January is always a time for looking backward as well as forward, and as 2016 gets underway I’ve been reflecting back on the cultural events that defined 2015 for me. One of the things that strikes me is what a great year it was for documentaries. I am an avid fan of documentaries, and, as 2016 opened with Netflix’s documentary miniseries Making a Murderer as the year’s first pop cultural obsession, I’m clearly not alone. In recent years the genre has become particularly effective at combining entertainment with vital insights and even the capacity for inspiring activism and real social change. (See: The Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three, spanning 1996 to 2011, or 2013’s Blackfish.) Following this trend, some of 2015’s most acclaimed and compelling filmmaking came from this genre. So here are four of the best from 2015, in case you missed them, with a synopsis and also a suggestion of what these documentaries offer particularly to a feminist viewer. Whether you’re looking for eye-opening insight or a chance to funnel righteous indignation into action for a cause, these films have something for you.
Caveat: I have not yet had a chance to see He Named Me Malala, but I hope to soon, and am ready to recommend it, as I think Malala Yousafzai , the soft-spoken Pakistani teenager and Noble Peace Prize laureate who speaks out against terrorists in defense of women’s education, is the most courageous and inspiring feminist around.
- Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
What it’s About: Perhaps the most jaw-dropping, eye-opening documentary of the year, Alex Gibney’s HBO doc is an exposé of the Church of Scientology. While I expected to be smugly amused by scientologists’ bizarre beliefs, I was met with a much more unsettling experience. Going Clear provides a terrifying glimpse into the corruption, psychological manipulation, and even human rights abuses on a wide scale that characterize this dangerous cult. The story the film tells is stranger—and scarier—than the (science) fiction that serves as Scientology’s founding texts.
The Feminist Takeaway: Going Clear had me thinking for weeks about the process of brainwashing. Whether it’s indoctrination by a cult, propaganda from a dictator, psychological abuse from a spouse, or the fear-mongering of Trump or Fox News, the principles are strikingly similar. I was moved by the stories of the women in this movie who had lost their families to Scientology—or who were only able to escape its clutches when they saw the way it was hurting their children. It strikes me as due to another kind of societal brainwashing that so many women don’t think themselves worthy of the treatment they expect for their children and other loved ones.
What it’s About: Critics raved about Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse for a reason. With deft use of archival footage and some voice-over from interviews (but no talking heads), this film takes a woman our media turned into a tabloid joke and restores her to us as the blazing talent whose true value we’d forgotten. Winehouse died at 27 in 2011, but this documentary finally gives her the respect she deserves, celebrating her short life while sensitively examining the factors that led to her tragic early death.
The Feminist Takeaway: This is a tragedy and a cautionary tale on so many levels. Amy had a big heart to match her power-house voice, but too few people in her life were willing to put her needs first, or to encourage her to do so. Too many people exploited her and profited off her, and the two men she loved most (her father and her eventual husband) were the most toxic and exploitative of all. The people around her ended up doing what was most convenient for them, which was taking either a laissez-faire or an enabling attitude toward Amy’s eating disorder and drug and alcohol addictions, rather than helping her. (You’ll never hear the playfully defiant lyrics of “Rehab”—“I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine…”—the same way again.) Eventually, her personal agency is sapped by those who see her more as a profitable singing machine than a human being. The media and the voracious paparazzi come in for their share of the blame too, as well as those who consume what they produce. We see the frightening way modern media chews young female stars up and spits them out, in its bloodthirsty desire to reveal vulnerable women as “trainwrecks” to gawk at or mock. We are all complicit in this tabloid voyeurism, and this film lets no one off the hook.
- The Hunting Ground
What it’s About: Much as director Kirby Dick and Producer Amy Ziering’s The Invisible War (2012) explored the epidemic of sexual assault in the military, their follow-up The Hunting Ground explores that epidemic on college and university campuses nationwide. In both films, the response by those in authority in the aftermath of reported sexual assaults is as horrifying as—many of the victims proclaim it worse than— the assaults themselves. As with the two documentaries above, what’s so enraging is the evidence of greed leading those with power to put money over the welfare of other human beings. The movie opens with footage of students overcome with excitement when they find out they’ve gotten into their dream school. What those acceptance letters don’t tell them is that, if they are women, they have a 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted while at that dream school. (The numbers are harder to find for men, as the stigma preventing reporting is even greater for them.) And when a student does report, the school will not support them. Administrators often see their primary job as protecting the school’s reputation, not the well-being or safety of its students.
The Feminist Takeaway: I think this is the first film I’ve ever watched that made me literally (and repeatedly) want to throw something at the screen, because the reality it presents made me so blindingly angry. Survivors recount personal testimonies of how, when had the courage to seek justice, they ended up being shamed, blamed, accused of lying, or at the very least discouraged from taking the matter further. The fact that perpetrators, including repeat offenders, are allowed to stay on campus because they are more likely (if expelled) to sue the school than rape survivors are, or because those repeat offenders are lucrative student athletes, is absolutely maddening. The film shines a spotlight on the way the money involved in college sports distorts the purported aims of the universities and colleges themselves. It also illuminates the way that the predatory rape culture of many fraternities is enabled by schools’ financial incentives not to antagonize those fraternities (whose alumni tend to be among the highest donors). The glimmer of hope is in the fact that survivors are taking matters into their own hands and becoming activists, like the two brave young women at the heart of the documentary, Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark. These former students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are now dedicating their lives to advocating and providing support for other survivors. There is also some suggestion of change in the fact that over 50 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of rape accusations.
- The Wolfpack
What it’s About: This extraordinary documentary directed by Crystal Moselle captures the lives of a group of six young brothers, the Angulos, who have finally found the courage to venture outside their New York apartment after spending their entire lives confined there by their abusive, paranoid father. Their only knowledge of the outside world comes from their intimate knowledge of cinema, provided by their father’s surprisingly vast and eclectic movie collection. As they eventually move into the wider world, they filter everything they encounter through the frame of reference provided by film. Their elaborate recreations of these movies—homemade props and all— in their home videos are a testament to human creativity, which will seize on any outlet available. More than that, the way these young men have kept their sanity, their sensitive spirits, and their articulate voices despite their upbringing is a testament to the human spirit’s resilience.
The Feminist Takeaway: First of all, this is that still-too-rare thing, a celebrated movie with a female director. But it also raises thought-provoking questions about gender. You’ll be struck by the way cinema has shaped these young men’s understanding of masculinity as something very macho and violent, and yet has given them imaginative freedom from another kind of male violence, the domestic tyranny of their father. It is also moving to see how their increasingly bold bids for freedom begin to help their mother break free as well. They help her in a way she never could find the strength to help them, and in one especially affecting scene, she finally calls her own mother, with whom she hasn’t spoken in decades. By the end of the movie, she, like her sons, has begun to see her husband for the petty tyrant he is, no longer as a colossal god-like presence. Still, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions as The Wolfpack ended, and perhaps the most troubling for me was the fate of the lone sister in the family, a girl who makes only the briefest appearances and is described as “in her own world.” The boys at least have always had each other, but in a moving late scene in an apple orchard, you see a small female figure, following her father while the boys distance themselves. This girl had no pack, and I was unable to forget her.
Also recommended: Iris, which explores the life of nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel, who with zest and sharp humor continues to defy the industry’s cult of youth. Her maximalist style sense is an expression of her exuberant approach to life. At the same time, particularly in Iris’s relationship with her beloved husband, the film deftly touches on the issues of aging and mortality which eventually confront even the fullest life.
This short list only scrapes the surface of the many amazing documentaries that came out this past year. Which documentaries did you love? Are there any you look forward to in 2016?