Delving into Documentaries

By Amit Jagwani  | 

The world’s largest celebration of documentaries, called the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), wrapped its 34th year as an in-person event at the end of November. Held annually over a 12-day period, this gathering offers filmmakers a forum in which to screen work ranging from subjects that touch on pressing social themes to those offering entertaining cinematic experiences. “I prefer to spend my life with this bunch,” said IDFA artistic director Orwa Nyrabia about documentary filmmakers. “These people are beautiful, they are kind, accessible and down to earth.” Options for excellent documentaries abound. We take a look at a few you may wish to consider.

Touching on Global Occurrences
Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century global event, and Doctor Anthony Fauci has emerged as the face behind our battle to understand and control this deadly coronavirus. National Geographic’s eponymous Fauci documentary from Emmy-winning producers Janet Tobias and John Hoffman takes an unflinching look at the good, the bad and the ugly—from Fauci’s infectious disease expertise, to the challenges he faced working with former President Trump’s administration, to the personal repercussions suffered by his family as a result of his unwavering dedication to public service.

In older yet no less important news, HBO’s Katrina Babies provides an intimate peek into the lives of young people who were forever impacted by Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effects on New Orleans. “After my family and I experienced Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we were left to pick up the pieces of a situation that seemed totally out of our control,” said director Edward Buckles, Jr., who was 12 years old when the Category 5 storm ravaged Louisiana’s historic city. “It baffled me that after we experienced one of the deadliest natural disasters in the U.S. no one asked us how we were doing or feeling…so I picked up a camera and decided to do it myself.” Documenting peers who survived the natural disaster as children, Katrina Babies offers a story of hope, resilience and healing.

Making History
The country’s deadliest prison riot happened at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York 50 years ago, yet many of the details explored in Showtime’s new documentary, Attica, still resonate as timely, given America’s ongoing struggle with inequities in the public justice system. On September 9, 1971, over 1,200 inmates took control of the prison in protest of the inhumane living conditions they said were caused in part by racism. A military-style raid eventually ended the ordeal, resulting in 43 dead prisoners, hostages and guards. In a rare move, Attica producers chose to tell this tale strictly from the point of view of prisoners and their families, forgoing interviews with historians and academics that typically comprise documentaries. “I don’t think there was a single person I interviewed where there were not either tears or great emotion during the course of the interview,” said producer Traci Curry during the documentary’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere in September. “It’s clear that 50 years later, this has not left anyone unscarred.”

Rewind a decade earlier to 1962, and White House Pictures plus Home Grown Pictures have the story of a 16-year-old musician named Billy Preston who befriended a young, obscure rock band that was on tour in Hamburg, Germany. That group would soon change history as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, while Preston came to be called the Fifth Beatle after playing on their Let It Be and Abbey Road albums and co-performing at the Roof Top concert, their final live show. This still-untitled doc reveals moving details about the self-taught keyboardist who survived childhood abuse, struggled with addiction and enjoyed a legendary career that also included playing with Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. 

Entertainers to Know More About
From Billy Preston to Janet Jackson, the latest documentary from The New York Times Presents is called Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson. It premiered November 19 on FX and Hulu, revisiting an infamous moment at the 2014 Super Bowl halftime show, when Justin Timberlake tore off part of fellow performer Jackson’s bustier in front of 70,000 live fans and 140 million viewers watching on TV. Controversy still endures regarding his intention—was it an accident or a planned stunt? Though less than one second long, the moment rocked the nation, sparking a debate about what constitutes acceptable American viewing and who gets to decide. Still more notable was the ensuing fallout: While Jackson’s career plummeted after that performance, Timberlake’s soared. This doc features rare footage, plus interviews with NFL executives and music industry insiders, and considers how race and sexism might factor into the disparately different outcomes that resulted from the same event.

Finally, Amazon’s Val documents the life of actor Val Kilmer, whose two-decade career included roles in Top Gun, Heat and The Doors, among other hits. Though hailed as a talented actor, he was also criticized for being moody and difficult, qualities that aren’t shied away from in this work. “I have behaved poorly. I have behaved bravely, bizarrely to some…I see myself as a sensitive, intelligent human being but with the soul of a clown,” says Kilmer in a voiceover. Though no longer in the public eye and unable to easily speak following a tracheostomy performed after he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015, the 61-year-old star is still in control. He contributed a massive archive of footage and home movies compiled over the decades to help tell his own story.

Whether craving a deep dive into historical moments or interested in the details of a well-lived life, documentaries provide platforms for delivering education and creating dialogue. It’s important to tell the stories of real experiences and strive to find meaning in our shared humanity. Wishing you many hours of insightful viewing.

Amit Jagwani
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