Streaming Suggestions is a month-by-month series of recommendations for film lovers and those interested in expanding their horizons.
While I assume most readers will have at least one of the popular streaming services, I understand that some don’t, so I have also included excellent free services such as Kanopy (UNSW), SBS on Demand, Vimeo and YouTube.
This month, I’m doing a focus on documentary filmmaking. I’ve found not enough people watch documentaries, and many that do, view them as simply educational videos rather than real films. So in this article, I’m highlighting some of the best documentary films and series available to stream, with a very liberal dose of Werner Herzog. Buckle up. Get your popcorn. Get your soda. Get your spaghetti and meatballs. This is gonna be a long list.
Louis Theroux Series - available as of 28 June 2020
Known for his faux-ingenuousness, Louis Theroux is one of the most consistent and provocative documentary-makers of his time. His body of work is (mostly) available on Stan, and is a really excellent introduction into subcultures, strange personalities, and mental illnesses. Beginning with ‘Weird Weekends’, Theroux’s earlier work on the subcultures of America (in retrospect) may be seen as amusing, if not a little juvenile. The Christianity, UFOs and Wrestling episodes of the series are especially funny, and are an enlightening perspective on the fringes of American society. A gradual change can be seen in his work post-Weird Weekends, into a more disciplined and mature approach to documentary-making, with more serious subject matters being tackled. His most interesting works include ‘Gambling in Law Vegas’, ‘A Place for Paedophiles’, and ‘The Most Hated Family in America’. Theroux’s most recent works are really touching pieces, and show a growth in his ability to tackle the profound realities of everyday life. ‘Extreme Love- Dementia’, ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ and ‘Edge of Life’ are real cinema, and their emotional resonance is deep (think: the opening scene of Pixar’s ‘Up’). A final recommendation for Louis Theroux’s work is in his retrospective documentary ‘Savile’. It explores Theroux’s relationship (and friendship) with one of the England’s worst sex offenders, Jimmy Savile, and the mistakes he had made when making the documentary ‘When Louis met Jimmy Savile’. He describes himself as gullible and discusses with Savile’s victims how the man was able to so extensively commit those horrendous crimes. Overall, Louis Theroux is an excellent documentarian, and his style is sui generis; this is a great place to get started in the world of documentaries.
“Whether it was Jesus or just the vibes of a good night out, I definitely felt something”
The Summit - available as of 28 June 2020
An exciting, fear-inducing documentary, 'The Summit' covers the events of the 2008 K2 disaster. K2 has been said to arguably be the most difficult of all mountains to climb, with its creeping glaciers and infamous ‘Bottleneck’. The K2 disaster was one of the worst in mountaineering history, and this documentary tells the story really well. ‘The Summit’ doesn’t have a great deal to say in terms of higher truths, but it is a fascinating exploration into this almost, sub-culture of mountain climbing, full of relatively foolish, and crazy people, willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of that elusive summit. The film is great at systematically recounting the heart-stopping events that happened in the disaster, using footage taken during the time, and re-enactments that work quite seamlessly. This has pretty much everything you’d ever want from a documentary on mountain-climbers. Equal parts horrifying, and touching, ‘The Summit’ is an engaging feature that touches on real tragedy. Definitely check this one out.
“Only the mountain knows”
Searching for Sugarman - available as of 28 June 2020
An excellent narrative documentary that covers the life of Rodriguez, one of the great, ‘undiscovered’ musicians of the 1970s. Malik Bendjelloul directs this film with a unique love for the music, something that can’t be faked. It was the only film he made before his passing in 2014, but it’s a sure-handed one. Gentle, unassuming, and always entertaining, Sugar Man will change the way you think about music, about people, and about legacy. This is one of the most touching, personal tributes to a great musician, and a rousing documentary.
“Sugar man you're the answer, that makes my questions disappear”
Hoop Dreams - available as of 28 June 2020
A parallel narrative documentary film, 'Hoop Dreams' follows two African-American students and their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. It’s an excellent sociological kind of documentary. We as an audience need to be aware, that by the very nature of the camera, things are changed. These boys’ lives are forever different when this film airs. How can they cope, what effect will this film have on their careers? Always, this needs to be considered when watching these types of documentaries, and it is especially interesting when one discovers what happened to the boys after the creation of the film. William Gates and Arthur Agee are the central characters in the film, both from poor African-American neighbourhoods (Gates having lived in Cabrini-Green, a similarly doomed housing project to Pruitt-Igoe). Their dreams of becoming professional basketball players from the very start, seem unlikely. One of them is a troubled kid, not much going for him except his basketball skills. This central premise is a compelling one, engaging the audience completely throughout the film, but the film is about more than their dreams, it’s about class structures in America, race, and the values of American Society. This film the perfect encapsulation and summation of American Life. Not ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, not ‘The Searchers’, and certainly not ‘Gone with the Wind’. It presents America in all of its glory and flaws. The American Dream, and the American Tragedy. What happens to the boys in this film? Where are they now? What happened to their dreams, aspirations, and desires? Let me just say, it’s neither a dream nor a tragedy. It’s never that easy.
“That's why when somebody say, "when you get to the NBA, don't forget about me", and that stuff. Well, I should've said to them, "if I don't make it, don't you forget about me."
I Am Not Your Negro - available as of 28 June 2020
Raoul Peck’s film is a singular piece of filmmaking. To even call it a film is to diminish it. It’s an abstraction and consolidation of James Baldwin’s life, his musings, his relationships and his feelings. It presents James Baldwin as a man, who was always ever in the background to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. He was older than them, but he outlived them and many of his peers. Peck’s film isn’t something to watch, feel a bit sad about the state of the world, and move on with. It’s a serious piece that affects one, a call to action to see that racism isn’t just that irrational hick down the road. It’s supported by an institutional framework, perpetuated by the silent acquiescence and manufactured consent of the many, to subjugate the relative ‘few’. Watch this.
“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n****r in the first place, because I'm not a n****r, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.”