What You Should Be Watching: Documentaries to the Rescue

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a very strange year—and that goes for the film industry as well. Consider this: among the top five highest grossing films of this year, one is a two and a half hour Chinese historical drama in Mandarin (The Eight Hundred), another an adaption of a video game (Sonic the Hedgehog) and the fourth highest grossing film, Doolittle, not only scores a whopping 14% on Rotten Tomatoes, but was considered a box office bomb, losing over $100 million for Universal Studios. That’s right, the fourth-highest earning film of the year lost over $100 million, which says something about the state of the cinema. All Oscar contenders? I think not. So next Spring’s Academy Awards will similarly reflect the strange year this has been.

Without question, though, 2020 has been the year of Netflix and other streaming services. Besides binge-worthy series, documentaries, films that typically never make it to the cineplexes in normal times, have been a bright spot. One of those I’d like to recommend is the quite timely and quite controversial Immigration Nation (with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating). Few political issues have stirred up as much passion over the past three years as immigration. On the one hand, we have DACA recipients still waiting in limbo for a path to citizenship, while on the other, we have migrant children being ripped from their parents and put in cages. We have a president who wants to build a 2000 miles wall on our border with Mexico to keep people out, all the while we claim that this is a nation of immigrants that was once open to the tired, poor and huddled masses. To explore this topic in more depth, filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz received unprecedented access to accompany ICE officers as they tracked down and deported undocumented immigrants. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency felt that their reputation was poor and thought, rather naively, that by allowing the filmmakers to follow their agents, they could improve public image. After three years, Clusiau and Schwarz completed filming and submitted their film for review. After watching it, the agency had second thoughts and sought to prevent its release as they felt it was a serious mischaracterization of their work. However, the agreed-upon contract allowed for its release. What the series reveals is a complex web that is our immigration system: on the one hand we have ICE agents who see themselves as regular employees just doing their job (although often using questionably legal tactics) and, on the other hand, immigrants who for the most part are decent people trying to eke out a living but are doing so having illegally entered the U.S. The documentary (a six-part series produced by Netflix) shows a number of moral quandaries—what happens when decent people are engaged or forced to engage in unethical and/or illegal activity (on both sides of this issue). Who is to blame? In this case, most likely a broken immigration system that Congress is unwilling to address or fix.

The second documentary I would like to recommend (also with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating) couldn’t be more different. Honeyland (2019) takes us to one of the most rural and poorest parts of Eastern Europe, North Macedonia, where we meet the 56-year-old beekeeper Hatizde, who lives with her blind mother in a rundown farmhouse. All her life she has maintained her beehives from which she ekes out a meager existence by taking the honey to market to sell in the capital Skopje. One day, a large family moves in next door and soon conflict over beekeeping and neighborly politeness ensures. While there is little in the way of dramatic action, the film is instead a contrast of one woman’s harmony with nature and another man’s attempts to use nature merely for profit and gain, a fitting parable for our times. But the film is also notable for its beautiful cinematography and pacing, reminding us of a simpler way of life in which we can sustainably coexist with nature. In fact, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott had this to say about the film:

“The opening minutes of Honeyland are as astonishing — as sublime and strange and full of human and natural beauty — as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. A woman makes her way on foot across wild meadowlands and up a mountainside, carefully stepping along a narrow ledge to a rocky outcropping, where bees have made a hive. Without much protective gear, and apparently without being stung, she extracts several honeycombs and secures them in a sack.”

A very simple scene that nonetheless is imbued with great beauty and grace. The film was rightfully nominated last year for two Academy Awards, Best Documentary and Best International Feature Film and can also be seen on Netflix.

While it’s unclear what the remainder of 2020 will bring us from Hollywood or beyond, we fortunately have a number of interesting choices in often over-looked genres that can be streamed in the comfort and safety of our home.

By Dr. David Coury

David Coury is a Professor of Humanities (German) and Global Studies and also Co-Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Partnerships. Additionally, he is the director of the Green Bay Film Society, whose International Film Series screens international and independent films twice a month at the Neville Public Museum. Admission is free and all films are open to the public.

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