Autumn is upon us, and once again, as has become an odd sort of tradition on the blog, I find myself writing about having a documentary binge session. There’s something about the turning of this season that seems to bring on an urge to watch documentaries. And not just because we’re three quarters of the way through the year and I find myself looking at my progress towards whatever target for documentary watching that I’ve set myself that year with mild panic.
Autumn is the season of documentary watching for me, and this year is no exception.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Here’s a confession. I’ve never seen the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2006. I was aware of it – it was hard not to be – but I never saw it. Mostly because, well, I didn’t need convincing about climate change. We were a recycling, composting, growing our own vegetables, using energy saving light-bulbs type household when I was growing up. In general, I go to documentaries to learn about something I don’t know very much about. So I went to see the sequel – in the cinema no less – pretty much by accident.
The film is both deeply depressing and also surprisingly hopeful. The predictions for climate change from the original film turned out to be underestimations rather than overestimations. Everything has gotten much worse. But on the other hand, the innovations in renewable energy technology are really quite extraordinary, lighter and smaller and cheaper is the motto all round. As with a great deal of life in general at the moment, it could be summed up as: everything is terrible, but there is still hope.
Salute is a documentary about the background to one of the most iconic photographs of the 1960s – if not the entire 20th Century. That moment at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, on the winner’s podium after the men’s 200 metres final with Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing heads bowed, fist raised with Peter Norman wearing his Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with them.
It’s a very Australian film, but the advantage of that is that it doesn’t shy away from showing the civil rights movement in Australia. Nor does it shy away from providing the context of the protests and state violence that took place in Mexico City in the run up to the Olympics. The film doesn’t cover the aftermath of the protest in great detail – perhaps because the director feels that story has already been told – focusing instead on providing both historical and personal context for the three participants actions. Indeed all three men point out in different ways that there were lots of layers of meaning and nuance to the protest, but that no-one seem interest in hearing their reasons or letting them explain, being more interested in demanding ‘how dare they’. Perhaps that’s the driving motivation of the film, of giving them a platform to explain in their own words.
At the heart of the film, is the friendship formed between these three athletes, their shared athletic prowess – as of the film’s release, Peter Norman still held the Australian record he set that day – and their shared moment of protest that destroyed all three of their careers in athletics and agreement that it was worth it. That it made a difference.
It feels particularly relevant in the wake of the recent spate of sports protests in the states and the continuing disproportionate approbation that is being heaped on the athletes involved for acts of quiet, peaceful protest on a public stage. Everything old is new again.
Murder on a Sunday Morning
This one was a discovery from the Storyville archive. When I was looking up which year An Inconvenient Truth won the Best Documentary Oscar, I glanced at the rest of the list for the 2000s to see how many I’d actually seen and spotted this film. The name was familiar and when I went and checked the iPlayer I was pleased to discover that it was one of the films available. Though only until this weekend, which seemed like a sign to watch it, if ever there was one.
Once I got past the weirdness of the cameras in the courtroom element, it was a really engaging watch. It helps a lot that the Public Defender who we follow Patrick McGuiness through the trial is an engaging presence who appears genuinely righteously angry about the miscarriage of justice he’s fighting to keep from happening. (That he keeps investigating after he’s cleared his client to find who really did commit the murder, says a lot in his favour.) It also helps, in a way, that the police detectives on the stand are almost cartoonish in their smug complacency, if this was a docudrama you’d tell the actors to dial back the air of lazy entitledness one of them in particular exudes. It doesn’t seem to occur to them to actually have a strategy to properly defend themselves with. They fully expect the system to protect them.
The boy at the centre of the documentary, Brenton Butler, remains something of an enigma throughout the film – for obvious reasons, he isn’t interviewed – we see him through the eyes of his parents, his defence team and the police reports. The only time we hear his own words are as a witness on the stand, as a witness to his own mistreatment at the hands of the police. He comes across as quiet and polite, and more than anything, so very young. Strangely after all that we now know about the extent of police violence in the US, its not the photos of the bruises nor the testimony of intimidation and violence that was most disquieting, but rather the shots of this young boy – just fifteen years old – in shackles.
One of the toughest things about watching the film, in the light of the current political unrest in the states, and the recent visibility of wider police violence and the way it disproportionately targets African-Americans, is that this film was made in 2001. It’s not an obscure film – it won an Oscar for crying out loud – and yet this topic still gets an incredible amount of push back.
Speaking of Oscar winning documentaries, Inside Job won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2010. Given that I was following the crisis itself fairly closely – I’d not long graduated from university and was working in financial services call centres and watching the number of media jobs available reduce at a terrifying rate – and how much I’ve watched and read about it since, it’s unnerving how much new information I gleaned from this documentary and how furiously angry it still makes me. Perhaps it’s a side effect of having literally watched the value of people’s pensions drop, of having had people cry down the phone at me about their mortgages and being utterly helpless to help them. It’s so strange seeing the greed and entitlement of many of the financial advisors I dealt with on a day-to-day basis all those years ago, writ large on senior executives and regulators.
That bone deep frustration I had back then is evident throughout the film, almost every time we hear the director on camera pressing his line of questioning, as so many of his interviewees squirm and prevaricate, his frustration and incredulity is clear. This is a documentary that is politely and firmly, utterly furious, we should be too.