13th

A few weeks before the election, race relations, police brutality, and mass incarceration are on the forefront of many voters minds. Fittingly, Netflix just released the stirring documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay which delves into the issues through historical background and extensive expert interviews.

13th decides to tackle issues so huge that it somewhat struggles with what it wants the main focus of the film to be. The title and core thesis reflects a very important and often overlooked clause in the 13th amendment, the abolishment of slavery except as punishment for a crime. This loophole, as the film reflects has allowed for hundreds of years of legal slavery in the form of mass incarceration of mainly african-american men. DuVernay, deftly establishes the long history of systemic racism in law and politics that has led to the highest incarceration rates in the world. She uses numerous interviews with incarceration activists, historians, and other notables including, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Michelle Alexander to discuss the history. Alexander, is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, whose thesis that the US prison system is the modern equivalent of slavery is at the core of the film.

The film amazingly clocks in under two hours while managing to highlight the past 200 years of racism, laws, and rhetoric that has led up to the incarceration rates of 2016 and the current political climate. It even takes time to focus on the racist and inflammatory rhetoric both of the current political candidates have said over the past twenty five years. The pacing never feels too rushed and DuVernay tries to eliminate any major bias by incorporating a few apposing viewpoints and some whose minds have changed as policies have evolved.

Most interesting is hearing the ALEC spokesman try and defend the years of racist policies they’ve been able to push into law. DuVernay doesn’t try to make the film about contrasting views, her argument is clear enough just by laying out the history and increase in the prison system over the last twenty years. While highlighting the specific lawmakers, like Clinton and Bush whose policies nearly doubled the prison population.

The film ends with a slight examination into how new technology has brought national attention to police brutality. Now, with the help of filming devices more non people of color are witnessing and becoming aware of the thoroughly embedded societal inequality, which will hopefully inspire positive change in the coming years. The film ends while intercutting montages of Trump rallies with those of anti-segregationists in the 1960’s. Showing that in many ways, we still have far to go.

13th is available to stream on Netflix with subscription

 

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Amanda Knox

The name Amanda Knox is synonymous throughout the world with murder. In 2007 Knox, a twenty year old American studying abroad in Italy was thrust onto the national spotlight after being arrested for the brutal murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. Nine years later, Netflix has released a riveting and highly stylized documentary on the murder, arrests, and trials of Knox, her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, and the convicted killer Rudy Guede.

The films starts by evaluating Knox’s character with personal interviews, showing her as somewhat naive and excited to go abroad. Also interviewed are, Sollecito, Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, and Nick Pisa, the DailyMail journalist whose yellow journalism helped to bring the international spotlight on Knox. With the inclusion of Pisa the filmmakers try to raise the question, was Knox’s trial by media or evidence?

The film delves into the media circus surrounding the murder and trial as well as the character accusations against Knox whose “quirky” personality are quickly be manipulated by the media and prosecution into something more sinister. The film’s story is a bit scattered sometimes jumping between interviews, stylized reenactments and archival footage as if the filmmakers struggled with what elements to highlight. The core of the film is the exclusive access and interviews with Knox who is presented in a raw unbiased factor, leaving the viewer to be the ultimate judge of her guilt.

The other interviewees also become quickly characterized, Sollectio – the quiet romantic, Pisa – the ruthless journalist, and Mignini – the morally righteous (and heavily religious) prosecutor. The focus on Mignini’s religiousness is interesting as it contrasts against the heavy use of science and logic involved in law trials. Even with Knox’s and Sollectio’s convictions overturned Mignini believes that they will have to answer to the higher power as “god will judge them” for their actions.

Some of the subtle highlights of the film include the pulsating soundtrack and beautiful arial shots of the Italian countryside and Perugia. Which juxtaposed against the grainy  police footage of the murder scene made the crime even more horrific in appearance and action.

The film ends with Knox and Sollectio being exonerated by the highest court in Italy. Guede – who was convicted of murder in 2007 – remains an afterthought in the whole media circus while Knox’s party believe he was the sole killer. While, innocent in the eyes of the law, it is Knox, and to some extent Sollectio, who will never be able to escape the judgement of the the public and media. Overall, the film gives an detailed and high access look into one of the most covered trials of the 2000’s and shows that sometimes the evidence is not as important as a juicy story.

Amanda Knox is available to stream on Netflix with a subscription

Jim: The James Foley Story

Can human decency outshine the evils of the world? That is one of the questions that Jim: The James Foley Story asks the viewer. This moving documentary tell the story of Journalist James (Jim) Foley, who became known worldwide for his brutal death at the hands of ISIS. The story is told through Jim’s friends and family in three parts.

First – through the lens of his family – his beginning in New England and his restlessness with a “normal” job and life. The normalcy of his family and childhood brings a stark contrast to the dangerous career and adult life he so loved.

We then follow Jim on his journey into conflict journalism and his first experience with being a hostage in Libya. Which is told by his fellow journalists and friends. Jim is universally well liked among his peers and subjects, which at points veers on the edge of idolization. Though one fault highlighted is his propensity for dangerous situations -which ultimately gets him kidnapped. When Jim returns to New England he realizes the pain he has caused his family and tries to assimilate into a desk job. However the pull of danger and conflict proves to be to much and Jim moved his sights toward Syria. His family and friends begrudgingly send him off and he returns to war.  Joined by a few of his peers from Libya they start working in Syria, but soon realize that there are much darker forces working outside of their control – and protection as a journalist.

The final act of the film is perhaps the most harrowing. It starts at Jim’s capture and ends at his death. Jim’s final act is told partly through his friends and family back home and his surrogate family – his fellow hostages. The usage of reenactments usually feel forced in documentaries however Brian Oakes subtle and soft directing of the captors simple joys and horrors help to bring even more depth to their torturous stories. The other captors highlight Jim’s humanity and selflessness in the face of unspeakable brutality. Showing that even while staring death in the face James Foley chose to live a life of optimism and compassion towards the plight of others.

The documentary is able to capture the life and legacy of Jim without politicizing or sensationalizing his death. Oakes, a friend of Foley’s was able to gain incredible and access, not just to Jim’s family but the fellow hostages and his journalist friends creating an intimate and caring voice throughout the film.  If you want a film that gives an exposed look into the recent horrors in war in Syria while highlighting the tenacity of the human spirit I would definitely recommend – with tissues.

Jim:The James Foley Story is available for to stream on HBOGO or HBONOW with subscription.

 

 

CitizenFour

     Do you ever have the feeling that big brother is watching you? Laura Poitras’ breathtaking 2014 documentary CitizenFour fearlessly delves into how much big brother is watching – and how little it wants the American public to know about it.

The film starts with Poitras being contacted through encrypted email by a mysterious source with compromising information that United States government wants to keep hidden. Poitras –along with Journalist Glenn Greenwald –meet with the source in Hong Kong who later reveals himself to be Edward Snowden. The core of the film subsists of the interviews and actions that follow over the next few days in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room while the media around the world reacts the leak of once-confidential information. Poitras positions Snowden to be a brave hero – a David – standing up to the goliath of the United States government. She highlights small moments of Snowden, which to anyone could appear paranoid, thinking that the government could be listening in through the phone. However, when he reveals how in depth the NSA spying has become, it made me rethink how I protect my privacy on the web and in daily life. Greenwald echoes my sentiment but soon realizes the gravity of what Snowden knows and works perfectly as a mirror for the unknowing viewer to grasp the unsettling information that is being revealed.

When Snowden reveals his identity the American news media and government rebrand his whistleblower appearance as that of a terrorist. Throughout the interviews Poitras intersperse interviews and observations from leading privacy experts and whistleblowers commending Snowden and condemning the United States government for their invasive techniques. As Greenwald and Poitras try to continue to push the information to the public. The reach and strength of big government continues to push back on the journalists as pressure becomes so strong that the UK government forces the Guardian to destroy the hard drive given to them under the guise of national security. As well as detaining Greenwald’s partner for no discernible reason other than fear.

This turn of events cause Snowden to plead asylum in Russia. Which is where the film ends with him reuniting with Poitras and Greenwald to discuss another source that has come forward with even more damming information. Though this time Greenwald knows that someone could be watching, writing down information and than ripping it to pieces. Poitras lets the camera linger on this moment to show, not only how much they have been affected by the presence of big brother but what else the government might be doing without the public’s knowledge.

            The film strongly supports Snowden’s point of view and viewpoint and Poitras actively inserts her personal issues with the government into the film. Though without that bias she would never have been able to achieve the access that she gained with Snowden. Which gives the viewer an in-depth view into Snowden and what the NSA has been doing to the American public, in a far more personal way that any other news story on the subject. As it is an election year, I would definitely recommend anyone on both sides of the political spectrum to watch the film and see how you view your privacy.

CitizenFour is available to stream now on HBOgo