Craving some non-fiction? Here are some of the best documentaries streaming on Netflix right now
Isabella Rossellini’s GREEN PORNO LIVE! (2015)
Directed by Jody Shapiro – 1h 3m
What began as a series of bizarre YouTube videos became a live show and now a documentary. ‘I want to reassure you – or maybe disappoint you – that tonight’s show is not pornographic,’ informs the dulcet voice of actor and model Isabella Rossellini, ‘but it is obscene. I transform myself into animals to better understand how they reproduce.’ What follows is Rossellini’s one-woman dramatic monologue interspersed with short clips of her demonstrating the reproductive habits of the animal kingdom. Performed with a cast of paper creatures, it is a lecture that is goofy, glamorous, often surprising and even thought-provoking. In a playful pop-up book clip, Rossellini asks ‘how did Noah do it, how did he organise all the animals into heterosexual couples?’ She then dresses as a hermaphrodite earthworm, an asexual whiptail lizard and parthenogenetic group of female aphids to prove a point: ‘with our language we have created tight categories which cannot properly describe the variety of nature,’ she says. In a particularly poignant sequence on homosexuality she discusses how it was condemned as ‘unnatural’ and ‘against nature’, despite the fact that it exists throughout the animal kingdom.
Directed by Ava DuVernay – 1h 40m
If only 13.2 per cent of the US population is black, why are 40 per cent of its prisoners? The answer, according to Ava DuVernay’s superb documentary, has everything to do with a loophole in the 13th Amendment that states no slavery shall exist within the United States, ‘except as punishment for crime’. For 100 gruelling minutes, 13th traces the US’s mass incarceration drive at the end of the Civil War, when the end of slavery left the southern economy in tatters. ‘African Americans were arrested en masse, for extremely minor crimes such as loitering or vagrancy.’ Bringing together some of the best talking heads on the subject, DuVernay shows how imprisonment led to the criminalisation of African-Americans throughout the 20th century and, now, a system that prioritises profit over well-being.
THE White Helmets (2016)
Directed by Orlando Von Einsiedel – 41 minutes
From the director of Virunga, comes a searing documentary short about the lives of Syrian volunteers who risk their lives to pull people from the rubble. The camera takes us on a dizzying tour through the crumbling streets of Syria, as the team run pell-mell towards danger, occasionally looking up to see an artillery shell shrieking through the sky. Though their helmets give them an official look, Einsiedel reveals the reality of the situation: these are unpaid, fearless do-gooders doing everything to try and keep their neighbours alive.
Directed by Ron Fricke
If we ever make contacts with aliens, Samsara should be what we send them. With more than 100 scenes of human activity from locations in over 25 countries, director Ron Fricke has really got us covered. Shot in 70mm, the film is rich in colour, sharp in detail and, despite its breadth, gives a surprisingly slow meditation on human lives. Its most powerful technique is in fact the absence of one: narration. With no dialogue, the camera is free to linger on its subjects without context or argument, and allows the images to speak for themselves. The result is that everyday practices – like commuting, shopping or eating – seem abstract, beautiful and occasionally horrifying.
India’s Daughter, (2015)
Directed by Leslee Udwin – 1h 3m
Leslee Udwin’s 2015 documentary is a harrowing portrait of women’s rights in India. It follows the aftermath of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape case, when 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh was attacked on a moving bus and later died of her injuries. By interviewing the rapists and their lawyers, Udwin reveals the unflinching sense of entitlement of the criminals. ‘It takes two hands to clap,’ says Mukesh Singh, one of the convicted, ‘a woman is more responsible for a rape than a man.’ But there is hope. Udwin’ story shows the tinder box that Singh’s death set off, as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest in the capital city. It may be the beginning of the end of violence against of women in India.
The Ivory Game (2016)
Directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani – 1h 52m
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were between three to five million African elephants. Now there are only 415,000. The Ivory Game, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, shows how illegal ivory poaching has sent the world’s biggest land animal en route to extinction. It is an epic investigation, which occasionally favours style over substance. However, real and brave investigators bring the issue back down to Earth, such as Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese journalist who poses as an ivory buyer in order to arrest a dealer. He says ‘in this story the black man is always portrayed as the bad guy, the white man as the good guy and the Chinese man as the even worse guy.’ Despite fears of being seen as a traitor to his own country, he wants to show that there are Chinese people who are against the industry. With stops in Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Hong Kong and China, the film shows the absurd reach of the trade, where the ivory’s exponential value has gone so far beyond its natural use in the wild.