It’s widely accepted that 2016 was a crazy year, but in one sense, it was just the beginning. Think of 2016 as the year a bunch of trailers for movies dropped; 2017 is when those movies actually come out. Judging from what we’ve seen so far, they’re not good.
Documentaries, meanwhile, have long been an exceptional tool for education, and the best of them allow viewers to see an important subject for the first time or to see a familiar subject from a fresh angle. And education — about the way the world is, how it got that way, and what we can do about it — has never been more important. From the struggle for racial justice, the fight against homophobia, and the battle to end rape culture — each piece of the puzzle is as important as the other. So to help you get up to speed, here are a number of documentaries that will help you understand the world of 2017.
The Century of the Self (2002)
Produced as a four-part series for the BBC, Adam Curtis’s documentary aims, in his own words, to explain “how those in power have used [Sigmund] Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” Over the course of the series, Curtis traces the way that Freud’s notions of the individual as a pleasure-seeking machine whose every decision is rooted in some primal need have been co-opted by the government and big business. One of the strongest entries in Curtis’s now decadelong cycle of films explaining the 20th century, The Century of the Self interrogates contemporary understanding of freedom, and how and why that understanding has been exploited.
The basis for a very weird and often unsettling MTV show of the same name, Catfish has been the subject of controversy since it opened back in 2010. But for all its faults, Catfish does get at something very meaningful about contemporary life — the reasons that people deceive others on the internet. As the television show makes clear, many people who lie about their identity on the internet do it to harass or con others, but just as many do it because it facilitates a connection with others that they cannot manage in their real lives.
TRANSPARENCY AND PRIVACY
You may already have a firm opinion on Edward Snowden and his highly publicized leaks. But Citizenfour, which director Laura Poitras filmed before and during the initial breaks in his story, presents the most in-depth look at the man yet: In a series of lengthy, probing interviews, Snowden makes a powerful case against government spying and argues forcefully for a renewed commitment to personal privacy and governmental transparency.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)
A sort of companion piece to Citizenfour, The Internet’s Own Boy argues for both a freer, less restricted internet as well as a more transparent government. Told through the life of Aaron Swartz, a programming architect integral to the development of both RSS and Creative Commons, the film convincingly argues for freer information and government transparency. Through Swartz’s story ends in tragedy, The Internet’s Own Boy offers a hopeful vision for the efficacy of collective action and political organizing.
The Unknown Known (2013)
Like many of director Errol Morris’s documentaries, The Unknown Known is structured as a lengthy interview with its subject (in this case, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld). A spiritual sequel to Morris’s The Fog of War, The Unknown Known sees Rumsfeld attempt to present himself as a blasé, workaday fellow who has simply led a routine, if sometimes eventful, life. But the film is mostly instructive in the way that those in power can delude themselves and justify their mistakes to help themselves sleep at night. It allows us to see one of the Iraq War’s architects, advocates, and defenders for who he really is, and it allows us to understand the danger of putting in power people who cannot self-reflect — a timely lesson indeed.
Bitter Lake (2015)
Tracing American and British entanglements in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region back to a 1945 meeting between FDR and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, Bitter Lake features many of Adam Curtis’s signature themes: the chaos and uncertainty brought about by increasingly binary understanding of the world, the failures of assuming the free market is a universal solution, and the dangers of colonial action. The film goes a long way toward explaining why Saudi Arabia may have been exempted from Trump’s Muslim ban, and it also explores why Saudi Arabia remains a close ally in the region despite the predominance of Wahhabism (an ultraconservative fundamentalist sect of Islam) in the country.
Available to stream for U.K. residents on the BBC iPlayer. Everyone else may find what they’re looking for on YouTube.
Fatal Assistance (2013)
Filmed over the course of two years, Fatal Assistance sees I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck explore the efficacy of the humanitarian aid offered to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Peck details the vast sums of money spent trying to rebuild the country, and also how much of that money was ill spent. Here, Peck indicts many of the market-minded Western powers like the United States and France, and forcefully argues that a colonialist mind-set prevents these agencies and governments from making the decisions (or, better yet, allowing Haitians to make them) that would actually benefit the citizens of Haiti. It’s sobering reminder of the consequences of Western hubris.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
The House I Live In (2012)
Since Richard Nixon officially launched the war on drugs in 1971, drug use has skyrocketed, drug prices have cratered, and communities of color have been savaged by the institutions tasked with keeping them safe. Expertly directed by Eugene Jarecki, The House I Live In exposes the war on drugs as counterproductive and inhumane. While public opinion for the war on drugs sinks ever lower, it’s helpful to be reminded of its failings, to understand where it went wrong, and to understand possible alternative solutions.
Cartel Land (2015)
Like The House I Live In, Cartel Land addresses the thorny issue of the war on drugs. But rather than looking at why that program failed, Cartel Land explores the secondary effects of that failure. What are the consequences of such a disaster? In director Matthew Heineman’s estimation, the answer is: mass casualties, cartels that ravage Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border region, and racist vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to police that region. The film’s stories of cartel members, Mexicans struggling to defend themselves, and U.S. vigilantes are deeply felt, and could convince even the staunchest nonbeliever of the war on drugs’ myriad failures.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
While Vanguard of the Revolution has been fairly criticized for neglecting the Black Panther’s socialism and anti-capitalism, Stanley Nelson Jr.’s film does offer some incredible insight on the Panthers. It rejects the popular narrative that the Panthers were a violent organization, and it offers compelling evidence (which will no doubt be new to most viewers) of the FBI and police’s efforts to discredit and dismantle the organization, which included efforts to assassinate or falsely imprison its most prominent members.
The Black Power Mixtape: 1967–1975 (2011)
One of the few documentaries that stretches from Bobby Seale and MLK Jr. to Louis Farrakhan and Angela Davis, The Black Power Mixtape paints a comprehensive portrait of the Black Power movement in America. It offers insight into how this period and these leaders inspired and influenced some of today’s artists and activists, and it reveals just how long these periods of revolutionary struggle go on for. The work is not limited to a single demonstration, single person, single year, or even single decade — a valuable lesson for any period.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
“History is not the past,” Samuel L. Jackson narrates in this Oscar-nominated documentary, “it is the present.” With incredible nuance and skill, Raoul Peck revives the unparalleled author and critic James Baldwin, making the forceful argument that little has changed in the last 50 years. For many audience members, this might come as a no shit moment, but there is much to be gained from hearing Baldwin’s arguments articulated so poignantly, so passionately — and infinitely more to be gained for viewers for whom this may be a new realization.
How to Survive a Plague (2012)
In the late 1980s, gay men and women were forced to suffer incredible losses as friends and family, lovers and loved ones died by the thousands every single day from AIDS and HIV. As activist and playwright Larry Kramer says in the film: “We are in the middle of a fucking plague!” Directed by acclaimed journalist David France, How to Survive a Plague painfully details the height of the AIDS epidemic through archival footage and recent interviews with survivors. The film indicts the Reagan and Bush administrations for failing to combat the crisis, a delay that led to the deaths of millions. But for all of its explorations of hate and bigotry and malice, the film also details the rise of groups like ACT UP and TAG, and offers a powerful portrait of the good that direct action can accomplish.
Trapped takes its title from TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws, which impose restrictions on abortion clinics in an attempt to force them out of business. Following a number of abortion providers and clinic owners across the country, director Dawn Porter demonstrates the harmful effects of such laws. Through poignant and touching first-person accounts, the film traces the history of these laws, and it powerfully argues for the necessity of safe and legal abortion.
The Invisible War (2012)
For many viewers, the subject matter of The Invisible War will be routine and familiar. For others, it will be a revelation. Director Kirby Dick explores the prevalence of sexual assault and rape in the military, and how the culture of the military functions to obscure these crimes and punish the victims. Through interviews with survivors, activists, advocates, and military personnel, the film exposes the depth of the crisis while also detailing how it was allowed to fester.
The Hunting Ground (2015)
Years later, Kirby Dick once again tackles the subject of sexual assault, this time on college campuses. Like The Invisible War, it details how the organization of the modern university protects rapists and how academic institutions are incentivized to sweep crimes under the rug. Taken together, both The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War offer a microcosm of American rape culture, forcing viewers to reconsider how they understand sexual violence.
An inside look at former congressman, and alleged sex criminal, Anthony Weiner’s failed 2013 bid for New York City mayor, Weiner does one thing exceptionally well: It allows viewers to truly understand what running a political campaign is like. How much ego is involved, how much money is involved, how often that ego is gratified and that money rewarded, and, ultimately, how corroded our political culture has become as a result. The film does an excellent job exploring the current state of American politics, and how our obsessions with celebrity and with scandal have real consequences.
HOW THEY ALL COLLIDE TOGETHER
One of the most significant qualities of Ava DuVernay’s triumphant 13th is how succinctly it shapes its argument. DuVernay and her contributors tell the story of American racism and how it has molded institutions like prison and policing, artfully connecting the dots that link racism, capitalism, and American politics. The film lays out these facts in a clear and accessible way, and few will be unmoved by its harrowing sequences of contemporary racial violence.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Originally aired as a five-episode mini-series on ESPN, O.J. is less about the titular icon and his controversial murder trial than it is about the forces that allowed him to be acquitted. Taking as its true subject the complex of celebrity worship, classism, and racism, director Ezra Edelman explains why O.J. (who, the film implies, probably did it) could divorce himself from the black community and yet, in one moment, be held as one of its heroes; how he could commit a murder and get away with it. The film is epic in its scope, but it thoroughly explains how racial injustice and a legal system that privileges the rich work together to deprive the innocent of justice.
At nearly three hours, Adam Curtis’s most recent documentary makes the complex, and complicated, argument that the election of Donald Trump was the only possible conclusion to our current political atmosphere. Tracing this moment back through history, through Soviet science fiction, the rise of neoliberalism in the ’80s, and a political culture that attempts to boil everything to good and back, black and white, Curtis’s film is nothing less than sprawling. While not quite as cohesive as some of his earlier projects, the film incisively diagnoses the roots of many of 2017’s ills, and offers a number of tools to counter our potential descent into dystopia.
Available to stream for U.K. residents on the BBC iPlayer. Everyone else can find what they’re looking for on YouTube.