With the real world being such an awful nightmare, you might ask yourself, what’s the point in watching a movie about real life? Well, first off, some documentaries can provide some much needed hope and joy, or some valuable context to the world around us. Whether they tackle history or the modern day, discuss animals or people, here are five of the best documentaries of this year:
Directed by Brett Morgan, this film tells the story Jane Goodall, her life and her work in the wild with chimpanzees, using interviews with her today and old footage taken in the earlier years of her work. In addition to being an empowering look at Goodall’s work and resilience, it also gives us a narrative of the chimp colony she studied.
2) I Am Not Your Negro
This incredible film, directed by Raoul Peck, mixes archival footage of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin LutherKing. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the words of James Baldwin, written so long ago but frighteningly relevant to today’s black experience, over footage of black America’s struggles and protests today.
For hundreds of years, thousands of stray cats have roamed the streets of Istanbul, playing, hunting, living, and interacting with the humans around them. Director Ceyda Torun follows around seven of these cats, each with their own names and personalities. This movie is so lovely and gentle, and, for once, shows us a positive, uplifting relationship between people and animals.
4) City of Ghosts
Directed by the award winner Matthew Heinema, this doc is about the citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RIBSS), who are attempting, in the most dangerous of conditions, to report on the brutality of ISIS in Syria and the lack of response from the international community. The film also addresses the necessity of journalism and reporting and the many dangers that come with them.
5) One of Us
This intense film on Netflix was co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who you may recognize as the team behind Jesus Camp. The two take on ultra-religious communities once again, telling the story of three former Hasidic Jews who choose to leave their communities as they attempt to find their way in the “real” world and weather the intense backlash from the Hasidic world.
It is likely not an overstatement to say that the majority of people who go to the movies are looking for a momentary escape from their daily troubles and anxieties. However, if you have been keeping abreast with this year’s Oscar race, you are most likely feeling as though this has been a difficult goal. With Meryl Streep delivering an impassioned speech about the need for artistic communities at the Golden Globes, in light of recent political unrest, and films such as Moonlight, Fences, and I Am Not Your Negro exploring at length the uncomfortable truths regarding the history of being black in America, there seems to be more films this year garnering mainstream attention that are giving audience members a good, healthy dose of the present social consciousness — certainly a welcome change, as this time last year the Academy was struggling to show they were not out-of-touch, amidst the whole #oscarssowhite controversy. But the movie that everyone has their eyes on now, in terms of its’ ties to the current sociopolitical climate is likely the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s new thriller The Salesman, which has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
For those who have somehow managed to stay clear of keeping up-to-date with the political hot-mess that is the new White House administration, The Salesman is the film where people were unsure as to whether the director would be able to attend the ceremony, given the whole travel-ban debacle. Perhaps that whirlwind of chatter was a blessing in disguise, as it surely gave the film more attention and news-coverage, which will hopefully entice more people to seek it out because it tells a culturally specific story that nevertheless feels thematically universal, as well as vital in understanding those around you in this increasingly — and with very little likelihood to be reversed— globalized world. Not only that, but it is a film that slowly but masterfully brings tensions throughout the plot to an emotionally raw and conflicting boil, that will surely leave audiences captivated.
The story follows a couple living in Tehran, Rana and Emad Etesami, who are abruptly forced to evacuate their apartment, following the collapse of an underground well. They seem to be a very likable duo. Mad, the husband, is a teacher at the local high-school, who is well-liked by his students, and they both belong to a small theatre troupe that is in the midst of rehearsing their performance of Death of a Salesman, where the reserved but sweet Rana shows to have an endearing rapport with one of the other actresses’ sons. Fortunately they quickly find a new apartment — one that they mention is quite spacious, presumably in case they eventually have children. But sudden traumatizing events occur. One night, while Emad is on his way home from the school, Rana, in the apartment, hears the buzzer for the front door go off. Assuming it’s her husband, she’s buzzes the complex door open and leaves the door to the apartment open as well. The camera lingers on the slowly creaking-open apartment door for an uncomfortable amount of time — which is the moment at which the tension initially begins to ramp up. Emad then comes back and finds the apartment empty, with the floor covered in blood spots. Frantically searching for Rana in the streets, he eventually finds her — in a nearby walk-in clinic, beaten and smattered with blood, her face only expressing shock and confusion.
Thus begins the central mystery. We learn that the previous tenant was a prostitute who entertained clients in the apartment, and Rana’s attacker was a man who thought she was the last tenant, with whom he had some unfinished business. At no point in the film do you meet the previous tenant, but her presence haunts the apartment. When the couple returns home they feel shaken and unsafe and as the days progress, they begin finding things in their home, offering hints about the trouble they are in. Because of clues left by the last tenant, as well as the unsettling transition of the slowly-creaking door to the medical room, we feel emotionally gripped and afraid for them whenever they come into their home again.
Farhadi’s script also economically weaves moments into the story that paint a fuller portrait of how there are aspects within this society that may be working against giving the couple justice. Through conversations with neighbours following the attack on Rana, there seems to be little trust put into local law enforcement, which makes Emad want to take matters into his own hands, in terms of finding the attacker and getting some degree of revenge on him. This development also displays the layers of both performances. Shahab Hosseini, who plays Emad, begins showing his simmering anger and frustration underneath his subdued exterior, but perhaps the more interesting performance may be Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana. Initially, she is a reserved and strong individual, yet becomes a shadow of her former self following the attack, displaying instances of alarming emotional fragility or illustrating a sense protective stoicism as she slowly tries to re-establish a sense of normalcy to her life, and struggling to come to terms with everything that has happened to her.
As such, the film is most intriguing when Farhadi seems to be commenting on the way women are treated in this society. As Emad continues on his private investigation of putting clues together, he progressively uses more risky and morally ambiguous tactics. Rana however, amidst her emotional fragility, is revealed to be his strong emotional rock, continuing on after the events with a quiet dignity, even though she displays far less agency in changing their situation for the better. Once the moment for revenge finally presents itself in the third act, Rana begs her husband not to got through with it, opting instead to take a route of forgiveness and the morally higher ground. Her husband strongly refuses, and she leaves the room they are in, as she can no longer bear to watch his actions any longer. Her lack of choice is not only emphasized but also perhaps, the notion that she has been just as much of a ghost, detachedly haunting these proceedings, as much as the previous tenant. By the end of the film, we are left to wonder what Farhadi might be trying to imply regarding the differences in the expected moral standards between men and women in this film.
The film does suffer unfortunately, in the sequences where the characters are performing scenes from Death of a Salesman. With Emad playing Willy Loman, and Rana playing Linda, there are certainly instances where the dialogue in the play mirrors aspects of their own internal struggles, with their performances turning more raw as their personal lives become more troublesome. But that interpretation may only be viable if one looks at those scenes without the context of the rest of play, which thematically feels quite removed from the story being told. As such, the choice of this play feels ambiguous at times.
Farad’s previous film, A Separation from 2011, won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that year, telling the story of an Iranian family who found themselves having to make nearly impossible decisions to make their lives better for themselves, as well as for their daughter. With the questionable decision of using Death of a Salesman to provide emotional subtext, as well as the central mystery — like all mysteries to some extent — relying on a number of coincidences in order to grant the main characters emotional catharsis, The Salesman may not be as successful, but it still manages to be an engaging experience that lingers on the forefront of your mind long after its’ done.