The stakes for the heroic activists in David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague are life and death. Composed of archival footage from the 80’s and 90’s, France withholds who’s going to be alive when the film ends. Some of the more prominent leaders of Act Up, bright and vivacious in the past, don’t see their quest through to the end. The story of the LGBT men and women and their allies who spent years advocating for their community in the hunt for a treatment for HIV and AIDS is one of passion and protest and theatricality, but it’s primarily a story of people becoming capital-C Citizens, of motivated individuals, their brains and their hearts working as one, marshalling all the knowledge available on a subject and bludgeoning the unwieldy apparatuses of government and big business into tragically-belated action. This is a civics success story, but one built on the 8.2 million bodies who died before a reliable and safe treatment for AIDS could be put into practice. How to Survive a Plague contains the best and the worst of America, a bravura journalistic masterpiece that retains its anger 22 years from when its historical timeline ends.
The details of Buck Brannaman’s lifestyle are such that if he were a fictional character, no one would believe them. His childhood and his chosen profession are so inextricably linked that they would seem to spring out of the pen of a hack writer pounding away at Starbucks, taking a triumphant sip after tying up a character’s entire motivation. Cindy Meehl’s intimate documentary about Brannaman, the inspiration for Robert Redford’s titular character in The Horse Whisperer, works as well as it does because of its basic, elemental intuitiveness. Brannaman had a brutal childhood under the tyrannical rule of his abusive father. He gets taken in by a kind foster family and apprentices under a mentor who teaches him everything he knows about horsemanship. Brannaman’s specific history allows him to have a unique empathy for horses, having experienced the cruelty of physical punishment to get a creature to do what the holder of the whip wants it to do, and thus he can instantly diagnose and correct horse behavioral problems as if he were Doctor Doolittle. In Buck, Meehl frames this handy cause and effect circle as self-evident, and Brannaman embraces it as he tours the Western US, helping, in his words, ‘people with horse problems and horses with people problems.’
Brett Morgen splices together dozens of hours of previously-unseen footage of Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in 2017’s best documentary. Jane is devoted to ten years of Goodall’s early career, through her recruitment by famed paleontologist Louis Leakey and the successes and failures of her personal and professional life. Intercut with present-day Goodall putting wry cappers on events, the doc works as nature footage and excels as a first-hand account of misogyny within a family unit and in the whole of a society.
There’s documentaries that have grand scopes like 13th or No End in Sight and then there’s I Am Another You, a film about one man living on the margins. Made by Nanfu Wang, who injects herself into the proceedings and narrates over much of the film, the film follows a homeless young man named Dylan. For 80 minutes, Wang peels back Dylan’s layers, fooling both herself and the viewer about who this guy really is.
Give a little kid a pair of toy cars and they’ll probably contrive some way to smash them together. The big kid physicists of the illuminating Particle Fever are doing the same thing, only replace the cars with protons. In his documentary, director Mark Levinson chronicles the debates and preparation leading up to the first experiments using the Large Hadron Collider. The subjects he captures might communicate on blackboards in indecipherable mathematical languages, but they retain the raw sense of wonder they must’ve had as kids, smashing their toys into each other.
Modern media coverage guarantees that atrocities like mass shooting will now be covered for weeks, filling the public with dread and fear and morbid curiosity. The most recent (ugh) instance in Las Vegas shows no signs of abating two weeks later at the time of this review. In Keith Maitland’s meticulous reconstructing of the 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting, the opposite was true. Despite the deaths of 16 people and the wounding of three times that number, there isn’t much sense given to a national rending of garments. The Austin campus was open for class the following day. Any national examination is concentrated in the detailed memories and lasting trauma of the survivors, the heroes, and the bystanders. Maitland’s Tower uses rotoscoping animation to capture the deadly drama, allowing the viewer to relive an incident widely credited with being the fulcrum on which the depressingly routine cycle of US mass shootings rests.
The title of Sam Blair and Joe Martin's documentary Keep Quiet comes from an interview they conduct with a survivor of the Auschwitz death machine. She returned to her Hungarian home after the war, and found that the titular maxim was the best thing for her and her remaining family in a country that Adolph Eichmann said, at his trial, contained the most exuberant collaborators in rounding up Jews. She so closely stuck to her rules that her grandson, Csanad Szegedi, would help found a successful anti-Semitic fascist party in Hungary. Szegedi would live well into adulthood before he would take notice of the serial number tattoo on his grandmother's forearm. Keep Quiet is a bracing film with a foot in the present and a foot in the past, a reminder that the latter always informs the former. It's also a fascinatingly relevant picture of right-wing extremism, of the coded language and skillful, noxious messaging that continues to tap into the body politic's worst impulses.
Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house, has enough hits and great films to stand side by side with any other studio. Founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli has reliably cranked out masterpieces for thirty years, including My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Spirited Away. Masters work there, transporting viewers to magical realms and enrapturing them with pure emotional storytelling. In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Mami Sunada visits the grounds of Studio Ghibli to record the creation of Miyazaki's and Takahata's latest films. Sunada takes a Wiseman-esque fly on the wall approach, plopping her camera down, melting into the furniture, and recording the normal workings of Ghibli at an abnormal time. Luckily for her, Miyazaki is in a reflective mode, opining on his career and the state of Japan while he races to finish what may be his final film.
An activist documentary that avoids an alarmist view, Pandora's Promise doesn't end with calls to action, imploring the viewer to give to a non-profit or call their representatives. Instead, Robert Stone's film in praise of nuclear power has an 'everything's fine' tone, a welcome alternative to oft-bleak agitprop filmmaking. This academic film doesn't have villains caught in split-second journalistic photos leaving their corporate headquarters. Pandora's Promise offers the hope of its titular demigod, positing a world where radiation and greenhouse gases don't have to be let out into the atmosphere and everyone can get what they want in an environmentally-sound fashion. Stone does lean too far into near-shilling for the Exelon's of the world, as the picture he paints is too rosy to be wholly complete and accurate, but his film is a corrective to the oft-hysterical brand of environment docs.
Raoul Peck's incendiary documentary I Am Not Your Negro is 93 minutes of righteous invective mixed with shameful imagery. Based on novelist and gadfly James Baldwin's unfinished work on the murders of Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Peck intersperses Baldwin's written words (spoken by Samuel L. Jackson) with archival footage of Baldwin himself on chat shows in the 60's and 70's, speaking at length about the eternally-dismissed racial animus that has been with America since before its founding. Released in the period between the end of the country's first black president (which Baldwin might call a meaningless token) and the beginning of a president who said he would need to look into the KKK's views before he rejected their endorsement, it's difficult to imagine Peck's film coming at a more apt time. There are wannabe Nazi's marching in the streets, and in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck and Baldwin remind the viewer that is not a new phenomenon.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.