Bright Lights (2016, dir. Alexis Bloom & Fisher Stevens)
In the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens we’re introduced to Edith and Edie Beale, a mother-daughter duo that is beyond simply dysfunctional. There are many parallels between the Beales and the focus of this film: Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. However, the Fisher-Reynolds are the Beales if they had the humility to seek out mental health care and begin the process of repairing their lives. Bright Lights was released in the wake of Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths and refrains from being a somber affair. It is full of life and hope and those sort of dreams of Hollywood you’d expect from one of Debbie’s old films. Fisher provides the biting, snarky wit while also being so open and frank about her trials. There could not have been a more perfect tribute to the late mother and daughter.
My Scientology Movie (2015, dir. John Dower)
I’ve always wondered why Scientologists practice bull baiting with detractors because from my perspective it makes them look like lunatics. In this documentary, narrated and hosted by reporter Louis Theroux, we hear the reason behind this volatile tactic from former Scientologist Marty Rathburn. He explains that they are not doing this for us, the only audience they are concerned about is David Miscavige, the head of Scientology since founder L. Ron Hubbard’s death. My Scientology has the inevitable confrontation between the filmmakers and the acolytes, but you don’t feel scared of the Scientologists, they just come across as desperate and pathetic. Theroux, however, is at his best, with that particular type of interviewing that can pull the truth out of his subjects with seemingly little effort. There’s nothing new here about the infamous religion if you have seen Going Clear, but still rewarding to see Theroux’s take.
Approaching the Elephant (2014, dir. Amanda Wilder)
This is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that had me up and shouting at the screen. This is likely due to me being a public school teacher. Approaching the Elephant chronicles the first year of The Teddy McArdle Free School in New Jersey. Free schools were a concept started by anarchists who wanted a new model of education. There are no formal classes and students are allowed to pursue their personal interests. All discipline is handled by the entire student and faculty bodies together with votes and resolutions. I wouldn’t consider myself an authoritarian by any means, but I also have strong views on children’s moral and behavioral development. I got what I expected. The school descends into chaos save a few students who try to hold onto things. The most infuriating moment in the documentary for me was a decision made by Alex Khos, the “headmaster” of the school who makes one of the most manipulative, disgusting moves I’ve seen an educator make towards alienating a student.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2012, dir. Ken Burns)
Ken Burns is not a man of brevity. The Roosevelts constitutes around 14 hours of viewing, but like with all Burns’ documentaries each and every moment is engrossing. Here he tells the stories of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Their lives are intertwined, starting with Teddy and ending with Eleanor, and by the end, it would be hard not feel strong emotions about these people. As one historian remarks at the beginning, the story of the Roosevelts is incredibly Shakespearean in nature. Like most Americans, I knew the major points of these figures, but never in the detail that is told here. As we sit on the potential precipice of darkness, it is good to remember that we have been through dark times before and certain people have risen to help leads us towards the light. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the problematic aspects of these people: Teddy’s sense of imperialism and over-romanticizing of war, Franklin’s decision to imprison Japanese-Americans and dragging his feet on Civil Rights. One commentator remarks that we must view the presidency when we have the great leaders, as not a state of perfection, but as another step in the journey of progress. These leaders will not get every single thing right; we’ll never find that Messiah. Instead, if they are faithful to the ideals of our country, they will help us move towards that better day, towards true liberty for all. It won’t happen at the hand of a single person but through the continuity of true and just leadership decade by decade.