and others hit the ground hard as dirt and grass fly artistically in the air.

Still, it’s hard to maintain interest in an ordinary football match from 13 years ago.  For one thing, Zidane keeps running off-screen and the images are often out of focus.  The editing is jarring and seems to obscure what Zidane is doing in context of the game much of the time. I mean the whole concept was to follow one player with 17 cameras – you had one job!  Some parts of the film have a crawling subtitle with quotes of Zidane describing his thoughts during a game.  It’s a somewhat interesting addition, but also seems to be an admission that the film of the match itself is not enough to hold the viewer’s attention.  Portions of the film are scored with music by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, which while I like the music, doesn’t seem suited to the pace of the match. Finally, Zidane is red-carded near the end of the match for brawling which is kind of hilarious and makes you wonder what the filmmakers would have done had he exited the game earlier.

I’m going to chalk this up to an interesting concept, poorly executed.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I watched this over the course of three nights because I kept dozing off.  High-def images of Zidane running around accompanied by Mogwai is a good sleep aid.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Go watch a game of any sport and focus exclusively on your favorite player and see what happens.

Source: I watched this movie on YouTube
Rating: **

Movie Review: 13th (2016) #atozchallenge


This is a bonus post for the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Movies are frequently alphabetized with films titled with numbers separate from the letters A to Z.  So this review represents all the documentaries that have numbers for a title. Technically this movie’s title starts with “T,” but I also really wanted to to watch Tower, so this is a good way to get them both in.

Title: 13th
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Kandoo Films
Summary/Review:

The 13th of the title refers to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which freed slaves in the United States and is celebrated as a major act of emancipation.  But it didn’t end slavery because one clause allows slavery of criminals.  This movie explores the many ways in which people, mainly black people, have been denied their freedom by being criminalized over the past 150 years.

After the Civil War, many black people were immediately enslaved again in convict leasing programs.  By the turn of the 20th century, strict systems of segregation were put in place with brutal violence and lynching to keep it enforced, both of which were justified by claims that blacks were dangerous criminals.  Once the Civil Rights Movement seemingly brought a measure of equality to black Americans, politicians used coded phrases like “law and order” to once again criminalize black Americans through things like the “war on drugs.”  The film depicts the procession of US Presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton each upping the ante in the activities criminalized, the severity of punishments, and the resources to enlarge and militarize the police and create a massive system of incarceration.

The film also takes time to focus on the organization ALEC, a conservative coalition of corporations and politicians, that drafts laws that help their members profit from new laws that help them sell firearms, operate private prisons, or profit from lucrative vendor contracts with prisons, among other things.  The film concludes with numerous familiar, but powerful, stories of black people suffering the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment – many of them in prison because of a system that encourages them to take plea deals even if they’re innocent.  And then there are the images of some of the many black men, women, and children killed by police – something clearly not new as this film illustrates, but something easier to document with modern day technology.

DuVernay features a large cast of experts who speak in this film, basically offering the narration over a wealth of archival footage.  Participants include Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Charles Rangel.  Some participants from the “other side of the aisle” include Newt Gingrich (who surprisingly speaks of how he now realizes what was done in the name of law and order was wrong) and Grover Norquist (whose attempts to frame the understanding of the history of mass incarceration as a liberal conspiracy pale against the evidence presented in this film).

DuVernay also makes some interesting choices stylistically, with the participants filmed casually dressed in relaxed poses in some unusual locations, including what looks like an abandoned railroad station.  I’m not sure if there’s any significance to these choices I’m missing, but does add a layer of beauty and mystery to the film.  Another element frequently used is animated text on screen spelling out words spoken or sung in the film, including the word “CRIMINAL” which appears each and every time someone says “criminal.”

This is a powerful film and really a must-see for all Americans.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

There’s so much in this movie that it’s difficult to take it all in.  I’m fortunate in that I’ve read about most of the issues discussed in this movie, but it’s still something to see all tied together in one dense package.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you’ve been reading along my A to Z, you’ve seen my posts about several other films that tie into the themes discussed in 13th, especially The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and I Am Not Your Negro.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – a prominent person in this movie – is the key text for understanding mass incarceration in the United States. Some other important books on the experience of black Americans denied freedom and criminalized include When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park (2012) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Y” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first”Y” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleYellowstone: The World’s First National Park
Release Date: September 4, 2012
Director: Kenny James
Production Company: Mill Creek Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’m fascinated with Yellowstone National Park, and one day I hope to go there.  This film has low production values and feels like an introductory film for tourists at a park visitor center.  All the same, the film focuses on the stunning landscape of Yellowstone, so the visuals are terrific.  There’s a little bit about the history and flora & fauna of Yellowstone (as well as the Grand Tetons, and surrounding areas), as well as an aerial tour of the park.  But the bulk of the movie is about the geology of Yellowstone, featuring the Yellowstone Caldera, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Artists Paint Pots, and the many geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs.  National Park Service interpreters provide the narration.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Did you know that the Yellowstone Caldera completely destroyed the portion of the Rocky Mountains range that once passed through where the park is today?  I didn’t!

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Visit the world’s first national park.  And take me with you!

If you can’t make it, you may enjoy reading Lost in My Own Backyard by Tim Cahill.

Source: I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: XXXY (2000) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “X” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “X” documentary I’ve reviewed.

Title: XXXY
Release Date: June 22, 2000
Director:  Porter Gale and Laleh Soomekh
Production Company: Stanford University, Department of Art & Art History
Summary/Review:

X is always a challenge for the A-to-Z Challenge, especially if you’re looking for movies where the letter X has certain connotations.  I feel fortunate to have found this terrific documentary made by students at Stanford University in 2000, which is at 13 minutes is the shortest documentary I viewed for the challenge.

XXXY features two intersex people, Kristi Bruce and Howard Devore, who speak frankly about their experience being born with ambiguous genitalia.  Both underwent multiple surgeries over the course of their lives and struggled with their own identity.  Bruce’s parents and a pediatrician are also interviewed.

The movie makes a strong case against the medical community determining that infants and children require medical intervention and surgery to make their genital anatomy resemble typical male or female genitalia.  The decision to have surgery should only be made by an adult intersex person.  Furthermore, it advocates for recognition of intersex people and their human rights.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

It is estimated that 1 out of every 2000 children born are intersex.  This is far more common than we’re led to believe and all the more reason to recognize the great amount of sexual variation.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

The Accord Alliance has resources related to Disorders of Sex Development (DSD), a term adopted in 2006 to define “congenital conditions in which development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomic sex is atypical.”

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a fictional account of a person with 5-alpha reductase deficiency.

Unrest is another documentary I watched for this challenge that deals with the medical community at odds with what is best for the health of their patients.

Source: I watched this movie on YouTube (the full film is embedded below).
Rating: ****

Movie Review: What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “W” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “W” documentaries I’ve reviewed are WattstaxWild AfricaThe Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and Word Wars.

TitleWhat Happened, Miss Simone?
Release Date: January 22, 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Production Company: Moxie Firecracker Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary tells the life story of Nina Simone, a talented singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter across several genres and a Civil Rights activist.  I first became aware of Simone in the early 2000s when I woke up to a local college radio station playing hear searing Civil Rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam” and have grown to appreciate her performance on several other songs she recorded.  Although Simone died in 2003, this film features found audio recordings of extended interviews with her that allow Simone to narrate the movie.  There is also archival footage of several of Simone’s concert performances which the director wisely allows to play out for entire songs.

Simone was born Eunice Waymon and was classically trained with hopes of becoming a concert pianist.  She took her stage name when she took jobs playing “the devil’s music” at clubs in Atlantic City.  She was also urged to sing along with her cocktail piano performances – or lose her job – which lead to her becoming a jazz and blues vocalist. Simone had a talent for modulating her voice to fit different songs which she states in the movie: “Sometimes I sound like gravel, sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”

She married Andrew Stroud who also acted as her manager and furthered her career as a popular music artists.  Simone was exhausted by the constant touring and performances, but her concerns were ignored by Stroud.  Worse, Stroud severely abused Simone, both physically and psychologically.  While Simone often had a strong and confident demeanor in public, images of her diaries show her struggles with depression and suicidal ideation.  Her performances could be erratic too, and one stunning scene shows her stopping a song to yell at an audience member to “sit down!”

Unsettlingly, Stroud is one of the people interviewed in the film, and appears to be more interested in defending himself than telling Simone’s story.  The other key figure is their daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, who offers insight on her mother’s personal life as well as stories of growing up among celebrities like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, and Betty Shabazz and her family.  Some musicians Simone collaborated with also share details about Simone as an artist and their personal relationships.

This is a terrific documentary about a musician who I think should be more well-known.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I was completely unaware of Simone’s troubled personal life and mental health problems.

Also, there’s a scene where she performs a song called “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and I thought it was an interesting interpretation of a song by The Animals, but no!  Nina Simone wrote this song and The Animals covered it!

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Vernon, Florida (1981) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “V” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first V documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleVernon, Florida
Release Date: October 8, 1981
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: Errol Morris Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary focuses on several residents of a Western Florida town that was had a population of 885 in 1980 when it was filmed and is considerably smaller now. There’s no narration, interview questions, or anything else to link the movie together. It’s simply a series of intercut monologues of people talking about what interests them. And in most cases these seem to be the type who love to spin a yarn and are happy to have a new audience, even if it’s a silent cameraman.

A turkey hunter shares tales of his greatest hunts and admiration for the “gobblers.” An old man shows off the unusual wild animals he keeps at his home. A pastor preaches on the word “therefore.” Andthe town’s only cop goes into detail of the daily drudgery of stopping speeding cars, before finally relating about the time someone shot at him through the window of his cruiser. Reviews of this film invariably refer to these people as eccentric, but I find them rather ordinary. The strength of this film is that it shows the human spirit in their unique but ordinary enthusiasms.

What I do find unsettling about this movie is that of the dozen or so people who speak, they’re almost entirely white men. One woman speaks in tandem with her husband. Children are absent. People of color are not seen at all. I don’t know what to make of this film, but if you’re going to call it Vernon, Florida, I’d expect a more representative cross-section of that town

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

You’ll know a thing or two about turkey hunting, I’m sure.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you really want to watch a documentary with a cast of eccentrics, see Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: Unrest (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “U” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “U” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleUnrest
Release Date: 22 September 2017
Director: Jennifer Brea
Production Company: Shella Films
Summary/Review:

Jennifer Brea was leading an ordinary, active life when an illness left her with a crippling condition she could not recover from. Doctors told her that her condition was psychological but through connecting with people online she has myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

Brea made this film which she directed from her own bed to document her experience with ME. She also interviews other people with ME and their families via Skype. The film combines these interviews with photos and home movies of the subjects in their healthier days.

With no medical cure available, Brea also shows the variety of remedies people with ME share with the community. These range from foods and dietary habits to relocating to drier climates. The film also depicts the worldwide #MillionsMissing protest in which empty shoes were left in public places to represent the 25% of people with ME who are bedridden.

This is an important but difficult movie to watch. I found myself angry. Angry at how the human body can betray people like Brea. Angry at the arrogance or ignorance of those in the medical community that allows them to justify not helping.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

If you weren’t aware of ME/CFS already, this movie is a primer on the disease. Millions of people worldwide have ME, more than Multiple Sclerosis. The vast majority are women which is the most likely reason for the stigma against people with ME. The film shows that historically women with similar symptoms were diagnosed with “hysteria” or “hypochondria.” ME also receives minimal attention in fundraising circles compared with other illnesses.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Visit #MEAction, a site for ME activism and resources for people with the disease.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Tower (2016) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “T” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “T” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Trekkies.

TitleTower
Release Date: March 13, 2016
Director: Keith Maitland
Production Company: Go-Valley
Summary/Review:

Tower pushes the limits of documentary film. It recreates the events of the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings using a hyper realistic form of animation with the words of survivors spoken by actors. It’s effective at putting the audience into the chaos of the massacre and showing the youth of most of the people involved. There are some neat effects such as animation of the KTBX radio mobile unit overlaid over archival film of the University of Texas campus. There are also cinematic asides such as depictions of visions a man may have seen as suffered from heat stroke or a women’s Day-Glo daydream about her romance with her now murdered boyfriend.

The woman, Claire Wilson, is one of the key figures in the movie. An 18-year-old student and 8 months pregnant, Wilson was the first person shot from the tower, killing her baby. Her boyfriend Thomas Frederick Eckman was killed instantly by the next shot. Wilson lay on the broiling pavement for nearly 90 minutes wondering if she would live. In one of the many acts of bravery that day, another student Rita Star Pattern ran into the line of fire and lay by Wilson, keeping her conscious and her spirits up. In one of the more stunning moments of the film as Wilson wonders if she would live the animation dissolves to reveal a very much alive Claire Wilson in her 60s.

Another key figure is John “Artly” Fox, a student who heard news of the shooting and not realizing the severity of what was happening, went to campus to check it out. Fox found himself in the midst of the terror, and with a friend would eventually run out to carry Wilson to safety. Other subjects include the police officers and curiously a bookstore employee who reach the tower and kill the shooter.

This was not the first mass shooting in US history, and not even the first school shooting, but in 1966 they was definitely not a public awareness of this kind of random violence in public places. This is evident in the ad hoc approach that first responders made in response to the shooting. The aftermath was also very different from what we’d expect today. There was no candlelight ceremony, no memorial service, no monument on the campus until 2006. In fact, the university was only closed for one day. The survivors did not speak of the event at all. Remarkably, Wilson and Fox did not meet again until the making of this movie, and they discuss how therapeutic it is for them to speak of the shooting.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This documentary vividly recreates the terror of a mass shooting and depicts the long lasting trauma of crimes that have become all too familiar to us in the present day.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read: Guns by Stephen King is a concise case for the necessary regulation of firearms in the United States, a call that’s fallen on deaf ears since at least 1966.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ****

#AtoZChallenge Bonus: What to Watch Next


As I’ve noted through the A-to-Z challenge, my choices of documentaries to watch and review was largely informed by what was already in my Netflix queue with a little research to fill in the letters of the alphabet that were missing.  Because of my reliance on streaming services, there are a number of documentaries I’d like to watch that just weren’t available.  I also was limited to one per letter of the alphabet, of course.  Because of this, there’s also a present-day bias to most of the documentaries I’ve reviewed.  I think the oldest one was released in 1981, but most are from the 2000s.

Here are number of documentaries that are highly regarded, award-winning, or just plain interest me that I’d like to seek out for the future.  Some are hard to find, and I expect some will be hard to watch.

  • 20 Feet From Stardom
  • Amy
  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil
  • Bill Cunningham New York
  • Blackfish
  • The Central Park Five
  • Common Threads
  • Don’t Look Back
  • F for Fake
  • The Fog of War
  • Grey Gardens
  • Grizzly Man
  • Harlan County USA
  • High School
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • Into Great Silence
  • King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery To Memphis
  • Kon-Tiki
  • Koyaanisqatsi
  • The Last Waltz
  • The Man With a Movie Camera
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America
  • Murderball
  • Muscle Shoals
  • Nanook of the North
  • Night and Fog
  • Pelotero
  • Point of Order
  • Sans Soleil
  • Searching for Sugarman
  • Shoah
  • The Silent World
  • The Square
  • The Thin Blue Line
  • The Times of Harvey Milk
  • Titicut Follies – this is one I think would be very challenging to watch
  • Unforgivable Blackness
  • Welcome to Leith
  • When the Levees Broke – I did actually watch the first two of the four parts of this Spike Lee film about Hurricane Katrina several years ago, but got sidetracked and never completed it.

What documentaries would you recommend watching?