So Selena has already written a wonderful Top Ten post on Netflix Watch Instantly documentaries, but our documentary preferences are divergent enough that, despite writing this Top Ten blissfully unaware of hers, our lists have no cross-overs. Phew. And apparently Persephone attracts smart women since we’re all up in the Netflix documentary section.
Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I want to waste time watching TV and the only way to justify my laziness is by spinning it as “educational.” You’ll probably notice that I like political/social commentary documentaries–I think this is because I enjoy conflict. I love it when a person/group/government gets totally hammered and exposed as corrupt or misinformed or just plain not-cool. It evokes that comforting, warm, bilious feeling of schadenfreude in my esophagus region.
Without any further ado, the list:
1. American Teen (2008)
This documentary’s parody of the iconic Breakfast Club poster is what sold me. Teen follows five Warsaw, Indiana high school seniors through their final year of school, and accurately portrays the over-blown drama, the long stretches of boredom and the mythologizing of the post-high school future that characterize teenhood.
My one quibble is that three of the five kids shown are in the popular crowd, and of those, two of them are total snoozefests. Colin, The Jock, is under intense pressure to get a college basketball scholarship, but filmmakers apparently couldn’t milk more than a few seconds of emotion from him or his Cylon parents. And Mitch, The Hot One (I guess?), might as well be a blob of gum stuck to the underside of a desk for all the sparkling personality he shows.
The three other kids really make the movie–Megan is the nasty, manipulative, racist queen bee of the school, confirming my secret suspicion that the name “Megan” is the female equivalent of “Damien.” Jake is the acne-tortured, introverted band geek whose existence revolves around finding a steady girlfriend. And Hannah, by far my favorite, is the sensitive, artistic, charismatic girl who can’t wait to just get the hell out of Warsaw.
2. Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2006)
If you are trying to understand the machinations of credit card companies and mortgage brokers, or wondering how so many Americans could have fallen so deeply into debt, this documentary lays it all out. As I was watching this, I couldn’t help but think that the financial crisis of 2008 hadn’t even happened yet, but this film was already depicting elderly people losing their homes, college students who had racked up credit card debt committing suicide, and people simply disappearing when their debt became an insurmountable albatross. And there was documented evidence, back in 2006, that refinanciers accepted “X” signatures from mentally disabled people who almost certainly did not understand all the fine print in their contracts.
Maxed Out demonstrates that predatory lending and outrageous fees, among other contemporary hot-button topics, have been systemic problems for a long time.
3. Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices (2005)
This is one of my all-time favorites–the film interviews small business owners who have been bankrupted by Wal-Mart, but the most compelling interviews come from current and former employees, who range from lowly cashiers to high-ranking corporate honchos. They tell stories about anti-unionization, being forced to work long hours for no compensation, misogyny and racism at all levels of the company, and the gradual erosion of “benefits” that were measly to begin with. Also, I enjoyed this opportunity to shake my head at the Walton family, who are notoriously stingy with their billions and billions of smelly Wal-Mart money.
4. Food, Inc. (2008) and 5. The Future of Food (2004)
I stuck these together because they’re similar documentaries, in that both examine how corporate interests drive what type of food is cheap and readily available to the American public. Food, Inc. is a slick production featuring commentary by Michael Pollan, but I enjoyed The Future of Food more, probably because it’s a more focused film.
Future deals primarily with the Monsanto corporation and genetically engineered crops, specifically how Monsanto’s ties to the FDA and officials in the George W. Bush administration have enabled the corporation to patent its genetically modified seed (a protection never allowed to farmers with natural seed strains), which often spread and contaminate natural crops, leading Monsanto to sue any farmer whose fields contain even one plant with their GMO DNA.
6. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Anyone who thinks Wikileaks is analogous to the Pentagon Papers really needs to watch this. It initially inspired a lot of respect in me for Ellsberg, who has since fallen out of my personal graces due to his alignment with Julian Assange. Still, Dangerous is a great documentary and a powerful illustration of how a man can go from being a pro-war hawk to a peacenik who’s willing to risk life and liberty to inform the public how misled and mistreated they’ve been.
It’s easy to take for granted, in our information age, how simple it is to spread stories and “get the word out,” but Ellsberg had to go to great lengths to access the Pentagon Papers. He literally spent weeks making photocopies of each page at night before smuggling small portions out in a briefcase. It really is incredible to contemplate how much personal dedication went into his self-imposed mission, but I think what surprised me the most is how many Americans labeled him a traitor.
7. No Impact Man (2009)
This is one of the most entertaining documentaries I’ve ever seen–it definitely pushes my “Oh No They Didn’t!” and “This Can’t Be Happening” buttons. Michelle, Colin, and their toddler Isabella are a typical NYC yuppie, liberal family who decide to spend one year eliminating their carbon footprint in every possible way. Actually, Colin (who is unemployed and bored, I guess) decides to do this and drags Michelle and the too-young-to-care Isabella along. As a result, they eschew electricity and transportation of any but the human-powered kind, shop only at an organic, local farmer’s market, eat vegan, use cloth diapers, compost their trash in their apartment, and engage in all kinds of other green shenanigans.
Michelle and her obvious skepticism crack me up, particularly when, before starting the no-buying-new-clothes-for-a-year part of the plan, she goes out and purchases $400 Chloe boots. Also, she has to ride a scooter to work every day, including one day when it’s snowing heavily and she’s basically just dragging the scooter through snowdrifts.
The NYT has a really funny, scathing piece about them titled, “The Year Without Toilet Paper,” which is actually touched upon in the documentary (whoa, meta–so many sources of information colliding!). At the end of the film, I still thought Colin was a self-righteous weenie, but slightly less so than at the beginning.
8. Jesus Camp (2006)
Jesus Camp follows three young Christian kids as they attend a charismatic children’s camp led by Pentecostal children’s pastor Becky Fischer. I was expecting to be shocked by what I saw, but the film depicted childhood experiences not very far removed from mine–kids being indoctrinated with fiery rhetoric about hell and “saving the world” is not uncommon in evangelical spheres.
What’s most disturbing about Jesus Camp is not how “weird” the religion is–though there is speaking in tongues, lots of crying, lots of falling on the ground–but how insidiously politics and religion get mixed up. When you have kids reaching out their hands to pray over a cardboard cut-out of W., you might want to rethink the intersection of faith and public works.
I found one of the kids, Rachel, to be obnoxious in the way she passed out tracts to strangers and prayed over silly things like a bowling ball, but then I remembered what I was like at that age–completely devoted and unquestioning, fond of proselytizing. If I had to bet money, I would say Rachel will either abandon or significantly scale back her faith once she gets older and grows disillusioned with the church (or maybe I’m just projecting).
9. Street Fight (2005)
This political documentary is just riveting–it shows the brutal 2002 Newark, NJ mayoral fight between 30-year incumbent Sharpe James and Obama-like, inspiring newbie Cory Booker. The title is drawn from the fact that, unlike modern campaigns, James and Booker battle it out on the streets, stumping all over Newark in an attempt to sway residents accustomed to persuasive rhetoric, Bingo-and-breakfast fundraisers, and corruption at every turn.
Cory is supremely idealistic and likable, but James undercuts his campaign at every turn, questioning his “blackness” (Cory is a light-skinned African American while James is a darker-skinned African American), accusing him of being a Jew (?!), and busting his campaign manager at a local strip club. The fierce momentum never breaks, holding right up until Election day, when both campaigns send thousands of volunteers onto the streets to round up votes (the funniest scene in the film shows Sharpe James bussing in a bunch of paid “volunteers” from Philadephia, several of whom admit they don’t even know who they’re supposed to be supporting or why).
If you enjoy politics and like watching people fight and act ridiculous, this is definitely the documentary for you. It’s especially revealing in how Booker can’t campaign on actual issues, since the public seems tunes him out when he does, with the race coming down to who is more popular, who is more inspirational, and who does the most glad-handing.
10. The Education of Shelby Knox (2005)
If you like observing politics, teenagers in their angst-ey, natural habitats, and the direct effects of the morality wars on America’s youth, this documentary has it all. Shelby Knox is a 15-year-old resident of Lubbock, TX, which has some of the highest teen pregnancy and STD rates in the country, but officially endorses abstinence-only education. Despite being a True Love Waits-endorsing virgin, Shelby is active on Lubbock’s Youth Commission and campaigns passionately for comprehensive sex education.
The documentary covers nearly two years of Shelby’s life, and during that time we see her struggling over and over to reconcile her Christian faith with her desire to educate kids about sex and to see her GLBT friends be allowed to start a Gay-Straight Alliance. Other key players include the smarmy Youth Commission president (also a teen), Shelby’s well-intentioned, conservative parents, and my personal favorite, a bleach-haired, hyper-active Christian youth pastor who tells Shelby she’s too “tolerant” and regularly harasses teens on the streets about their sex lives. And you know he thinks he’s being “relatable” and “cool.”
I’d say Education is the best documentary I’ve watched all year–I identify very strongly with Shelby, as she’s essentially acting out my own adolescent awakening (though with far more verve than I ever did). Her inner turmoil constantly spills over into tears and confrontations with her parents, which I appreciated the filmmakers highlighting because it shows that embracing things the church condemns, like homosexuality and sex education for teens, is rarely a flip, easy decision. There are consequences, including being ostracized and judged, which are hard to bear up under.
So that’s the whole list, folks! Let me know your favorite documentaries in the comments.