Throughout 2018 we’ve seen widening social divides as our beliefs become more entrenched, and the stories we see and share become increasingly tailored to our interests. Political unrest has been catalysed by erratic, and frustratingly binary approaches to nuanced social, economic and international issues, and, whilst some journalistic institutions have been attacked, undermined for the way they seek to challenge authority, others have begun to thrive in a new age of misinformation. Throughout it all, a host of insightful and necessary documentaries have catalogued these changes, reflecting this new set of preoccupations back at us, working to inform viewers about the changing status quo whilst simultaneously providing a platform for marginalised communities to raise their voice above the din. As the year draws to a close we’ve shortlisted some of our favourites, covering everything from Ritalin to radicalisation, identity to investigative reporting.
The Fourth Estate
‘Unprecedented’ is a word that’s used almost daily to describe the actions of America’s most eratic president, but how do you report on a man who doesn’t fit any existing paradigm? The Fourth Estate: Inside The New York Times looks to answer that very question. Through extraordinary access and exclusive interviews, Oscar nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus chronicles the tenacious men and women at America’s newspaper of record as they try to report accurately and honestly on a chief executive who’s as unconventional as he is mercurial.
Across the US, anonymous, obscurely named 501(c)(4)s are reshaping local and national politics through strategic, well-financed influence campaigns. In most cases the public have no idea who is financing this political activity, what their motives are or who they’re working with. And it’s not just America. Reporting from the BBC suggests that UK-based lobbying groups are working to influence government policy, most recently in support of Vote Leave, with no indication as to who their backers might be, or what their motives are. On both sides of the pond ‘dark money’ is reshaping our politics with greater speed, efficiency and unaccountability than fake news or state-sponsored cyber attacks. With thoughtfulness, clarity and a meaningful sense of urgency, Kimberley Reed’s Sundance Grand Jury-nominated Dark Money begins by looking at how dark money groups have influenced the politics of her home state of Montana, before zooming out to consider the macro effects of unbridled campaign donations on the US government as a whole. Dark Money is a gripping and essential watch that posits the frightening possibility that House Of Cards might not be quite as removed from reality as we would like.
Three Identical Strangers
Directed by Tim Wardle, Three Identical Strangers tells the astonishing story of three men who, at the age of 19, discover that they are identical triplets who have been separated at birth and adopted to different parents. The trio’s joyous reunion in 1980 catapults them to fame – including interviews with Tom Brokaw and Phil Donahue, clubbing at Studio 54, and a film cameo with Madonna – but it also sets in motion a chain of events that unearths an extraordinary and disturbing secret that goes far beyond their own lives – a secret that might one day answer key questions at the heart of all human behavior. Equal parts conspiracy thriller, family drama and philosophical mind-bender the film explores questions of free will, nature vs nurture, what constitutes family and how we understand identity.
Of Fathers & Sons
Posing as an extremist, Syrian-born filmmaker Talal Derki spent more than two years, on-and-off, living with a Jihadi family for his Sundance-winning documentary Of Fathers And Sons. The end result is a thoughtful, nuanced and profoundly shocking portrait of what life is like for those living in an Islamic caliphate. It’s a world so rarely seen – except through political dog-whistles and sensational headlines – and Derki pulls back the curtain with unflinching honesty. Framing domestic intimacy – there are quarrels, games and moments of paternal tenderness – side-by-side with scenes in which mines are disarmed, beheadings are discussed and children no older than 9 or 10 are taught to fire assault weapons, the end result is a film that is both eye-opening and deeply human.
Sundance and Emmy award-winning filmmaker/photographer, Lauren Greenfield, has spent the last 25 years documenting the impact of consumerism on youth, gender, body image and our wider social mores. By turns a rigorous historical essay, entertaining expose and deeply personal journey which bears witness to the human cost of capitalism, her latest feature, Generation Wealth, examines extremes of wealth and addiction through a series of intimate portraits filmed around the world. With clarity, humour and self-reflective insight, Greenfield holds her subjects up as a mirror to our own desires, forcing viewers to acknowledge our shared participation in a consumer culture that’s always striving for more.
The epicentre of 70s hedonism, Studio 54 became a monumental magnet for beautiful stars, casual sex, and mounds of cocaine. A den of excess that defined its own rules by welcoming the ostracized, the queer, and the fabulous, the nightclub enshrined itself as an enduring and contradictory symbol of openness and exclusivity. Combining never before seen footage with brutally honest interviews, Studio 54 is a parade of colour, creativity and celebrity which masterfully demonstrates how even our most culturally potent and transformative phenomena can be crippled by carefree naiveté and unbridled ambition.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
An inspired and intimate portrait of a place and its people, Hale County This Morning, This Evening looks at the lives of Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, two young African American men from rural Hale County, Alabama, over the course of five years. Collins attends college in search of opportunity while Bryant becomes a father to an energetic son in an open-ended, poetic form that privileges the patiently observed interstices of their lives. In his directorial debut, award-winning photographer and director RaMell Ross offers a refreshingly direct approach to documentary that trumpets the beauty of life and consequences of the social construction of race, while simultaneously offering a testament to dreaming despite the odds.
Through a trilogy of programmes which explore how modern America deals with birth, love and death, Louis Theroux’s Altered States reaches its poignant and powerful climax with ‘Choosing Death’ – an investigation about whether we should have the right to decide when and how we die. Grappling with complex emotional, psychological and philosophical questions about illness, loneliness and our responsibilities to others vs our duty to ourselves Altered States is Theroux at his best.
When you post something on the internet? Who decides whether it stays or goes? What counts as inappropriate content? And how is it removed once it’s been labelled offensive or explicit? Through interviews with five digital scrubbers The Cleaners tells the story of just some of the thousands of workers whose job it is to delete ‘inappropriate’ content from the web. Outsourced by Silicon Valley, these contractors review and rate thousands of often deeply disturbing images and videos each day with lasting psychological effects. Beginning as a touching personal portrait of those struggling to meet the demands of the connected world, The Cleaners explores questions about what makes an image art, or propaganda, or journalism, and how social media’s hope for a global community malformed into a tangle of fake news and radicalisation.
Take Your Pills
The pressure to achieve more, do more, and be more is part of being human – and in the age of Adderall and Ritalin, achieving that dream can be as close as the local pharmacy. No longer just “a cure for excitable kids,” prescription stimulants are in college classrooms, on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley...any place “the need to succeed” slams into “not enough hours in the day.” But there are costs. In Take Your Pills, award-winning documentarian Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) focuses on the history, the facts, and the pervasiveness of cognitive-enhancement drugs in our amped-up era of late-stage-capitalism. What some see as a brave new world of limitless possibilities Take Your Pills reframes as a sped-up ride down a synaptic slippery slope.