The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to decide on what to observe. Every month, we’ll select three nonfiction movies — classics, missed recent docs and more — that can reward your time.
‘Grey Gardens’ (1976)
Why “Grey Gardens,” certainly one of the best-known and most-parodied documentaries from the “direct cinema” pioneers Albert and David Maysles? Partly it’s because several more offbeat Maysles selections — like “Showman,” a portrait of the producer Joseph E. Levine, or “In Transit,” an Amtrak odyssey that turned out to be Albert’s final film — aren’t available to stream. (Someone get on that!) And partly it’s because arguments in regards to the potential cinematic exploitation of Kennedy-adjacent figures are raging again, due to the movie version of “Blonde.”
Funny, sad and intensely voyeuristic, “Grey Gardens” is eternally able to starting a great fight in regards to the relationship between documentarian and subject. The Maysles, who share directing credit with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, enter the private world of Big and Little Edie Beale, a mother and daughter who’re relatives of Jackie Kennedy. They live together in seclusion at an ocean-view East Hampton estate whose upkeep leaves much to be desired. You won’t meet a less self-conscious onscreen pair, whether it’s Big Edie eating ice cream straight from the container in her cluttered bed or Little Edie expounding on her bizarre wardrobe decisions. They argue in regards to the spinster 56-year-old Little Edie’s former marriage prospects. Little Edie implies that her mother is keeping her from a more fulfilling life in the town. “Raccoons and cats turn out to be somewhat bit boring,” she says. “I mean, for too long a time.”
Still, Big and Little Edie will not be thus far gone of their folie à deux that they’re unaware of the Maysles brothers’ presence, they usually even interact with the filmmakers at times. On this mode of documentary, there may be at all times the query of how much the camera influences behavior; definitely there’s a performative element to how the Beales comport themselves (and sing) for his or her audience, even in the event that they seem utterly oblivious to how they arrive off. If you could have a camera and shoot Little Edie emptying a bag of Wonder Bread to feed the attic’s animal population, perhaps it’s time for an intervention. Or perhaps not, since it’s documentary gold.
‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?’ (2019)
Judy Hill, the proprietor of the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar within the Treme neighborhood of Recent Orleans, grapples with having to shut down the beloved institution she began with pennies. A teen, Ronaldo, teaches Titus, his younger half brother, learn how to fight, within the spirit of keeping him out of trouble, at the same time as their mother worries that Ronaldo is prone to happening a troubled path himself. Members of the Recent Black Panther Party for Self-Defense knock on doors in Jackson, Miss., as a part of what the group’s chairwoman, Krystal Muhammad, calls a “people’s investigation”; they don’t trust what they’re hearing from law enforcement in regards to the killing of Jeremy Jackson, an African American man who was decapitated, in what the film’s subjects strongly suspect was a racially motivated murder. Lastly, Kevin Goodman, a chief with the Mardi Gras Indians, prepares for festivities.
Unfolding in Recent Orleans (aside from the Panthers’ trips to Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson), the 4 basic strands of “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?,” directed by Roberto Minervini (“The Other Side”), all touch on problems with solidarity, resilience and the importance of community, although the movie trusts audiences to attract the connections themselves. An impressionistic documentary shot in black-and-white, the film lends itself to repeat viewings; different scenes emerge as revelatory every time. Hill has a very riveting screen presence. (Sean Baker subsequently forged her in a dramatic role in “Red Rocket” after Minervini connected them.) According weight each to small moments of tenderness and scenes of outraged activism, the film is proof that a documentary can concurrently be politically pointed and poetic.
‘Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad’ (2021)
You might only have hazy memories of the Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan thriller “Proof of Life” (2000), nevertheless it’s hard to forget this documentary chronicling the events that inspired it — the kidnapping of an American agricultural journalist named Thomas R. Hargrove in Colombia. The director, Miles Hargrove, is certainly one of Hargrove’s sons. When his father was taken by guerrillas in 1994 and held for ransom, his mother, Susan, encouraged him to videotape what was happening at home, in order that his father would ultimately have a record of what happened. It might also have been a way for Miles to remain sane.
The result’s that Miles made home movies of the negotiations as they unfolded. The camera is there as the abductors and the family’s designated interlocutor, who all speak in code, haggle by radio over the ransom price. It’s there through long periods of silence because the Hargroves and their confidants wait for contact, making nice dinners to maintain calm and second-guessing decisions. It’s even there in high-stakes automotive rides when it’s time to make a payoff. The dizzyingly complicated logistics involve multiple steps. (“The one thing that’s missing is having an accident,” certainly one of the Hargroves’ neighbors says on one such ride. On a later trip to secure one more proof of life, there’s an apology for jerky camera movements when the automotive veers off-road.)
“Miracle Fishing” can also be a portrait of how the family and a tight-knit group of friends became, to paraphrase Susan, kidnapped themselves. Despite some level of publicity for the case, that they had to lie low and keep counsel mainly with each other. And so they couldn’t let themselves be rattled during long stretches meant to sweat them out. In a way, “Miracle Fishing” is as much a domestic psychodrama because it is a documentary. It’s the “Capturing the Friedmans” of international intrigue.