Documentaries (D)

Friday, 9:30 to 11:45 a.m., Library 3021

Allan Keown, Wade Brynelson

Once again, many outstanding documentaries continue to be produced. We shall draw our selections primarily from the recent finalists for the Oscars and Sundance Film Festival. Please watch for the specific titles in the Renaissance Recorder newsletter as well as here. In addition, we shall have a complete or nearly complete list of all 13 films ready for distribution at Rendezvous. This is a drop-in seminar with no sign-up or presentation requirements.

Sept. 4: Citizenfour
This is a 2014 documentary directed by Laura Poitras concerning Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards at which the 2015 Oscars were presented on Feb. 22. Shot in the cinema verité style, it had its U.S. premiere on Oct. 10, 2014, at the New York Film Festival and its UK premier on Oct. 17, 2014. In January 2013, Poitras started receiving anonymous encrypted e-mails from "CITIZENFOUR" who claimed to have evidence of illegal covert surveillance programs run by the NSA in collaboration with other intelligence agencies worldwide. Five months later, Poitras and reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill flew to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with the man who turned out to be Edward Snowden. She brought her camera with her, and the resulting film is history unfolding before our eyes. (116 mins.)
Sept. 11: The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
This 2014 film, one of the 15 finalists for nomination for the 2015 Oscar, features the story of programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz. From Swartz's help in the development of the basic Internet protocol RSS to his co-founding Reddit, his fingerprints are all over the Internet. But it was Swartz's groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that ensnared him in a two-year legal nightmare. It was a battle that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26. Aaron's story touched a nerve with people far beyond the online communities in which he was a celebrity. The film is a personal story about what we lose when we are tone deaf about technology and its relationship to our civil liberties. (105 mins.)
Sept. 18: The Last Days in Vietnam
This 2014 film directed by Rory Kennedy was one of five films nominated for the 2015 Oscar for Documentary Feature. During the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon as the panicked South Vietnamese people desperately attempted to escape. On the ground, American soldiers and diplomats confronted a moral quandary: whether to obey White House orders to evacuate only U.S. citizens or risk being charged with treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they could. With time running out and the city under fire, an unlikely group of heroes emerged as Americans and South Vietnamese took matters into their own hands. (98 mins.)
Sept. 25: The Kill Team
This 2014 film was one of the 15 finalists for nomination for the 2015 Oscar. It is a provocative, bold and deeply moving documentary that profiles Private Adam Winfield, a 21-year-old soldier in Afghanistan. After Winfield witnessed members of his platoon murder innocent civilians (by planting weapons on the corpses to make it appear as though they were terrorists), he attempted to alert the military to these heinous war crimes with the help of his father. But Winfield's pleas went unheeded. Left on his own and with threats to his life, Winfield was himself drawn into the moral abyss and forced to make a split-second decision that would change his life forever—demonstrating that the U.S Army would do anything to cover up those crimes. (79 mins.)
Oct. 2: The Overnighters
This 2014 film was both one of the 15 finalists for the nomination for the 2015 Oscar as well as a winner of the Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. A modern-day Grapes of Wrath, it is an intimate portrait of job-seekers desperately chasing the broken American Dream to the tiny oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota. With the town lacking the infrastructure to house the overflow of migrants, Pastor Jay Reinke starts a controversial "overnighters" program, allowing desperate workers a dorm and a counseling center. When his well-meaning project immediately runs into resistance from both his church and neighbors, he is forced to make a decision with shattering consequences that he never imagined. This film tells an electrifying story about the promise of redemption and the limits of compassion. (102 mins.)
Oct. 9: The Case against 8
This also is a 2014 film that was both one of the 15 finalists for the nomination for the 2015 Oscar and a Grand Jury Award winner for Directing at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. After the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that same-sex couples could marry, Proposition 8 was put on the ballot to amend the state constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. After that proposition passed, a group decided to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment. This film is a clear-eyed account of a tortuous civil-rights case that grips the audience from start to finish. It follows the efforts of the four plaintiffs and their attorneys, David Boies and Theodore Olson, over four years as the case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, winds its way through the courts—resulting in the United States Supreme Court declaring Proposition 8 to be violative of the federal constitution. It brilliantly distills the dense legal process into a lucid narrative while illuminating the human drama of the plaintiffs and, by extension, the countless gay men and women that they represent. It constitutes a stirring civil rights film that is both cogent and emotionally charged. (112 mins)
Oct. 16: GMO OMG
This 2014 film explores the question "Who controls the future of your food?" It examines the systematic corporate takeover and potential loss of humanity's most precious and ancient inheritance: seeds. Director Jeremy Seifert investigates how loss of seed diversity and corresponding laboratory assisted genetic alteration of food affects his young children, the health of our planet, and freedom of choice everywhere. GMO OMG follows one family's struggle to live and eat without participating in an unhealthy, unjust and destructive food system. In the film, the encroaching darkness of unknown health and environmental risks, chemical toxin and food monopoly meets with the light of a growing global movement to take back what we have lost. Is there still time to reclaim the purity of the global food system, protect biodiversity and save ourselves? (93 mins.)
Oct. 23: Code Black
In this 2014 film, physician Ryan McGarry gives his audience unprecedented access to America's busiest Emergency Department. Amidst real life-and-death situations, McGarry follows a dedicated team of charismatic, young doctors-in-training as they wrestle openly with both their ideals and the realities of saving lives in a complex and overburdened system. Their training ground and sources of inspiration is C-Booth, the Los Angeles County Hospital's legendary trauma bay and the birthplace of Emergency Medicine. There, "more people have died and more people have been saved than in any other square footage in the United States." Code Black offers a tense, doctor's-eye-view right into the heart of the healthcare debate, bringing us face to face with America's only 24/7 safety net. (82 mins.)
Oct. 30: Rich Hill
This 2014 film won the Grand Jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film festival. As compassionate as it is infuriating, it offers a sobering glimpse of American poverty. The setting, Rich Hill, Missouri, could be any of the countless small towns that blanket America's heartland. But to teenagers Andrew, Harley and Appachey, it is their home. As they ride their skateboards and go to football practice, they are like millions of other boys coming of age the world over. But faced with difficult circumstances—isolation, instability and parental unemployment—adolescence can be a daily struggle just to survive. With no road map and all evidence to the contrary, they cling to the hope that even they can live the American dream. The film is an irresistibly moving and inspirational portrait of the challenges, hopes and dreams of America's poverty-stricken youth. (91 mins.)
Nov. 6: Boyhood
This 2014 film had nominations in six categories in the 2014 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (won by Patricia Arquette). Epic in technical scale but breathlessly intimate in narrative scope, the film is a sprawling investigation of the human condition. It was filmed over 12 years from 2002 to 2013 with the same cast and is a groundbreaking story of growing up as seen through the eyes of a child named Mason, who literally grows up on screen before our eyes. It charts the rocky terrain of childhood like no other film has before. Snapshots of adolescence from road trips and family dinners to birthdays and graduations and all the moments in between become transcendent, set to a soundtrack spanning the years from Coldplay's Yellow to Arcade Fire's Deep Blue. The film is both a nostalgic time capsule of the recent past and an ode to growing up and parenting. Although it is not a documentary, it is impossible to watch Mason and his family without thinking about our own journeys. (165 mins.)
Nov. 13: Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory
This 2014 movie unexpectedly won the audience award, a Special Jury Prize, at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It is a profound film about our basic abilities as humans: communication and connections. Over a three-year period, filmmaker Michael Rosatto-Bennett followed Dan Cohen as he visited various nursing facilities on the East Coast. What takes place on screen is magical: people connected via iPods literally come to life after years of little to no recognition of people, their environment, and even their own adult children. It is no wonder that the Sundance audiences gave it loud, standing-ovation accolades each time it played at the festival. This truly is the best evidence of what Indie films are all about. (74 mins.)
Nov. 20: Keep On Keepin' On
This 2014 film one of the 15 finalists for nomination for the 2015 Oscar. It follows jazz legend Clark Terry over four years to document the mentorship between Terry and 23-year-old blind piano prodigy Justin Kaufman as the young man prepares to compete in an elite, international competition. Clark mentored Miles Davis as a young musician and is among the few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's bands. In the film, as Justin is invited to compete in an elite, international competition while battling terrible stage fright, Clark's health takes a critical turn for the worse. Over the course of filming, Clark loses his sight, which deepens his bond with Justin. As clocks tick, the audience is suddenly witness to two great friends tackling the toughest challenges of their interwoven lives. The film captures the passing of the torch from a cultural icon to potentially his last student, inspiring viewers in climatic, cinematic fashion. (86 mins.)
Nov. 27:
Thanksgiving Break; No Seminars.
Dec. 4: Life Itself
This 2014 film was one of the 15 finalists for nomination for the 2015 Oscar. Rich in detail and warmly affectionate, it recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert, a story that is by turns personal, funny, painful and transcendent. Based on his bestselling 2011 memoir of the same name, the film explores the legacy of Ebert's life from his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism at the Chicago Sun times to becoming one of the most influential cultural voices in America. It recounts his career highlights, his battle with alcohol, and his sometimes ruthless rivalry with fellow critic Gene Siskel. It garnered universal acclaim from critics. (120 mins.)

Two Bonus Selections (depending on interest and room availability)

Dec. 11: Merchants of Doubt
This 2014 film, assembled with energy and style, was inspired by the acclaimed book by American historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. It takes audiences on a satirically comedic, yet extremely illuminating ride into the heart of conjuring American spin, lifting the curtain on a secretive group of highly charismatic, silver-tongued pundits-for-hire who present themselves in the media as scientific authorities. To the contrary, they have been hired with the covert aim of spreading maximum confusion about well-studied public threats ranging from tobacco smoking, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and global warming. The film demonstrates that in each case "keeping the controversy alive" by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached was the basic strategy of those opposing any action to societal action to correct the tragedies. In particular, the film points to Fred Seitz, Fred Singer and a few other contrarian scientists who joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific consensus on many contemporary issues. (96 mins.)
Dec. 18: The Great Invisible
This is a 2014 film focused on the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion as seen through the eyes of oil executives, survivors and Gulf Coast residents who experienced it first-hand and then were left to pick up the pieces while the world moved on. It killed 11 workers and caused the worst oil spill in American history. The BP oil spill explosion still haunts the lives of those most intimately affected, even though the story has long ago faded from the front page. It is at once a fascinating corporate thriller, a heartbreaking human drama and a peek inside the walls of the secretive oil industry. The film is the first documentary feature to go beyond the media coverage to examine the crisis in depth. (92 mins.)