Thought-Provoking Documentaries to Watch During Lockdown

Minding the Gap: An American Skateboarding Story (Bing Liu, 2018)

Director Bing Liu’s debut offering surprised him long before it surprised film fans at Sundance: originally planned to be a insight into former teen skateboarders all over America, Bing soon focused his search to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, when he found something of himself in the troubled young adults he filmed there.

Minding the Gap observes how young people – in this case, teenage boys – use skateboarding to escape their traumatic home lives. In the deprived town of Rockford, there is little else to do. Bing, returning for the first time since he started university, befriends Zack and Keire, who are both reluctantly reaching adulthood with no concrete plans for the future. Zack juggles fatherhood with a volatile relationship and drinking with his buddies. Keire seems lost, aimless. He spends a lot of time on his own.

When all else is shit, at least they still have skateboarding. Old footage of the boys skating in their youth – Bing, too – is intermixed with more scenic shots of them travelling through the almost deserted town on their boards. Meanwhile, Keire grudgingly gets a job, while Zack’s relationship is on the rocks again. Bing speaks to Nina, Zack’s on/off girlfriend, who admits that Zack has been violent towards her.

As the boys grow up, they grow apart. Zack moves away, hoping for a better life, but seems to keep falling into the same habits. Keire starts hanging out with some of his younger friends. Friends who appear to have some future plans.

What originally started as a story about skateboarders becomes a deeply touching tale of the lost youths of children that experience domestic violence, even touching on issues such as alcohol dependancy and systematic racism. (Proudly black Keire, who once used skateboarding as a means to escape his abusive father, has to deal with his white skater friends casually dropping the n word). It allows Bing to face his own childhood trauma in a heartbreaking interview with his mother, who was a victim at the hands of his late stepfather (as was he).

The ending of the documentary shows us some welcoming parallels. Bing finally has some closure. Zack seems to be working on his issues, and is in a steady relationship.  Earlier in the film, Keire comments that his shitty childhood had affected his becoming man, and, perhaps, halted him from moving on from his small town life. A while later -after a visit to his now deceased father’s grave – and he’s packing his bags, ready to leave home. His tearful embrace with mum tells us that this moment is bittersweet. A quick check on Keire’s social media suggests that a few years on, he’s doing good. Which, to anyone who’s seen the film, is really good to know.

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)

Four years after the singer’s tragic death, Asif Kapadia’s devastating film looked beyond the press photos and media speculation to give an in-depth look into the professional and personal life of Amy Winehouse.

Amy is compiled of over ten years worth of footage, from some of teenage Amy’s earliest performances to a clip of her last – only a month before her untimely death. Interviewed are countless friends, family members and acquaintances in the music industry, each giving their insight into the astonishing highs of her career, along with the lows of her personal struggles and rocky relationship with the media. (In the darker times of her life Amy’s sickly appearance was plastered over newspaper front pages, years before society really started to highlight the exploitative nature of the media and its effect on the mental health of celebrities).

However,  it isn’t just the newspapers that are to blame. Some of most devastating accounts come from Amy’s long-term friends, such as original manager Nick Shymansky and childhood pal Juliette Ashby, who seemingly just wanted to protect their friend. That said, as the film – and Amy’s career – develops, it becomes more and more apparent that few other people went to any lengths to try and help Amy. In fact, it was some if those closest to her that allowed her to sink further into depression and substance abuse.

It isn’t all lows. We also get to appreciate the artistic craft that went into the jazz singer’s work, and the surprising transparency she had when writing her life into her songs. Featured are previously unseen live performances and songs that never made it onto an album. Amongst all the intrigue that surrounded Amy’s personal life, it can be easy to forget the raw talent she possessed. Other milestones in her career included recording with the legendary Tony Bennett and winning Record of the Year at the Grammy’s. Sadly, it would appear Amy never saw herself worthy of the success she so greatly deserved.

Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017)

In another example of a documentary that started off following one story and evolved into something else, Bryan Fogel’s Netflix hit left viewers on the edge their sofas when it inadvertently unveiled a huge international doping scandal.

Fogel, inspired by Lance Armstrong’s shocking disqualification after being outed as having took performance enhancing drugs, originally documents his plans to win an amateur cycling competition by doping. When undergoing research to help achieve this, Fogel meets Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s anti-doping lab director, who prepares a doping regime for Fogel to follow, in order to achieve maximum effect without being detected by a drug test.

As the film develops, Rodchenkov reveals that he composes similar regimes for Russian Olympic athletes – paid for by the Russian government itself. While he has only been working there since 2010, it is to Rodchenkov’s knowledge that Russia has been doping it’s Olympians for decades in order to ensure medals.

As the media catch word of his claims, Rodchenkov moves to LA for his safety, where he details how, during the 2014 Olympic Games, he and his colleagues at the anti-doping lab swapped the athletes’ urine for clean samples as to pass drug tests falsely. Despite providing hard evidence and a detailed report, the Russian government deny all his claims.

Things become serious when several of Rodchenkov’s professional associates mysteriously pass away. At the end of the film, he remains for in protective custody, in the fear he will be silenced.

Jaw dropping and endlessly engaging, Icarus may not tell the story it once planned to, but instead shows us the power of one person who decides to tell the truth.

Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

If violent video games cause school shootings, then what else does, too? Just one of the questions Michael Moore set out to investigate in his 2002 film. The title refers to the Columbine massacre killers, who were claimed to have gone bowling the morning before they carried out the murders of 12 students and one teacher at their school. Over two hours, Moore investigates what causes so many shootings to happen in just one nation, and campaigns for businesses to have stricter policies on who they can sell guns and ammunition to.

As the title would suggest, much of Moore’s film centres on the Columbine High School Massacre, and the many theories of what could have been the blame for two teenage boys to shoot dozens of their classmates. And even if we knew the why, how? How did two underage boys manage to have guns, ammunition and explosives in their possession?

It’s an undeniable fact that America’s somewhat lenient gun laws would make it easier for these incidents to occur, but the same could be said for Canada, which had 165 gun-related-deaths in one year, compared to the US’ 11,127. Maybe violent movies and video games are encouraging society to mimic their content – and yet these same films are shown all over Europe, where no countries gun-related-death numbers seem to compare to America’s. There’s no obvious answers to Moore’s questions.

The most affecting parts of the documentary are those that tell the story of the victims, even those that survived. Moore accompanies several Columbine survivors to the headquarters of  department store Kmart, where they ask to return bullets purchased from the store – bullets that are still lodged in their bodies. A spokesperson for the company later announced that they would phase out selling ammunition in their stores.

In some cases, the perpetrator is a victim too, such as the six-year-old boy who shot to death a girl in his class. He had found the gun in his uncle’s house, where his mother was forced to house her children after being unable to keep up the rent on her own apartment. Possibly the most powerful moment of the whole film is Moore’s interview with the sheriff that took the boy into the custody, and, at the time of filming, still has a picture the child had drawn for him pinned to the wall of his office.

Despite the controversy following Bowling for Columbine’s release in 2002, not much has changed in America 20 years on, with two US school shootings since surpassing columbine’s death toll.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Nicole Newnhan, James LeBrecht, 2020)

From the 50s until 1977, a camp in the Catskills, New York housed countless teenagers each summer. Campers went swimming and played games; made new friends and hooked up in dark corner of dorms. Sounds like any teen summer camp at that time, the only difference being Camp Jened exclusively accommodated America’s disabled youth.

Crip Camp, directed by Nicole Newnhan and real-life camper Jim LeBrecht, looks at the events of the summer of ’71, when a progressive group of filmmakers documented the daily goings on at Camp Jened – with a then 15-year-old LeBrecht directing. Run by hippies, and only miles from where Woodstock had been held two years earlier, Camp Jened was a place where disabled teens could socialise, have fun, and, far away from their everyday reality of trying to fit in, be themselves.

It then goes on to follow some of the campers and counsellors as they go on to try to form independent adult lives, in a world that wasn’t built for them. LeBrecht, amongst others, goes to university, while former camp counsellor Judy Heumann becomes a key voice in the American disability civil rights movement.

Heumann and several others form organise Disabled in Action, and in 1972 shut down Madison Avenue in New York to protest President Nixon’s veto of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Five years later, groups of disabled activists occupy government buildings in several US cities, including a major sit-in led by Heumann in San Francisco, protesting Secretary of Health Joseph Califano’s failure to sign regulations of Section 504.

The sit-in organized by Heumann and fellow activist Kitty Cone proves very effective, eventually grabbing the attention of national news channels. As the weeks go on, protesters – some including quadriplegics, and those that require round-the-clock care – are supported by political and community groups such as the Black Panther Party and local gay and lesbian groups. After 26 days, Califano signs the regulations.

While this is a big step forward for disabled people all over America, it’s clear the activists’ work is far from done. The persevering, persistent nature of Heumann is inspiring.

The ending of Crip Camp reunites 1971 camp-goers such as Heumann and LeBrecht, as well as Denise Jacobsen (who’s dark sense of humour brings laughs throughout the film); the daughter of the late Steve Hoffman; and Lionel Je’Woodyard, an able-bodied counsellor who’s outlook on life was changed by his summer at Camp Jened. Other campers that have since passed away are remembered in the closing scenes.

It’s fair to say that while this group of people have achieved incredible success in their lifetimes, the sheer joy they feel just from being back at the site of Camp Jened, where it all started, is undeniable.

 

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