As more and more people seem eager to deny reality—whether it’s election results, climate change, or a pandemic that’s killed millions—there seems to be a parallel growing thirst for that very thing onscreen. Or maybe it’s just that the ever-rising need for home viewing fodder has boosted feature documentaries, once the low man on the totem pole of commercial entertainment. Now it seems nearly as many docs get released each week as narrative films, even if they still tend to get less attention.
The assortment of new arrivals below is just the tip of an iceberg: Other documentaries just released last week, or getting released this week, include The Meaning of Hitler, which takes a worried look at Der Fuehrer’s rise and legacy amidst a new global trend of fascistic nationalist movements; Queen of the Beach, about a 9-year-old migrant child laborer in a Goa resort district whose ambition is simply to attend school; and bestseller spinoff The Smartest Kids in the World, in which four US teens on study-abroad programs experience public education systems (from Finland to South Korea) far superior to our own.
Under the Volcano revisits the tropical island music studio where an imposing lineup of 1980s hitmakers recorded some of their most famous records; Last Man Standing is Nick Broomfield’s followup to 2002’s murder-investigative Biggie & Tupac; and Godspeed, Los Polacos! chronicles a Polish kayaking team’s unlikely 1981 conquest of “an unexplored river at the bottom of the world’s deepest canyon” in Peru. The latter is now playing the Rafael Film Center; the others can be accessed through various streaming platforms.
We couldn’t see them all, but we did manage to screen these new nonfiction features:
Not Going Quietly
Ady Barkan was a Yale-educated attorney and progressive political activist with a significant national profile in his early 30s when he was diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), and given three to four years to live. Nicholas Bruckman’s film chronicles the ways in which this catastrophic news—arriving just after his wife had given birth to their first child—drove him to become an even higher-profile activist. He was soon battling the Trump administration and its allies on myriad proposed cuts to programs (like Medicare disability) that would directly impact people like himself. This despite rapid physical degeneration, which soon had severely limited his mobility and speech.
Barkan is a great subject for such a documentary, remaining good-humored and dogged in fighting a righteous fight on many fronts, no matter how bleak the political or personal realities faced. Nor does he stick to causes for which he’s an obvious poster child; he is equally fired up supporting sexual-assault survivors protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, for starters. His efforts (which at one point include a cross-country bus tour to lobby GOP Congresspersons trying to dismantle Obamacare) are so successful they play no small role in the blue wave of 2018’s midterms. That in turn earns him subsequent facetime with Democratic candidates on the 2020 Presidential campaign trail.
Not Going Quietly is an unusually cheering (as well as poignant) activist portrait, because its immensely likable subject refuses to be bowed despite much cause for despair—and because he really does make a demonstrable difference opposing possibly the least-humane administration in US history. Just released to very limited theaters nationwide, it will be accessible via the Rafael Film Center’s streaming program (more info here) as of Fri/27.
Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power
Likewise inspirationally kicking against the pricks is the now-veteran Congresswoman who represents California’s 13th district (the most populous part of Alameda County, encompassing Oakland and Berkeley) in the House of Representatives. Before that, she was a state Senator and Assembly member, and earlier still, a struggling single mother raising two sons while pursuing a Master’s degree on public assistance. No wonder Barbara Lee believes in government programs that helped raise people like herself up in the late 1960s and 1970s, many of which no longer exist.
Abby Ginzberg’s movie sometimes feels like hagiography, particularly in an opening section that plays like a campaign advertisement. But then, Lee certainly merits appreciation for her long resume of accomplishments, from early work with the Black Panthers to famously being the sole member of Congress with the cojones to vote against the “blank check for endless wars” granted the Bush administration just after 9/11. With the nation in furious mourning, that was a stance she was condemned for at the time (to the point of death threats), but which many have since sheepishly admitted was the right one.
Truth to Power doesn’t delve deep into her private life, or grant any forum to political opponents. But it does show her tirelessly dedicated to her constituents in an era when many such reps carefully evade contact with any but the most carefully vetted partisan voters. She’s articulate on any subject, in any context, whether touring housing/ homeless crisis sites in Oakland or opposing racial disparities in mass incarceration nationwide.
In addition to footage of her past mentors Shirley Chisholm and Ron Dellums, the film has input from Congressman John Lewis, Van Jones, Sen. Cory Booker, Alice Walker, Danny Glover, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elihu Harris and many others—as well as a glimpse of her giving well-desreved hell to the likes of Betsy DeVos, who as usual sports the glazed look of someone not comprehending a critical word. The doc will be available as of this Fri/20 at the Roxie, Shattuck Cinemas, the Rafael’s streaming program, and On Demand platforms.
Missing in Brooks County
Illegal immigration has emerged as a principal conservative talking point during Lee’s Congressional tenure, whipping up a climate of collective hysteria. This despite the fact that statistics demonstrate such illicit border crossings actually peaked some years ago, and fears these immigrants bring crime (as well as COVID) are grossly exaggerated. Indeed, the dangers are largely bourn by migrants themselves. Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bermiss’ documentary examines a tragic consequence of policy crafted during the Clinton years that was intended to dissuade people being smuggled across the Mexico/US line—but which has resulted instead in an unknowable number of deaths, likely in the thousands.
To avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint in southern Texas, human traffickers must dump their clients in a desert region of sparsely populated Brooks County where many will perish of dehydration or exposure before they get whenever they’re going, or find help. The likelihood of that grim fate is increased by some local ranchers and other residents destroying water stations scattered by human rights organizations, feeling justified in detering the “criminal activity” of emigre passage. A sheriff estimates only one in five migrants who disappear hereabouts are ever found. Even then, their remains often defy forensic identification.
Focusing on activists, government workers and locals alike, Missing is nonetheless primarily concerned with families frantic with worry when an uncle or sister does not turn up as expected. (One such was deported to a Mexico he hadn’t seen since age 5, risking this life in an attempt to sneak back “home.”) Though rather pokily paced, this is a strong indictment of inhumane policies so far off the public radar, there’s barely any bureaucracy in place to help search for those in probable mortal peril. The feature will be released to limited theaters on Fri/20.
Searching for Mr. Rugoff
On a much less sobering note, there’s this portrait of a now little-remembered man who nonetheless was arguably more responsible than any non-filmmaker for the US arthouse boom of the 1960s and 70s. Son of a Manhattan theater owner, Donald S. Rugoff took over some of his father’s venues, turning them into fashionably moderne temples for worship of “quality” cinema, whose auteurs came to consider bookings there a make-or-break must.
He then moved into distribution, his company Cinema 5 releasing an incredible roll-call of foreign, independent and documentary classics: The Endless Summer, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gimme Shelter, Putney Swope, The Sorrow the the Pity, Trash, The Man Who Fell to Earth, films by Bergman, Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, et al. Rugoff virtually launched the international careers of Costa-Gavras and Lina Wertmuller, among others, with his unerring promotional ability to make a new film into a cultural “event.”
But he was also “kind of a terrible person,” according to ex-colleagues, burning so many bridges that no one in the industry would give him a job when Cinema 5 hit a fatal economic rough patch in the early 80s. He slunk off to a small town on Martha’s Vineyard, where few residents now remember the man who died there at just age 62 a few years later. But former Rugoff employee Ira Deutchman’s documentary provides an entertaining appreciation of this elusive figure, as well as an era when upscale film culture was at a zenith of popularity we’ll probably never see again. It’s currently playing select theaters including the Rafael Film Center.
The Faithful: The King, The Pope, The Princess
A different kind of cultural-anthropological excavation is undertaken by Annie Berman in this first-person survey of fandom as religion. It was triggered years ago when she was fascinated by the sight of giant lollipops with Pope John Paul II’s likeness on them being sold at the Vatican. Of course, the Catholic Church has been promoting the pope as an object of veneration, God’s living Earthly agent, practically since the dawn of Christianity.
But what of pop celebrities that acquire equal sway over their own flock of worshippers? Berman turns her camera on the de facto cults that have posthumously sprung up around Elvis Presley and Princess Diana, two personalities taken too soon from this mortal plane, but which loom larger in an obsessive popular imagination every year. In all three cases, the director finds not just instances of gross and bizarre commercial exploitation, but individual devotion bordering on mania.
This earnest look at the oft-bizarre intersection of fame and faith isn’t necessarily the funfest you might expect—it doesn’t dwell on finding humor in fringe-dwelling eccentricity, like the early works of Errol Morris. But it does find things that give one pause, like the woman whose sense of connectedness with “The King” is such that she imagines his silhouette being cast in shadow on her Memphis screen door, or another who runs a “Princess Diana-themed bed & breakfast.” (One visitor to the latter exhales “I thought I had a collection, but… wow.”)
Fleeting archival footage of the “real things” tend to strip away accumulated mystique, allowing us to glimpse an Elvis bemused by his own celebrity, and a Princess of Wales exasperated by hers. But for those who’ve forged a borderline-nutty sense of connectedness to these luminaries, they transcend mere humanity to become the very air one breathes—like, well, God. The Faithful is available for streaming from the Mayles Documentary Center through Thurs/19 (more info here), with national theatrical dates TBA this fall.