I was thinking recently how I hadn't seen a good documentary in a while, which then got me thinking about how I've written relatively few blog posts on Wood's Stock on the subject of documentary film.
always like to say that one of the main reasons I love film is because
it allows us to see the world through the eyes of another person. In no
format is this more true than a documentary, where we are given the
chance to view real people affected by real stories and listen to their
unique perspective. Very few arguments, debates or even discussions
result in a person walking away educated or informed about a topic, but a
well-prepared documentary can often present us with an issue that we
have little experience with, or show us a perspective we had never
But sadly, most people don't watch documentaries. So
if you're looking for recommendations, or if you're in the mood to watch
a thought-provoking narrative on a controversial subject, here's four
documentaries that left a profound impression on me.
heard the story of the woman who burned herself with McDonald’s coffee,
filed a lawsuit and was awarded millions of dollars in damages, yes? Of
course you have, everyone has. They made an episode of Seinfield about
But have you heard all of the story? Like how the woman wasn’t
driving at the time of the spill but was actually a passenger and the
car was parked in the lot? Or how she received third-degree burns to the
insides of her legs that required skin grafts? Or how prior to her
incident, McDonalds had received dozens of complaints from people who
burned themselves with the coffee, but the corporate giant continued to
dictate in its employee manual that coffee be stored at an unsafe
Then there’s my favorite part. The exorbitant
millions the clumsy woman received was equal to one day’s-worth of
coffee sales at McDonalds. Just one day. Just coffee. And it worked,
after the lawsuit McDonald’s changed it’s policy to turn the temperature
down a few degrees.
That story is just one of the examples used
by director Susan Saladoff to demonstrate how you, me and everyone we
know has been manipulated into believing a stream of mistruths about
so-called “frivolous lawsuits” by the very people who stand to benefit
the most from their demise: criminally negligent corporations.
this sizzling documentary, you come to despise phrases that you’ve
likely never encountered before, like mandatory arbitration, which
affect each and every one of us in ways we don’t notice, until we do.
clear, reasoned and hard-to-argue-with tones, Saladof gives you a peak
behind the curtain at the financial motivations that influence partisan
ideologues and explains how limiting “frivolous lawsuits” only limits an
individual’s access to the courts (one of our constitutional rights)
and undermines a powerful judicial power of using financial punishment
to encourage organizations to change their behavior for the better.
Care is a touchy subject in the United States. Most sides agree the
system is in dire need of reform, but few are able to agree on how to
proceed and fewer still have the courage to tackle the issue seriously
out of fear of being labeled a socialist and run out of town on a rail.
Moore has always been one to wear his motivations on the brim of his
baseball cap, which is what gives his films their distinct brand of
passionate activism. In Sicko, Moore argues that the U.S. needs
socialized medicine, or universal healthcare by another name, and to
prove his argument he goes about disproving every myth that surrounds
this boogeyman of political subjects.
Those myths include how U.S.
healthcare is the best in the world: it’s not. Or how countries with
socialized medicine have terrible health care systems that residents
have little faith in: they don’t. Or how wages for doctors in a
socialized system are so low that quality professionals are forced out
of their careers leaving lesser physicians to care for they sick:
In the meantime, Moore also shines a bright, ugly
light on the failures of our U.S. system. He talks with regular
Americans who were left in the lurch, effectively to die, by loopholes
in their insurance policies as the bills mounted up. He talks with
Americans abroad who sing praises of inexpensive prescriptions,
manageable taxes and comfortable care. He talks with tourists fearful of
traveling in the U.S. where they may inadvertently require a
bankrupting hospital visit and, in one memorable segments, takes a boat
full of the uninsured to Cuba to receive the medical attention they have
long been denied.
the constant hemming and hawing about the despicable practice of
late-term abortions, few people realize that only four doctors in the
entire country practice the third-trimester procedures. Those four
doctors are so despised, when After Tiller premiered at Sundance,
organizers beefed up security in fear that having all four “killers” in
one place would lead to a security threat.
And while luckily no threat manifested, those fears were not unfounded. The title of the film refers to George Tiller, the man who trained today’s four doctors and who was killed in 2009 in Whichita, Kansas by an anti-abortion bomber.
film bounces back and forth between the four doctors, interviewing them
about their chosen line of work. These men and women are conflicted,
their shoulders sag under the profound weight of what they do, and yet
they press on through death threats and protests because they believe
the service they provide is a necessary evil. In one of the more telling
segments, Dr. Warren Hern talks about his work with the Peace Corps
were he encountered women who had mutilated themselves with hangers and
other makeshift apparatuses in a desperate attempt to perform an illegal
abortion. He said the experience haunted him, and he came home and
immediately went to work with Dr. Tiller.
It’s those stories, as
well as the stories of the women who seek out these doctor’s care, that
are hard to set aside. The “If it’s legal it’s safe” argument is bandied
about a lot, for abortion, drugs and the like, but to hear these
doctors discuss their craft and to hear the trembling voices of their
clients, it’s hard to feel overly sympathetic to the picketers standing
just outside the reinforced walls and secure fences of the clinics.
8: The Mormon Proposition
the tides of public opinion shift so quickly on gay marriage over the
last several years has been nothing short of astounding. What was
unthinkable just 10 years ago is already seen as an inevitability by
most Americans, including those opposed to marriage equality.
in 2010 when 8: The Mormon Proposition premiered, those who espoused
equality were still very much the minority and Prop 8 was still worming
its way up the legislative process to its ultimate demise this week at
the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
What makes Reed Cowan’s
stellar documentary shine is his reluctance to simply put together a
stinging rebuke of the Mormon church and its well-documented involvement
in the pro-Prop 8 campaign. Instead, Cowan turns his camera on those
members of the church who, while remaining committed to their religion,
support equality out of love and sympathy for their gay friends,
children and neighbors. Studies show that the single-largest indicator
of those who support gay marriage are those who have friends and family
who are gay and in 8, Cowan puts a human face on the debate, showing us
the individuals and couples to whom the decades of vitriol and rhetoric
have been directed.
Cowan’s documentary seems almost prescient in
today’s political landscape, but for those who are still evolving on the
issue of marriage equality, it’s difficult to come away from viewing
and not wonder what all the fuss is really about.