Nine, Because You May Have the Time: Documentaries Worth Watching
Strong, quality documentaries are also available on the streaming services, and worth our attention
In this digital information age, documentaries are a great way to explore particular subject matter, and keep abreast of what’s happening in the world. I’ve purposely refrained from touching on food, live music, and stand-up comedy specials, as while technically they may fall under the genre of documentaries, there are so many of them, they can fill up their own respective watchlists.
1) The Last Dance (Netflix)
It’s Michael Jordan, it’s the NBA in a month when the current season is on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 season, their 6th title and the 3rd year of their second 3-peat. And if you think it’s women dominating Netflix viewing, this one immediately shot up to #1 in the Philippines the very next day after the first two episodes of the scheduled ten dropped Monday, April 20. So expect this to lord the ratings until the last two episodes air on May 18, Monday.
And the first two episodes had a little of everything for everyone. Wonderful footage of Michael as a child, in high school, and his UNC career. By the second episode, we had our tragic figure, the grossly underpaid Scottie Pippen. So besides being a shot of basketball nostalgia, this ends up as a wonderful opportunity for all the kids wearing Air Jordans, but were born after 1999, to get an in-depth look at why Michael was so special.
2) Beastie Boys Story (Apple TV+)
This was dropped this April, and it’s got the pedigree of being directed, produced, and written by Spike Jonze. It basically takes Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz through their 40-year musical journey of fronting the Beastie Boys. Originally set to be premiered at the South by Southwest Festival, and to enjoy a limited release in IMAX theaters, it’s one of the films whose release was affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and ends up straight on a streaming service.
Formed in 1978 by Mike Diamond as the hardcore punk band The Young Aborigines, the band name was changed to Beastie Boys in 1981, along with a shift to hip hop music, and the entry of Horovitz. You can consider them one of the more successful examples of cultural appropriation, as the Beasties were the first rap record to top the Billboard 200, and have, in their career, sold over 20 million records. For those growing up in the 1980’s up to the first decade of this century, the Beasties form an integral part of their lives’ soundtracks. They officially disbanded in 2016.
3) Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak (Netflix)
Never let it be said that Netflix isn’t ready to drop the most topical of specials at any given time, and do its best to be ahead of the ‘curve’—giving its audiences the documentary series they didn't even know they wanted or needed. And the eerie truth is this dropped in early-January, and ends up predicting what would fall upon the world and reach staggering global proportions. Questioning the world’s readiness to cope with a fast-moving virus, the docuseries is informative, inspiring, and downright terrifying; given what’s happened since February of this year.
Designed as an inspirational series about the frontliners who historically, have had to face pandemics; it follows doctors, scientists, and disaster specialists. One hundred years since the Influenza Virus killed over 50 million people at a time when the world's population was just two billion people; and now, we have nearly eight billion populating Earth. Then, it uses the Ebola virus crisis in Africa as the one of the more recent outbreaks and debates about vaccinations, and the like. While it doesn’t directly address coronavirus, its relevance is in our face.
4) James May: Our Man in Japan (Amazon Prime)
Over the last decade, there’s been an upsurge of Filipino tourists being fascinated with Japan, and now that we’re reduced to armchair traveling, here’s one very unique travel documentary series. It’s James May, going the extra mile, to not just be a tourist from England, but a British bloke trying to fit in. And the Japan he explores is one that isn’t the usual one we experience in our packaged tours, but a deeper exploration of what makes the Japanese so Japanese.
An annual penis festival, spa toilets and toilet shower sprays, buying panties from a vending machine—there’s no end to May’s curiosity and trying to uncover what being Japanese is all about. The first episode is set in Hokkaido, the far North of Japan, where as May describes it, “the cold is causing rapidly retreating testicles.” Dog-sledding with Huskies is the order of the day; and he tries it out himself, describing how difficult it is to balance, and how it’s actually really tiring. For me, it was a wonderfully singular ‘window’ to Japan, a country I really enjoy visiting.
5) Icarus (Netflix)
Bryan Fogel is an amateur biker and has a great premise for this sports documentary. After the voice overs of Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong denying they’re ever taken performance-enhancing drugs or that they’ve ever failed doping tests, Bryan purposely goes into a doping program to prove how he can pass doping tests while still under the drug regimen. It’s an attempt to show how institutionalized the cheating of doping tests can be.
He uses a Russian doctor connected to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) after his UCLA American doctor backs out of the ‘experiment.’ From this crazy premise, the documentary becomes an inflammatory expose of doping in general, across all sports, and the Russian Olympic Sports program in particular. At the 90th Academy Awards (2018), Icarus won for Best Documentary Feature, and it’s easy to see why. It is science used wrongly as a way to foster national pride and extraordinary individual performances.
6) Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem & Madness (Netflix)
Big cat lovers in the USA, and whether they’re merely eccentrics or outright crazy people is the gist of this program. At one level, the Tiger King saga is about con artists, polygamy, rivalry of a different order, and revenge. At the center of the docuseries are Joe Exotic and his arch nemesis Carole Baskin. Exotic is a gun-toting, drug-addicted, gay zookeeper with over 187 big cats in his Oklahoma zoo. Baskin runs the Big Cat Rescue, professed to be an exotic cat sanctuary located in Tampa, Florida.
The highlight of the series is the revelation of how Exotic was charged with murder for hire as he plotted to have Baskin killed by a hitman; for all the trouble she was causing him, trying to break up his traveling zoo business. It’s white trash and madness on glorious display; and like a road accident, you can’t avert your eyes from watching the disaster and insanity unfold. Filmmaker Eric Goode makes a great case for disturbing behavior. As an epilogue, Joel McHale interviews some of the main figures presented in the series, in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
7) Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken (Amazon Prime)
Morgan Spurlock and his new chicken restaurant in central Ohio is the subject of this documentary. If you recall Spurlock and his first film, it was basically him going on a purely fast food diet and suffering extreme health problems because of the decision. With this film, he posits the question of whether things have actually changed since that first film, and has fast food actually gotten healthier. After all, McDonalds now has kale on their menu. Has fast food turned a corner?
And in the spirit of ‘find the truth and solve a problem, one best method is to be part of the problem,’ Spurlock starts his own fast food restaurant franchise. Staying realistic, and not going all out vegetarian or organic, Spurlock looks for the healthier option among mainstream meat consumption, and ends up with chicken. Also taking into consideration the quick lunch-fix habits of Americans, he sets out to create the healthier chicken sandwich. An interesting look at today’s food tastes, consumerism, and how marketing and advertising play their roles in popularizing a food concept.
8) Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)
Exploiting the millennial FOMO is a gold mine for any perceptive con man or huckster. This would be the theme behind this intriguing documentary Fyre, that charts the course set by Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, as they plan, promote, hype up, collect ticket and accommodation payments for, then miserably fail, in bringing the Fyre Music Festival to life. Anyone who’s been following social media, supermodels, music, and the next Big Thing, will remember this Fyre Festival fiasco.
It was Rapper/Music Artist collaborating with Entrepreneur/Promoter and promising what seemed to be the first of a once in a lifetime music experience, a Coachella that would be happening on the white sands of an island getaway in the Bahamas. Seemed like a recipe for Paradise for influencers, musicians, and all those who could afford the stiff package cost, and brag about being there. What really happened, why it became such a colossal disaster, and what Billy got up to while on parole, make for riveting viewing. Note that Hulu has their own version of the story.
9) One Child Nation (YouTube - Amazon Prime)
Nanyu Wang and Jialing Zhang are behind this eye-opener of a documentary. When Wang, who resides in the USA, gave birth to her daughter, she decided to head back to China to better understand the legacy of the One Child Policy that existed throughout China from 1979 to 2015. In fact, in 1982, the policy was written into the Constitution. Nanyu visits her mother and the small village that was her home. As it was in the rural areas, after Nanyu was born, her parents were allowed to have a second child after 5 years—when they had their hoped-for ‘glorious’ son.
The documentary fascinates as we examine the effect of the Policy on a whole 36 years of recent China history. Beyond the preference for male children, there’s the institutionalized sterilizations and abortions that would be carried out in the name of the Policy. A midwife comes on screen to talk about this dark period and how, in atonement, she now runs a fertility counseling service. Gripping and touching, without being overly dramatic or sentimental, this is a documentary that brings home a sobering lesson about a government’s control and policies.
Honorable Mention: American Factory (Netflix)
This documentary blows the lid off how global cooperation and business isn’t always a simple matter of synergies. It’s the first film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions. After a GM plant in Ohio shut down in 2008, it was bought, retooled, and reopened by Fuyao, a Chinese-owned glass company looking to expand in the USA. This won Best Documentary Feature at the 2020 Academy Awards and Independent Spirit Awards.
Utilizing a fly on the wall treatment, the documentary captures the sights and sounds of the plant as the Chinese owners took over; and at one point, faithfully records the vast cultural differences that exist between the Chinese supervisors and the American workers. The seeming incompatibility in work and business ethic, and the greater need for the two sides to understand each other, lie at the root of what makes this documentary so compelling.
Photos from IMdB