A “documentary” is never just one thing. It might be a memoir, a polemic, a comedy, a thriller, a romance — the sky’s the limit. Truth is frequently stranger than fiction, and if we’re lucky, much more interesting, too. Nonfiction movies can teach us about the world we live in through the stories of people living halfway around the world or right next door.
Many of 2019’s documentaries are no exception, and many of the finest were recently shown at the DOC NYC film festival, the biggest documentary festival in the country. Here are 16 worth noting, ranging from heartbreaking family stories and illuminating explorations of social issues to tales of cults and con artists.
American Factory, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2020, explores the 2014 reopening of a closed GM plant in Dayton, Ohio — by a Chinese company that makes automotive glass — and the ensuing cultural clashes that put some bumps in the road. Veteran documentarians Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert train their cameras not only on the people involved but also on the tasks and materials of factory work, giving less-familiar viewers an idea of how complicated and difficult it can be, as well as how valuable skilled labor is. American Factory tackles the challenges of globalization with much more depth and nuance than most other reporting on the topic, precisely because it steps back to watch a story unfold over time and also resists easy generalizations. It’s both soberly instructive and fascinating.
How to watch it: American Factory is streaming on Netflix.
Anbessa takes a magical realist approach to the moving story of Asalif, a 10-year-old living with his mother near an enormous condominium complex on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Their shack now stands in a poor community in the shadows of government-built condos; Asalif is forced to scavenge to help keep his family afloat. But despite his difficult circumstances, Asalif has a vivid imagination and big dreams, and director Mo Scarpelli worked with him to bring those dreams to life. Anbessa follows Asalif as he dresses up as a lion — “anbessa” is “lion” in the Ethiopian language Amharic — and imagines chasing away the hyenas he can hear outside at night. It’s a metaphor for the encroaching land developers, and the film takes us inside Asalif’s stories to help us understand his world.
How to watch it: Anbessa is currently screening on the festival circuit and awaiting distribution.
Apollo 11, directed by Todd Douglas Miller, harnesses the iconic images of the moon landing to powerfully retell the story of the Apollo 11 mission. But Miller’s film does a lot more than retread familiar history. Using never-before-seen footage and audio that has been meticulously scanned and restored, Apollo 11 moves from launch to safe return in a way that makes you feel as though you’re living through the mission. There’s minimal onscreen text, a couple of very simple illustrations to show the craft’s trajectory, and no talking heads. The result is a grand and awe-inspiring film.
Journalist Cara Jones and her three siblings were raised by their loving parents in a cult: the Unification Church, commonly known as the “Moonies.” Now an adult, Jones has left the church but struggles with the loss of her community and a changed relationship with her family. In Blessed Child, her first film, Jones goes on a journey with the help of one of her brothers to discover why people joined the church, why they left, and how their lives were affected and changed by the experience. Blessed Child is as much memoir as history, and it perceptively mines an experience many people have: If you were raised in a restrictive or insular community, what does it mean to grow up?
How to watch it: Blessed Child is currently screening on the festival circuit.
The Edge of Democracy
Taking a sweeping but personal view of contemporary Brazilian politics, filmmaker Petra Costa shows what it looks like when a country finally embraces democracy after years of military dictatorship — and then squanders its progress as it moves toward far-right authoritarianism. Costa, who is Brazilian herself, makes no claims of objectivity; instead, she weaves her family’s story into that of her country’s and asks devastating questions about peace, democracy, and living in a slow-motion, real-world horror story. Can it happen elsewhere? And can a country return from the brink?
How to watch it: The Edge of Democracy is streaming on Netflix.
There have been many documentaries in recent years about the bombings and humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, and many of them have been excellent. But For Sama is a new take on the subject, and it’s truly outstanding. Waad Al-Kateab and her husband, Hamza Al-Kateab, a doctor, are native Syrians who were living in Aleppo when Syrians began to protest their government and President Bashar al-Assad. Their daughter, Sama, was born in 2016, and the family remained in Aleppo — with Hamza running a hospital — as the bombings continued.
Eventually, they left, and Waad and British documentarian Edward Watts edited years of footage she’d shot in Aleppo into For Sama. The film movingly documents life in Aleppo and in Hamza’s hospital during the yearslong siege while also offering an explanation, addressed to young Sama, for why her parents kept her in a dangerous place and why their work was important.
Honeyland is a vibrant, fascinating, and sober documentary that examines a serious issue — the endangerment of bees — by way of a human portrait. Hatidze Muratova is the last beekeeper in Macedonia. She lives on a quiet, secluded mountain and cares for her elderly mother as well as her apian charges. Her life’s work, as she sees it, isn’t just to keep the bees; it’s to help restore balance to the ecosystem around her, and bees are a vital part of that mission. But Muratova’s sense of solitude is disrupted when a family of nomadic beekeepers arrive, seeking honey to sell.
The newcomers not only disrupt Muratova and threaten the insects’ existence but also invade an established way of life on the relatively untouched mountain. As the film progresses, different ways of thinking about commerce — as well as beekeeping and the natural world — come together in a story that is sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, and often enlightening.
Lauren Greenfield’s new film The Kingmaker centers on one of the most famously extravagant women in recent history: Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines. When Marcos and her husband, dictator Ferdinand Marcos, were driven into exile in the United States in 1986, Imelda left behind a stash of more than 1,000 pairs of shoes. That might be the only thing a lot of people know about her. But there’s much more to Imelda Marcos — and that’s what Greenfield dives into in The Kingmaker.
Imelda is interviewed throughout the film, and at first, we only hear her side of the story. But then Greenfield slowly fills in what’s missing and challenges her subject’s outright fabrications by talking to people who remember the reign of terror that was the kleptocratic Marcos regime, drawing a line between that reign and the more recent rise of the murderous authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte.
How to watch it: The Kingmaker is available to stream on Showtime.
Knock Down the House is the rare documentary about today’s American political landscape that might make you shed happy tears. It’s about four progressive Democratic candidates — all women — who ran primary campaigns against establishment Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections: Amy Vilela in Nevada, Cori Bush in Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. Documentarian Rachel Lears followed the candidates, who all live in very different communities with different political terrains. They weren’t all successful — only Ocasio-Cortez won her race — but the film is uplifting and hopeful for anyone who wants their political candidates to truly represent the communities they serve. Whether or not you agree with a given individual’s politics at every point, Knock Down the House makes it clear that there’s a hunger to upend America’s politics as usual.
How to watch it: Knock Down the House is streaming on Netflix.
Nine million people live in Mexico City, but the government maintains only 45 ambulances to cover that entire population; private ambulance companies have stepped in to pick up the slack. Midnight Family follows one such company run by the Ochoa family, who ride their ambulance through the streets overnight, hoping to beat their competitors to the scene of a sudden illness or accident so they can help — while also gaining business. It’s difficult work, and it clearly feels ethically tricky. But director Luke Lorentzen manages to capture the Ochoas’ compassion and their own economic instability, as well as the heart-thumping adrenaline rush that often accompanies their line of work. The result is a sweet, fascinating portrait of a group of people trying to make the best of a bad situation, and sometimes succeeding.
In 2015, the Taliban called for the death of Afghani filmmaker Hassan Fazili. Fazili, along with his wife (and fellow filmmaker) Fatima Hussaini, and their two daughters, fled the country, becoming refugees as they traveled across Europe — sometimes in very hostile places. Midnight Traveler is the family’s story, shot mostly by Fazili, who documents the family’s journey and their struggle to maintain some semblance of a life in trying circumstances. It’s part memoir, part home movie, part documentary of an experience that millions of people all over the world are having right now — and it’s a must-see.
Slow, lyrical, and heart-rending, Mother is an intertwined tale of two mothers. The first is Pomm, a Thai woman who works around the clock in a Thailand care facility home to patients with Alzheimer’s, most of whom are white and wealthy Westerners; Pomm’s own children live many hours away. The second is Maya, a Swiss woman with early onset Alzheimer’s whose devoted husband and daughters are making the painful decision to admit her to the Thailand facility thousands of miles from home in hopes of improving her quality of life. Director Kristof Bilsen crafts a film that’s moving and always surprising, exploring love and sacrifice that transcend distance and memory.
How to watch it: Mother is currently screening on the festival circuit and awaiting distribution.
Narrowsburg is a bizarre true-life con story, one that ended up roiling an entire town. In upstate New York, the tiny hamlet of Narrowsburg one day discovered the arrival of two glamorous strangers, both of whom had connections in the film business. The strangers launched a film festival (which, they proclaimed, would become the “Sundance of the East”) and shot a movie with the whole town’s involvement. Then things got very, very weird. Director Martha Shane keeps you guessing about what was really going on — Narrowsburg is full of twists — as she crafts a poignant portrait of the allure of show business in American life.
How to watch it: Narrowsburg is currently screening on the festival circuit and awaiting distribution.
One Child Nation
Director Nanfu Wang grew up in rural China under the country’s “one child” policy, which was in effect from 1979 to 2015. Wang’s own parents had two children — the law made an exception for families in rural areas, so long as the children were born at least five years apart — but only after her mother narrowly escaped involuntary sterilization. Many other women were not so lucky, and were forced into sterilization and abortion against their will. The policy’s mental, physical, and emotional toll on China, especially its women, was tremendous. Through a documentary that is part personal, part journalistic, Wang explores the ramifications of the one-child era. It’s a harrowing but essential film that confronts and confounds Western ideas about agency, choice, reproduction, and bodily autonomy.
How to watch it: One Child Nation is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Pahokee is a small town on the shores of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, and there’s a waning number of jobs and resources available to the people who live there. But Pahokee High School is a beehive of activity, and that’s where filmmakers Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan focus on four seniors, all of whom hope to get out of town once they graduate. Following the students through their daily lives as they participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, navigate personal relationships, and work toward future aspirations, Pahokee is, in some ways, a familiar high-school tale. But it’s also a story of a vibrant town told through the eyes of its young people, and it explores — often with humor and grace — the forces that shape how Americans live today.
How to watch it: Pahokee is currently screening the festival circuit and awaiting distribution.
Sing Me a Song
For a very long time, the country of Bhutan was shut off from the outside world — but in recent years, the internet arrived. For Sing Me a Song, director Thomas Balmès carefully and patiently chronicles how the country’s new connectedness changes how young Buddhist monks live in their monastery. The center of the film is Peyangki, who was the 8-year-old subject of Balmès’s 2013 documentary Happiness. Now a teenager, Peyangki’s formerly idyllic life has become fraught with tension and distraction — and, poignantly, romance. Each frame is pristine, peaceful, and stunning, which only underlines the sharp changes in the young monks’ lives.
How to watch it: Sing Me a Song is currently screening on the festival circuit.