Celebrated auteur Alfred Hitchcock once said the following about documentary films.
“In feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director.”
While some lovers of documentary films could take the above comment as an affront to the art of documentary filmmaking, what Hitchcock essentially seems to be referring to through his tongue-in-cheek comment is the enormous potential the documentary medium allows its creators. Documentary filmmakers are often driven by an idea that they pursue irrespective of where it leads them, which stands in sharp contrast to fiction filmmaking, where the makers have an essential vision of the finished film even before they go to the shooting floor. A documentary film, therefore, is perpetually constructed and reconstructed at the time of shooting and often times reveals its truest potential on the editing table.
Of course, the scope and reach of documentary films have changed enormously with the advent of the digital age, with an increasing democratization of the resources available to filmmakers. So it is with the distribution channels available to filmmakers to reach their desired audiences. With the coming of subscription services like Netflix, for example, both the filmmaker and the viewer are no longer constrained by the previously strictly regulated theater mode of economy. You don’t have to go to the theater to catch the next release, and this condition has allowed for the burgeoning of a new breed of documentary filmmakers and viewers, who create and consume only what they wish to.
So if you are one of those viewers who is constantly on the lookout for new documentary films, here is a list of the five best Netflix documentaries you can watch right now.
The White Helmets
Created by director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara, The White Helmets is a short documentary film that shows how, in the light of diminishing universal aid, a group of Syrian men has taken upon themselves to save the victims of the Syrian civil war. These are everyday, compassionate human beings whose spirits have not been crushed by the scale of the devastation around them. Most of the footage is shot by members of the group themselves, and it takes you into the thick of the everyday trauma that Syrian men, women, and children are subjected to. In a time when Syrian refugees are being increasingly demonized by the West, this movie is a stark reminder of our privileged position.
Writing about his experience of working with these people in Indiewire, director Orlando von Einsiedel mentions never being so deeply moved as he was by the compassion of a people devastated by war.
“The White Helmets we filmed were a group of humble and highly committed individuals, undoubtedly damaged by years of witnessing the most horrific sights imaginable on a daily basis, somehow maintaining an unshakable determination to continue their work. In the West, far too often we are subjected to negative stereotypes of the Muslim males. In stark contrast, these men were among the gentlest and kindest we had ever met. They maintain an almost unbelievable sense of humor in spite of everything — tying our dozing cinematographer’s leg to water coolers or breaking into karaoke on our minibuses’ PA system. Their compassion seemed to be their overwhelming trait.”
The Internet’s Own Boy
In an age when the stalwarts of Silicon Valley remain dangerously apolitical and are overtly driven by profit-making mechanisms, The Internet’s Own Boy is a movie which brings to light the efforts of a young man who did not just dream of a free internet, but dreamed of a world where knowledge is free and mutually beneficial. Director Brian Knappenberger chronicles the life of computer wizard and activist Aaron Swartz, one of the internet’s early pioneers, and his fight against an ever-repressive U.S. regime that pushed him to commit suicide by fabricating charges of espionage against him.
People like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey will be remembered for their contribution to the internet, but they will never inspire the scores of real-life activists that are driven by the idea of making the world a better place. The Internet’s Own Boy is a movie which will move you, make you angry and inspire you — all in equal measure.
No list of best Netflix documentaries could be complete without giving Amanda Knox a mention. This movie chronicles the Kafkaesque experience of its titular character who was accused and subsequently convicted of killing her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Italy back in 2007. It explores the turning points of the investigation carried out by the Italian authorities and sheds light on the debilitating and absolutely brutal nature of media trials that often convict a suspect even before the evidence is brought out before the courts.
Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, Amanda Knox has perhaps rightly etched itself as one of the best documentary films of 2016. As Knox herself says at the beginning of the film, she is either a cold-blooded psychotic or a vulnerable human being like the rest of us.
Requiem for an American Dream
Perhaps this documentary movie, co-directed by Peter D. Hutchison and Kelly Nyks, might not feature in most of the lists you will find around the internet, but it deserves to be on the best Netflix documentary list simply because of the important message that it gives out to its viewers at a time when Americans are having to make a choice between two of the most corrupt and incompetent presidential candidates in modern American history.
The filmmakers document the last long-form lectures given on camera by Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading left-wing intellectuals. Chomsky rips into American economic policies and traces the history of U.S. governments getting increasingly cozy with financiers and modern day money-spinners at the cost of increasing social and economic inequality. As the New York Times put it, by “citing Aristotle, Adam Smith and James Madison, among others, he melds history, philosophy and ideology into a sobering vision of a society in an accelerating decline.”
Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime
While there were a number of films vying for the last spot in this list of best Netflix documentaries, I decided to include Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime because of its subject matter and its overbearing significance in today’s digital age when newspapers and press organizations have an insatiable thirst for yellow journalism.
Directed by Jacqui Morris and David Morris, it chronicles the historic campaign run by Harold Evans in the 1960s and 70s as the editor of the Sunday Times, which forced the British policymakers to amend laws and recognize the dangers of thalidomide, the morning sickness drug given 10 years previously to pregnant women, causing their children to be born with malformed limbs. It truly restores press as a democratic society’s fourth pillar and reaffirms the duty of journalists to pursue truth against all odds.
So this is my list of the five best Netflix documentaries you can watch right now. Is there a film that you would like included which has been missed? Let us know your views in the comments section below.