• James Kunovski

Best Documentaries of 2020

Their subjects include a disabled revolution, rotted governments, and the unlikely bond between an artist and a criminal, underscoring an unlikely and fairly strong year for documentaries. Through these wide-ranging topics, they mirror the importance of the craft, and in the process, revealed our shared experiences while opening the door to fruitful discussion and reflection. 2020 will naturally find itself a prominent subject for future docs but in the meantime, peruse these six methodical and illuminating documentaries from this stranger-than-fiction year.



Boys State



Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ play on the Texas Boys State building a representative government starts off with a quote by George Washington, no less, regarding the self-serving cogs of government and ends as a tale of benevolent heroes and villains, with a message as palpable as the beats of their very own marching band. At Boys State, thousands of teenagers converge and create two political parties to debate, campaign and libel their way into elected positions. The majority of participants have passion, discipline and a little bit of a “pissed off attitude.” At the centre of this show you’ll find a motley of characters including the bold René (“form an intramural basketball team,” he says to his critics), and follow the gubernatorial campaigns of progressive Steven and conservative Eddy. In addition to being unabashedly entertaining, the way in which Boys State reflects, in miniature form, the real-life political situation is always fascinating. The bubble of discourse and the devilishly strategic campaign trails dispense a kick to what one would assume to be a stale affair. At times feeling like a satire, it can be effortlessly funny although its ability to shift into a more disconcerting tone should not be discounted — in the end, however, it does have a warm beating heart, and as stakes rise, can be surprisingly emotional. In the clutter of today’s politics, seeing these concepts through the eyes of our future generation was refreshing and beneficial. Generous in what it shares and informs, there is enough to hold onto well after the screen blacks out. If this is our future, who would we vote for? Does that matter, or do their principles run deeper? Above all, Boys State supplies a jumping off point for discussion, or a two-hour romp for the less politically inclined; a saga of bipartisanship, and foe, and an allegory for the crux of modern politics’ simultaneously horrifying and hopeful core.


 

Collective



By the time Alexander Nanau’s explosive documentary has begun, the damage has already been done. A nightclub fire in Romania’s capital leads to protests that topple a government. A board of technocrats is appointed in lieu. That fire killed twenty-seven people but thirty-seven die in hospitals, some months after the tragedy. That discrepancy sparks fury in victims’ families and from there Collective becomes an appraisal of journalism’s strength, an indictment of deep-rooted corruption and an unvarnished look at politics. Nanau spends his time with a trifecta of press, government and victims. Included are “Sports Gazette” journalists Catalin Tolontan and Mirela Neag, who surface a wave of rot stemming from diluted disinfectant. The vehement attitude of journalists confronting their government feels cataclysmic. Considering the power in their actions, for a film as “loud” as this, there are many moments of still air, where officials and journalists quietly study each other with insight, defeat and desperation. For these microcosm of voices, the arc to moral justice is long. Heralded as one of 2020’s crowning achievements in documentary-form, Collective is far from the feel-good movie of the year, but a compelling and often gruelling watch that buries itself in the pit of your stomach. With its attention to the throes of political corruption, it is deeply current, potent and consequently, essential viewing.


 

Crip Camp



Everyone knows about the Woodstock Festival that ignited Upstate New York, signifying the countercultural explosion of that decade. Lesser known is the smaller communion down the road, known as Camp Jened and its attendees who were about to spark their own movement. Revolutions begin with grassroots passion in James Lebrecht (a former camper) and Nicole Newnham’s exploration of a summer camp for the disabled and how a humble sense of community and belonging led to the ironclad guard of Washington, D.C. The filmmaking duo beautifully blend splices of daily camp life — where humour and personality can blossom, free from the preying and misunderstood eyes of the public — with interviews of the alumni. As the troupe move forward with their political aspirations, from San Francisco sit-ins to DC, with the indomitable Judith Heumann at the helm, their fight for accessibility rights hearkens back to their time at Jened and the connections they formed. By shining a light on this forgotten fight for equality in the midst of 1970s’ political idealism, it shares a rousing story of the human spirit. And what a joy to be introduced to Heumann and her co-campers; to witness where they were empowered, why they united and how they planted the seeds of a movement for the greater good. It feels like a call-to-action.


 

Dick Johnson is Dead



By confronting the inevitability of ailment and mortality, Kirsten Johnson paves a sometimes surreal, oft-droll but ultimately moving love letter to her elderly father, in this Sundance-crowned, Netflix release. Retired psychologist Dick Johnson suffers from dementia, and although he feels about the same, (his response to a doctor’s cognitive question), his results have worsened. His wife, who appeared in Johnson’s autobiographical Cameraperson passed to Alzheimer’s, and in Kirsten’s words, the idea of losing her father would be “too much to bear.” As things get sadder, Johnson diverts from a more traditional, existential setup and mounts an experiment. In order to tackle an aura of morbidity, she stages “fake deaths” and a glitzy version of heaven — her father’s willingness to go along with the idea is heart-warming. Simultaneously joyous and mournful, like the archetype of tragicomedy, Dick Johnson’s laugh and his sense of humour persist as strongly as his expedition of life. Both Johnsons face our final process in life with dignity, courage and absurd comedy — this film may grant them personal meaning but it ignites on a cerebral, more universal and cathartic level. Film, and especially documentary-making empathetically edifies and immortalises our present. With that in mind, Dick Johnson and his eponymous and candid profile, regardless of the film’s morbid core, are infinite.


 

The Painter and the Thief



Benjamin Ree’s boundary-breaking documentary about a Czech artist who forms a friendship with the man who stole her paintings opens in the most sensible and likely manner. We see CCTV footage of “thief” Bertil and an accomplice breaking into the gallery where two of “painter” Barbora Kysilkova’s works are on display. In broad daylight, they trip the door and walk out with her canvases, both rolled up under their arms, and that is that. What follows is a diversion of the documentary form, an intriguing look at human reasoning and a complete cycle of the process of relationships. Director Ree is able to get incredibly close to his subjects — the first meeting between painter and thief is revealed in candid sway. The amount they share in his presence is staggering. Perhaps there is a degree of premeditation but through those frosted lines, inward emotions are formed. Most people interested in an investigative or criminal profile may find themselves disappointed though that void is filled by an intense study of human’s sometimes fragile foundation, our temperament to be seen, and heard, and our empathetic and compassionate cores. Barbora’s disposition — urgently needing inspiration despite the risk of jeopardy can be frustrating, as can the descent of Bertil, but Ree nicely wraps up both sides in a deeply satisfying move that blossoms in the third act. The Painter and the Thief is the type of unassuming documentary that grips you with a subtle and unspeakable power and strikingly pulls itself apart, and back together, stronger before, all-the-while letting the audience reel in that memorable final shot.


 

Time



What does time mean to you? “Time is influenced by our emotions, it is influenced by our actions,” “time is what you make of it,” express two of Sibil Fox Richardson’s six children. An entrepreneur, author, speaker and abolitionist, Sibil’s present life is consumed by a crusade for the release of her husband Robert, who is serving sixty-years of his time for a bank robbery that the couple committed together in a flight of desperation. The eighty minutes we spend with director Garrett Bradley’s powerful blend of an archived past with the social justice of the fiery now unveils the muddy waters of the American prison system and a family caught within those tides. But it’s just a starting point — it’s a personal struggle, there is no grandiose movement, no march on Washington’s doorstep; there are cries for change but the weight of inequity runs strong. Briskly quiet in its use of grainy home videotapes, sonically understated backdrop and the stepping stones of fruitless phone calls, Time is also cataclysmically moving in its dealings with the prospect of fatherless childhoods and the long-reaching dehumanisation of the mass incarcerated. Haunting, empathetic and calculated with pristine sway, it is a candid snapshot of an overwhelmingly distorted justice system filtered through the day-to-day life of a permanently changed family.