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11 compelling documentaries to watch for this fall

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Even in the best of years, great nonfiction films seem to have trouble breaking through the noise generated by their buzzier, star-studded fiction cousins. But documentaries come in every flavor and genre. And at a time when reality seems almost too hard to believe, they can have the effect of focusing our attention, by telling us what to look at and reminding us that the world is still out there, heartbreaking and beautiful.

The documentary boom of recent years means there are more nonfiction films than ever to pay attention to. And this year, at the (mostly virtual) fall film festivals, they took many forms worth watching. So here are 11 documentaries that premiered on the festival circuit to look out for in the months ahead, and how to watch them.

76 Days

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There have already been a few documentaries about the Covid-19 pandemic, and I expect many more in the years to come. But 76 Days will surely be remembered as one of the gutsiest, best, and, oddly, most hopeful. It was shot from inside a hospital in Wuhan, China, from the beginning of the outbreak until the city’s lockdown was lifted after 76 days. Even with the nurses and doctors in full PPE and patients struggling to survive from hospital beds, 76 Days manages to be funny and heart-racing, heartbreaking and humanizing — and it ends, improbably enough, on a note of hope. It’s a massive project (helmed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and an anonymous collaborator) that provides a glimpse into reality and an invaluable record of this moment.

How to watch it: 76 Days is awaiting distribution.

City Hall

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Frederick Wiseman is a legendary chronicler of American institutions (here’s a guide to his films) who’s spent more than five decades making lengthy, intimate portraits of everything from high schools to welfare offices to modeling offices to the New York Public Library. His last film was Monrovia, Indiana, and for his latest, he traveled back East. Wiseman spent weeks in Boston, anchored at City Hall, to make a film that mostly follows Mayor Marty Walsh as he crisscrosses the town to meet senior citizens in a church basement, veterans in a community hall, real estate developers in a hotel boardroom, and citizens at open-air rallies. Periodically, he floats away from Walsh to watch a wedding being performed, observe a budget presentation, or listen in as a committee dedicated to public housing reform debates how to prevent people from becoming unhoused. The result is not a portrait of a city, really. Refreshingly — and maybe even a little surprisingly — it’s a portrait of a government that actually seems to be working for its citizens.

How to watch it: City Hall will premiere in Film Forum’s virtual cinema (available nationwide) on October 28.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

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In Dick Johnson Is Dead, documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) zooms in on her aging father and her relationship with him as they both begin to come to terms with his inevitable, eventual passing; the result is as playful as it is painful. In some sequences, Johnson stages her father’s arrival in heaven. In others, we’re not sure if we’re looking at something that really happened or something the two have imagined. Some scenes are shot in cinéma vérité style, as Dick plays with his grandchildren, packs up his office after retiring, and talks about his late wife, Kirsten’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died several years ago. The film is an exercise in imagination and an inquiry into whether imagining the loss of a loved one and their hopes for the hereafter might magnify or blunt the blow of death when it finally comes.

How to watch it: Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.

Gunda

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You could say filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky is unconventional. His last film, Aquarela, was a portrait of water set to a soundtrack by the Finnish symphonic metal band Apocalyptica; his new film Gunda, executive-produced by Joaquin Phoenix, swaps out the massive scope and ear-splitting music for an intimate portrait of a pig and her piglets, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. There’s no dialogue; we just watch the animals go about their lives while we experience the quietly dawning recognition that these animals have real lives. Phoenix is an animal rights activist — as you may recall, he championed veganism when accepting his Best Actor Oscar for Joker earlier this year — and his interest in Gunda is no surprise. It’s a recognition of animals’ creatureliness and a quiet argument for their dignity.

How to watch it: Gunda will be distributed by Neon. It is awaiting a release date.

Her Socialist Smile

Black and white photo of Helen Keller sitting at a typewriter.
Helen Keller, as pictured in John Gianvito’s documentary Her Socialist Smile.
Film at Lincoln Center

Helen Keller is probably best known, to most people, from Arthur Penn’s 1962 film The Miracle Worker, about Keller (played by Patty Duke) and her tutor Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), who helped Keller learn to communicate in an era when deafness and blindness would normally have consigned Keller to a life in the shadows. What might be less known is that Keller’s spent her adult life working as a vehement socialist activist, a participant in the women’s suffrage movement, an advocate for economic and social equality, and a take-no-prisoners lecturer who used her fame to advance her causes with clarity and force. Her Socialist Smile is an essay-style documentary that tells the story of Keller’s activism with images, narration, and onscreen text drawn from some of her speeches and writings. The film is fascinating — a portrait of a woman who has little to lose and is willing to give her all for what she believes in — and an important addition to Keller’s legacy.

How to watch it: Her Socialist Smile is awaiting distribution.

Inconvenient Indian

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Michelle Latimer’s debut film Inconvenient Indian confronts — in stunning fashion — the colonization of the image and lives of Indigenous people in North America. Cinema is precisely the right medium in which to explore this topic, since the movies have often been responsible for lingering, pervasive views of “savage Indians” who are bloodthirsty and sub-human. By centering the voices of prominent Indigenous artists and activists, Inconvenient Indian counters the “savages” mythology with the truth of Indigenous life, targeting the narratives that colonizers have internalized and lived by and showing how they’ve been used to reify power, over and over again.

How to watch it: Inconvenient Indian is awaiting distribution.

MLK/FBI

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Emmy winner Sam Pollard is a legend in documentary filmmaking; for MLK/FBI, he retreads the intersections between J. Edgar Hoover’s overreaching bureau and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the people around him. Through experts, photos, and a recounting of history, Pollard not only exposes the way law enforcement harassed and sought to take down King, but also shows the racist underpinnings beneath those efforts. And a series of historians weigh in on what will happen when, in 2027, the tapes the FBI recorded of King’s private calls with collaborators, family, and friends are unsealed, which may further reveal some shocking information about his private life and relationships. How should we think about his legacy? The answers aren’t easy, but MLK/FBI doesn’t try to pretend they are; it’s a film that leaves you thinking.

How to watch it: MLK/FBI was acquired by IFC Films and is scheduled for release in mid-January 2021.

No Ordinary Man

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The 20th-century jazz icon Billy Tipton was a legend in the 1940s and ’50s, but his identity as a trans man wasn’t revealed until after his death in 1989, and it was a surprise to many around him, including his son. Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt tell his story in No Ordinary Man, which is both a moving portrait of and tribute to Tipton and an examination of how his legacy has shifted as cultural ideas about trans identities have changed. The film contains interviews with a number of trans artists who find Tipton especially meaningful in their lives; the moment when Tipton’s son discovers that his father is important to many people is worth the price of admission.

How to watch it: No Ordinary Man was acquired by Radiant Films and is awaiting a release date.

Notturno

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Gianfranco Rosi is one of the most visually adept directors alive, and his documentary work (including his Oscar-nominated 2016 film Fire at Sea) directs our attention to ordinary people who have been shoved to the margins of the world. For Notturno, he went to the Middle East, capturing scenes from the lives of people whose worlds have been interrupted and changed forever by war. Dwelling on the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon, he stays close to the individual people to collect gorgeous images and moments, drawing the common thread of humanity between them. It’s a sweeping work of care and one that is often piercing in its painful beauty.

How to watch it: Notturno is currently awaiting distribution.

The Truffle Hunters

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Probably the most charming movie of the year, The Truffle Hunters unfolds as a series of vignettes documenting the lives of several older men and their dogs. They live in Piedmont, northern Italy, where they spend their lives hunting for rare and costly white Alba truffles in the forest. Nearly every frame of The Truffle Hunters is wide and steady, focusing on the men as they discuss business, talk to their beloved dogs, root around in the dirt, and take part in a simple way of life that, it’s clear, is slipping away. (We do occasionally get a dog’s-eye view, too.) It’s a sweet and simple movie with a healthy dose of bittersweet wistfulness for a fading world, and it’s beautiful.

How to watch it: The Truffle Hunters is scheduled for release on December 25, 2020.

Time

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Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the life that hope can provide. Garrett Bradley’s documentary follows Fox Rich, who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband Rob, from prison, where he’s been sentenced to spend 60 years following a youthful crime in which they were both involved. Meanwhile, Fox has been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community. All along, she has made videos at home, which feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates Black families in America, as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of narratives conceal the truth and pain of those separations.

How to watch it: Time opens in limited theaters on October 9 and begins streaming on Amazon Prime on October 16.


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US: Remains found in Tulsa search for 1921 race massacre victims

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At least 10 bodies found in unmarked grave in search for victims of a 1921 racist massacre in the US state of Oklahoma.

At least 10 bodies have been found in an unmarked mass grave at a Tulsa cemetery where investigators are searching for remains of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a state official said Wednesday.

“What we were finding was an indication that we were inside a large area … a large hole that had been excavated and into which several individuals had been placed and buried in that location. This constitutes a mass grave,” said Oklahoma State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck.

There were 10 coffins discovered with what is presumed to be one person in each coffin, Stackelbeck said. She said further examination is needed.

The massacre left an estimated 300 mostly Black Tulsa residents dead and 800 more wounded. The massacre — which happened two years after what is known as the “Red Summer”, when hundreds of African Americans died at the hands of white mobs in violence across the US — has been depicted in recent HBO shows “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft County.”

Forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield, a descendant of a survivor of the massacre who is assisting in the search, said it would take considerable time to identify the remains and determine whether they were victims of the massacre.

The search began Monday and is the second this year after an unsuccessful search in another area of the cemetery ended in July.

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In defense of Quibi

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Quibi was a bad idea, poorly executed. Now it’s dead, just six months after it debuted.

Here’s a quick timeline of its short life:

It was easy to be skeptical about Quibi before launch because … see above. The real surprise is that it failed so quickly. And even that surprise is a little bit couched. Once news got out that Katzenberg was trying to sell, the only question was whether he’d find a buyer or have to shutter. As I wrote last month, you don’t try to sell your startup five months after launch if things aren’t going terribly, even though Katzenberg insisted otherwise in sales pitches.

But, that said: I would like to see more Quibis in the future.

Not the concept or the execution (again, see above) but the model: Running a media business the old-fashioned way, where you ask people to make something, pay them for it, and then try to re-sell that work to someone else. Because there’s another version of running a media business — what YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook do — and I don’t feel great about that one in 2020.

To recap: Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, the CEO he hired away from Hewlett Packard, paid Hollywood studios, TV networks, and digital shops like Vox Media (which owns this site) to make short videos. Then they tried selling subscriptions to those videos to you.

That’s one way — the old way — to run a media business.

There are lots of variants, and you can debate the right way to scale those companies and how much money you need to make them work, etc. The model includes everything from your local newspaper (if it still exists) to TV networks to Spotify to Netflix. But they’re all using the same basic playbook.

There is also the new — and often much more successful way — to run a media business: Get people to give you stuff for free, get people to consume that stuff for free, and sell their attention to advertisers. You may not want to call yourself a media business — for strategic, valuation, or legal reasons — but you are most definitely in the media business. This has worked really, really well for YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.

But as we spend a lot of time discussing these days, it’s not clear that the model that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook use — which is dependent on ingesting as much free content as possible, and distributing as widely and quickly as possible, with as little input from the people who run those businesses as possible — is good for the rest of us.

And at the core of all the proposals to fix those businesses is the idea that they should act a lot more like … traditional media businesses. These proposals call for the people who run these platforms to pay attention to what they distribute, and even make judgment calls about whether that stuff should be distributed. And, yes: It also involves paying people who make some of the stuff they distribute.

I don’t want to belabor this thought, and I don’t want to oversell it. Quibi would have likely struggled using any model because it didn’t have stuff people wanted to see, and it didn’t have the distribution it needed to get it in front of them, anyway.

And while the Facebooks of the world run on free content, they certainly have to spend money on lots of other stuff. TikTok, for example, spent $1 billion on marketing in a single year in order to get its free videos, uploaded for free by its users, in front of people around the world.

But if you’re going to dunk on Quibi for failing so big, so fast, at least give them this: They failed the old-fashioned way. Which still has an upside.


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Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.

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FDA says there is no timeline for a Covid-19 vaccine

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A health worker works in a lab during clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, on September 9.
A health worker works in a lab during clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, on September 9. Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg/Getty Images

US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said Wednesday that the agency does not have a set timeline to review a Covid-19 vaccine.

The goal, he said, is that everyone could get a vaccine by spring. But it “really depends on a number of factors.”

“We want to expedite it,” Hahn said at a conference sponsored by the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank founded by ex-banker Michael Milken.

“We’ve said that we will schedule a vaccine advisory committee to review those data. We have committed for every application to have a vaccine advisory committee,” Hahn said.

“We will make that public, as I mentioned. Our scientists will make an initial determination, will ask specific questions about the product from the vaccine advisory committee. And then we will incorporate that in our decision making,” Hahn said.

“At the end of the day, only our career scientists in the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research will be making this decision, and they will be making it solely upon the science and data that come from the clinical trials.”

To speed up the process, Hahn said the FDA has been working with manufacturers from day one and have stayed in touch throughout the manufacturing process, rather than reviewing everything at the end of the process. 

“We need to make sure that there’s quality and consistency and that every lot has the same ability to provide protection to all of Americans,” Hahn said. “We have a lot of confidence in the manufacturing of these developers, and we will be doing our part with respect to working with them to make sure that manufacturing can be ramped up as quickly as possible.”

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