Critic David Edelstein recommends new non-fiction films that will expand your world, at a time when our worlds are so severely contracted:
When the pandemic clobbered the world in March, production on films and TV shows stopped dead, so now, seven months later, most of the new stuff you'll see via streaming and premium cable are documentaries – movies that had already been finished or were close, the filmmakers doing the final editing online.
That's OK by me. I love docs – investigative docs, profile docs, first-person docs, competition docs, experiential non-narrative docs, arty impressionistic docs. Even not-so-great docs can expand your world, and my world these days is so contracted that I'm grateful for any input. I think, "Show me stuff I don't know, or thought I knew but didn't!"
What fuels many of these is contemporary politics, and they tend to be – no surprise! – fierce and urgent and angry. I'm not even talking about takedowns like "Unfit," which purports to show Donald Trump through the eyes of mental health practitioners, who are largely appalled.
The mission to expose and decry is also at the heart of "All In: The Fight for Democracy" on Amazon Prime, which recounts the ugly history of voter suppression, with particular emphasis on poor and minority communities.
Going even deeper into the belly of the beast is, well, "Belly of the Beast," in which director Erika Cohn, indefatigable activist Cynthia Chandler, and former inmate Kelli Dillon explore the sterilization of female prisoners in California, where hysterectomies are performed during routine surgeries, the consent forms signed by women under heavy sedation. Choke on that modern manifestation of the racist theory of eugenics, and consider recent revelations of similar surgeries performed on detainees at the U.S. border. The film opens theatrically in mid-October.
For a more positive (though not exactly cheerful) view of medicine at the front lines, Carolyn Jones' "In Case of Emergency" depicts emergency rooms all over the U.S. through the eyes of nurses who attempt, in a dysfunctional system, to keep overwhelming human misery in check.
Farther afield but closer to home than you think, Showtime's "Kingdom of Silence," directed by Rick Rowley, tells the story of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a defender of the Saudi royal family until the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. You might recall that two years ago Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey at Prince Salman's direction – in the minds of everyone but President Trump, whose response to the murder is refreshingly candid. Horrifying, but candid.
Stay tuned for another Khashoggi doc in December called "The Dissident," which is less about the history of the U.S. and Saudi alliance, and more about the brazen murder and its aftermath.
There are many superb docs of this ilk coming our way, but I know that amid all the awfulness you'll want something a tad more upbeat. The most upper of downers is Garrett Bradley's "Time," in which a woman's campaign to shorten her husband's 60-year sentence for armed robbery compels her to rise to the occasion and then some. It's in theatres and on demand October 9.
On Netflix, the great doc cinematographer and now-director Kirsten Johnson gets intimate and meditative and sometimes even surreal about her father's possible demise in the nevertheless enlivening "Dick Johnson Is Dead."
My daughters are incredibly excited – like, they won't shut up – over a Netflix doc on Korean pop idols Blackpink, called "Blackpink: Light Up the Sky," but I lost points with them when Netflix wouldn't show me it in advance.
I did see another concert film: On HBO this month, the outspoken Black director Spike Lee delivers a transfixing concert film starring the Whitest man who has ever lived, in "David Byrne's American Utopia" – a cooler reimagining of great old Talking Heads songs, plus weird and existential new ones.
Byrne can often seem like an extraterrestrial, but for an even more strange and wondrous being, go to Netflix for the year's most awesome doc, "My Octopus Teacher," in which directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed follow oceanic explorer Craig Foster into the icy waters off Africa to meet a soft-bodied, eight-tentacled mollusk that will overcome your squeamishness to warm your soul. I've rarely seen footage so sublime – both beautiful and terrifying.
And I'm thrilled that in this most dismal of years, I've found something to add to my bucket list. See you in an octopus' garden!
Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: George Pozderec.