.Critical Viewing: Essential documentaries to watch this summer

The documentary art form has evolved into an everyday tool to learn about and understand the world.

True, sometimes people just need to take a load off and melt their brains with a streaming bonanza of light summer television fare, not too challenging at the beach.

At times like these though, when the world around us challenges us everyday with its socio-political churn, where truth and understanding seem almost an idealistic fantasy, it could be that the slower pace of summer is exactly the right time to dig deeper into understanding the world around us, and to learn from the challenging work of others.

Curious about how the world works; looking to see beyond your everyday horizons? I spoke about the continuing importance of documentaries with the director of the Oakland International Film Festival (OIFF) and the founder and chief storyteller of TrimTab Media, which hosts a monthly documentary showing in partnership with the Sebastopol Film Documentary Festival and Rialto Cinemas.

David Roach, director of the OIFF, reflected on the role of the documentarian in being selective with material while not trimming the data to match their own preconceptions of the topic. “When the documentarian is really honest, [the film will include both] the good and the bad,” said Roach. “If [a filmmaker] is really … pursuing the truth, then truth comes out in the end. But if they come in with [a sense of] ‘this is how it is,’ then [they are] going to continue to perpetuate a view [based on a personal] motivation. That’s the wrong intention.”

Mischa Hedges, chief storyteller of the value-driven creative agency TrimTab media, spoke about the evolution of documentaries. “There’s always been this idea that documentaries [need to have] this objective fly-on-the wall format. [The truth is] we always interfere with our stories,” said Hedges. “Just our presence influences the stories that are being told.”

As a result, and thanks in part to new, much cheaper video technology, documentary filmmakers have turned to more intimate subjects. “We’re seeing a lot more personal films,” said Hedges. “[Films] made about people and their families. Often those are the most relevant because humans have a lot of the same issues in [our] lives.”

Here are some recommendations, from mainstream gems to hard to hunt down but totally worth it.

‘Reflection, a walk with water,’ directed by Emmett Brennan
In person and virtual screening on June 6 (Tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/cc/doc-night-157629)

Mischa Hedges recommends: “Reflection, a walk with water premiered last summer at Tribeca. It’s a journey film about [filmmaker Brennan] trying to understand California’s relationship with water … in the face of this multi-year mega drought. [I]t’s a really solution-oriented film, a very thoughtful, spacious film.” 

Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol will be hosting a screening on June 6 followed by a Q&A with the director about his creative process and making of the film. Virtual viewers will see the movie and Q&A along with the in-person audience in a live stream format. 

‘The Sun Rises in The East,’ directed by Tayo Giwa and Cynthia Gordy Giwa
Screening at the Oakland International Film Festival

David Roach recommends: “The Sun Rises in The East chronicles the birth, rise and legacy of ‘The East,’ a pan-African cultural organization founded in 1969 by teens and young adults in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY. Led by educator and activist Jitu Weusi, The East embodied Black self-determination, building more than a dozen institutions, including its own African-centered school, food co-op, news magazine, publisher, record label, restaurant, clothing shop and bookstore. The organization hosted world-famous jazz musicians and poets at its highly sought-after performance venue, and it served as an epicenter for political contemporaries such as the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the Congress of Afrikan People, as well as comrades across Africa and the Caribbean.

“In effect, The East built an independent Black nation in the heart of Central Brooklyn. The Sun Rises in The East is the first feature-length documentary to explore this inspiring story. The film also examines challenges that led to the organization’s eventual dissolution, including its gender politics, financial struggles and government surveillance. Featuring interviews with leaders of The East, historians and people who grew up in the organization as children, this film delivers an exhilarating and compelling vision, showing just how much is possible.”

‘Why Global Supply Chains May Never Be the Same, a WSJ Documentary’
Streaming on YouTube

It may be surprising to see a recommendation here for what is basically a news video from The Wall Street Journal, but viewers will find this piece to be riveting. Supply chain failures have been one of the broadest impacts of the pandemic, and this film helps us understand why. Beyond that, while following a single widget from manufacture to home delivery, the film takes the care to zoom in to the experience and challenges of workers at each link along the supply chain. Everyday working conditions are depicted with curiosity and empathy. This is a must see for anyone prone to ordering from Amazon.

‘Futbolistas 4 Life,’ directed by Jun Stinson
Rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/futbolistas4life

This 2018 film looks at how the beautiful game of soccer helped to heal a Latin community in Oakland under the shadow of deportation and separated families. The story follows an effort to build a soccer field in Fruitvale, Oakland to give the neighborhood players a place to play, come together and feel free. Soccer as an act of resistance. Keep some tissues handy for this gem.

‘An Ordinary Life,’ directed by Gili Danon, Efrat Shalom Danon
Rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/369757

Winner of the Best International Documentary Feature in last year’s Imagine This Women’s International Film Festival, this film contrasts the immigrant experience into Israel and Germany by following the treacherous journey of two friends with dreams of a better life. The film’s themes of refugee struggles, state immigration policy and redemption could not be more timely.

Learn more Oakland International Film Festival: https://www.oaklandfilmfestival.org
Sebastopol Doc Night:
https://www.eventbrite.com/cc/doc-night-157629

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