With cinemas once again off limits for a fair chunk of the start of last year, I decided to make a concerted effort to catch up on at least a respectable chunk of the documentaries available on Netflix while I had the chance. As dubious as I’ve been about Netflix having gone on a campaign to make a name for themselves in both funding and distributing documentaries, I accept that the main way that most people see documentaries is on television. Even for a dedicated documentary feature film fan like myself, who regularly seeks out documentaries at film festivals, or even just my local art cinema, the vast majority of my documentary watching is on the small screen. (And realistically, as someone who doesn’t own a television that’s mostly been streamed, since around about the dawn of the iPlayer.) There are definitely documentaries that really benefit from being viewed on the big screen – Free Solo comes immediately to mind, and while I certainly enjoyed The Dawn Wall on the small screen I did wish I could have seen it full size – but in general it’s a genre that I’m happier to watch on the small screen than most others.
As the vast majority of US documentaries don’t make it to UK screens until they’ve been nominated for a major prize – in most cases unless they’re a break out hit, or they get an Oscar nomination, it’s unlikely they’ll show up here outside of the film festival circuit – my opinions on the Oscar documentary category will be shaped mostly by whether or not I liked the one nominated documentary I’ve actually seen, and catching up, despite my best efforts is often a frustratingly lost cause. But now, theoretically it should be easier to do, though I suppose I won’t really know until we get a ‘normal’ Oscar season where I can got hunting ahead of time and prepare to have opinions.
I’m delighted that feature documentaries are starting to gain their own cult audiences on streaming services. My Octopus Teacher was an utterly charming nature documentary that would likely have passed me by had not it been the topic of delighted water cooler chatter.
Oddly enough one of the best documentaries I saw all year was a 2004 film about percussionist Evelyn Glennie, Touch the Sound which had some genuinely gorgeous sound design. (Definitely worth putting the good headphones in for, though it’s quite an immersive, almost overwhelming experience through headphones, it’s well worth it, just maybe turn the sound down a bit to start with, that big drum at the start is a lot otherwise.) It was a really compelling look at an artist at work, and one of the best attempts I’ve encountered at using sound design to get the audience inside a musician’s head. I stumbled across it quite by accident while looking for something gentle to watch while feeling rather burnt out from the news cycle and it fit the bill admirably. Understated and very good at what it set out to do, highly recommended.
In the middle of December, I realised that I was five documentaries short of my target for the year – twenty feature length documentaries – and given that it’s become something a tradition for me to spend the last week or so of the year trying to cram as many feature documentaries in as possible, I decided to make a determined go at it. I ended up watching a run of documentaries that proved to be accidentally on a theme. This is particularly easy to do with Netflix as once you’ve finished a particular film it will immediately offer you more films that you are statistically likely to watch. In this case they were all already on my mental list of documentaries I wanted to watch, in what I thought of as two separate streams, but that proved to be interconnected.
The first stream was a three film run of films about social media manipulation. I started with Coded Bias which is largely about facial recognition and the problems of systems in the US being programmed by a largely homogenous group of programmers – mostly white and male – meaning that they often struggle to identify faces that aren’t widely represented amongst that group. It travels through the dangers of these supposedly ‘impartial systems’ simply absorbing the structural bias and discrimination inherent in the the data that they are trained on, onto the utterly dystopian ubiquity of facial recognition systems in China and their tie in with their social capital system. Then we had The Social Dilemma that was consuming so many column inches with arguments and counter arguments last year. It’s a bit…simplistic in it’s arguments, very didactic and a bit overdramatic – subtle in making it’s points this film is not – but it definitely makes it’s points clearly. Though for me, the real power to the arguments was in the number of interviewees who’d worked for these companies and left, lining up to admit that they’d tried to create something good and made a monster. There’s a particularly depressing sequence about a time when one of the contributors had essentially laid what they were doing wrong and the harms they were causing, his essay/manifesto had essentially gone viral within the company – with people all across it contacting him to thank him for saying ‘out loud’ what so many of them were thinking/fearing – yet within a couple of weeks everything was business as usual, corporate inertia winning the day. Which as someone working in news media, watching scandal after scandal be exposed to no real impact is relatable to a painful extent. The third film of this thread, that really tied both threads together for me, was The Great Hack on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s a film of many different faces, that clearly evolved as revelations from various whistle blowers come forward and investigations revealed further information that seem to sideswipe even the whistle blowers. At it’s heart its a film about the way that power and money corrupts and co-opts people and the dangers of hubris when combined with powerful new technologies. Taken together all these films feel like a parable of the dangers of thinking that you’re too smart to be fooled and that you can manipulate people to make them/society ‘better’. That is, after all the story of so many politicians, you start of wanting to make a better world and get co-opted into the system. Why would we think that political systems wouldn’t learn to co-opt social media to it’s own ends? The problem with ‘move fast and break things’ is that while sometimes you break things for the better, but sometimes you break things for the worse.
(It also ties into Knock Down the House on a different level because it’s star whistle blower had started out doing social media for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. Kaiser’s asked at one point how she ended up working for the Republicans and essentially her answer is that they were the ones willing to pay her. Her parents lost their home to medical debt, so she left non profit work and took a corporate job to help, and went down the rabbit hole. And if that story isn’t emblematic of all that’s rotten in the state of US politics I don’t know what is.)
The second stream was kicked off by Knock Down the House about first time candidates standing for congress during the 2018 US mid-term elections. All four of the candidates are women, from a diverse set of backgrounds, part of a wider movement not just to change red seats to blue, but to change the type of Democrat in congress in a bid for wider change. (It was particularly jarring to see Joe Manchin in the news just before Christmas proving just why they were campaigning so hard to unseat him in this film.) It’s quite fascinating to watch how these campaigns work at the grassroots level where they’re explicitly refusing corporate money so they aren’t beholden to anyone but their electors, in a system that is so very reliant on money. Though their use of social media to level the playing field in some ways definitely feels different in the aftermath of watching the other thread of films. And then it felt only right to take another run at The Edge of Democracy which I bounced off earlier in the year, that covers the dramatic upheavals in Brazil’s political scene over the last decade, with historical context. I hadn’t really expected this film to tie in quite so much with the rest of the films, but social media mobs and manipulation, along with creeping authoritarianism turns out to a big part of that story too. I found it particularly fascinating to see how late in the game Jair Bolsonaro came to the fore of the crisis the film depicts given his current prominence. It’s strange how differently both those films seem now after having seen The Great Hack than they would have been before that story came out.