Narrative features usually have happy endings. Not so with documentaries. Why? Because docs deal with issues and tell of difficult situations in which happy endings are rare. But, happy ending or no, when something good happens in a doc, you can believe it. It reflects something good that's happened in life--usually stemming from a personal commitment to make a difference. And, you can allow yourself to be inspired--turned on, as they say--as well as educated by it. This is a list of films that inspire me, with notes about what I've learned from them.
An Inconvenient Truth is basically a concert film, the genre that documents a performance. But, instead of seeing a rock star or stand-up comedian belting music or one-liners, we meet Al Gore, the former Vice President of the United States. Mr. Gore is presenting the slide show in which he delivers the down and dirty about global warming--the most pressing environmental issue of our time. Mr. Gore has given more than 1000 performances of his show around the world, but it is very important for more people to see it and get the global warming message--hence the film.
Tricia Regan directed this doc about how the single mom of an adopted child, who turned out to be autistic, was inspired by her love and determination to help him into "The Miracle Project," in which she taught an entire group of autistic kids (and their parents) to perform a musical show for an audience. Did she find a cure to autism or resolve the kids' problems? No. But she gave her all to give them skills that enrich their lives. And, she raised awareness about autism. And, gave a filmmaker the opportunity to tell this story so audiences can view autistic behavior without fear and prejudice and realize autism stats have skyrocketed from one in 10,000 (1980) to one in 150. She and the film show us individuals can make a difference.
In Darfur Now, filmmaker Ted Braun focuses on the genocide in the westernmost region of Sudan, a situation that desperately needs exposure: 200,000 people have been slaughtered, 2.5 million forced to flee rural villages are in displaced persons camps where living conditions are intolerable. The film shows how Don Cheadle, George Clooney and other notables are using their star status to access to authorities and convince them to intercede, and to augment public awareness so you'll take action. Frankly, I think Darfur Now plays the celebrity card too often--making Cheadle and Clooney more memorable than the deplorable conditions they're addressing. But it's still an honest, hopefully effective, attempt to inspire change for the good.
Girls Rock! (2007)
Girls Rock! is an exuberant documentary that follows four eight- to 18-year-old girls through their lively, inspiring experiences at the Portland, Oregon-based Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, where they're taught both music and self-esteem. The camp was started by female rockers who take joy in passing along the pleasures and rewards they've found in self-expression through music. The girls connect with their own creative instincts and make friends with like-minded peers, they learn musical and social skills, and we see them blossom during their camp stay. This film will inspire you to give your kid the gift of music--or, perhaps, pick up an instrument and play it yourself.
Oscar-winning doc director Terry Sanders' Fighting For Life is about the doctors and nurses in the military's medical corp. The film follows these noncombatant soldiers from their training at one of the world's best and least-known medical schools to their field work--in Iraq, for the most part--where they put themselves at risk, while saving war-wounded soldiers and civilians. We feel their palatable pathos as they patch up young American men and women so severely injured their lives will never be the same. This film doesn't provide answers, but it does inspire--perhaps even demand--our serious consideration of our human nature and potential. Are we healers or destroyers? Or do we step up to heal what we've tried to destroy?
In King Corn, eco-activists Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis--who met and became investigative cohorts while undergrads at Yale--return to the scene of their coincidentally similar family roots in rural Greene, Iowa, to plant and harvest an acre’s worth of corn, and then to trace their crop as it is processed into the food products that nurture the increasingly obese and unhealthy--and always hungry--American population.
Nanking elucidates a very dark moment in human history: the massacre of 200,000 people and rape of 20,000 women by Japanese soldiers who occupied that city during the Second World War. The film's strong message is that it must not happen again. While shedding light on a Chinese holocaust that's little known in the West, the film chronicles how resident foreigners--including an American spinster headmaster and a German pro-Nazi buisnessman--risked their lives to protect thousands of innocent Chinese citizens from slaughter. Producer Ted Leonsis says Nanking is 'Filmanthropy'--by showing us the best--and worst--of human nature, he hopes to inspire us to stand up for what's right if/when we're put to the test.
Director Benson Lee follows teenage B-Boys--breakdancers--into the international "Battle of the Year," a competition where crews from around the world dazzle audiences and each other with lightening-fast footwork, turbo-spins, balance-defying freezes and sophisticated choreography performed with athleticism, energy, discipline and perfectionism that rival Olympic-level gymnastics. Yet the boys must fight for recognition of their art, struggle to please parents, scrounge for capital to support their dance habit. The B-boys' stories and personalities are captivating. They'll have you dancing in your seat, and they'll inspire you to open your mind--and heart--to B-Boying and other unconventional art forms.
Michele Ohayon's documentary is a touching tale of true love between Jack and Ina Polak, who celebrated 60 years of marriage in 2006. In the film, they talk about how they met in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, fell in love, survived the concentration camps and married. Their sustaining strength, indomitable spirit and dedication to each other is absolutely inspiring. The film is a Valentine for any day of the year.
What Would Jesus Buy? follows the Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen), a very talented performance artist who's all fire and brimstone on the subject of shopping, and his Church of Stop Shopping, a vigorously boisterous gospel group, as they deliver Sunday sermons and Christmas classics with clever anti-shopping lyrics: “Pack the malls with folks with money…’Tis the season to be dummies” and so forth. Theirs is a crusade against shopaholicism and the coming shopapocalypse.