Not everyone wants to spend all of New Year’s Day glued to the football games on TV. (Geaux Tigers in the Outback Bowl…though, seriously, the Outback Bowl?).
So, if like me, you want to leaven your football games with a little thought provocation, I thought I would compile my top ten list of 2013’s social justice documentaries. Not all of these are available on DVD or digital streaming yet, so you might have to run to a theater. But all of them are worth watching.
The runaway best documentary I saw this year was The Act of Killing. I’m not alone. The film is on the Oscar documentary short list and is an early favorite for the win. The subject is grim — Indonesian death squads responsible for killing millions in the mid-1960s. But the movie uses such innovative and transfixing methods to understand the men behind the squads that it completely captures you. It’s not the easiest film to watch, but it lingers for days. (The Act of Killing will be available for home video and digital platforms on January 7).
A trio of movies that came out this year explore our national security state each from their own unique perspectives.
Also on the Oscar short list, Dirty Wars explores the barely understood global scope of America’s war on terror. It shows how our nation strikes anywhere, anytime, and always secretly. With its focus on how we wage war today, it argues that there is no such thing as conventional war anymore. Beautifully shot, the film won the Sundance Film Festival cinematography award. (It is available on digital platforms and screening in select theaters.)
Terms and Conditions May Apply tackles the complex and symbiotic relationship between the corporations that gather our personal information for commercial gain and the government that wants to use it for law enforcement (or other purposes). The New York Times called it “quietly blistering.” It does sneak up on you: all those “I agree” buttons you clicked, those shrink wrapped licenses you must comply with. They add up. Terms and Conditions gives you a sense of how and why along with a very unsettling sense of concern. (The movie is available on digital platforms).
Love him or hate him, no one can deny the incredible impact of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organization on the last five years. We Steal Secrets tells his story — full of grey, complicated, contradictory, and hypocritical moments. (It is available on digital platforms.)
Three very good films on our criminal justice system also came out this year and are worth a watch.
This month’s Washington district court decision in Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon, found that chronically underfunded public defender systems are broken to the point that “the individual defendant is not represented in any meaningful way, and actual innocence could conceivably go unnoticed and unchampioned.” In the wake of that ruling, Gideon’s Army is must viewing. It chronicles the lonely, idealistic, heartbreaking struggles of three public defenders in the South as they try to disprove the court’s finding. You wonder how they manage. (This film is not yet available on DVD or digitally, but the filmmakers are aggressively looking for hosts for local screenings. In addition, it may be available on HBO.)
How to Make Money Selling Drugs is a full-throated, unabashed attack on the war on drugs that starts out as a tongue in cheek how-to manual but quickly evolves into a sustained catalogue of the high costs, moral and monetary, of our current drug policy. (The movie is out on digital platforms now).
A more nuanced and tragic film, Valentine Road, is about the heartbreaking. 2008 murder of junior high student Lawrence King by a fellow 14-year-old classmate. The film explores bullying from all sides, showing compassion for the killer — who gunned down a young boy in a room full of students. It will leave you shaking your head. (You might be able to find this on HBO).
There’s a final film about our criminal justice system that I’m hoping an elf will deliver to me soon. It’s Let the Fire Burn about the Philadelphia showdown between the radical urban group MOVE and city authorities. In May 1985, Philadelphia police dropped explosives onto the townhouse occupied by MOVE’s adherents. The house burst into flames, and the city decided to “let the fire burn.” Eleven people died, and 61 houses were destroyed. It got wonderful reviews, and I can’t wait to see it.
Finally, no list about social justice movies can ignore the University of California at Berkeley. You can start off taking a class on income inequality with Professor Robert Reich in Inequality for All. The movie is a brisk, engaging tour through the growing income distribution gap in the US and its troubling consequences for the American way of life. (DVDs will be out January 7).
But if you really, really want to dive into Berkeley, there is no better way than At Berkeley, documentary filmmaking god Frederick Wiseman’s forty-something movie. Wiseman’s incredible, wide-ranging curiosity has taken him from mental health facilities (Titicut Follies) to Parisian erotic reviews (Crazy Horse) to Idaho state government (State Legislature). Now Berkeley. Wiseman’s movies take a patient and devoted watcher. But Berkeley lives and breathes in this movie, and it’s a joy to watch. (DVDs will be out in January).
This seems like an awfully heavy bunch of watching, but I promise they will open your mind and stick with you long after that amazing fourth and long conversion in the Rose Bowl.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily that of the Brennan Center.
(Photo: Joshua Oppenheimer, one of the directors of The Act of Killing)