These Documentary Features Are Worth Your Couch Time

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To prevent myself from ranting about my favourite film of 2017—Call Me By Your Name, thanks for asking—and why it should clean sweep at the Oscars but probably won’t, here’s another category of Oscar noms worthy of your time and couch minutes.

The Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature are in, and in the mix are doping scandals, a road trip across France with art icons, a murder victim turned suspect, New York’s smallest bank under threat, and The White Helmets of war-torn Syria. Is it surprising that Netflix-produced documentaries account for two of the five nominees? Given their colossal output and cash dollars to back such productions, probably not at all. While you never want to monopolise the market, Netflix spending in the general area of $7 billion on content last year’s nothing to heap shit on. So without further ado, here’s five films that have absolutely nothing to do with a coming of age love story set in 1980s Italy that should win every damn Oscar it was nominated for, but are great regardless.

Faces Places

Faces Places sees an unlikely friendship between French director Agnes Varda—also known as the ‘grandmother of French New Wave’—and French street artist JR team up, despite their 55 year age difference. The pair travel the French countryside in JR’s ‘Inside Out’ van, a vehicle he’s taken all over the world taking portraits of people which he then uses for large-scale street art projects. You may have seen JR’s work surrounding the Mexican/US border in recent times; in his project The Giant Picnic, he installed a dining table that stretched equal distances on either side of the border barrier, and invited people from both sides to join and have a meal. Successfully installing the table without the authorities shutting it down was no mean feat in itself, but to have a look at the image on top of the picnic table itself, from a bird’s eye view, is really something else. With this nomination, French director Agnes Varda has become the oldest and cutest Oscar nominee ever, at 89-years-of age.

Icarus

Perhaps the most well-known nominee of the bunch (thanks to its fixture on the Netflix homepage for a number of weeks), Icarus is like the sporting world’s Watergate. What began as a plan to spotlight the ease of which athletes like Lance Armstrong successfully cheated the system for a number of years, snowballed into uncovering one of the most elaborate doping ploys in the history of sport, care of Russia. Filmmaker Brian Fogel decides to pump himself full of performance-enhancing drugs and compete in France’s Haute Route (a bike race which he’d previously finished in fourteenth place, drug-free). By making himself human guinea pig, Fogel aimed to document not only the drugs’ affects on his performance, but to see if he could escape detection.

In his quest, he’s introduced to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Moscow’s anti-doping centre. The relationship the two form changes the course of the film, as Rodchenkov’s  lifelong involvement in state-sponsored doping is revealed, and he attempts to find refuge in the US as he prepares to become a whistleblower—with Fogel now playing the role of his defender. The thing’s a whole lot bigger than just winning some gold medals, and well worth a watch.

Last Men in Aleppo

Though not the first to make a documentary film based on war-ravaged Syria, Last Men in Aleppo is one of the best. I once had a university teacher who was a vocal Syrian activist, and most of our lessons revolved in some way around her home country. But, the full smack in the face about what was actually going on there didn’t happen until I saw video footage years later. Last Men in Aleppo is one such smack in the face, and one that everybody needs to front up for. As the title suggests, filmmakers Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed and Søren Steen Jespersen, document the lives of those who remain in the crumbling city, left to deal with daily military strikes, fires, and building collapses. Focused on volunteer rescue workers known as The White Helmets (also profiled in Netflix’s The White Helmets), it’s a gruelling account of the lengths these men will go to save the innocent people around them, and the torment of failed efforts.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Did you know that after the 2008 financial crisis, only one single bank was ever indicted on charges related to mortgage fraud—Abacus Federal Savings Bank. There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of it; Abacus is a small, family owned and run business that caters to the local community in Chinatown, NYC. Which, as this film attempts to prove, is the exact reason why they’ve become the target of the allegations, because if you’ve got to make an example of somebody, why not pick on the little guy? As it states in the trailer: “If you were gonna pick on a bank, family-owned company wedged between a couple of noodle shops in Chinatown… it’s about an easy target as you could possibly pick.” The film follows the journey of the Sung family, who are pulled into a five-year battle to prove their innocence against the powers that be. But they’ve got one thing on their side—a family full of lawyers.

Strong Island

Premiered at Sundance Film Festival, Strong Island tells the story of a 1992 murder of 24-year old black school teacher, William Ford. Shot in the chest by 19-year-old white mechanic Mark Reilly, the crime never went to trial and the killer was never convicted. An all-white grand jury ruled that the crime was a ‘justifiable shooting’ as a result of self-defence—sound familiar? Directed by Ford’s brother, Yance Ford, it’s a documentary that’s been 10 years in the making but, sadly, one that never lost its relevance. Less investigative (any attempts to dig deeper with authorities and officials were met with resistance) and more personal account, Yance takes us into the lives of a family crushed by the death of their son and brother. A difficult, but necessary watch.

Story By Monique Penning