Each month in The Doc Life, Film Independent blogger Anthony Ferranti dives deep into the how’s and why’s of nonfiction filmmaking. In this special year-end column, Anthony recaps six of his favorite must-see documentaries from 2019. Happy binging!
As yet another year draws to a close with the nation’s political strife reaching a fever pitch, it might be advisable to do yourself a huge holiday season favor and mute your news feeds–at least for a week or two. Instead, why not spend some quality time catching up on a shortlist of amazing 2019 documentaries? Below, I’ve collected a list of six titles you certainly don’t want to miss. This is not a comprehensive list of the best docs of 2019, but rather a mélange of important true-life stories to compliment your holiday season media diet.
These artists are deserving of accolades for their inspiring work, and I’m excited to focus a spotlight on such exemplary filmmaking. These are truly engaging docs, overflowing with truth, beauty and the indomitable independent spirit for storytelling.
My picks here include several films also found on our recent list of Film Independent Spirit Awards Best Documentary nominees–American Factory, Apollo 11, For Sama, Honeyland, and Island of the Hungry Ghosts–as well as a few other favorites. Enjoy!
THE GREAT HACK
Released: July 24
Directors: Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim
Producers: Karim Amer, Pedro Kos, Geralyn Dreyfous, Judy Kori
Whey You Can Watch: Netflix
Why We Love It: “Data has surpassed oil in value. Data is the most valuable asset on earth,” so says a former business development director for Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, in Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s Netflix original, The Great Hack. This doc seeks to explain how Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook profiles to effect political outcomes around the world–the most stunning of course being the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If you aren’t sure what happened, Academy Award nominees Nourjaim and Amer lay it all out in stark detail. If in the end we don’t definitively know the whole truth, this documentary is at least a graphical feast, showing us the role our personal data now plays in politics, and how a few huge companies can influence the lives of millions of people.
Released: August 23
Director: Liza Mandelup
Producers: Sacha Ben Harroche, Lauren Cioffi, Bert Hamelinck, Hannah Reyer
Where You Can Watch: Hulu
Why We Love It: This feature documentary debut by director Liza Madelup explores the complex world of social media stardom. Mandelup focuses on Austyn Tester, a charismatic 16-year-old boy from rural Tennessee striving to make a name for himself as a social media influencer. Proof of her commitment to her process and artistic sensibilities, she filmed for almost a year before meeting Tester, her eventual main subject. It was a process she found unnerving but necessary. “I needed to get there and meet the people and situate myself in the world to find the characters I was looking for,” she told us earlier this year. An eye-opener doc for anyone who’s ever wondered just what it is these kids do all day on social media apps, Jawline is a refreshing and surprisingly nonjudgmental nonfiction character study.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM
Released: May 10
Director: John Chester
Producers: John Chester, Sandra Keats
Where You Can Watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu
Why We Love It: With so many things in the world feeling like they’re going off the proverbial rails, The Biggest Little Farm is a refreshing doc that will restore your faith in humanity–and might just prompt a trip out to a nearby farm (if not at least your local farmers’ market.) John Chester presents an inspiring autobiographical record of his family’s attempts to follow their dreams of leaving the big city in order to build an organic farm. Using his skills as cinematographer, he captures nature footage of the purest tonic for one’s soul. The Biggest Little Farm is a delightfully playful story of a group of people following their path–bumpy at times though it is–to find a deeper connection to the land and each other.
Released: April 17
Director: Penny Lane
Producer: Gabriel Sedgwick
Where You Can Watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu
Why We Love It: I had a friend in high school who, when walking into an elevator, would refuse to turn around and face the doors. He’d just stand there looking towards the back, right into the faces of the others riding along with him. If you cheer that kind of free, go-your-own-way spirit, then Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? is a doc for you. Lane’s film spends much of its time interviewing key figures and following the often mischievous exploits of the nontheistic religious group The Satanic Temple as they pursue their mission fighting for the separation of church and state. You may not agree with their fashion choices, but you’re very likely to end up cheering for this odd group of free thinkers whose unwavering commitment to social and political justice will not be swayed by the powers that be.
TELL ME WHO I AM
Released: August 30
Director: Ed Perkins
Producer: Simon Chinn
Where You Can Watch: Netflix
Why We Love It: At age 18, Alex Lewis suffered a horrible motorcycle accident that caused him to lose his memory. Upon waking from a coma, the one thing he remembers is his identical twin brother Marcus. As he slowly recovers, his brother tells him about their past–while holding back some unbelievable truths about the life they shared. Director Ed Perkins delivers a tale where truth is certainly stranger than fiction; Tell Me Who I Am is a viewing experience akin to having the rug repeatedly pulled out from under your feet while a loved one punches you in the stomach–but in a good way. At times the film deals with disturbing material, which can be difficult. But ultimately, this doc delivers a tale of brotherly love and redemption.
Released: July 26
Directors: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov
Producer: Diane Atanas Georgiev
Where You Can Watch: Amazon Prime
Why We Love It: This film is a truly wonderful surprise. Taking three awards at Sundance, I expected to see an extremely well-done documentary film, which Honeyland certainly is. But what intrigued me was how familiar the story felt despite its far-flung setting and esoteric subject matter. Tarmara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov’s film takes place in a remote village in North Macedonia. This purely observational–and incredibly intimate–documentary presents characters dealing with such universal themes, you can almost abandon reading the subtitles at a certain and not miss what’s happening. There’s true inspiration to be found in this chronicle of the life of this lone beekeeper and her unwavering commitment to both her insects and her ailing mother, earning the film a Spirit Award nomination for Best Documentary.
Released: August 30
Directors: Waad Al-Khateab, Edward Watts
Producer: Waad Al-Khateab
Where You Can Watch: PBS – Frontline (streaming)
Why We Love It: Since the war in Syria began in 2011 there have been more than a few documentaries about the conflict, including two Spirit Awards nominees in Last Men in Aleppo (2017) and Of Fathers and Sons (2018). This year, For Sama takes us on a personal journey with journalist Waad Al-Khateab. At the opening of the film, we see a woman with who lets us know that she if making this documentary, in the middle of a horrible war, for her infant daughter Sama, so that later she may understand why her parents made the decision to stay in Aleppo as war raged around them. This film doesn’t try to explain the war in Syria. It does, however, present a rare micro look at life in Aleppo throughout the historic struggle against the oppressive al-Assad regime. The camera delivers an unflinching look at the horrors of war and the indomitable spirit of the people who struggled to survive and continued to strive for freedom. Like Honeyland, it one of this year’s five Spirit Award nominees for Best Documentary.
More Film Independent…
(Header: Hail Satan?)