Thursday, June 27, 2013

Four Documentaries That Changed My Mind

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.

I 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 considered.

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.

Hot Coffee 

You’ve 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 it.

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 temperature?

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.

Watching 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.

In 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.


Health 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.

Michael 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: they’re not.

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.

After Tiller 

Despite 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.

The 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

Watching 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.

But 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.

1 comment:

  1. Oooh documentaries! Something we can agree on when it comes to "worth watching" :) Thanks for the suggestions! I will definitely be checking them out. (My fav. is the business of being born...those babies I tell ya...freaky.)