Contenders: Documentaries Offer Timely Takes on Current Events

As one of the wildest, most unpredictable, and most distressing election seasons in American history finally draws to a close this week, journalists and commentators can be forgiven for barely dragging themselves past the finish line. The endless contretemps between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump developed so quickly, with so many bizarre sudden scandals and shifts of momentum, that it was all but impossible to keep up: When it came to the election, late-night sketches, magazine covers, podcasts, and even TV news segments frequently risked becoming woefully out of date before they could even reach an audience.

Film, for obvious reasons, tends to have a far longer lag time when it comes to dealing with political issues. Yet this year’s crop of documentary contenders, for reasons both intentional and seemingly accidental, have provided more than adequate supplementary viewing for this historic election.

Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” released last month on Netflix after bowing at the New York Film Festival, is perhaps one of the most striking. DuVernay’s film traces the roots of everything from prison labor to myths of black criminality, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter, all the way back to an oddly worded clause in the titular Constitutional amendment. With interviewees ranging from former prison inmates to such academics as Jelani Cobb to conservative figures Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, the film has little trouble elucidating current ramifications of hundred-plus-year-old history.

A shocking late-film montage combines Donald Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward protesters with clips of brutality from the civil-rights demonstrations. The juxtapositions were so effective that a DNC staffer tweeted out a clip from the film, unattributed. DuVernay shot back on Twitter that her filmmaking was not intended “as political propaganda.” Indeed, the film trains its sights just as ruthlessly on Bill Clinton as on his GOP counterparts, and includes Hillary Clinton’s now infamous “superpredators” comments. “13th” is certainly not political propaganda; what it ultimately offers, to borrow Woodrow Wilson’s famous description of “Birth of a Nation,” which receives appropriately jaundiced discussion in the film, is current events written with lightning.

Much more unintentionally relevant to recent events is Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s “Weiner.” Following the disgraced New York congressman Anthony Weiner as he attempts to rebuild a political career derailed by his sexting misadventures, the directors were there to capture the inspiring flickers of a comeback story, only to then become witnesses to yet another collapse, as Weiner’s campaign was wracked by new revelations of impropriety.

If the film presented a first-hand view of farce turning to tragedy at its Sundance debut, the continuing rollout saw the story take an even more absurdist twist, as Weiner was accused of yet more texting impropriety, this time with a minor. The subsequent investigation led to a major election story in itself, when FBI director James Comey announced that new emails relating to its investigation of Clinton’s servers had surfaced. They arose due to the investigation into the latest affaire Weiner.

While the filmmakers couldn’t have possibly imagined how bizarrely intertwined Weiner’s story would become with the general election, the film makes for equally astounding and confounding viewing today. At times it does arouse a bemused sympathy for Weiner, who had the misfortune of having his most humiliating peccadillos exposed at the moment when the media were most primed to make the most of them. But the ultimate exasperation one feels with his misdeeds has only expanded into anger and disbelief at just how much damage one man’s personal failings can cause to ever-widening circles of innocent bystanders.

Damage to innocent bystanders, of a much more tragic nature, was also a theme with such documentaries as Kim A. Snyder’s “Newtown” and Keith Maitland’s “Tower.” The former tackles one of the most horrifying mass shootings in recent memory, that of Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre; the latter tackles one of the first mass shootings of the modern age, Charles Whitman’s 1966 clock tower shooting spree at the University of Texas. And both tackle their subjects in a manner that couldn’t be more removed from the stats heavy agitprop of “Bowling for Columbine” or its descendants. Snyder’s film adopts an almost fugue-like tone, interviewing and gently probing parents of Sandy Hook victims. Many of her subjects are in fact gun-control activists, but “Newtown” isn’t a film about policy, it’s a film about grief.

Whereas Snyder’s film sensitively sidesteps some of the more upsetting details of the shootings, Maitland’s film looks to make them feel newly visceral. Presenting survivor testimonies alongside re-creations of the fateful day crafted through Rotoscoped, mostly black-and-white animation, “Tower” brings every second of the attack into disquieting life. Aside from the harrowing details, the film also gives pause in the way it details how people reacted to the incident before mass shootings were such common occurrences — back when the phrases “active shooter” and “lockdown” were not part of the common parlance.

Both “Newtown” and “Tower” felt uneasily relevant after the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, and “Tower’s” festival bow was especially fraught with meaning — it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, within miles of the UT clock tower, several months before a new law went into effect that made concealed handguns legal on that very campus.

For all the instances of ISIS being used as a bloody punchline this year by candidates promising blunt military solutions to the war in Syria, two standout documentaries offered valuable context. Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” which is Italy’s first documentary to be entered as the country’s foreign-language Oscar contender, uses the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa as a microcosm of the refugee crisis. Rather than tackle the entire geopolitical matter, Rosi zeroes in on regular people — such as the island’s only doctor, or a fisherman’s son who becomes the film’s moral guide — as entry points into an overwhelming subject. Much closer to the conflict, Brian Oakes’ “Jim: The James Foley Story” introduces us to the journalist who became ISIS’ first American victim. After a year in which journalists were categorically derided to an alarming degree, it was instructive to be reminded of how much conflict-zone reporters risk to bring necessary stories to light, and sobering to see the scale of empathy expressed by a man who would have been the first to be forgiven for lacking it.

Though not explicitly political, it was difficult not to be reminded of election year narratives when watching docs including Alex Gibney’s “Zero Days,” which rings alarm bells for the looming threat of cyberwar, and Robert Kenner’s “Command and Control,” about a harrowing near-nuclear catastrophe in Damascus, Ark., in 1980.  A pair of abortion docs added needed context to an issue that was only discussed in its most cartoonish form during the presidential debates — Dawn Porter’s “Trapped” was an incisive look at the laws and governmental red-tape used to limit abortion access in certain states, while Tracy Droz Tragos’ “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” compiled more human-level accounts.

While a number of 2016 documentarians were shooting for posterity, Fisher Stevens’ comprehensive global warming documentary, “Before the Flood,” was strategically designed to be an election day companion. Following Leonardo DiCaprio on a tour of climate hot-spots, the film presents as visually engaging an account of the precarious state of the planet as one could hope for. The filmmakers released the film free just last week, hoping it would help to sway voters on the eve of balloting. Ironically, with all of the ridiculous and lurid controversies that have dominated election coverage, discussion of Planet Earth’s tenuous future inhabitability has barely made a ripple.

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