The Year in Nonfiction Cinema: 21 Highlights of 2021
A highly personal hodgepodge of interviews, essays, coverage and quotes that stayed with me throughout (despite) this information overloaded year.
Crime and Punishment
Jon Alpert’s HBO doc Life of Crime: 1984-2020 (DOC NYC curtain raiser for Hammer to Nail)
Thirty-six years following three street criminals in Newark, NJ culminates in one powerful, tightly-edited, two-hour journey.
A clear-eyed revisitation of the five-day, real-life, made-for-TV event that resulted in “the deadliest violence Americans had inflicted on each other in a single day since the Civil War.” A half-century later our most media-covered prison uprising remains a story buried in plain sight.
Alex Gibney’s HBO docuseries The Crime of the Century (essay for Modern Times Review)
Alex Gibney is fast becoming America’s foremost cinematic chronicler of high-level malfeasance so batshit insane as to be hysterical were it not downright lethal. And with his two-part, nearly four hour, The Crime of the Century for HBO (presented in association with The Washington Post) he turns his lens on an easy, though long slippery, target: Big Pharma.
Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar’s PBS docuseries Philly D.A. (interview with Larry Krasner for Documentary magazine)
To say that longtime civil rights attorney Larry Krasner was a long shot to become the very head of the agency that had been his most despised nemesis is an understatement. As one skeptical progressive puts it in Philly D.A., he had about as much of a chance as David Duke taking the reins of the ACLU. And yet not only did Krasner win his election campaign back in 2017, he did so in a landslide. And that’s when the real drama began.
The New Queer Wave
Angelo Madsen Minax’s Tribeca doc North By Current (interview for Filmmaker magazine)
Minax began shooting North By Current upon his return home to rural Michigan after the death of his niece, a toddler whose passing put Minax’s emotionally fragile sister and her formerly incarcerated husband in the crosshairs of Children’s Protective Services (which in turn led to law enforcement investigating CPS). The life-shattering event also set the stage for another confrontation of sorts, between Minax himself and his Mormon parents who felt themselves still grieving the “loss” of their own child — a girl named Angela who’d transitioned to this stranger with a camera filming in their living room.
Jordan Lord’s MoMA Doc Fortnight film Shared Resources (Doc Fortnight coverage for Filmmaker magazine)
Through a stunning conceptual framework – the director narrates their filmmaking process throughout, providing a sort of transcript of transparency (right down to acknowledging jump cuts, when they’ve excised sentences from a scene) – Lord grapples to find a new nonfiction formula. One that will allow the subjects, their parents – as they follow them through a five-year-long Chapter 13 bankruptcy (the ironic result of dad losing his job as a debt collector) – agency over a contentious onscreen portrayal. A sense of control that’s long been absent from the couple’s actual real lives.
Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker’s HBO docuseries The Lady and the Dale (interview for Filmmaker magazine)
This twist-and-turning saga stars a three-wheeled car called the Dale (that may or may not have been viable) and its marketer extraordinaire, a visionary female entrepreneur (and longtime serial con artist) named Elizabeth Carmichael. With a promise of 70 miles to the gallon at a time when the 70s oil crisis was leaving Americans to linger at gas stations in Soviet-long lines, the Dale seemed to many a dream come true. And to others, too good to be true.
Sociopolitics and Its Discontents
The latest doc from Rachel Boynton (Big Men, Our Brand Is Crisis) unfolds in a series of revelations. The project was sparked in the wake of the slaughter of Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC during President Obama’s last year in office, and continued right through the domestic terrorism of the Trump administration. During that time Boynton took a historical journey, traversing the US from Massachusetts to Mississippi, with a singular question in mind: What’s the story of the Civil War? Or more precisely, What’s your story of the Civil War?
Spike Lee’s HBO docuseries NYC Epicenters 9/11→2021½ (essay for Modern Times Review)
For me – as for fellow New Yorker Spike Lee, whose four-parter for HBO Max NYC EPICENTERS 9/11➔2021½ is both epic (7½ hours!) and utterly magnificent – 9/11 wasn’t an international or even a national news story. This shit was personal. A sentiment made abundantly clear from the very first episode, which deals not with that sudden tragedy but with the slow-moving crisis that nearly two decades later would throw the Big Apple back onto the “ground zero” stage.
Aliaksei Paluyan’s Berlinale-premiering doc Courage (CPH:DOX coverage for Documentary magazine)
Paluyan’s jaw-dropping film follows a trio of brave Belorussian actors whose longtime pro-democracy activism within the staged confines of the underground Free Theatre unexpectedly becomes unrehearsed reality on the streets.
Avi Mograbi’s Berlinale-premiering doc The First 54 Years—An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation (CPH:DOX coverage for Documentary magazine)
Resembling an Orwellian webinar for covert extermination, this chillingly riveting doc stars the provocative Israeli helmer himself, who leads us on a satirical, half-century journey deep inside his country’s insidious occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
One of a Kind Weirdness
Joonas Neuvonen’s CPH:DOX/Fantasia Fest film Lost Boys (interview with co-director Sadri Cetinkaya for Filmmaker magazine)
After serving a seven-year sentence for drug dealing, protagonists Jani and Antti escape to Thailand to celebrate with Neuvonen and his camera in tow. Predictably, the round-the-clock bacchanal revolves around sex, drugs, alcohol, more sex and more drugs. Unpredictably, while Neuvonen returns home at the end of the revelry the duo choose instead to fly off to Cambodia – where they promptly disappear. And then Jani turns up dead, his demise officially ruled a suicide, and that verdict prompts Neuvonen to return to Southeast Asia once again in a herculean effort to separate fact from fiction.
David Shapiro’s Sundance 2020 “Best DocuSeries”-winning/NYC theatrical-premiering Untitled Pizza Movie (interview with David Shapiro for Hammer to Nail)
This seven-part “pizzamentary” is actually a stunningly crafted and heartbreakingly poignant love letter to a bygone NYC (and a best friend), with pizza served up as red herring.
Born in Tehran, Khosrovani was just seven when the 1979 revolution split apart society — and ultimately her own household. With Radiograph of a Family Khosrovani attempts to examine and understand, in the analytical and artistic manner of her secular, music-loving radiologist father, the dashed hopes and dreams of both.
This “cinematic environmental parable” set on the Georgian coast centers on a wealthy and powerful man who’s been traveling to impoverished villages for years to pursue the oddest of hobbies — collecting majestic trees, many of which have been part of their communities for over a century.
Sergei Loznitsa’s 2021 IDFA Award for Best Film in the International Competition-winning Mr. Landsbergis (IDFA coverage for Documentary magazine)
Running for an impressively addictive four hours, Loznitsa’s latest masterwork is a striking glimpse into the behind the scenes negotiating and backstabbing that led to Lithuania becoming the first independent country sprung from the disintegrating USSR; and a counter-Gorbachev-narrative told through a wealth of archival footage threaded through candid sit-down interviews with the titular, 89-year old, former Lithuanian president himself.
Words of Wisdom
“It’s nice to have power instead of outrage,” Larry Krasner states in the docuseries Philly D.A.. Though by the last episode he’s added, “There is danger in holding that power. There is danger that you’ll become what you fought against.”
In Roadrunner, Anthony Bourdain asks Iggy Pop what thrills him now. “Being loved and actually appreciating the people giving that to me,” he responds.
“What is freedom for Americans?” a soldier rhetorically asks in the Netflix docuseries Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror. We want the “freedom to pretend. We feel entitled to our fictions.”
“Live like you’ll die tomorrow. Learn like you’ll live forever,” urges a smuggler in The Devil’s Drivers, referencing Gandhi.
“We can only keep what we have by giving it away,” says Deliris in Life of Crime: 1984-2020.