Good documentaries are hard to come by but they are there if you look for them! Netflix have several mainstream and topical documentary series in their catalogue, and many from this year have been worth the remote control button press. The Last Dance about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls is a riveting sports documentary. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich details the repulsive life of a predatory pedophile but is essential viewing. High Score is a nostalgic series about the origins of computer games. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, which I am sure you have heard of, is exactly what it says on the tin. Other recommended stand-alone documentaries from recent times include The Social Dilemma (the sinister side of social media), Knock Down the House (the rise of the marvellous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), The Great Hack (the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal) and My Octopus Teacher (an underwater affair with intelligent life). If you look beyond the streaming giant, you may unearth a few other intellectual and educational gems. Here are my five favourites from the last year:
Coup 53 (Taghi Amirani)
Limited availability, updates here
In the Western world, the socio-political structure of the Middle East is often characterised as chaotic, barbaric and backward. It is also dismissed as being undemocratic. Which, of course, in many cases is not true. There are many contrasting countries in the Middle East, and they all have their own histories, their own traditions, their own systems of governance, and their own problems. When other more powerful countries interfere with those things, chaos is not far away. The director of this thoroughly absorbing documentary, Taghi Amirani, states early on that the US and UK-led coup d’état of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 led his family to immigrate to Britain when he was a child. His objective is to understand why the coup happened, and much to the satisfaction of the viewer, he successfully achieves this. Amirani diligently sleuths through British film archives and CIA files obtained by Freedom of Information, and calls upon Ralph Fiennes to play the role of an important ‘missing piece’ interviewee from ITV research for a mid-80s documentary on Iran. The candid interviewee turns out to be a MIA operative who personally led the coup operation in conjunction with the Iranian Military. It is extremely insightful stuff, and the relevance of the whole event is established quite firmly by Amirani’s astute direction. The coup was clearly an effort by Western forces to maintain control of important oil resources in the Middle East, and because of its success, it was replicated several times on other South American and Middle Eastern countries in the decades since.
Beastie Boys Story (Spike Jonze)
Available on Apple TV+
I never knew much about these guys growing up, and only occasionally revelled in their unique form of hip hop music through the mainstream offerings of the likes of ‘Sabotage’ and ‘Intergalactic’ (and their awesome accompanying music videos). After watching this live-stage show/documentary combo, I certainly know a lot more about the group and I feel all the better for it. I assume the band’s story is equally as insightful for the super Beasties fan as it is for the fair-weathered Beasties novice, but regardless, this is just a great docu-show to engage in. Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz take to the stage in their hometown (NYC) without their centrifugal force, Adam “MCA” Yauch, for the first time since Yauch’s untimely death in 2012. His absence on stage tinges the film with melancholy, but his presence in the accompanying footage influences and inspires. Indeed, Mike D and Ad Rock’s thoughtful and hilarious narration of the story enhances the whole thing into a kind of homage to their creative brother, and I really liked this. The film leaves you in no doubt that the Beastie Boys were (and still are) awesome. But they are also very, very human and down to earth. Starting out as a rampant, rebellious Brooklyn kid collective in the early 1980s and evolving into a more reflective, semi-political global powerhouse, their story navigates American youth, fame, loss and friendship and it does so with a sense of comic, raucous energy that ultimately defined the band’s raison d’être.
Hail Satan? (Penny Lane)
Available on Amazon Prime Video
This documentary will educate you on a lot of matters, not least on what the term ‘Satanist’ has become to mean. It follows the exploits of The Satanic Temple, a growing US-based nontheistic (no God) religious group that promotes a number of humanist tenets. The surprising thing is that they do not actually believe in a supernatural Satan, but rather utilises satanic imagery as ‘a metaphor to promote pragmatic scepticism, rational reciprocity, personal autonomy, and curiosity.’ Some may say this all a bit too ridiculous and will dismiss these folks as wayward fools in a sea of ‘woke’ madness. But in fact, there are many nuances to gain from this engrossing film. It is clear that The Satanic Temple are a protest movement firmly against Christian conservative socio-political norms, which in the US, is utterly infested with bigotry and religious hypocrisy. The mercurial Lucien Greaves is one of its founders, and at the beginning of the film we are introduced to him at an odd press conference. He is a young, smirking and uncertain individual with two alternative-coloured irises, which could easily force you into an eye-roll and a statement of ‘here we go with the crazy”. But he instantly makes an impression and he turns out to be a straight-up, intelligent and thoughtful human being. Whereas Greaves and many of his colleagues believe in the advocacy of peace though their unorthodox endeavours, unfortunately there are always a few who try to position the movement in ever more rebellious (and potentially violent) directions. And this indeed leaves them open to much critique. However, there is much to admire in their central purpose, i.e. to achieve social justice, and this is what makes this perceptive documentary so thoroughly watchable.
Jihad Jane (Ciarán Cassidy)
Available on Amazon Prime Video
Another fascinating and compelling story that I first caught as a podcast on Irish Radio. This is a tale of two American women, Colleen LaRose and Jamie Paul Ramirez, who get charged on terrorism offences after getting caught up in an underground Islamic cell based in an apartment over a Chinese restaurant in the Irish City of Waterford. The documentary expertly controls the sensationalist aspects of the story by exploring the deeper corners for meaning. It does so with remarkable sensitivity and non-judgement. Human vulnerability, alienation and childhood trauma pocket the story of the two women, who upon growing angry with Israel’s suppression of Palestinians, go on a purposeful but considerably naïve quest to change things – essentially, they plot to murder a Swedish artist who drew an offensive cartoon of Muhammed. LaRose provides the central intrigue by offering her side of the story through phone interviews from prison. What emerges is not a picture of a bloodthirsty lunatic, but something way more familiar. Her frailties in judgement led her to do what she had done, and the craziness of the world around her allowed that to proliferate. It is equally fascinating to learn that she is now a staunch Trump supporter. In the end, the documentary silently makes comment on the grave possibilities of ‘dark web’ influence. Some would say that the ‘dark web’ is now seeing the mainstream light thanks to the likes of Trump. But whatever about that, this film offers a lot of sub-surface insight.
Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov)
Available on Amazon Prime Video
Macedonia may have a special meaning to Irish people who follow their national football team, but after watching this fascinating documentary, the southeast European country may mean a lot more. Officially known as North Macedonia since last year, this beautiful part of the world provides the setting for a tender life-story about a wild-beekeeper called Hatidže Muratova. The film-makers take a fly-on-the-wall approach (or bees-on-the-wall approach, if you will), having spent three years and over 400 hours of footage in the remote mountain village of Bekirlija in order to capture Muratova’s traditional practice of honey-making. The middle-aged woman lives and cares for her ailing mother in a primitive, stone-built house that has no access to electricity or running water. With an accusation of ‘poverty porn’ looming, the cinéma vérité style of the documentary is actually adjudged to perfection. If you came into this film cold to its context, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a Ken Loach drama, such is its purist, visual format. Muratova is a life-affirming central focus of the film, while a nomadic, farming family who move in next door inadvertently become important background characters. The wider message concerns the conservation of, and by contrast, the destruction of the earth’s environment by human will and ignorance respectively. There is a sad and harrowing tone to the film because of this, but it also seeps with deep humility. Muratova’s character is wonderfully eccentric and her approach to life is filled with muted smarts and traditional intelligence. Her work in beekeeping, where she earns somewhat of a living, is simple, but it is based on a fundamental principle of balancing subsistence with nature. A remarkable watch.