Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The NetFlix Files: Documentaries

So since I joined Netflix back in May I started off reliving my childhood...another words renting old cartoons and shows from the 80's...but lately I have really been getting into documentaries. Below are the first round that I have watched:

Jesus Camp (2006)

Netflix Description:
This riveting Oscar-nominated documentary offers an unfiltered look at a revivalist subculture where devout Christian youngsters are being primed to deliver the fundamentalist community's religious and political messages. Building an evangelical army of tomorrow, the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, N.D., is dedicated to deepening the preteens' spirituality and sowing the seeds of political activism as they're exhorted to "take back America for Christ."

Jesus Camp basically shows how one particular group of Midwest Christians live and raise their kids. The movie is brilliant because it offers no opinion one way or the other it simply shows how this group of people thinks and live. It's hard to give this movie a conventional rating. Was it a well-made and interesting documentary? Definitely yes. Was it enjoyable to watch? Absolutely not. As you can tell I had I very mixed emotions watching this documentary especially as one who considers himself a "born-again" Christian. While the film makers never overtly articulate a point of view, it was clear that the film was intended to shock, particularly if you have a left-of-center political viewpoint. If you read reviews, you'll see that they were successful, and perhaps rightly so especially for a film about religion and politics where one can only imagine it would be tough not to pick a side.

While I do agree with some of the big picture themes, parts of it were very disturbing. Such examples are the female pastor (who runs the camp) chastises a group of 8-year olds that they should be doing more fasting, and the Reverend Ted Haggard (recently disgraced in a gay sex and drugs scandal) who met with George W. Bush every Monday in the White House, and shows the enormous influence some of these people have over our government leaders.

Overall, Jesus Camp is interesting and worth a look especially with a discussion group. I believe this movie is absolute must-viewing and the serious attention of American Christian leaders. Conservatives will probably see the film as a left-wing attack on wacko Christians, but its straightforward approach supports its credibility and forces every viewer to think. In summation the movie starkly shows how popular evangelical Christianity has/can become entangled in a political agenda that is a far cry from the spreading of the Gospel.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)

Netflix Description:
Producer, director and activist Robert Greenwald takes aim at the corporate giant that's come to symbolize big business in America: Wal-Mart. Blasting the box-store Goliath for allegedly paying substandard wages, skimping on employee health benefits and eviscerating communities, this hard-hitting, emotional documentary profiles the struggle of everyday folks from around the country who've committed themselves to fighting the mega-retailer.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price largely focuses on the impacts Wal-Mart has on the individual level (according to the filmakers): closure of family stores, forcing its "associates" to work overtime without compensation, depriving them of a living wage, and forcing them onto welfare, destroying central business districts of small communities, diverting tax revenues from school districts, etc.

Most of what this documentary reveals has already been exposed to the public, but what we get here is all of it in a single impacting package. No matter your political persuasion this film should disturb you. In it's examination of the years of Wal-Mart skullduggery, the film examines Wal-Mart's record on employee wages and benefits, sexual and racial discrimination, environmental negligence, foreign outsourcing, and overall malfeasance, through a combination of archival footage and personal narratives.

There is no attempt by the filmmakers to appear objective, and the movie is relentlessly negative and mostly shrill in its criticism of Wal-Mart to the point where I suspect that it will fail to change many minds (which is the apparent goal of the filmmakers. The critique would be stronger if Wal-Mart's practices were compared to its competitors in order to provide a context;

I wanted to like this movie because I hate Wal-Mart, having grown up in a family-owned business. I have seen firsthand how this corporation destroys communities and local character. I have heard that a better film on Wal-Mart is "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?: Frontline" which explains the market forces at work and how Wal-Mart is changing retail and manufacturing on a global level and have placed it in my Netflix queue. Will I continue to shop at Wal-Mart…probably, but only if I have too.

Confessions of a Superhero (2007)

Netflix Description:
On Hollywood Boulevard, wannabe stars dress up as superheroes and pose for photos with tourists. Matt Ogens's documentary follows four dreamers who are just killing time until they'r discovered. Get to know a Superman who takes the role a bit too seriously, an Incredible Hulk who sold his prized video game system for a bus ticket to Tinseltown, a Midwestern beauty queen turned Wonder Woman and a Batman in need of anger management therapy.

This film documents four wanna-be actors who have resorted to portraying movie characters on Hollywood Blvd. The "stars" are the unique phenomenon of the "actors" who work by dressing as various movie characters and make their living by taking pictures and accepting tips from tourists. This documentary focuses on the Super Hero contingent of this hodge podge of urban thespians. We meet a former homeless man who now is the Hulk... a man who has some deep seeded mental and anger issues who plays Batman... a young female who seems to be searching for an identity of her own playing Wonder Woman... and a man who has become completely immersed in his own character, Superman (and who looks uncannily like Christopher Reeves) .

This is a fascinating Documentary. For a film about a group of people that could easily be looked down upon, there is no condescension here. There are four unique individuals here who have taken up the same gig to make money, but they all look at it very differently. They all seem to be about as far away from stardom as one can be even though they're in the city of celebrity and still they hold onto their dreams of fame and riches.

It would have been really easy to exploit these people and to make them look pathetic or foolish... because that's what one thinks when they're first introduced. The real talent of this film is that is shows the humanity of these folks. They are clearly troubled and yet there's something quixotic about how they strap on some spandex and go marching towards their dreams. And you end up pulling for them even though you know that they're going about their ambitions in the most unorthodox way imaginable. This film will leave you with mixed feelings. Is it funny? Is it sad? Is it scary? Are the "superheroes" we meet admirable for pursuing their dreams? Are they deluded? Pathetic? The answer is probably all of the above, but regardless, it's a very compelling, watchable film.

Devil's Playground (2002)

Netflix Description:
When Amish teens turn 16, they have the opportunity to venture out in the "Devil's Playground" (the Amish's term for the outside world) and indulge in 21st century vices such as drinking and smoking. At the end of this period, called "Rumspringa," they can choose to commit to the church for good. Or not. This documentary tracks 18-year-old Faron's struggle to reconcile his drug addiction with his deeply ingrained desire to live the Amish life.

I found this documentary about the life of young Amish men & women was really fascinating. About 5 minutes in that everything I thought I knew about the Amish was totally wrong and they lead their lives very differently than I believed. Going into the film the only thing I really knew was from the week I spent with at an Amish School as a kid.

Watching these teenagers go from having a very strict upbringing with no freedoms at all to suddenly having the freedom to do pretty much whatever they want was somewhat amazing. It is hard to believe that certain sects of the Amish partied so much, had drug problems, alcohol addictions, etc. just like the "English" population?

While the documentary featured many people but really focused in closely on a handful, so that by the end you felt like you really knew these kids and cared about the decision they made on whether to join the church or not. You really felt for them as they struggled with having a life of freedom vs. the religious life they were raised to believe. I found myself wishing that it was longer than 77 minutes because the film opens up so many questions about the Amish but it fails to answer most of them. Because of this many of the questions I had going into it were unanswered, and at the end I felt that I only had more questions than when I started. It gave little or no background about the Amish religion, and it left a lot of things unclear. I'd have liked to have seen more interviews with the parents, not just the teenagers, for example. We heard everything from the kids' point of view but very little from the parents.

I also could have heard a bit more about the lives of the Amish teenagers prior to Rumspringa and a bit more about their reintegration afterwards. The thing is that a lot of that may be too general for a documentary. Overall a very interesting film

Next Documentaries in the Queue:
The King of Kong
Word Wars
This Film Not Yet Rated
Hell House



Micah said...

I loved Jesus Camp .. i subconciously wanted to sympathize with the fundamentagelicals at first,even though my theology is greatly different. It is good for Christians to watch in that, it shows how easy it is for isolation and fundamentalism to shift the focus to believing in your beliefs and completely missing the point of Jesus' message. BTW ...the director's commentary is insightful and worth listening to...

I caught part of Devil's playground on NatGeo i think ... i need to flix it to watch the whole thing...

Anonymous said...

For more background on Devil's Playground, read a book called "Rumspringa". Fascinating look at this period of life, including more background on before and after.

If you want it and can't find it, within a month or so my life will be settled and I'd be able to find it and mail it to you to read, but right now my life is in boxes.