BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:
Along the coast of Sicily stands a little seaport town of Lampedusa. This town seems like nothing special, but for 20 years, it has served as the landing ground for 400,000 refugees fleeing from Africa. In hopes of reaching Europe. And yet, the town seems unaffected by it. Fire at Sea looks at the daily routines of this little town and the town’s process of sorting out refugees.
The film bears familiarities with 4.1 Miles. Both have refugees being forced into overcrowded boats, many of which sink before they get there. Both show the heroics of Coast Guards rescuing these desperate people. What separates Fire at Sea from the short film is that we get to see what happens to the refugees after they are rescued. We see Somali Refugees put through a process where they are checked for illnesses and weapons. The officers wear contamination uniforms for the sake of safety. We also see how the refugees kill time. Most of them pray to Allah, while others sing gospel. All of them play soccer.
But most of the film focuses on the everyday lives of the locals. The film switches between a radio dj, a middle-aged woman, a scuba diver and a boy named Samuele. The boy gets the most attention, creating slingshots with his friend Mattias and sneaking around ruins. At times, editor Jacopo Quadri performs some clever transitions. One scene, we’ll see Samuele and Mattias playing in a desert, then we see walking in the distance. Cut to the diver in the ocean.
Gianfranco Rosi shoots moments with a sense of distance. I assume this is used to focus more on the beauty of the surroundings than the characters. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave the audience with much to connect with. And honestly, it’s very boring. This film seems to be trying to stretch a forty-minute film into a two-hour movie.
“The Story of the Negro in America is the story of America itself. And it is not a pretty story.”
In June 1979, renowned author and civil rights activist James Baldwin set up plans to write Remember This House, a novel based on his experience with civil rights activists Medgar Evens, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He never got past 30 pages. Director Raoul Peck brings those pages to life in I Am Not Your Negro, a cinematic video essay showcasing the genius of Baldwin.
Baldwin was fascinated by the idea these three activists had entirely different background that became the same up to the time of their deaths. He had personal connections with each person. He recalled his awkward first meeting with Malcolm X, investigating a murder with Evens and attending Dr. King’s funeral. Peck incorporates footage of these activists to give more insight into them and Baldwin. A perfect example is a host’s separate interviews with Dr. King and Malcolm X, which brilliantly contrasts Malcolm’s direct spitfire answers with King’s patient, thoughtful insights.
But Baldwin’s writing becomes about so much more. Through his discussions about these activists, Baldwin brings up a lot of themes centering around race. When he discusses Birmingham, he points out white people were shocked, but no black person was. “White people want to believe Birmingham is on Mars.” This brings up his main theme; He thinks’ the central problem isn’t racial hatred but apathy and ignorance. As he states “You don’t know what’s happening in the world because you don’t want to know.” He argues that for this country to grow, America needs to confront its atrocities.
Read by Samuel Jackson, Baldwin’s prose reveals a sense of poetry. There’s so much beauty to his writing that each sentence enchants you. “History is not the past, it is the present. We are our history.” We also see this power of words in footage of Baldwin in interviews and debates.
I Am Not Your Negro brings a lot for the audience to talk about, guaranteed.
Based on the book by Ron Suskind, Life, Animated is a look at both autism and the power Disney films have on our lives.
As a kid, Ron’s son Owen seemed like an average, happy kid. But then suddenly, at age 3, he becomes completely unresponsive. Turns out Owen has autism, and the doctors say he will never speak again. It seemed like they would never get through to their son. Then one day, while watching The Little Mermaid, Owen seems to mumble something. After a few minutes, the parents come to realize he’s trying to say “Just your voice”, a line from the movie. This launches an epiphany for the parents; they can connect with Owen through Disney movies. So, they connect with him using lines and characters from Disney movies. In one heartwarming scene, Ron uses an Iago puppet to ask Owen why he’s said. Though this technique, Owen reconnects with the outside world. Now in his mid-twenties, Owen is now more able to adjust with the adult world.
Along with helping Owen connect with the outside world, Director Roger Ross Williams also shows how Disney movies guides people like Owen in their lives. On the side, Owen hosts a meeting with other people with autism to discuss what lessons they learn from Disney movies. This eventually draws the attention of Jonathan Freeman (Jafar from Aladdin), who joins the class for a reading of Aladdin. But soon Owen learns there are some moments that Disney can’t explain, like a breakup.
The film also incorporates some animated scenes. The most notable is retelling Owen’s story of a boy finds himself in a world of Disney sidekicks.
The film drags a little near the end, focusing too much on Owen trying to get a job. Beyond that, this film is a heartwarming look at the struggles of raising a child with autism and the power movies can have on our lives.
This one is an unusual choice. It’s not so much a documentary as it is a five-part miniseries made for a sports channel. It’s surprising to see this here.
You may be asking, why is there a 5-part miniseries about OJ Simpson? The murder trials only take up two of the five episodes. What is there to say about him that requires 8 hours of screen time? Surprisingly a lot. Through OJ’s life, Director Ezra Edelman presents a detailed portrait of a man who isolated himself from his own race only to become a symbol of their oppression when he was put on trial.
The first part looks at his sports career. Growing up in the projects, OJ got his start as a running back for the City College of San Francisco’s football team before moving on up to the University of Southern California. This of course led to his success in the Buffalo Bills. With his rise to stardom, his managers used this opportunity to portray him as a non-threatening black man. One scene brilliantly uses an airline commercial to symbolize how OJ took to that role head on. At the same time, the civil rights movement was at its high point. Instead of using his fame as a platform, the documentary argues OJ created a bubble to isolate himself from these issues.
The second documentary focuses on his film career and his marriage to Nicole Brown. By moving to a mostly white Beverly Hills, OJ had widened his bubble. Around the 80s and the 90s, the black community of LA was severely targeted by racist, corrupt cops. Seeing horror stories from the unfortunate victims of corruption is heartbreaking, especially seeing destroyed homes. The anger over the corrupt cops had finally boiled over with the Rodney King verdict. From the acquittal of the cops, the people had finally had enough of the abuse and retaliated in the streets. Never once did OJ offer a word of support.
The documentary never says if it believes OJ committed the murder. What it does find him guilty of is domestic abuse. With a combination of 911 calls and testimony from Brown’s siblings, we get a picture of OJ as a controlling, jealous bully who constantly cheated on Nicole while putting her through a life of terror. Whenever Nicole tried to leave him, OJ would have her followed. Guilty or not, OJ did plant the seed to make him look guilty.
And then we get to the murder trial in episode three and four. You pretty much know the many infamous moments throughout, from the low speed car chase to the infamous gloves moment. What started out as a famous murder trial ended up become a call of Justice for the black community of LA. It’s ironic he became a symbol of black oppression after turning his back on them. We get a lot of interviews from members of both sides, with Ron Goldman’s father and attorney Marcia Clark on the persecuting side and F. Lee Bailey and Carl E. Douglas on the defending side. Again, the documentary never takes sides. What it does find is that this trial became bigger than anyone expected.
The last part looks at his life after the trial. During this time, he tried to stay relevant with both a prank show Juiced and the infamous book If I Did It. In the process, he turned himself into a self-parody, neglecting his kids in the process. And then in September 2007, Simpson broke into a hotel room and took sports memorabilia at gun point, claiming they were his. This literally makes Clark and Douglas go “What? Oh, come on?” during their interviews. As you may already know, he was found guilty and sentenced for 30 years. Considering the crime usually had a fifteen-year sentence. Douglas and other interviewers argue Simpson was given an extended sentence as retribution for being acquitted earlier.
For an eight-hour miniseries, OJ: Made in America kept me hooked for every second of it. Edelman uses OJ as a platform to discuss a variety of issues from racism and media to domestic abuse and justice.
From Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma comes a thorough investigation into the US Prison System and how it was used to disrupt communities, especially black communities.
The title refers to the 13th Amendment, which take the right to vote away from criminals. With the abolishment of slavery, politicians used this as a tool for oppressing freed slaves. Since criminals aren’t allowed to vote, governments can make up any law to arrest black people and force them into hard labour.
Some politicians have used the law to shut up protestors, especially when Richard Nixon started the war on drugs because, in his own words, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” The film also condemns politicians on both sides for placing unnecessarily harsh punishments in a misguided attempt to come off as tough on crime.
This is made even worst with for profit prisons, with many of them requiring prisons to be always full. What do you think will come out of this?
Fortunately, we are seeing growing support for prison reform. When Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz are on the same side about something, that’s a sign something needs to change. But with Trump, that reform’s going to a long journey.
Who Will Win?
The favorite winner is OJ: Made in America. Documentaries about celebrities usually score bonus points.  Plus, the film manages to look at racism and media coverage.
 See Amy and 50 Feet from Stardom