The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll pick three non-fiction movies – classics, overlooked recent documentaries, and more – that will reward your time.
‘Luminous leaves’ (2004)
Stream it on Amazon (with a Fandor subscription), Kanopy, and Ovid.
The personal essay documentary is a fad that may seem navel-blue, but Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s Walk”) has a way of making his investigations of himself and his family disarming, accessible, and profound. In “Bright Leaves,” McElwee, a longtime Boston-area resident (he teaches film at Harvard), returns to his native North Carolina for a “periodic Southernness transfusion.” After the Civil War, his great-grandfather John Harvey McElwee made a killing growing a variety of tobacco called shiny leaf tobacco. But he may have been robbed of his fortune by a rival, James Buchanan Duke (whose father Duke University was named). McElwee learns from a cousin that a major movie, “Bright Leaf” (1950), starred Gary Cooper as a tobacco maker, possibly based on their great-grandfather.
Although John Harvey McElwee did not have lasting success, McElwee is concerned that his ancestor may have made a substantial contribution to tobacco addiction around the world. In voiceover, McElwee looks back on the fact that his grandfather, father and brother all became doctors: “John Harvey McElwee may not have left money to my ancestors, but by helping to hang the local population to tobacco, he left a kind of agro-pathological trust fund. The filmmaker questions the contradictory place of tobacco in the culture of the State. On the one hand, these glossy leaves are a source of beauty and a valuable economic institution. On the other, he visits patients who have become addicted to a product that his great-grandfather helped popularize. (In a dark and funny running joke, two of McElwee’s friends – a couple – repeatedly swear on camera to quit smoking but never succeed.)
The director also reflects on the film medium and how “Bright Leaf” itself might contain traces of documentary. He interviews actress Patricia Neal, who starred with Cooper in the film, and film theorist Vlada Petric, who playfully insists on rolling McElwee on a chair to give her segment a “kinesthetic” quality. When “Bright Leaves” performed at the New York Film Festival in 2003, McElwee informed audiences that he had shot it on film; by this time, the doc landscape was turning to cheap digital cameras. Today, “Bright Leaves” looks even more like a timeless film.
“The American sector” (2021)
Stream it on Apple TV, Kanopy, and Mubi.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, slabs of the barrier traveled around the world. In the experimental documentary “The American Sector” – shown at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival but overlooked amid the vagaries of pandemic film release – filmmakers Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez travel to around 40 locations across the United States in the aim to film images of all the pieces that have been found here.
Certain places (the State Department, the United Nations, the George HW Bush Presidential Library) make sense as final resting places for the remains of a historic Cold War symbol. Other sites are much stranger. One coin made its way to East Berlin, Pennsylvania, which was incorporated in the 19th century. Another piece is at an El stop in Chicago, apparently as a tribute to that neighborhood’s German roots (although as a former Chicago resident who lived near this train line, I can attest that many passers-by don’t. never notice it). Then there are spots that are downright surreal. What has a Hilton in Dallas, a restaurant in Georgia, or a Universal Orlando Resort done to deserve their landmarks?
Stephens and Velez ask people what the fragments mean to them. A private owner with his own segment in the Hollywood Hills considers the graffiti-covered wall to be some sort of work of art: “the largest canvas in modern history.” In some places the concrete wedges have acquired a new metaphorical freight. An immigrant from Los Angeles compares the wall – which she says is a migrant in its own right – to the barriers she had to overcome to build a life in the United States. A Cincinnati man, noting that the Berlin Wall memorial sits across the river from the former slave state of Kentucky, says the risks East Berliners took to cross to the West have a parallel with the experiences of black Americans. Two University of Virginia students wonder if the slice of the wall on this campus is a way for the university to nod to someone else’s story while avoiding discussing the his.
At 67 minutes, “The American Sector” is minimalist but airy. Like the stone that one appropriates, it invites the viewer to make their own interpretations.
“Course lost” (2021)
Stream it on Apple TV and Ovid.
Rarely does a documentary capture a whole cycle of idealism and disillusionment, but in “Lost Course,” one of last year’s most epic documentaries, Jill Li, a former video journalist directing her feature debut. footage, shows that she persists in following her story. it would shame many more experienced filmmakers. Spanning roughly half a decade, the film follows the uprising that took place in Wukan, China in 2011 when locals protested that village leaders improperly sold communal land.
The film traces the arcs of several leaders of the anti-corruption movement who have arisen in response. One is Xue Jinbo, or Bo, whose death in custody, an event that occurs early in the film, adds to the outcry. Other leaders of the movement, especially in the second half of the film (titled “After the Protests”), become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of bringing about change. One leader, who was jailed at the same time as Bo, resigns his deserved Reform seat on the village committee and sets up a tea room before eventually fleeing to New York. The film suggests he spoke after seeing “people take money.”
But the sharpest arc concerns Lin Zuluan, an older statesman among the protesters. After being elected director of the village committee at the end of the first semester, he seems to be undergoing a sort of camp change. Residents believe he hasn’t done enough to reclaim the land; he insists that it is a complex issue. It’s the kind of apparent character change that a documentary can only capture with real stamina; there would be no way to predict how he would behave at first. And for three hours, the filmmaker primarily allows her subjects to speak for themselves, using title cards to provide viewers with important context for the dense truth material she has collected. Casting a skeptical look at the possibility of democratic reforms in China, “Lost Course” is a grim illustration of the adage that you can’t fight town hall – or in this case, a village committee, if the committee is part of a much larger system.