Lucky you! There’s still time to watch a few more of the Oscar-nominated documentary films before the February 28, 2016, Academy Awards ceremony. So hop to it! All five are available online. The documentary category, for me, is almost always the strongest. While I frequently have disagreements with the Academy over their choices for Best Picture, Best Director, etc., I most often feel as if any of the five nominated documentary films would be a worthy winner. This year is no exception. Given the lack of diversity within this year’s Oscar field, I might be inclined to give the award to What Happened, Miss Simone? – it’s an exceptional portrait of Nina Simone – but my artistic favorite is probably The Look of Silence.
I have previously reviewed the two that are not available through Netflix: Amy and The Look of Silence. What follows are very brief capsule reviews of the three that are available for instant viewing on Netflix.
Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015)
Matthew Heineman (Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare) is a beast. Plain and simple. Putting his own life at risk, he follows border vigilante militias in Arizona and citizen anti-drug-cartel militias in the Mexican province of Michoacán as they each, in turn, try – in their own words – to take back what is theirs. In the case of the North Americans, what started as anti-illegal-immigrant patrols has turned into raids on the cartel scouts. Their leader, Tim Nailer, feels like the U.S. government is not doing enough to contain the spread of drug violence from across the border. Just in case we think he’s a racist bigot, we then cut to the Mexican side, where we meet Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and his “Autodefensas” as they confront, head-on, the drug lords who rule their area. Whatever the truth in Arizona, there is no question that there has been a massive failure of government – or, as Heineman states, massive collusion between government and the cartels – in Mexico. But the solution to the problem is complicated, and those who start off wanting to do good may end up doing harm, as well. There are no truly good guys, in other words.
It’s an amazing film, since we are literally embedded in the violence (bullets whiz by the camera). If it has one weakness, it is that it is heavily imbalanced, footage-wise, in favor of the Mexican story, which, to be fair, is far more interesting. I understand why Heineman wanted to get both perspectives, and he can’t help the fact that more didn’t happen on the Arizona side, but there just isn’t enough story there to entirely justify Nailer’s inclusion. Still, this is must-see cinema, if only because the danger is always so palpable, and one has to marvel at Heineman’s ability to get – and keep! – access to his protagonists. If there were an award for most risk incurred by a filmmaker in the name of his art, Heineman would be a shoo-in. Forget The Revenant and the talk about how much the actors and crew suffered; this is the real deal.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)
Since I managed to see this film before the end of 2015, I was able to include it in my “best films of the year” list (where I have another brief capsule review). Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn) has taken archival footage – film, video and photo – and new talking-head interviews (including one with Simone’s only daughter) to craft an intensely moving portrait of the troubled artist that was Nina Simone (1933-2003). Full confession: my first exposure to Simone was an Aardman Animation short – which I saw in the 1990s – made to a recording of Simone’s classic rendition of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” I know, that is a very sad commentary on my own lack of culture. But if you are, like me, someone who somehow paid more attention to the other great African-American jazz divas like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, or paid no attention to jazz musicians, black or white, at all, then this is the film to enlighten you. And if you are already an aficionado of Simone’s life and work, then this is the film you have been waiting for.
What is particularly wonderful about this movie is how Garbus does not flinch from showing us the bad side of her subject, yet she is always understanding and respectful. Simone grew up poor, but musically talented, and was noticed by a local (white) charity group that decided early on that she was going to go to Julliard. So for years she trained as a classical pianist before heading up to New York to continue her studies. And that’s where the money ran out, which is what led her to start playing in jazz clubs to earn her keep. Later, she became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, using her growing celebrity to help the cause. Unfortunately, she also began to suffer from both depression and attendant alcoholism, which slowly began to derail her career. We get it all here, the highs and the lows of Nina Simone’s inimitable life and career. It’s great filmmaking from Garbus – and great singing and playing from Simone – that makes for one powerful cinematic biography.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015)
Like Cartel Land, above, much of the footage in this gripping account of the 93-day uprising in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2013-2014 comes from cameras that are embedded in the action. Using a variety of sources, filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky (Divorce: A Journey Through the Kids’ Eyes) takes us on a harrowing journey through a violent revolution. People are beaten and shot in front of us; some die, some survive. Blood flows on the streets. We start at day 90, with a dead body on the ground in front us, explosions and bullets everywhere, and then circle back to the beginning, where a narrator quickly explains the history of the last 20+ years of post-Soviet Ukrainian history, including the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which featured, like the new uprising, strongman Viktor Yanukovych as the villain. What’s that about history repeating itself?
Except that here, Ukrainian history repeats itself in a good way, as well. The citizens of Kiev refuse to accept the increasingly underhanded tactics of their (duly elected) leader, and so decide to do what they did in 2004; if they were successful then, why not now? But this time, the reprisals are violent, as we see unequivocally on screen. The people do not back down, however, no matter how much is thrown at them. As we move forward, day by day, we watch in horror as the situation goes from bad to worse. It is clear, though, that Yanukovych badly miscalculated the will of the electorate, as well as how much they hated his proposed alliance with Russian dictator – excuse me, President – Vladimir Putin. Ironically, given these Ukrainian-Russian tensions (and the crisis that followed the uprising), many of the Ukrainians in the movie still speak primarily in Russian (the film features a mix of both languages). Theirs is a tangled web, indeed, the strands of which are dealt with lucidly in this intense film. If there is one part of the movie that I did not like, it was the music. Its bombastic chords threaten to overwhelm the visuals, at times, and are completely unnecessary. The sounds from the street are dramatic enough.