Documentaries Extraordinaire: the 12 Best and Most Powerful of 2014

There are few art forms that have the ability to provoke conversation, create awareness, and move audiences to action like film, and in particular, documentary. Through the intimate personal stories of people we recognize as ourselves, documentaries engage viewers on relevant social issues – give us a window into the most important and difficult topics of our times – in a way no other medium allows.

This year, there were a number of great political documentaries, some of which garnered plenty of attention and headlines (“Citizenfour,” “E-TEAM”), as well as smaller – but no less powerful – movies that few outside of film festival audiences saw (“Out in the Night,” “Limited Partnership”). This roundup includes documentaries that touch on issues from LGBT rights, to the consequences of war, to African-American civil rights, and more -- often through incredibly compelling storytelling and beautiful imagery.

Here are 12 of the very best political documentaries of 2014.

1) Concerning Violence: The understated beauty and devastating violence of Goran Hugo Olsson’s “tribute to and...illustration of” Frantz Fanon’s 1961 work The Wretched of the Earth makes for one of the most astounding watches of the year. Olsson has mined vintage archival footage, news clips and interviews to present “Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self Defence,” an unvarnished look at both the dire consequences of European colonialism across Africa and, the film suggests, the necessary violence of African decolonization and liberation struggles. With text from Fanon’s anti-colonialist work boldly presented on screen, and read by singer Lauryn Hill, “Concerning Violence” is a poetic -- and often elegiac -- encapsulation of the of wages of imperialism. These stretch far beyond Africa’s borders to “a former European colony” that, in its effort to replicate the European model, “succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.” Viewers moved by Olsson’s latest film should also check out his equally astonishing 2011 documentary “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.”



2) The Kill Team: “War is dirty. It’s not like how they portray it in movies where there’s a bunch of honorable men with unshakeable patriotism. It’s just a bunch of guys with guns.” Those are the words of Private Adam Winfield, a soldier who, despite attempting to report fellow members of his platoon for murdering innocent Afghan citizens, ultimately finds himself tried among the guilty. “The Kill Team,” the name given to the group by the media upon discovery of their crimes, follows Winfield’s account of the events and trial, where he must convince an Army court that he is a whistleblower, and not a willing accomplice. Director Dan Krauss has managed to attain remarkably candid interviews with Winfield and other soldiers involved, along with graphic images of their death tolls. The result is a documentary that reveals how war dehumanizes every life it touches.


3) The Overnighters: Thanks to a fracking boom, oil-rich Williston, North Dakota, has become an unlikely destination town -- a place to which desperate men travel in the hopes of escaping our long Great Depression. Though well-paying jobs are indeed plentiful, those who aren’t immediately hired often find themselves stuck, penniless and far from family. Local Pastor Jay Reinke has dedicated himself to providing these men with help, from hot meals to a parking lot where they can sleep in their cars. But as crime rates rise and his neighbors begin to push back against his charity, Reinke finds himself at the center of controversy, acrimony and hard decisions. “The Overnighters” offers thoughtful lessons about the illusion of the American dream, the increasing vulnerability of the working class, and the outsider dwelling within us all.


4) Evolution of a Criminal: At the age of 16, Darius Clarke Monroe walked out of his high school in the middle of the day, robbed a nearby bank with two friends, and returned to campus with more than $140,000 in cash. A star student enrolled in AP and honors classes, Monroe had been a highly sensitive and intuitive child, one acutely attuned to his parents’ endless struggle to make ends meet for their children. Though he would ultimately serve three years for his crime -- often spent picking cotton in Texas fields where slaves, no doubt, once carried out the same labor -- Monroe has settled his debt to society, but not to his conscience. Beautifully shot and edited, “Evolution of a Criminalis Monroe’s earnest attempt to make sense of, and atone for, a crime his younger self committed out of poverty-driven fear, despair and hopelessness.



5) Out in the Night: blair dorosh-walther’s debut documentary might be considered the ethical journalism the media itself failed to produce around the 2006 case of the “New Jersey Four,” a group of young black lesbian women convicted of assaulting a man who had physically and verbally attacked them on the street. Repeatedly and sensationally referred to as a “lesbian gang” and “wolf pack” in news coverage of the incident, the women were each handed lengthy sentences that are far greater incriminations of our criminal justice system than the actions the four took that night. With meticulous care, dorosh-walther looks at the vindicating evidence, a slow reveal that is often heartbreaking and confounding when juxtaposed with the women's prison convictions. “Out in the Night” is an insightful and illuminating look at the way misogyny, homophobia, heterosexism and institutional racism ensure an American system of perpetual criminal injustice.


6) The Internet's Own Boy: If “The Social Network” plays like a typical story of today’s technocracy -- one in which a young upstart uses his brilliance in service of gaining wealth and power -- “The Internet’s Own Boy” is the inversion of that story, an exception that, sadly, proves the rule. Aaron Swartz was an Internet pioneer whose love for computers and genius led him to develop an early version of Wikipedia at age 12; help create RSS at 14; in partnership with Lawrence Lessig, develop Creative Commons at 15; and by 19, co-found and sell Reddit for a small fortune. But instead of continuing to increase his personal wealth, Swartz turned to political activism, pushing for progressive policy change and fighting to keep the Internet an open, free source of information. “The Internet’s Own Boy” traces Swartz’s far-too-short life, from precocious young computer prodigy to government-pursued hacktivist. The film is a startling story of a talented visionary who, facing punishment that suggests the government decided to make a example of him at any cost, killed himself at just 26 years old.



7) Limited Partnership: In 1975, after legally marrying his Australian partner Tony Sullivan in Boulder, Colorado (a story that itself merits a documentary), Richard Adams filed an application to secure a green card for his new husband. In response, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service sent a letter on official letterhead that said, quote, “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots." Over the next 40 years, Sullivan and Adams fought to have their status as a married couple recognized by the American federal government. Their story, a decades-long battle that parallels the fight for gay civil rights itself, is an emotionally powerful, moving portrait of sacrifice and struggle -- and proof that no government can truly define love.  


8) Citizenfour: So much has been written about filmmaker Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden that, truth be told, it’s hard to find much new to add. It should be said that those who have been paying attention all along will find little in the way of new revelations about the NSA or government surveillance here. Much of what the film covers became public knowledge in 2013, just after Snowden went on the lam, revealing his identity to media through a brief video introduction that Poitras herself recorded. (And, going even further back, when the Patriot Act was first implemented in 2001.) Instead, “Citizenfourmight be better considered a character study, one in which we, along with reporter Glenn Greenwald and Poitras, spend ordinary moments in a hotel room with Snowden at an extraordinary time in his life -- the days just before he became internationally famous for orchestrating one of the largest intelligence leaks in American history.


9) Spies of Mississippi: "There’s America, there’s the South, and then there’s Mississippi," Lyndon B. Johnson once purportedly said, and Dawn Porter’s PBS documentary illuminates precisely the dark truth at the heart of the president’s words. In 1956, faced with legally-mandated racial desegregation following Brown vs. Board of Education, Mississippi established the Sovereignty Commission. Its stated goal was to “protect the sovereignty of the state...and her sister states.” In other words, to ward against federal intervention in the sinister system of racial discrimination disingenuously dubbed “the Mississippi way of life.” Led by the Governor, the agency served as the arm of state government dedicated to maintaining segregation and white supremacy. Porter’s documentary offers a fascinating look at the vast spy network the Commission developed, often using paid African-American informants -- many of them pillars of the black community -- to secretly spy and report on civil rights activities. The consequences of that surveillance would be wide-reaching, and ultimately included the tragic murders of three young civil rights workers in 1964.


10) E-Team: Some of the most atrocious war crimes committed -- the vicious and brutal murder of innocents, including children, by callous dictatorships -- would remain hidden from the world were it not for Human Rights Watch’s E-TEAM. This eponymously titled documentary follows the Emergency Team, a small cadre of bold and brave human rights activists who travel to Syria and Libya to investigate and document war crimes. Risking life and limb, the four members -- Peter Bouckaert, Fred Abrahams, and married couple Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang -- shine an international light on war crimes by sharing their intel with governments and media around the world.


11) Stray Dog: In 2010, filmmaker Debra Granik gave Ron “Stray Dog” Hall a small role in her narrative feature “Winter’s Bone,” a film which famously garnered numerous accolades and launched Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. With “Stray Dog,” she recenters her focus on documentary filmmaking and Hall, a biker and Vietnam vet whose burly exterior belies the gentle, heavy heart just beneath. Hall has dedicated his life to supporting other war veterans, even as he struggles with the deep wounds he himself carries from his own time in combat. Often accompanied by his wife, a recent Mexican immigrant whose sons he takes in as his own, Hall rides his chopper around the country, bringing comfort to other soldiers struggling with the emotional scars of war. Recounted in pure verité form, “Stray Dog” is a powerful illustration of one man’s attempt to save himself by saving as many others as he can.



12) Freedom Summer: Stanley Nelson’s documentary brings to vivid life Freedom Summer 1964, when hundreds of college students -- most of them white northerners -- traveled to Mississippi to work alongside black civil rights activists to register African-Americans to vote. The 10-week effort, organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and NAACP, helped reveal the intense brutality that black Mississippians faced for simply attempting to exercise their Constitutional right to vote. That violence and abuse -- carried out by a state government and law enforcement that essentially functioned as extensions of the Ku Klux Klan -- ultimately led to the brutal murders of activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The deaths of the latter two, who were white, created enough outrage to force the U.S. federal government, which had long looked the other way, to finally intervene.


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