Summer of Soul (4.5*)
Writing with Fire (3.5*)
The top two documentaries in this year’s crop of films both deal with the Black experience in America, but with two entirely different subjects. Summer of Soul is, at least for people of my vintage, just plain fun. Using film footage that was buried in a basement for fifty years, Questlove (the musician) recreates the vibrancy and excitement of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free summer concerts held in a park in central Harlem. What is just stunning is how so many black ensembles and musicians participated in this festival and how significant their songs were. My musical tastes were being formed at that time, and the music from the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and so many others was so much fun to see and hear in its original versions. This one took the Oscar this year and I think it deserved it. If you haven’t seen it and have any memories of the sixties, you will want to see this film.
The other one at the top of the list isn’t fun at all. Attica is, probably, the definitive statement of what actually happened at the deadliest prison uprising in US history. Using interviews with more than a dozen people who were actually there, noted black documentarian Stanley Nelson, incorporates news reels and, most vividly, still photographs to describe what happened. This is not at all a pleasant film to watch and it earns every bit of its mature audience rating. But it is something that all American adults should see because of what it tells us about prison and its profound impact on race relations.
The remaining three documentaries in this year’s crop all deal with events in other cultures. Of those my favorite was FLEE for several reasons. This is the first movie in Oscar history to be nominated in all three of the categories I call ‘specialized’ because they deal with different kinds of film. Although it didn’t win any of them, it was not just a documentary, but also an Animated Feature and an International Feature (from Denmark). FLEE tells the life story of a man who has fled not just one international crisis, but two. The reason it is an animated film is because he cannot reveal his identity without jeopardizing his status as a refugee in the European country where he now lives. There is a certain fascination in portraying the story in animated fashion in such sharp contrast to the harrowing details of his story. Escaping first from Afghanistan and then from Russia, he finally has to tell his story in order to be honest with his future marriage partner. You will enjoy this film and find reservoirs of sympathy for him.
The remaining two documentaries aren’t as good as the first three, but they too are worth a viewing. Ascension supposedly tells the story of a Chinese system that is unfair and materialistic. But, frankly, to me it just documents how the Chinese have simply become another version of us Americans. If they are demons in any sense, then so are we. Writing with Fire is a profile in courage as a group of untouchable women in India have sustained a journalism enterprise that continues to expose problems in the society around them. I loved how it balanced the personal stories of some of these women with the broader picture of their role in the Indian system.
If that isn’t enough documentaries to choose from there were five from last year as well. My favorite, and the winner of the Oscar, was My Octopus Teacher, a remarkable film about the relationship between an octopus, in the wild, and the filmmaker that takes place over almost a year. Because he visits the same spot in the ocean every day, he develops an understanding and a kind of bond with an animal that we really don’t know well. In addition to some beautiful underwater photography, you will experience awe and maybe even be touched by this simple animal. Well worth it!
The other two documentaries that are worth your time are Collective and Crip Camp. The former film explores corruption in the Romanian government, and the role of journalism in exposing it. It is relevant to our own issues here in the US. Crip Camp is, as it suggests, an in-depth look at how some severely disabled children bond and learn from each other in a summer camp just for them. It is a bold, if perhaps overly-honest, look at how growing-up with physical and mental disadvantages is both similar and different from those kids who don’t have them.
The remaining two films from last year are not as good as these three, in my opinion. Time is a look at the impact of an unfair prison sentence to a black man on his family. It is an exhaustive examination of the issue (produced by the New York Times), but can, at times, also just be exhausting. And The Mole Agent is one of the few films that actually angered me because I question the ethics of the filmmakers in allowing a lie to impact so many vulnerable people. I do not suggest viewing that film.
So, you have five very different documentaries from this year, all of which are worthy of a look, plus three from last year that are worth consideration. If documentaries are your cup of tea, then you have lots to keep you busy.