By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema
When we first initiated the Naro series ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ in the early 2000s, documentaries were still considered to be the red headed stepchild of arthouse programming. The bulk of the screen content being foreign films, indie American films, and film classics. We introduced the concept of a public forum with a post-film discussion that was initially led by our series host, the noted nonfiction narrative author Mike D’Orso. Fast forward to today, and documentaries have become a mainstay, making up a substantial segment of the film repertoire of the Naro and other art screens.
The feature documentary format has become an important vehicle for deeper investigations, crafted by filmmakers who are able to dive into complex issues. Unlike mass media, they don’t receive their production money from corporate sponsors. This allows them the creative independence and integrity often compromised by the big news organizations. In these regressive times, a free and independent media that exposes and holds power accountable has never been more crucial.
It was a very rich year for documentaries in general and for investigative film journalism in particular. Issues that were tackled by filmmakers included government malfeasance, the secret surveillance state, unchecked militarism and war, corporate corruption, the concentration of wealth and power, the failure of environmental regulation, the climate crisis, and man’s relationship to animals and nature.
Many of the films that played at the Naro are frontrunners for the Oscar for Best Documentary, and yet it’s a crowded field. There were 159 documentaries submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year. Way too many films for any one person to view, and so a selection committee of judges will compile the Oscar shortlist of 15 documentaries in mid-December. The listing can be viewed at the website www.oscar.org. This shortlist will later be reduced to a final five nominees for Best Documentary when this year’s Oscar nominations are announced on January 13th. The Oscars will be held Feb. 9th at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, two weeks earlier than last year.
Although many of the docs submitted to the Oscars have received their local premiere at the Naro, not all of them were made available to theaters around the country. Some of these titles went directly to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, and other streaming networks. To be eligible to qualify for the Oscars, each film must receive at least a week-long engagement in theaters in NYC and LA. The best streaming docs of the past year include The Great Hack, American Factory, The Edge of Democracy, and Breaking Down the House. Each of these important films deserves the widest audience possible and streaming services can now deliver a worldwide audience of millions.
My film choices for the best docs of the year are listed below. They include only those films that have screened at the Naro Cinema. I have grouped them into seven distinct categories and have listed them with no order of preference. I find that the competitive comparison of documentaries to be problematic and I prefer that each film stands on its own. Filmgoers who missed seeing these films on the big screen have another opportunity to view them when they show up on DVD, and streaming and VOD services. These are films that have the potential to enlighten and educate our society.
We will take a break from the ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series during the latter part of December and the first part of January, but we will soon get back on track this winter with our midweek ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series during the second half of January.
And we will also continue our FirstLook Film Forum on Sunday mornings when
the new Winter Season 2020 starts on January 12th. This subscription-based series has 10 designated Sundays showcasing new feature films in advance of their public showings. Join a group of cinephiles for the 20th season of the Film Forum by picking up a registration form at the theater or visiting online at www.narocinema.com.
Best Docs of 2019: Politics and Economics
The most impactful documentaries that were released during this past year are each an incisive inquiry into government and the private interests that are determining the fate and state of the world we will soon inhabit. Governments throughout the world have been captured by the corrupting influence of corporate power that bankrolls the rise of right-wing political parties and the removal of left-center democracies. These forces maintain their control through the use of state propaganda spread by each country’s corporate media. Their comprehensive message is one of fear and loathing – whether it’s of immigrants, of indigenous peoples of color, of terrorism threats, or of invading armies.
These U.S. backed corporate coups have been orchestrated over the past two years of the Trump administration throughout Latin America, ousting the legitimately elected government in Bolivia and forcing indigenous president Evo Morales to flee the country. In Brazil, past president Lula da Silva was jailed under false charges by a rigged judicial system when it became apparent that the popular leader of the people’s labor party was sure to win another re-election. The Organization of the American States (OAS), dominated by U.S.corporate interests, has been key in the success of regime change in these countries.
We’ve also seen the hard right-turn made by newly-elected European governments in Hungary and Poland, and the rise of radical right parties throughout Europe. The influence of American power under the Trump administration, the fear of massive immigration, and the neoliberal practices of the European Union have all assisted in this tidal change in global politics. This is primarily an American dominated story of empire’s influence over elections worldwide and the massive power-peddling done on a much grander scale than any Russian meddling into U.S. elections obsessed about by Democrats and the liberal media.
The documentary Corporate Coup d’Etat investigates the worldwide stealth revolution of neoliberalism that has monetized and privatized the public commons for the enrichment of corporatists and the investor class. The film shows how functioning democracy in the U.S. has been eroded by the inequality and injustices perpetrated on the working class through anti-labor policies legislated by corporate-funded politicians. The film features the articulate voices of those scholars and activists who are mostly excluded from the restricted debates that are allowed by corporatized media.
Although culturally different within each country, neoliberal strategies are quite similar and connected worldwide. After the election of a populist demagogue, the right-wing political party enacts austere economic policies in accord with the root libertarian beliefs of small government and free markets. These include the dismantling of environmental protections, the deregulation of industry, the slashing of the public services and protections of the welfare state, the privatization and outsourcing of public services, the reduction of taxes for the wealthy, and the growth of Wall Street finance capital at the expense of labor and the economic productivity of Main Street.
While most Americans have watched in horror as the daily reports of corruption and lies are exposed in the Congressional impeachment hearings, the courts and Trump’s corporate-appointed leadership in the governmental agencies have continued to implement destructive policies against labor and the environment. The faux populism of Trump’s administration is aided and abetted by Wall Street, the military, the corporate media, the fossil fuel industry, and evangelical pro-lifers. And these same policies are being enacted within multiple countries as the rolling corporate coup cascades around the world.
An important question is posed by filmmaker Astra Taylor in the title of her film, What Is Democracy? Taylor has been a political activist who cut her teeth organizing the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City. She most recently has received notoriety as the author of the new non-fiction book, ‘Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone’.
In both her book and film, Taylor travels to Greece, to the birthplace of democracy in Athens. She cites Aristotle’s definition of democracy, that it is the rule of the people, and since the majority of the demos is composed of the indigent and working class in a society, it is essentially rule by the poor. This stands in sharp contrast to the long history of governance by authoritarian monarchies, oligarchies, and aristocracies. True democracy may yet be realized in the world, but the aspiration and the hard work by marginalized people to gain their voting rights and equality has only been achieved by direct democracy in action.
The defeat of communism and spread of democracy and capitalism after the Cold War were supposed to have changed the world for the better. But in her research of governments around the world, Taylor finds that almost everywhere, democracy is in crisis. And why? Look no further than the anti-democratic neoliberal forces propelling peak capitalism. Global finance capitalism, austerity programs, and the privatization of the public commons have eroded democratic institutions and impoverished the working class.
The last 60 years have seen our government favor the interests of corporations over the interests of people. By capitalizing on the sentiments of the disgruntled and disaffected, right-wing populism once again wins elections. Republicans can subvert and capture majority rule by using voter suppression, propaganda, scapegoating, and fear-mongering. It will continue to work for them until the Democrats offer a true alternative of authentic populist candidates like Bernie Sanders.
The new documentary by Errol Morris, American Dharma showing at the Naro on Wed, Dec 18th, has been criticized by some in the liberal press for providing a public platform for right-wing nationalist and media manipulator Steve Bannon to explain and justify his ideological beliefs. But in his lengthy film interview, Morris feeds Bannon enough rope for him to eventually hang himself. By goading Bannon to articulate his incoherent populist philosophy, Morris exposes Bannon as a vapid narcissist and a moral midget. Much like his ex-boss.
Along with the other doc released this year about Bannon, The Brink, and the equally disturbing doc, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a free thinking audience can learn much about the media strategies and propaganda used by these proto-fascists that have aided and abetted the ascendancy of Trump.
The growing resistance movements and protests around the world against corrupt regimes by young urban activists are the desperate attempts by people who have been shut out of political power and access. Demonstrations are building on the streets of Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Argentina, England, Hong Kong, Palestine, Baghdad, Beirut, and Tehran. And then there’s the ongoing people’s response to the climate crisis that has generated street protests at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid and in hundreds of cities across the planet.
This multi-pronged international people’s rebellion is the shot across the bow of the ship of state. These growing democracy movements are deemed to be a threat by the U.S. establishment. The mainstream media either ignores or prejudices any reporting to justify empire and international neoliberalism. The exception being the abundant media coverage of the Hong Kong street protests against an adversary, mainland China. Around the world, the corrupt leadership of the status quo is feeling the heat. The old adage is true – the revolution will not be televised. But for the time-being in this country, vital information about ongoing worldwide social transformation is accessible online through independent media like Democracy Now! and The Intercept and dozens of other alternative news sources.
CORPORATE COUP D’ETAT
WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?
WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
Best Docs of 2019: Religion and Spirituality
Although traditional religion has always aligned with the power of the state, religious leaders were a little less partisan in the past than they are today. For example, working class Catholics backed Democrats and the Kennedy dynasty. But in the nineties, the Republican Party seized upon issues like abortion and gay rights as main wedge issues. The ascendancy of Trump can be attributed to the unwavering allegiance of white rural Evangelicals.
There is a growing resistance to the religious right that’s revealed in the film, American Heretics. Although the Oklahoma legislature remains overwhelmingly Republican, there are courageous ministers who lead progressive churches in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. A different tactic is practiced by self-described Satanists in the fascinating film Hail Satan! This small national group of social outcasts has found solidarity in their legal and promotional efforts to expose the hypocrisy and injustices of the white Christian nation.
ZEN FOR NOTHING
AMERICAN HERETICS: The Politics of the Gospel
BECOMING NOBODY: Ram Dass
Best Docs of 2019: The Beaux Arts
Our ongoing Tuesday night series presented with the curators at Chrysler Museum showcases documentaries produced for the British art series ‘Exhibition On Screen’. In addition we have contracted with an Italian production studio for the art doc series, ‘Great Art On Screen’’. Highlights of this past year include the following artist films:
SALVADOR DALI: In Search of Immortality
DEGAS: Passion For Perfection
VAN GOGH: Of Wheat Fields and Clouded Skies
CARAVAGGIO: The Soul and The Blood
WATER LILIES OF MONET
TINTORETTO: A Rebel In Venice
VAN GOGH AND JAPAN
Best Docs of 2019: Entertainment and Sciences
Two of the best docs of the year were also two of the top grossing films. Maiden, about the first all-women sailing team to compete in the Round The World competition, and Apollo 11, with new-found footage of the moon landing for the 50th anniversary. Also popular for Naro audiences was Chasing Einstein, about the brilliant particle physicists who are searching the universe for dark matter to confirm Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
MIKE WALLACE IS HERE
THE GREAT BUSTER: The Silence of Buster Keaton
Best Docs of 2019: Music & Musicians
It’s been a rewarding year for a greying audience of baby boomers who are rediscovering their hippie roots from the sixties and seventies. An unprecedented number of newly released documentaries feature legendary musicians and historic music events. These films are an ideal tonic for shedding a lifetime of burden, and for easing our transition into elderhood. We can draw strength and inspiration from those musicians we emulated in our youth, many who remain vital today.
AMAZING GRACE: Aretha Franklin
ROLLING THUNDER REVIEW: Bob Dylan & Friends
WOODSTOCK: Three Days That Defined a Generation
ECHO IN THE CANYON
DAVID CROSBY: Remember My Name
MARIANNE AND LEONARD: Words Of Love
BLUE NOTE RECORDS: Beyond The Notes
LINDA RONSTADT: The Sound Of My Voice
FIDDLIN’: The Galax Bluegrass Festival
MILES DAVIS: Birth of the Cool
DECONSTRUCTING THE BEATLES: Video Lecture Series
Best Docs of 2019: Environmental and Animal Justice
This eclectic mix of films of myriad topics were all audience pleasers. The Biggest Little Farm was one of this year’s top grossing docs – the story of filmmaker turned small farmer. John Chester’s documentation of the remediation of his family farm through organic farming practices, was the basis for this dedicated film project that became the surprise hit of the year.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM
THE SERENGETI RULES
THE CAT RESCUERS
ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch
Best Docs of 2019: Social Justice
The documentary high-light and top-grossing documentary of the year was filmmaker Peter Jackson’s dedicated film project that observed the 100th anniversary of WWI. It was a painstaking effort by a production team to search and rescue never-before-seen film footage and to digitally enhance the images and sound, along with adding color to the black and white film. The astonishing net result is the resurrection of the soldiers back to life, and the restoration of the combat footage back to a horrifying reality.
THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD
ASK DR RUTH
THE RIVER AND THE WALL
TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM
COLD CASE HAMMARSKJOLD
ONE CHILD NATION