10 Notable Documentaries of 2022

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Nan Goldin is best known for her photographs of outsiders—drug addicts, punks, drag queens—and for her placing herself among them in her partly autobiographical slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Laura Poitras’ documentary offers insight into Goldin and her creative work, and also to her activism which helped bring down the Sackler pharmaceutical empire (Goldin became addicted to opioids after being prescribed them to recover from surgery).

Bitterbrush. Emelie Mahdavian’s documentary follows two young women, Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, through a season of working as hired hands in Idaho, during which time they herd cattle, break horses, mend fences, and generally do what needs to be done while enjoying their easy friendship of many years within the breathtaking backdrop of the remote Rocky Mountains. They’re not just inthe landscape, they’re of it, and Bitterbrush immerses you in their world.  

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power. If you’ve ever puzzled over the meaning of Laura Mulvey’s phrase (also the title of a groundbreaking essay) “The Male Gaze,” director Nina Menkes’ authoritative documentary will clarify it for you. She’ll also show you how it’s done, with close technical analysis of scenes and shots from both classic and cult films, and tell you why it matters—not only because visual language defines the narrative position of characters in films, but because the experience of watching film helps shape what we expect to see in the real world, and how we judge what we do see.

Descendant. The recovery of the remains of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to come to the United States, from its watery grave near Mobile, Alabama, is one subject of Margaret Brown’s documentary Descendant. But, as the title suggests, this film is also about the descendants of the people brought to America on that ship (over 50 years after the international slave trade was banned, which shows you how well that law was enforced). In the process of uncovering their stories, she finds a remarkable network of shared oral history, passed on from one generation to the next, despite repeated warnings to not tell their story.

Fire of Love. Sara Dosa’s documentary is a celebration of the lives and work of a married team of volcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who spend years filming and recording volcanic eruptions. It’s a dangerous trade—any documentarian knows that to get the right shot, sometimes you have to get uncomfortably close—but by assuming that risk they captured some truly amazing footage of volcanoes erupting, and a good selection of that footage in included in this film.

Hidden Letters. Nushu, a language women in China developed to communicate with each other, fell into disuse in the 20th century but is enjoying something of a revival today. Violet Du Feng and Qing Zhao’s documentary focuses on two Nushu practitioners: Hu Xin, who escaped an abusive marriage in the countryside, and the elderly He Yanxin, one of the few living masters of Nushu. They also examine why young Chinese women today, despite their increased access to education and employment, find the language relevant as they try to find their own space within a culture that is still overtly patriarchal culture.

The Janes. In the bad old days before Roe v. Wade, women in Chicago organized the JANE network to help other women who needed abortions. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ The Janes documents their work, including the elaborate measures they took to avoid arrest (code names, blindfolds, safe houses), and places them in the context of 1960s activism (surprise, surprise, many of their “radical” male associates didn’t see the importance of what they were doing). Since many women in the United States are essentially living in a pre-Roe world these days, this film couldn’t be more timely, and it offers a quick education in what it means for women to live in a society where they do not have control over their own bodies. 

Navalny. Another film that couldn’t be more timely, Daniel Roher’s Navalny looks at the life in exile of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who nearly died in 2020 after being poisoned with a nerve agent made in exactly one location in Russia. Working with Christo Grozev and Maria Pevchikh from the safety of Germany, Navalny is able to map out the plot to take him down, and even has time to make fun of a dim-witted Russian official who verbally confirms Navalny’s suspicions.

Riotsville U.S.A.Constructed entirely from archival footage, with screen cards and voiceover providing context, Sierra Pettengill’s documentary looks at the origins of the militarization of American policing, beginning in the 1960s as a response to civil unrest which some people in power perceived only as threats to public order. The title comes from the name used for model cities built on U.S. Army bases and used to train military and police personnel to put down riots, training that included prejudices (e.g., that whites are civil protestors but blacks are militant agitators) still believed by many today.

The Territory. Alex Pritz takes you straight into the heart of the struggle currently being waged by Uru-eu-wau-wau people of northwest Brazil to protect their traditional lands from the encroachments of, among others, farmers, ranchers, and missionaries. Their legal right to their land is worth less than the paper it’s printed on, so they use a blend of traditional and modern skills and knowledge (from bows and arrows to drones) to fight for their own survival. Some of the footage was shot by tribal members, allowing them to tell their own stories while allowing us remarkable access to their daily lives. | Sarah Boslaugh

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