Ten Notable Documentaries of 2020—and Ten Honorable Mentions | Sarah Boslaugh

This has been a truly crazy year in film, with the distinction between “in the theatre” and “home viewing” pretty much obliterated since March. Add to that the general chaos of the pandemic (Are you living a normal life right now? If so, I congratulate you, but you’re clearly in the minority.) makes it harder than ever to encapsulate a year’s worth of viewing experiences into a predetermined container. So my “notables” lists for this year are likely my most eccentric ever, and some people think they’re usually pretty eccentric in a normal year.

All In: The Fight for Democracy, directed by Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, uses the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race to demonstrate how easy it is to steal an election, if you have the power to prevent people who would vote for your opponent from voting. According to the Supreme Court, voter suppression is a thing of the past, but it’s impossible to hold that opinion after watching this documentary, which covers not only that ill-fated race (which Stacey Abrams lost by a slim margin, after her opponent used his powers as Secretary of State to purge voting rolls and close polling locations in minority neighborhoods), but also the long history of voter suppression in the United States.

Athlete A, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, offers the perfect summing up of both the crimes of Larry Nasser, and of the overall toxic culture of American women’s gymnastics. More importantly, it shows how both flourished in an environment that prefers turning a blind eye to the abuse of girls and women, rather than listening to the victims and taking significant action to prevent the abuse. The ongoing continuing coverup by USA Gymnastics, amply documented in this film, is even worse than Nasser’s crimes, because failing to get to the bottom of this scandal nearly ensures that it will be repeated in the future.

Coded Bias, written and directed by Shalini Kantayya, offers a much-needed reminder that technology is not neutral—instead, it embodies the assumptions and prejudices of those that build it. MIT PhD candidate Joy Buolamwini, for instance, discovered that standard computer vision software wouldn’t track her face—unless she first put on a white mask, because the software had been trained to detect light-skinned, primarily male, faces. Kantayya then takes a step back to the creation and definition of the field of AI in the 1950s (by white men, of course) who embedded their biases into their products. That’s a problem that continues to this day, as unregulated AI is used to make decisions about our lives, like who gets hired, how much you pay for a home loan, and who receives priority in medical care.

Collective, directed by Alexander Nanau, takes its name from the Collectiv nightclub in Bucharest, which was operating without a permit in 2015 when a fire killed 64 people (27 immediately and another 37 in the following weeks thanks to shoddy hospital care). Nanau shapes his film around the investigation of the Collectiv fire by a group of journalists, led by Catalin Tolontan, which exposes a shocking degree of corruption in the Romanian government and health care system.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, directed by Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht, takes us back to the bad old days when the socially appropriate response to people with disabilities was a combination of pity and condescension. That that attitude no longer prevails is due in part to the work of activists who attended Camp Jened (including Lebrecht) in the Catskills, and whose experience there prepared them to became leaders in the disability rights movement.

The Dissident, directed by Bryan Fogel, uses the familiar conventions of the political thriller to argue for a particular version of events regarding the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi government. It’s a beautiful-looking film, full of drone shots of skylines, close-ups on significant details, well-framed interviews and some impressive animations. More importantly, The Dissident makes a compelling case regarding how Khashoggi died and who is responsible, bolstered by substantial evidence including a transcript of the audio recording of Khashoggi’s final minutes.

Gunda, directed by Victor Kossakovsky, is the film to watch when you want to immerse yourself in a world that is definitely not your own. The “characters” are farm animals—the sow for whom the film is named, her piglets, some chickens, and a herd of cattle—with the soundtrack consisting entirely of sounds emitted by those animals plus ambient noise. Human presence is implied but never shown, and the black and white cinematography, low angles, and close cropping (similar to the eyeline of the animals shown) create a distancing effect while concealing clues about when or where the film was shot. Combined with the film’s slow pace (include slow-motion sequences) and the lack of a traditional story line, these qualities make watching Gunda a meditative experience.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, is just what it says on the tin: an extended interview with Friedkin on the film most identified with him, interspersed with film clips and other visual materials that show you what he’s referring to. And it’s brilliant, providing clues to what shaped the film (surprise influence: Carl Theodor Dryer’s Ordet), details about the creative process (Friedkin’s working style was influenced by his early work in television and documentaries), and what it’s all about (hint—not special effects and jump scares) from the director’s point of view.

Queer Japan, directed by Graham Kolbeins, is a beautiful and optimistic film about queer life in Japan. The film is built around interviews with a variety of people, including an HIV+ activist, a butoh dancer, a mangaka who creates both BDSM and family-friendly materials, a drag queen, and the first transgender person elected to public office in Japan. Kolbeins and his collaborators spent five years working on the film, but there’s no stench of the lamp about it—instead, it feels delightfully spontaneous while honoring the individuality of every person featured.

Totally Under Control, directed by Alec Gibney, documents how COVID-19 came to dominate daily life in the United States, as well as how easily that story could have gone in a different direction. Viruses don’t care if you believe in them or not, and we can’t stop them from mutating, but we can respond intelligently (as did South Korea, which detected its first COVID-19 case on the same day as the U.S.) when we learn they have done so. Or, as Gibney concisely traces in this documentary, we can do the exact opposite, ignoring scientific evidence and politicizing simple public health measures, allowing a deadly virus to spread until it threatens to overwhelm our health care system.

Honorable Mention: City Hall; Dick Johnson is Dead; Disclosure; I Am Greta; Keith Haring: Street Art Boy; Lights of Baltimore; Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado; Our Time Machine; Rising Phoenix; Rewind. | Sarah Boslaugh


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