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Documentary Now (2021)





In my efforts to cram in as many films as possible from 2021 in anticipation of creating my list of favorite films from the past year, I watched several documentaries. They started to stack up, to the point that I decided to pull them out of my “Best of 2021” list and give them their due separately, here. The following are just a few of the documentaries that I watched from 2021 - many are available on streaming services - so go on, watch 'em! I think you won’t be disappointed.



 


Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Amazon/Vudu)


I love Anthony Bourdain. I’ve been a long-time fan of his writing, his many shows, his narrative way of using food and travel as a gateway for empathy and uniting people. So, I gotta say upfront: this film was a tough watch. Morgan Neville’s documentary comes out three years after Bourdain committed suicide, taking footage of Bourdain during his rise to fame and his subsequent travels around the globe, and inter-splices it with interviews with the people that knew and loved him (chefs David Chang and Éric Ripert and artist David Choe, among several others). But their memories are not all seen through rose-colored glasses. The documentary takes a magnifying lens to some of the aspects I think people most admired about Bourdain - his obsessions, his frankness, his darkness - and shows that he could, at times, be a real asshole. It depicts his girlfriend Asia Argento as being the Yoko to his cadre of cronies and dedicated film crew. But to be fair, Neville admits in interviews that he never asked Argento to participate in this film. The movie definitely attempts to comment on Bourdain’s demons and his continued journey right up to his death. Does this film give its viewers resolution or peace? No. Is it still worth viewing? Definitely.




Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (HBOMax)


Director Marilyn Agrelo takes us through the conception and early years of one of the most well-known childrens’ programs in history: Sesame Street. It addresses how the creators used the commercial methods of television to make something both educational and entertaining for children, while also breaking ground by integrating the show during a time when TV was often still segregated. The doc showcases the main players and puppeteers behind the characters we have grown to know and love over the years: Kermit, Bert, Ernie, Grover, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Mr. Hooper, Luis, Gordon, Maria, and Bob. It also takes us through the major creators behind the scenes: Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, and the director-writer-producer Jon Stone. Above everything else, Street Gang does an excellent job of showing how much work it truly took (and continues to take) to create its beloved programming.




The Sparks Brothers (Netflix)


Edgar Wright has created one of the most fun and compelling music documentaries I have ever seen in The Sparks Brothers, featuring brothers Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks. It takes Wright’s signature editing methods and uses them to take us through the catalog of music and history of the band that never quite received the fame and recognition they deserve. It interviews a huge number of people that were involved, influenced, or affected by Sparks’ work, including Beck, Flea, Thurston Moore, Jane Wiedlin, 'Weird Al,' Mike Myers, Jason Schwartzman, and many more. But the real draw of the film is the music of Sparks itself and how the Mael brothers continued to change and reinvent their sound again and again over the years. If you love Sparks you will love this film. If you’ve never heard of Sparks you will still love this film.




Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Hulu)


Concert films can really be hit or miss, but Summer of Soul is something truly special. Questlove directs a concert film about the forgotten Harlem Culture festival of 1969. It’s an event that is so epic but completely unacknowledged in the history books. While people still talk about Woodstock, how can so many people have never known about a festival of this magnitude? The Harlem Culture Festival included performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, and so many more iconic performers. Questlove uses never before seen footage from the festival and interviews musicians and attendees all these years later. He focuses on the people involved that made this cultural phenomenon happen, in particular, producer Tony Lawrence and the then-mayor of New York, John Lindsay. He also uses news footage from the time period throughout the film to comment on civil rights issues, economic inequity, and historical events like the moon landing to help frame the atmosphere and importance of such a festival. Set aside the cultural and political significance of the Harlem Cultural Festival, and you still have an amazing film of never before seen concert footage of some of the greatest performers of all time.




The Reason I Jump (Netflix)


The Reason I Jump takes Naoki Higashida's book of the same title and uses his first-person account at age 13 of living with autism, giving a voice to the experiences of five non-verbal individuals living with autism in different parts of the world. Director Jerry Rothwell uses Higashida’s writing as a framework to examine the misconceptions held about people with autism (even by members of their own families). Rothwell also shows the ways that these “neurodivergent” people are actually able to communicate and uses Higashida’s words to give insight into how these individuals may be experiencing the world around them. By helping the viewer to experience what they are experiencing, Jump allows us to gain empathy and understanding.




Cusp (Showtime)


“I never really hang out with people my age. I always hang out with older people.” - Brittney


Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt created a documentary that focuses on the lives of three teenage girls in Texas during their summer break. But while the girls spend a lot of time partying, smoking, and drinking with friends, it is not a fun time to watch. The girls - Brittney, Autumn, and Aaloni - are all 15 or 16 years old, but they often act much older. They have all experienced violence, rape, or sexual assault in some form or another. The fact that this has become just a regular part of their lives is what is so crazy. They spend their free time with boys who are 18 or 19 years old but are careful to never be alone with anyone they deem "untrustworthy," acknowledging that rape is a common occurrence among them and their peers. Still, it is their jaded acceptance of these acts that make this film so impactful. Watching how these experiences have shaped and affected the youth of these girls is rough. Even when Brittney seemingly finds love with a caring (yet older) boyfriend, he is controlling. We watch her frantically check her phone for messages asking where she is and when she is coming back. We see her cling to her friends as both a support system and as a means of escape. While this film is heavy to watch, it is also beautifully shot. There are scenes filmed fireside as friends talk and drink, or shot through the filtered rays of sunlight pouring through the windows of claustrophobic teenage bedrooms. Cusp is definitely a rambling, hang-out kind of movie, without any real resolution or catharsis. But it shines a light on the culture of women and girls that continues in America and is often swept under the rug.




All Light, Everywhere (Hulu)


All Light, Everywhere, is a really interesting documentary that starts out by looking at the human eye and how images are transmitted to our brain. It takes the viewer through the history of photography and filmmaking from man’s attempts to document the sun and solar eclipses. It addresses the inherent biases of how humans physically see and then looks at the creation of police body cameras and camera surveillance and how that technology also has its own biases. In Theo Anthony’s documentary, we see that body cameras are made to “mimic the human eye,” meaning they aren’t infrared or made to see in the dark. The police and creators of the cameras do not want the footage to be used to sway a jury. It’s an interesting way of addressing violence and issues of police brutality by examining the way this footage is used. The film opens the discussion of using surveillance camera footage as a way to protect and oppress citizens by looking at its uses specifically, in the city of Baltimore, shortly after the murder of Freddie Gray. It also addresses the relationship between the creation of motion picture cameras and the dawn of automatic weapons which frankly, is pretty terrifying. The movie itself is a bit all over the place in the way it uses conceptual filmmaking to evoke the ideas of what we can and cannot see. It doesn’t always successfully execute what it is trying to express but I think there are a lot of extremely interesting points made throughout the film that will continue to roll around in your brain long after watching it.




The Alpinist (Netflix)


For me, The Alpinist filled the voids I felt while watching another recent climbing documentary, Free Solo. Don’t get me wrong, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi shot and directed a beautiful, edge-of-your-seat documentary about Alex Honnold and his first free solo attempt to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan. But part of what makes Alex Honnold such an amazing and successful climber is his extremely competitive nature, even with himself. Sometimes this is to the detriment of those who love him most, as we witness in Free Solo. In The Alpinist, however, we watch only a few documented climbs made by Marc-André Leclerc, someone who, for all intents and purposes, just really loved nature and loved to climb, most of the time, alone. He wasn’t trying to outdo his peers or actively beat other climbers’ records and The Alpinist helps show that. The film also draws you in, most of all, because of Marc-André. He is just really truly lovely. He comes across as incredibly humble, sweet, and goofy - like an oversized teenager. Interviews with his mom and his girlfriend (and fellow climber) Brette Harrington, only add to the full picture of Marc-André as a caring, loving individual, who also happened to push himself to solo climb some of the most intense summits of rock, snow, and ice imaginable. To speak about the film more would be to give away too much, but I promise, The Alpinist will hit you hard.




Flee (In theaters)


Sometimes animation can be used to convey things that a documentary or narrative film alone might struggle to portray: a feeling, a dream, a memory. These are all things that Jonas Poher Rasmussen is able to share expressively through his animated documentary, Flee. Through animation, Rasmussen is able to tell the tale of his longtime friend, Amin, allowing Amin to remain anonymous while still sharing the details of his childhood as a refugee who fled Afghanistan and now lives in Denmark. The film is bleak at times, but it is also extremely hopeful. This is as much a credit to Amin’s story as it is to Rasmussen’s production. It is pretty rare that an animated feature might be able to contend with the Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature or Best Picture, but Flee can really hold its own.




Procession (Netflix)


This is a really unique documentary. It brings together a group of six men, united by the experiences of sexual abuse that each suffered as a boy by members of the Catholic Church. Director Robert Greene, along with a drama therapist and the lawyers who helped prosecute their cases, helps these survivors each tell their own story through film. Each man scripts a short scene to film based on what they went through. The entire group is involved in the filmmaking - from scouting locations to acting in the scenes and just generally being there for each other. The process helps them start to deal with those events and reclaim the power of those places where they were once abused. Through the experience of creating and performing in these scenes, they help each other heal. It is a pretty wild method and amazing to watch.





 


Diana DiMuro

Associate Editor

Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro


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