I found nothing relevant to say last week, overwhelmed as I felt by the realization that all would have to stop in Spain in a few days, as it has happened. I’m home, teaching online, for at least three weeks, which in practice means until after Easter –but that’s possibly your situation too, so nothing new on that front. My impression, hence my title, is that we’re dealing with an alien invasion, even though this comes from inner rather than outer space. I am very much scared, above all because of the general stupidity of many people who are out in the streets, the beaches, the countryside, instead of being home, but that’s (Spanish) Homo Sapiens for you… Perhaps Covid-19 is an envoy from poor planet Earth trying to shake us off, and with all reason.
As happens, I’m teaching our ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (third-fourth year) and my case study is the American documentary, or, to be more specific how the United States are represented in documentary films. I am planning to publish an e-book with my forty-five students, so I have chosen two films for each of them (yes, ninety films!). They need to do a class presentation (now moved online) and write a factsheet for the e-book. So far the presentations have been very good and I hope that we can still manage online, and eventually issue the e-book (see my other e-books with students here https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). The whole point of the course is persuading my students not only that documentary films are a type of cultural study but mainly that they are an undervalued but extremely exciting type of film to watch. So far, they have responded very well and what I’m going to do here is to extend these main theses to my (possible) readers. In this post, then, and in others that I will write I intend, therefore, to recommend the films that my students are in charge of, hoping that you also enjoy them. I will not include info on where to see them but most are available either legally on the streaming platforms or illegally on YouTube.
The course and the e-book are organized thematically, though I might eventually alter the order if the e-book requires it. In this first post, I deal with the sections on crime (personal and organized), economics (for capitalism is another form of organized crime), and environmental activism. There are other sections on gender, interesting personalities (what I have called ‘Icons of America’), politics, race, religion, other social issues, space exploration, and sports. I’ll post, then, other recommendations as the semester progresses. Next week I’ll post a list of recommended documentaries from the Lumière brother’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) to Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. The lesson I’m learning is that documentary films have provided audiences with amazing masterpieces in the past, and are providing us now with much better films than standard fiction cinema. They tell far more interesting stories in cinematic styles that are also more creative. Believe me!
These are the documentaries we have so far discussed in class:
Section CRIME. Personal crime
Bowling for Columbine (2002, Michael Moore). Oscar-award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0310793/. This is the documentary film that changed the way we perceive documentaries for good. Moore had made other indispensable films (such as Roger and Me, 1989) but with this one he proved that documentary films could be huge box-office successes and, above all, impact society in significant ways. In Bowling he very cleverly argues that the frequent school shootings in America are not isolated incidents perpetrated by confused young men but the product of the American love of weapons, at an individual and a national level. The pity is that they still continue for the weapons lobby is stronger than common sense.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0342172/. Jarecki was making a documentary on clown Silly Billy, a favourite at children’s parties, when he noticed something was amiss in the Friedman family. Their home movies and an investigation into their lifestyle eventually led to Mr. Friedman’s being unmasked as a child abuser, even though, for odds reasons, evidence was hard to come by. In a move that was certainly controversial and that makes watching the film very difficult today, Jarecki tried to stay neutral. His film, in any case, offers a startling, scary insight into ordinary American life.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1152758/. Be ready to cry your heart out… Kurt Kuenne’s childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was cruelly murdered by his possessive, mentally ill Canadian girlfriend Shirley Turner. As it turned out, she was pregnant with their child and Kuenne decided to interview everyone who knew the genial Andy for the benefit of baby Zachary. This story, however, took a sudden, unexpected turn because of the many errors committed by the Canadian prosecutors who should have put Shirley in prison for life. As I say, watch and cry, and sympathize with Zachary’s heroic grandparents.
Tower (2016, Keith Maitland). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5116410. Maitland’s truly amazing documentary connects with Bowling for Columbine as it narrates the first school shooting ever in America. This was perpetrated by a lone gunman (a Marine Sergeant) who on 1 August 1966 opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 16 people. The documentary focuses on the victims and the heroes, making a point of not glamourizing in any way the mass killer. Maitland uses interviews with the survivors, and original film and photography, but also animation using rotoscoping (mainly in the recreated interviews with the young participants in the horrific event).
Section CRIME. Organized crime
Cocaine Cowboys (2006, Billy Corben). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0380268 This hyperactive documentary film tells the story of how boring 1970s Miami was transformed by drug trafficking in the 1980s. The Medellín Colombia cartel, aided by the Cuban migrants, turned the city into the main gate through which cocaine flooded the USA. The corrupt authorities looked the other way until ‘Godmother’ Griselda Blanco went too far in her use of violent enforcers to get control of the whole turf. If you enjoyed Miami Vice (1984-1989) you will love seeing the actual traffickers that caused all the trouble the series portrayed. Brilliant, really.
Cartel Land (2015, Matthew Heineman). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4126304 A truly fascinating look at both sides of the border, dealing with the doomed fight against the Mexican cartels. Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, leader of the Arizona Border Recon militia, and Dr José Mireles, a Michoacán physician who leads the Autodefensas, are mirror images, men who know that there is really nothing to be done against the disinterest of Governments in fighting drug trafficking. As a narco tells Heineman, it’s really up to American consumers to stop taking drugs. Impressive!
American Factory (2019, Steve Bognar, Julia Reichert). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9351980 What happens when a Chinese billionaire, Chairman Cao, buys a closed GM plant to re-open it with a mix of American and imported Chinse workers? Cultural clash, and no wonder. This is a great comparative portrait of the United States and Chine, with an unusual focus on the working classes, and their rights.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009, Michael Moore). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232207/. Our second Moore documentary on the list, this time on the impact of corporate greed on ordinary Americans. It is in a way, a descendant of the next one on the list, and both complement each other beautifully.
Corporation, The (2003, Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379225 . This is the documentary that explains everything about the USA, and about our current world – perhaps you need to begin with this one. Corporations took the world over the moment USA legislation allowed them to exist as individual entities with rights above people, and develop their truly psychopathic behaviour. Be scared, be aware.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005, Alex Gibney). Oscar nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1016268/ Adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (2003), Gibney’s film narrates a major business scandal, showing how far corporations can go in their greed and, yes, stupidity.
Shock Doctrine, The (2009, Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1355640. Author Naomi Klein, of No Logo fame, hated the film, based on her own book, which, paradoxically, is a sort of rather accomplished book trailer for her work. The central concept is disaster capitalism, the idea that corporate business thrives on terror, taking advantage of moments of deep public distress, often caused by corporations in cahoots with corrupt governments.
Inside Job (2010, Charles Ferguson). Oscar award winner. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1645089/ If you still can’t understand how and why the devastating 2008 crisis happened, this will solve all your doubts…
ENVIROMENTAL ACTIVISM: Animal rights, environmental destruction, food consumption
Please, note: The Cove (2009) and Earthlings (2005) are not here because I needed to focus mainly on America, and not on how American criticize the rest of the world…
Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2545118/ Ever been to SeaWorld or watched a dolphin show? See Blackfish and feel guilty… Tilikum, a young male orca, was captured to be a star but you cannot ill-treat an animal and expect him to respect humans, can you? See what happened
Project Nim (2011, James Marsh). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836. Intriguingly, this film mirrors to a great extent a fiction film released the same year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nim Chimpsky is stolen from his mother to be raised as a child in a human family, and test whether he can learn the basics of grammar. From this point onward, everything goes downhill for the poor ape.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006, David Guggenheim). Oscar-award winner 2006. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497116/ Former United States Vice President Al Gore was robbed of the Presidency by the Bush family, and he embarked next on a pioneering career as climate change activist. This is the documentary that started educating audiences about the planetary destruction emergency we now face.
Before the Flood (2016, Fisher Stevens). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5929776/ A sort of follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Stevens’s film follows UN good-will ambassador Leonardo di Caprio as he talks to the activists and authorities that might help to save the world, as he himself struggles to understand his own position as a privileged American consumer.
GasLand (2010, Josh Fox). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1558250/ Fox was offered $100000 by a company interested in exploiting the gas resources in his beautiful home in the woods, and suspecting foul play he started exploring the consequences of fracking. This was the film that first warned the world about the destructiveness of the process.
Trouble the Water (2008, Carl Dea and Tia Lessin). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1149405/ The US authorities made no effort to get the poorest, African-American inhabitants of New Orleans out of the city before hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke. Watch first-hand what it was like to survive the flood and the subsequent abandonment of the survivors to their fate.
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014 Kip Andersen Keegan Kuhn). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3302820 Andersen tries to understand how he can be a better environmental activist by approaching the organizations supposedly in charge of offering advice. What he finds is silence, rejection, and a few horror stories enough to turn anyone into a vegan.
Food, Inc. (2009, Robert Kenner). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1286537/ Co-produced by Eric Schlosser, the journalist who first described the antics of McDonalds in Fast Food Nation, Kenner’s film examines how corporate farming in the hands of just five companies poisons Americans with unhealthy ultra-processed food, abusing animals and farmers.
Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Oscar award nominee. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0390521/ Spurlock wanted to know what happens if you only eat McDonald’d foot, as he did during a month in 2003. The results were so awful that it forced the restaurant chain to introduce important changes in the food it offers (but did they, really…?)
More next week! Stay safe, don’t leave home.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/