News & Politics

13 Great New Political Movies You Should Watch For

As the major festival circuit begins, the big political doc titles emerge. Here are some of our favorites.

Gay pride 1987, still from David France's "How to Survive a Plague"
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While the Oscars are often praised for bringing greater attention to political documentaries like Inside Job and Gasland, the Sundance Film Festival is where it begins. Something of a feeder fest, it plucks smaller features (and shorts!) and sets them on the path to more mainstream, commercial audiences, which benefits both filmmakers and the causes they seek to illuminate. In the mid-2000s, it was certainly lambasted for leaning too Hollywood — and fostering a Cannes-like celebrity atmosphere that distracted from its initial goal of helping independent films — but in recent years, festival directors have tried to rectify that, adding different programs, such as “Focus on Film,” that mean to bring it back to earth. Last year, Gasland, Restrepo, and Waiting for Superman all hit Sundance before they were nominated for Oscars (Restrepo won).

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The entries for next year’s Sundance were just announced, and typically there are a lot of great-sounding films on the roster. But more than in recent memory, the documentary selections are incredibly politically relevant — particularly in the economic area — with several focusing on topics that came to light this year, including the Fukushima nuclear plant and Occupy Wall Street. (Many of them, it should be noted, are directed by women.) This year’s roster got Indie Wire thinking ahead, wondering, “Will Sundance 2012 Docs Influence the Debate on Poverty, Hunger, Economic Equality?” It’s not a lofty projection — we saw how last year’s big docs brought important topics like short-shrifted education and oil greed to the forefront. Here’s a list of those documentaries, both American and international, that could shift this year’s thinking, and the ones we most want to see get awesome distribution deals.

1. We’re Not Broke (dir. Karin Hayes, Victoria Bruce)
And, we have our first Occupy Wall Street–related film. The directors have collaborated together before on a few award-winning pieces, including The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, which detailed the harrowing experience of the title subject, a Colombian presidential candidate who was held hostage by FARC for over six years. This one brings it closer to home, looking at the effects of corporations’ immoral overseas tax havens as average Americans struggle for their homes and lives. It’s not out officially until 2012, so there aren’t too many details beyond that bit of information and a few stills featuring OWS protesters, though it will allegedly feature US Uncut and focus on corporate tax evasion.

2. Detropia (dir. Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady)
Calling Detroit “the canary in the coal mine,” the filmmakers focus on the city’s loss of both manufacturing jobs (50 percent) and population (25 percent), and how its denizens are struggling to stay in a city on the verge of bankruptcy. Through it, they posit that Detroit is only the beginning, and that other major cities will follow as the “American dream” becomes a nightmare. Ewing and Grady, who were nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for Jesus Camp, follow the fates of several Detroiters who are holding on for dear life while trying to imagine some future of urban renewal. This film will debut at Sundance, but with Detroit’s mayor currently struggling to keep the city from the clutches of the state's nefarious emergency takeover laws, expect this topic and the city to stay in the news for 2012.

3. Finding North (dir. Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush)
This piece about who goes hungry in America and why looks like it might be a game changer in the style of Waiting for Superman: having gotten a hearty cosign by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, Finding North seems to posit a “return to policies of the 1970s” in order to remove the burden, and it also focuses on those hit hardest by the lack of access to affordable, healthy food: one in four children. Following three individuals affected, including a second-grader in Colorado and a third-grader in Mississippi, the film tries to shed light both on the impact of hunger for America’s future and why it’s even happening at all. Music fan bonus: The original soundtrack is performed by T-Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars.

4. The Queen of Versailles(dir. Lauren Greenfield)
Alluding to the obscenely opulent French monarch whose head was eventually lopped, Greenfield’s doc focuses on a very real, almost too perfect story of excess and economy. A billionaire family of real-estate magnates aspires to build the biggest house in America — a 90,000-square-foot abode modeled after Versailles — when the very boom and bubble that funded their project pops and stymies their dreams. Foreclosure is the guillotine in this tragedy. Filmed by an award-winning documentary photographer, the stills are compelling and the tale more so.

5. Payback (dir. Jennifer Baichwal)
Margaret Atwood’s best-selling book of the same name was the inspiration for this Canadian documentary, which focuses on the historical, cultural, and social impact of debt through the ages, and how it is, in her words, an “innate part of the human experience.” Of course, global economic meltdown is the locus of the film, which means expect plenty of Atwood’s “shadow side of wealth,” emphasis on the shadow. The film will premiere at Sundance, but to get a jump-start, listen to Atwood’s Massey lectures here, which provided the foundation for the book and, in turn, the doc.

6. Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (dir. Matthew Heineman, Susan Froemke)
Most of the films on this list are so new they don’t even have trailers, but the one with the most self-explanatory title does. The film features the dramatic exchange between President Obama and a hostile Republican Congress in the administration’s efforts to get Americans health care, of course, but goes deeper into the lobbyists and corporate powers whose pockets thrive on keeping people sick. Big pharma’s a target — and the burdened American is the victim. Escape Fire’s not finished yet and needs a big boost of funds to have it ready for Sundance. To help, donate on their Kickstarter account.

7. How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France)
The director, an award-winning journalist and chronicler of AIDS activism, pieced together never-before-seen archival footage of AIDS activists in the ’80s and ’90s, including ACT UP and the Lavender Hill Mob, to show how HIV went from a certain death sentence to what’s considered a manageable chronic disease by actually infiltrating government and pharmaceutical agencies. Rogue lifesavers! Not only that, he shows how these activists, many of them HIV-positive, broke down the social stigmas that followed the infection. Heartbreaking tagline: “They saved millions of lives — including many, though not all, of their own.” Naturally, the doc also looks at the fact that HIV infection is on the rise, most prominently, tragically, among young gay men.

8. The House I Live In (dir. Eugene Jarecki)
An examination of how the War on Drugs has decimated America’s impoverished communities and become the chief feeder into the prison industrial complex — while drugs flourish. Information beyond that is sparse, but Jarecki’s an accomplished and acclaimed director, responsible for Why We Fight,The Trials of Henry Kissinger, and Freakonomics.

9. The Invisible War(dir. Kirby Dick)
Female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than to be killed by enemy fire. Director Kirby Dick, whose 2005 documentary Twist of Faith focused on a man’s sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, delves into the social and political implications of this travesty, and the fact that it’s often covered up. The trailer features women who’ve been assaulted speaking about their experiences and shows what promises to be a tight, gripping investigation.

10. 1½ Revolution (dir. Omar Shargawi, Karim El Hakim)
As Tahrir Square erupted in revolution, the directors of this film were serendipitously in Cairo on another assignment. They ended up capturing footage that evaded most of the mainstream news media, intermingling with the military, taking the psychological gauge from street level — and were eventually arrested and beaten by the secret police. As one of this year’s most extraordinary world developments — and the zygote of the Arab Spring — the film’s view from the ground appears to be some of the best, and most real, footage to date.  

11. 5 Broken Cameras (dir. Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi)
A Palestininan villager — codirector Emad Burnat — chronicles the change in his community after his son is born, depicting an ever-encroaching barrier being erected by the Israeli military. “I had never thought of making films,” says Burnat in the trailer, “but when I started filming, I thought maybe there is a way to change the situation in which I live.” It’s a document of five years — a new camera per year — of settlements, and violence, in a once-peaceful enclave.

12. The Atomic States of America (dir. Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce)
Before Fukushima was rocked by the massive Japan earthquake of early 2011 — before they started finding radiation in baby food — the United States approved the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant in 32 years. This film explores communities located near plants, looks at the subsequent debate, and wonders whether it’s too risky. It premieres at Sundance, but early screenshots depict a stunning and terrifying American landscape marred by nuclear power plants situated dangerously close to where Americans live and work.

13. Chasing Ice (dir. Jeff Orlowski)
Climate change deniers will have no recourse against this one, which features time-lapse photography by National Geographic’s James Balog, documenting the receding of ancient Arctic glaciers over mere years. It also chronicles Balog’s own shift from a climate change skeptic to a passionate voice for the proof of its existence. He risks his life to place his special time-lapse cameras all over the Arctic, with a singular mind to provide evidence that global warming is all too real. (Feeling skeptical? Here’s Balog’s TED Talk.) Of note: This film’s writer, Mark Monroe, was also responsible for the devastating dolphin conservation documentary The Cove. With the recent debate over Discovery Channel’s now-rescinded censorshipover airing the terrifying, climate change–related finale of Frozen Planet, it’s clear that even the environmental community needs convincing, particularly since the rate of acceleration makes this something like Al Gore 5.0.

Sundance beginsJan. 19 in Park City, Utah. These films are generally made available shortly after screening, and most entrants usually get picked up for distro deals. Keep your eyes peeled. 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, the New York Times and various other magazines and websites.