The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘We Come as Friends’ (2015)
Although the slight of Frederick Wiseman’s latest (“Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros”) will live in lasting shame, the Oscars have, broadly speaking, made progress in their best-documentary category, which in decades past was infamous for its omissions (“Hoop Dreams,” “The Thin Blue Line”) and aesthetic conservatism.
Still, even in recent years, few nominees have been as adventurous as Hubert Sauper’s “Darwin’s Nightmare” (2005), a free-flowing reflection on the economic exploitation of Tanzania that used the history of an invasive fish, the Nile perch, as the ultimate metaphor for colonial plundering. (The film lost to “March of the Penguins.”) “Darwin’s Nightmare” is not streaming, but Sauper’s equally galvanizing follow-up, “We Come as Friends,” is widely available.
In “We Come as Friends,” Sauper again adopts a science-fiction conceit, casting himself as a kind of alien invader. The film follows him as he pilots a small aircraft around Sudan before and after southern Sudan’s independence referendum, which was held in 2011. At one time, Sauper says in voice-over, the British had a desire to connect Africa’s north and south, and the French fantasized about possessing the continent from ocean to ocean. Now, another man says in a later audio clip, Sudan has “become the epicenter of a collision between America and China.” Sauper could hardly have asked for a more pointed scene than the one in which a group of Chinese oil workers muse on how space exploration might resemble the colonization of Africa while “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” play in the background.
The creation of South Sudan brings a fresh set of opportunities, although Sauper casts doubt on the idea that descending entrepreneurs have a genuine interest in ensuring prosperity for the residents, many of whom lack food and clean water. Sauper also spends time with a group of American missionaries who are partitioning the land in their own way. One says that the locals didn’t like a new fence because it cut into grazing land. But, he adds, “They got over it.”
‘The Hottest August’ (2019)
No, it isn’t August, or hot — but Brett Story’s latest documentary, “Union,” directed with Stephen Maing, just premiered at Sundance, and that makes it as good a time as any to revisit “The Hottest August,” her time capsule of life in New York in 2017.
Simply described, the movie consists of Story’s encounters with various people across the city that month. As in the similarly titled “Chronicle of a Summer,” Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s pioneering experiment in what they called “cinema-vérité,” Story asks the people she meets — beachgoers, Jazz Age cosplayers, a former cop and his buddy at a bar — about their lives, and particularly their hopes for the future. One woman doesn’t want to be single anymore. A recent college valedictorian is having trouble finding a job. A woman at what appears to be a class on bystander intervention expresses regret for not having done anything after seeing a woman in a hijab harassed on the street. A man who runs a business at which people smash objects for stress relief (“We get a lot of people just coming for guys’ night, girls’ night, date night, corporate event, stuff like that”) says that things have been busy.
The surface normality is suffused with anxiety. (Story gets something of a direct line to the city’s neuroses when she embeds her camera in a 311 call center.) There’s a sense that science fiction is turning into reality. A Staten Island resident still grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy dismisses it as a 100-year storm. The solar eclipse adds a touch of the surreal, while the movie’s metallic, “Sans Soleil”-style voice-over, quoting Zadie Smith, muses on climate change and the concept of a “new normal”: “We can’t even say the word ‘abnormal’ to each other out loud. It reminds us of what came before, the way season followed season.” In a sense, this pre-Covid movie has become an artifact of the old normal. As tense as the summer of 2017 may have been, it had nothing on the summer of 2020.
Another bold best-documentary Oscar nominee from a few years back, “Collective,” from the Romanian director Alexander Nanau, presents the tragedy at its center head-on, using footage from the event. A metal band finishes a song. From the stage, the singer acknowledges something that is not yet in frame. (“Something’s on fire here. That’s not part of the show.”) Soon concertgoers are rushing for the exits, and the Bucharest club, Colectiv, is consumed by flames.
Part of what is unsettling about the sequence is the audience’s dawning realization that it’s a flashback: Opening text has already informed viewers about what happened at Colectiv, and speeches by relatives of the victims have already been shown. The inferno also signals, incredibly, merely the beginning of the horrors in “Collective,” which is technically about the tragedy that happened after the fire. Several dozen burn patients died over the subsequent months; we are told that they “were kept in a known septic environment and exposed to some of the most resistant hospital bacteria in Europe.” And the story of how diluted disinfectant came to be used exposes layers of corruption so deep that no single cleansing could wipe them away.
Fittingly, “Collective” has more than one protagonist, although its principal hero is Catalin Tolontan, a journalist at a sports newspaper who asks tough questions of bureaucrats who appear used to having their official line parroted. (That it took a reporter at a sports daily, rather than at an ostensibly more serious newspaper, to pursue the story so doggedly is held up as another example of national dysfunction.)
There are also haunting scenes involving Tedy Ursuleanu, a victim of the fire who is shown learning to use a prosthetic hand. And the movie cautiously, skeptically finds another possible good guy in Vlad Voiculescu, a new health minister who seems to have a genuine interest in systemic reform. But his authority is limited, and others in power put him in their sights. “I am wondering if any of the measures I took will last,” he says in his final scene, before the movie proceeds to an abrupt, unexpected coda.