Three Essential Documentaries from the Month Of March (The Docs of March)
In a recent interview with NPR, Thom Powers, programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, said we are living through an “undeniable golden age for documentary filmmaking.” In January, “Knock Down the House” broke the Sundance Film Festival documentary sales record when it was sold to Netflix for $10 million. In the same month, Lifetime’s highly successful “Surviving R. Kelly” detailed the litany of horrifying allegations that dogged the singer for the past 25 years, prompting Kelly’s February indictment on 10 counts of criminal sexual abuse.
Both films demonstrate the newfound capacity of documentaries to not only succeed commercially, but also drive the national conversation and incite necessary and long overdue change. For decades, HBO has been an industry leader in documentary filmmaking, churning out several Oscar nominees and winners.
March was no different for the company. Here are four new documentaries that emerged in the last month exemplifying where the “golden age” of documentary filmmaking is headed.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley – HBO
In “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” director Alex Gibney details the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire — and current defendant in a pending federal criminal case.
Holmes was once at the helm of Theranos, a company she founded with the promise of its machines’ ability to quickly perform 200 types of blood tests from a single pin prick, no painful scary needle required. At its peak, the company employed 800 and was valued at $9 billion.
Unfortunately, Theranos was built on a baseless lie. Unbeknownst to the public, Holmes’ blood-testing technology did not work, and one of Silicon Valley’s greatest success stories turned out to be rooted in a lie.
Gibney tells the story of Holmes and Theranos through a careful array of interviews, voiceovers, CGI animations of needles piercing skin and soundbites of Holmes retroactively looking like a fool caught in the deluge of lies she tells on camera.
Entertaining and informative, “The Inventor” sheds a bright light on a fundamentally preposterous tale of mishandled ambition and overinflated ego.
Leaving Neverland- HBO
In “Leaving Neverland,” director Dan Reed tells the story of two men and their families: Wade Robson and James Safechuck. Throughout the film’s 240-minute run time, the two men recount their relationship with the late “King of Pop” Michael Jackson who was accused of years of sexual molestation and assault.
Despite recalling harrowing encounters with Jackson, Robson and Safechuck describe his techniques of predation, grooming and rape with a remarkable level of composure. In addition to the interviews, Reed makes use of various ephemera such as personal photographs, videos and calls with family members — most notably the men’s mothers — to share their own accounts of Jackson’s deceit and manipulation.
Reed’s work does not distract itself with delving into Jackson’s career and music, rather focusing on Robson’s and Safechuck’s recollections. Their courage is evident and their honesty gut-wrenching.
After its release, “Leaving Neverland” sparked a furious debate over Jackson’s legacy, with many reconsidering their fandom in light of the convincing portrait Reed paints of a manipulative, abusive and wholly evil Jackson.
Still, despite whatever flaws the documentary may have — and there are few, including a lengthy runtime that has drawn criticism — is worth taking the time to watch. “Leaving Neverland” does not force its viewer believe Robson’s and Safechuck’s confessionals, nor is it a retrial for Jackson. It simply allows its subjects to finally be heard. And considering the decades its taken them to tell their stories, it may be worth the required four hours to listen to their perspective
One Nation Under Stress– HBO
In “One Nation Under Stress,” directors Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson follow neurosurgeon and investigative journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta as he tries to answer the question: If the United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world, why is America experiencing decreased life expectancies?
Gupta’s answer is stress — an omnipresent and oppressive type of stress — which is revealed through interviews with various doctors, health professionals, experts and residents of rust-belt communities.
Gupta explores this particular form of stress in visits to Petrolia, Penn., where a recent plant closure has left many in the community — predominantly white and working class — feeling helpless and abandoned.
Gupta also speaks to health professionals in his home city of Atlanta to discuss disparities in health care between black and white populations as well as disproportionate social stresses faced by minority groups.
Throughout the documentary, Gupta displays an incredible level of empathy and concisely communicates complex medical concepts. He feels invested in, rather than separate from, the issues he confronts, thereby humanizing the film and emphasizing its relevance in light of the divisive political climate.
The Case Against Adnan Syed- HBO
In 2014, WBEZ’s podcast “Serial” told the story of Adnan Syed, a high school student convicted of the 1999 murder of fellow classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The podcast, hosted by Sarah Koenig, re-examined the the evidence surrounding Syed’s trial and ultimately led to his conviction pending retrial. The podcast erupted into a national phenomenon, while catapulting the genre of true crime into the stratosphere of American pop culture.
While Koenig’s “Serial” was groundbreaking and entertaining, it also left many questions unanswered. In HBO’s new four-part docuseries, “T0he Case Against Adnan Syed,” director Amy Berg revisits the case, uncovering the elements the podcast left unexplored.
Berg’s series retells the story of Lee’s murder with a sense of empathy that “Serial” lacked. The first delves into the back-story of Hae Min Lee, whose memory is largely illustrated as an afterthought in the podcast.
The attempt to paint a more expansive portrait of the story’s victim is admirable and well-intentioned, but it also feels as if the creators refused to let the story of the victim rest. In addition, Berg’s framing of Lee’s backstory does more to exonerate Syed rather than pay respect to Lee’s memory.
Many of those wrapped up in the commercial spectacle that was “Serial” finally get the opportunity to be heard, following years of their accounts remaining stagnant in online litigation. In the documentary, friends and witnesses who appeared in “Serial” describe how Koenig’s reporting effectively took over their lives, forcing them to relive the trauma of Lee’s death and Syed’s trial.
Still, the series is a welcomed companion to the critically acclaimed podcast and worth viewing if not for the third episode alone, where crucial cell-phone evidence is revisited and the racial dynamics between Baltimore’s Pakistani, Korean and black communities is further examined.