For Your Documental Health
Hello there, film fans. It’s Dr. David here to recommend to you a few films that address your documental health. What’s that? Other than a very lame pun, I mean this: it’s very easy to get drawn into the worlds of fiction that great films present, and sometimes we need to take a step back and take a look at documentaries, those daring works of non-fiction that present new perspectives, inspirational stories, and startling truths about the real world. In the first edition of what I hope can be a monthly series, I want to share with you some recent (and occasionally not-so-recent) documentary films that are worth your consideration.
Did you know that there is a male killer whale at Sea World that has been involved in the deaths of three people? He still performs daily, although he went on a brief hiatus after killing one of his trainers in 2010. If you find this shocking, you need to watch this film.
Blackfish, written, directed, and co-produced by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is not an easy documentary to watch, excellent production value notwithstanding. This film details all of the ethical issues that are involved with the keeping of orca (killer whales), from the way they are captured in the wild, to the way that they are kept in parks such as Sea World despite behavioral problems that stem from — get this — being kept in parks. What this film really exposes however is the danger that these animals pose to their trainers and just how many incidents involving trainers don’t get reported or don’t get reported accurately. Even when there is video of an orca grabbing its trainer’s foot and pulling them into the tank, the cause is always “trainer error.” Much of the story is told from former Sea World trainers who didn’t realize the extent of danger they were in until after they left the job. Blackfish shows the harsh reality that impressionable young trainers are taught that the whales depend on their care, but nothing can really help them if a whale lashes out. This film isn’t as gory as 2009’s The Cove, but it’s an equally important look into an ongoing animal rights issue.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is the latest documentary from Alex Gibney, producer of the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and Who Killed the Electric Car? This latest endeavor attempts to give an overview of the Wikileaks scandal while providing insight into the mind and motive of the primary leaker, Julian Assange. While you’re probably familiar with most of the facts regarding these events, We Steal Secrets gives an excellent overview and places the events in a new context of importance. Now that some of the dust has settled a couple of things are clear; Julian Assange put some people in danger by leaking the information and broke several laws, and he also revealed breaches of privacy on the part of the U.S. government that have caused a renewed fervor against being spied upon in the minds of Americans. Assange is a complex figure, and Gibney was given unparalleled access to Assange as the Wikileaks ordeal was taking place. What this documentary does definitively reveal is that Assange and his compatriots are not a super sophisticated espionage organization numbering in the hundreds; they are half a dozen computer hackers who believe in total transparency of government, regardless of the personal cost. This documentary presents a polarizing issue, and it demonstrates the importance in having a well-informed opinion on it, because it will only get more complicated in the future.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a documentary film from Alison Klayman that follows Chinese protest artist Ai Weiwei and gives insight on what it is to be a dissident in present day China, as well as what led Weiwei to take such a strong political statement with his art. This film is powerful because it features an artist who is still actively working and capable of explaining why the work he’s doing is so important to him. At a blush, it would be easy to label Weiwei as someone just trying to make trouble (the Chinese government certainly has), but Klayman helps make the statement that Weiwei’s protest comes from a love of China as a country; it is only the current form of government that he rejects. Thus, when he defaces or destroys ancient Chinese pottery, his statement is not one of contempt for Chinese history, but to show in a very visceral way that the current state of China is defacing the country’s history as a whole.
While the photo on the cover makes Weiwei look humorless, and his signature style of flipping the bird to important government monuments seems coarse, the artist that you come to know over the course of this film is jovial, vibrant, and passionate. His influence is far-reaching, and you get to see his groups of fans respond strongly to his actions (he uses Twitter a lot). You also get to know Weiwei on a personal level. He is one humble man trying to make a difference against the implacable face of government. Some tender moments between Weiwei and his toddler son show that even in his mid-fifties, Weiwei is still discovering new aspects of his life and personality. If you’re like me and not a real art buff, this film still has plenty to offer in the way of a human story that emphasizes the importance of art that goes against the prevailing culture.
Katie Dellamaggiore’s Brooklyn Castle introduces us to a rather unique school, Intermediate 318 in Brooklyn. While seemingly like any other New York City school, the students at 318 are renowned for their chess skills, and they’ve traveled all over the country proving that they are some of the top in the nation. Like any documentary which shows people devoting a large portion of their life to a certain skill, Brooklyn Castle shows the struggles that these kids go through at times, but their devotion to chess comes off in a very positive light. Most of the students at 318 are from a low socioeconomic class and are not afforded many opportunities. For them, chess offers something that makes them stand out, feel accomplished, and stay out of trouble. It’s really heart-warming to see the culture that has arisen at 318 where the kids who reign at chess are the cool ones. You do get to see a couple of kids’ personal journeys, like the charismatic goofball Pobo as he runs for student council president and Rochelle as she fights to increase her rating, hoping to one day be the highest rated female, African-American chess champion.
Like many documentaries, there is a wrinkle in the narrative that created unexpected drama after the crews had already begun filming. Because of budget cuts, many of the grants that 318 relied on for transportation and lodging at chess tournaments was greatly reduced as extra-curricular programs across New York City schools were cut back. This film makes a compelling argument why programs such as this can help students excel in all areas of their life, not just the inherent skill of the program. After the serious tone of the first three films I mentioned, use this as a bit of a pick-me-up.
Well, let me know what you think. Remember, all of these documentaries can be put on hold, so give them a watch today! What are your favorite documentaries of the past couple of years? Let me know and I’ll be sure to highlight them in a future edition of For Your Documental Health.