From serious social commentary to truffle-hunting dogs, nonfiction movies are as vibrant and vital as ever.
By Alissa Wilkinson
Even in the best of years, great nonfiction films seem to have trouble breaking through the noise generated by their buzzier, star-studded fiction cousins. But documentaries come in every flavor and genre. And at a time when reality seems almost too hard to believe, they can have the effect of focusing our attention, by telling us what to look at and reminding us that the world is still out there, heartbreaking and beautiful.
The documentary boom of recent years means there are more nonfiction films than ever to pay attention to. And this year, at the (mostly virtual) fall film festivals, they took many forms worth watching. So here are 11 documentaries that premiered on the festival circuit to look out for in the months ahead, and how to watch them.
There have already been a few documentaries about the Covid-19 pandemic, and I expect many more in the years to come. But 76 Days will surely be remembered as one of the gutsiest, best, and, oddly, most hopeful. It was shot from inside a hospital in Wuhan, China, from the beginning of the outbreak until the city’s lockdown was lifted after 76 days. Even with the nurses and doctors in full PPE and patients struggling to survive from hospital beds, 76 Days manages to be funny and heart-racing, heartbreaking and humanizing — and it ends, improbably enough, on a note of hope. It’s a massive project (helmed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and an anonymous collaborator) that provides a glimpse into reality and an invaluable record of this moment.
How to watch it: 76 Days is awaiting distribution.
Frederick Wiseman is a legendary chronicler of American institutions (here’s a guide to his films) who’s spent more than five decades making lengthy, intimate portraits of everything from high schools to welfare offices to modeling offices to the New York Public Library. His last film was Monrovia, Indiana, and for his latest, he traveled back East. Wiseman spent weeks in Boston, anchored at City Hall, to make a film that mostly follows Mayor Marty Walsh as he crisscrosses the town to meet senior citizens in a church basement, veterans in a community hall, real estate developers in a hotel boardroom, and citizens at open-air rallies. Periodically, he floats away from Walsh to watch a wedding being performed, observe a budget presentation, or listen in as a committee dedicated to public housing reform debates how to prevent people from becoming unhoused. The result is not a portrait of a city, really. Refreshingly — and maybe even a little surprisingly — it’s a portrait of a government that actually seems to be working for its citizens.
How to watch it: City Hall will premiere in Film Forum’s virtual cinema (available nationwide) on October 28.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) zooms in on her aging father and her relationship with him as they both begin to come to terms with his inevitable, eventual passing; the result is as playful as it is painful. In some sequences, Johnson stages her father’s arrival in heaven. In others, we’re not sure if we’re looking at something that really happened or something the two have imagined. Some scenes are shot in cinéma vérité style, as Dick plays with his grandchildren, packs up his office after retiring, and talks about his late wife, Kirsten’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died several years ago. The film is an exercise in imagination and an inquiry into whether imagining the loss of a loved one and their hopes for the hereafter might magnify or blunt the blow of death when it finally comes.
How to watch it: Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.
You could say filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky is unconventional. His last film, Aquarela, was a portrait of water set to a soundtrack by the Finnish symphonic metal band Apocalyptica; his new film Gunda, executive-produced by Joaquin Phoenix, swaps out the massive scope and ear-splitting music for an intimate portrait of a pig and her piglets, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. There’s no dialogue; we just watch the animals go about their lives while we experience the quietly dawning recognition that these animals have real lives. Phoenix is an animal rights activist — as you may recall, he championed veganism when accepting his Best Actor Oscar for Joker earlier this year — and his interest in Gunda is no surprise. It’s a recognition of animals’ creatureliness and a quiet argument for their dignity.
How to watch it: Gunda will be distributed by Neon. It is awaiting a release date.
Her Socialist Smile
Helen Keller is probably best known, to most people, from Arthur Penn’s 1962 film The Miracle Worker, about Keller (played by Patty Duke) and her tutor Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), who helped Keller learn to communicate in an era when deafness and blindness would normally have consigned Keller to a life in the shadows. What might be less known is that Keller’s spent her adult life working as a vehement socialist activist, a participant in the women’s suffrage movement, an advocate for economic and social equality, and a take-no-prisoners lecturer who used her fame to advance her causes with clarity and force. Her Socialist Smile is an essay-style documentary that tells the story of Keller’s activism with images, narration, and onscreen text drawn from some of her speeches and writings. The film is fascinating — a portrait of a woman who has little to lose and is willing to give her all for what she believes in — and an important addition to Keller’s legacy.
How to watch it: Her Socialist Smile is awaiting distribution.
Michelle Latimer’s debut film Inconvenient Indian confronts — in stunning fashion — the colonization of the image and lives of Indigenous people in North America. Cinema is precisely the right medium in which to explore this topic, since the movies have often been responsible for lingering, pervasive views of “savage Indians” who are bloodthirsty and sub-human. By centering the voices of prominent Indigenous artists and activists, Inconvenient Indian counters the “savages” mythology with the truth of Indigenous life, targeting the narratives that colonizers have internalized and lived by and showing how they’ve been used to reify power, over and over again.
How to watch it: Inconvenient Indian is awaiting distribution.
Emmy winner Sam Pollard is a legend in documentary filmmaking; for MLK/FBI, he retreads the intersections between J. Edgar Hoover’s overreaching bureau and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the people around him. Through experts, photos, and a recounting of history, Pollard not only exposes the way law enforcement harassed and sought to take down King, but also shows the racist underpinnings beneath those efforts. And a series of historians weigh in on what will happen when, in 2027, the tapes the FBI recorded of King’s private calls with collaborators, family, and friends are unsealed, which may further reveal some shocking information about his private life and relationships. How should we think about his legacy? The answers aren’t easy, but MLK/FBI doesn’t try to pretend they are; it’s a film that leaves you thinking.
How to watch it: MLK/FBI was acquired by IFC Films and is scheduled for release in mid-January 2021.
No Ordinary Man
The 20th-century jazz icon Billy Tipton was a legend in the 1940s and ’50s, but his identity as a trans man wasn’t revealed until after his death in 1989, and it was a surprise to many around him, including his son. Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt tell his story in No Ordinary Man, which is both a moving portrait of and tribute to Tipton and an examination of how his legacy has shifted as cultural ideas about trans identities have changed. The film contains interviews with a number of trans artists who find Tipton especially meaningful in their lives; the moment when Tipton’s son discovers that his father is important to many people is worth the price of admission.
How to watch it: No Ordinary Man was acquired by Radiant Films and is awaiting a release date.
Gianfranco Rosi is one of the most visually adept directors alive, and his documentary work (including his Oscar-nominated 2016 film Fire at Sea) directs our attention to ordinary people who have been shoved to the margins of the world. For Notturno, he went to the Middle East, capturing scenes from the lives of people whose worlds have been interrupted and changed forever by war. Dwelling on the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon, he stays close to the individual people to collect gorgeous images and moments, drawing the common thread of humanity between them. It’s a sweeping work of care and one that is often piercing in its painful beauty.
How to watch it: Notturno is currently awaiting distribution.
The Truffle Hunters
Probably the most charming movie of the year, The Truffle Hunters unfolds as a series of vignettes documenting the lives of several older men and their dogs. They live in Piedmont, northern Italy, where they spend their lives hunting for rare and costly white Alba truffles in the forest. Nearly every frame of The Truffle Hunters is wide and steady, focusing on the men as they discuss business, talk to their beloved dogs, root around in the dirt, and take part in a simple way of life that, it’s clear, is slipping away. (We do occasionally get a dog’s-eye view, too.) It’s a sweet and simple movie with a healthy dose of bittersweet wistfulness for a fading world, and it’s beautiful.
How to watch it: The Truffle Hunters is scheduled for release on December 25, 2020.
Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the life that hope can provide. Garrett Bradley’s documentary follows Fox Rich, who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband Rob, from prison, where he’s been sentenced to spend 60 years following a youthful crime in which they were both involved. Meanwhile, Fox has been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community. All along, she has made videos at home, which feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates Black families in America, as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of narratives conceal the truth and pain of those separations.
How to watch it: Time opens in limited theaters on October 9 and begins streaming on Amazon Prime on October 16.