The Coronavirus is hitting the Berlin film scene hard. At the direction of the Berlin Senate, all cinemas are closed since last Saturday (March 14) in order to slow down the spread of the virus. For the time being, the kino closure regulation is expected to apply until April 19.
Film festivals have been cancelled and postponed, and we’re hoping that Panorama Columbia, 11mm, ALFILM, Visionär, Achtung and many others will be able to schedule their line-ups at a later date. The dreaded COVID-19 is also putting the kibosh on major upcoming film releases, including the new Bond film, A Quiet Place Part II, Disney’s Mulan, Christian Petzold’s Undine, and many more. The films will be released at a later date, and we expect more news in the coming weeks.
Not that any of this is going to stop us from giving you reviews. During this strange time, we’ll be treating you to exclusive online content. Instead of our weekly This Week At The Kino column, we’ll be publishing weekly tips for what to binge-watch when self-isolating, as well as an in-depth look at the effects of the Coronavirus on the film industry as a whole.
With many self-quarantined at home, Netflix and other home-viewing platforms are doubtlessly going witness something of a surge in numbers. One world’s pandemic is a streaming juggernaut’s early Christmas. As Variety reported towards the tail end of February, Netflix’s share price has risen 0.8 percent while the global stock markets dropped. Even if the escalating health crisis seems just right for some binge-watching marathons, it has to be said that Netflix depends on monthly subscriptions, so it’s too soon to assert whether they’ll benefit from the current state of sniffly affairs. They’ve been hit in their own way, as they’ve had to suspend film and TV production, including their flagship series Stranger Things, the second season of The Witcher, their comedy Grace And Frankie and Ryan Murphy’s upcoming Netflix movie The Prom.
This week, we’re focusing on the best documentaries to stream on Netflix right now.
PANDEMIC: HOW TO PREVENT AN OUTBREAK
We’re keeping it topical with this first one, with the ridiculously timed rollout of Netflix’s new docuseries Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak. This cannily dropped online at the end of January in most territories, and with it comes a fair share of conspiracy theories stating that there must be one powerful crystal ball in Netflix HQ.
Journalist, doctor and executive producer of the doc Sheri Fink has addressed the rather opportune timing of the series by stating that they “made it because some of us has seen the system tested in smaller ways and knew its vulnerabilities”. She added that they “hoped to inform before, not after, another dangerous pathogen emerged.” Better late than never, hey?
The informative, frequently terrifying and superbly packaged six-part doc is a globe-hopping piece that follows several scientists and disaster experts (business card goals, anyone?) addressing the spread of viral illness throughout history – from the 1918 Spanish flu to Ebola and the importance of vaccine research for the common flu – and assessing our readiness when faced with fast-moving viruses. It topically posits that since the deadly influenza virus hit over 100 years ago, we’ve been long overdue some germ-based fuckery. “When we talk about another flu pandemic, it’s not a matter of if, but when”, according to the director of USAID’s Emerging Threats Unit Dr. Dennis Carroll.
When taking the doc’s timing out of the equation, Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak isn’t the anxiety-watch it sounds like. It benefits from some great storytelling and zones in on the dangerous and often overlooked work of the healthcare workers and experts on the frontlines of outbreaks, as well as how misinformation frequently overlaps symptoms.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
The 2017 doc I Am Not Your Negro sees the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck take the words of late novelist and social critic James Baldwin, who wanted the lives of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers “to bang up against each other”, and stylishly lace the author’s prose with archival footage and modern clips. The result is a compelling and layered chronicle of black activism during the civil rights movement. It concisely distils a complex issue and plays around with chronology in order to reinforce the timeless and often prophetic quality of Baldwin’s prose.
These eerily prophetic aspects come to life through the narration of a barely recognisable Samuel L. Jackson and the director’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood. Peck, a confirmed cinephile, uses a variety of film clips to create a fascinating correlation between the history of cinema and America’s race struggle. From King Kong to Stagecoach, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner to The Defiant Ones, the director mirrors Baldwin’s views and illustrates how the image projected by the cultural exports of Hollywood clashed with social realities; in some cases, the self-perpetuating fantasy of American life seen on the big screen reflected the “moral apathy, the death of the heart” that the author saw happening in his country. Hollywood here is essentially the eagle wounded by an arrow.
Few documentaries have blended anger with thought-provoking depth so brilliantly, and this never limits itself to hectoring. It’s unmissable and if you’re still not convinced, check out our interview with director Raoul Peck, which took place at the 67th Berlinale, where I Am Not Your Negro premiered in the Panorama section.
MILES DAVIS: THE BIRTH OF COOL
From Baldwin to Davis, this documentary by Stanley Nelson was released on German screens earlier this year and works as the perfect double-bill with I Am Not Your Negro. Titled after the landmark 1957 album, this rich and comprehensive piece captures the multiple facets of Miles Davis’ life. Interested in understanding both the man and “the musical noise called jazz”, according to Walter Cronkite, Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool is narrated by Davis, as Nelson has drafted actor Carl Lumbly to read segments from Davis’ blisteringly candid autobiography in the musician’s raspy voice. It’s a shrewd device that serves as a constant throughout, as we follow Davis from Juilliard School to the euphoria of post-war Paris, where he “understood that not all white people were the same”, and the return to America where he is once again confronted with “the bullshit white people put black people through”.
Its chronological structure and talking heads feel familiar, but Nelson’s work still stands out because it is so well-researched and sharply put together. It’s a deep dive into the jazz legend’s singular career which never falls into easy hagiography and serves as an engrossing portrait of deeply entrenched racism in the US. It also examines the role of the women in Davis’ life, with Frances Taylor providing both humorous asides and a darker insight into her abusive husband’s demons.
Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool radiates mood and passion while giving the women at the centre of Davis’ life the spotlight and time they deserve. Best of all, you don’t have to be a jazz fiend or a trumpethead to appreciate this captivating doc. As for those who know their Kind Of Blue from their Bitches Brew, this nuanced look at a familiar artist remains essential viewing.
Worried about COVID-19? What about nuclear holocaust? Hmm? Hmmmmmm??
Another alum from the 67th Berlinale, The Bomb was originally conceived as an art installation screened with live music – a hypnotic and at times spleen-quavering soundtrack courtesy of electronic quartet The Acid. The experience ideally needs a big screen and a powerful sound system. Still, it’s one of the most distinctive docs currently on Netflix and deserves to be on your radar, screen size be damned.
This stunning 59-minute-long history of the nuclear bomb an experimental montage that combines archival footage, Cold War safety videos and animation, and never resorts to narration. The filmmaking talent behind this ambitious project – video artist Kevin Ford, director Smriti Keshari and investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser – reportedly watched hundreds of hours of footage and created a disturbing and deeply immersive collage that features marching armies, nuclear tests on farmyards of live animals, and frequent callbacks to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.
It might not assuage your current paranoia levels, but stands as a terrifyingly beautiful visual experience that radiates *cough* a certain amount of warped positivity: we’ve survived up until now, even with Darth Cinnamon’s tiny little fingers on the nuclear button, so maybe not all hope is lost and we’re more resilient than we think… Maybe.
With November fast approaching – and all we need to write off 2020 as an utter fucktastrophy is a second term for Trump – there are a handful of wonderful documentaries that offer unique perspectives on the American political system: Robert Drew’s Primary, Errol Morris’ The Fog Of War, Netflix’s very own Get Me Roger Stone… But none more relentlessly watchable than Josh Kriegman and Eylse Steinberg’s Weiner. The filmmakers have crafted a tragicomic character study in hubristic behaviour that feels both timely and, somewhat terrifyingly, a snapshot of what feels like a simpler time.
Weiner is about a fall from grace seen from the inside. Infamous US congressman Anthony Weiner allowed a film crew to follow him and his campaign staff for his 2013 political comeback, when the philandering sexter ran for mayor of New York. The resulting fly-on-the-wall documentary is a train crash filmed in real time, a fascinating story of sex scandals, self-sabotage, and a portrait of an obviously talented politician-turned-political-pariah who almost fanatically fails to accept the extent of his own undoing. The level of access is unprecedented and borderline bewildering, as we are allowed to witness every breakdown and every obstacle in this ego-trip gone wrong, both in the personal and public spheres. “I can’t believe I’m doing a documentary on my scandal”, Weiner sighs in a rare-but-brief flash of self-awareness. Neither can we.
Then President-elect Trump used Weiner then-wife Huma Abedin and her right-hand-woman connection to Hillary Clinton to undermine the latter’s presidential campaign. Abedin is a fascinating figure here, a woman who has been betrayed, who stands by her husband as her life comes close to implosion once more… It’s her arc that injects some genuine tragedy into an absurd political tale worthy of Armando Iannucci’s best satires.
CASTING JON BENET
Kitty Green’s second feature documentary is an innovative, genre-bending hybrid about the unsolved death of the titular six-year-old beauty queen. It documents a casting process for a fictional film: actors are tested for roles of real people involved in the JonBenét Ramsey case. The protagonists play their roles and share their speculations during screen tests.
Green’s increasingly complex and deeply thought-provoking doc poses the question whether a fictional angle can better a documentarian approach by blending both. Eschewing the traditional documentary form by splicing interviews with re-enactments, Casting Jon Benet delves into the conspiracy theories regarding the possible murder of Ramsey and offers several versions of the multifaceted notion of “truth”.
A surprising feather in its cap is its darkly humorous undertones, with disenchanted Santas, am-dram posturers, numerologists and sex instructors weighing in. The director deftly uses humour to her carefully-crafted ends, making the film a chilling yet compassionate look at our culture’s morbid fascination when it comes to tragedy, pop culture obsession, as well as a study on our tendency towards schadenfreude.
It’s also got a cracking use of Bert Park’s song “There She Is Miss America”, highlighting how the right needle drop can heighten thematical essence. Here, this uniquely bizarre beat feels like it could have been at home in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and emboldens the satirical content.
STRIKE A POSE
Seven male dancers appeared in Madonna’s iconic, David Fincher-directed “Vogue” video. They joined the pop superstar on her infamous 1990 Blond Ambition tour and featured in the documentary Madonna: Truth Or Dare. Suddenly, Salim, Kevin, Carlton, José, Luis, Gabriel and token straight hiphopper Oliver went from being backing dancers to being bona fide gay icons and role models. However, behind the scenes, personal demons were battled and the tour, the film and Madonna casting herself as the mother figure of her stage family were starting to take their toll.
Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould’s Strike A Pose is a heartfelt where-are-they-now-style doc which chronicles how the idyll fell apart after the tour, and how the dancers were pivotal to Madonna’s message even if they didn’t feel like it. It sees the surviving artists reunite and share their secrets, how they overcame shame, and explore where their loyalties lie. You observe the vulnerability and catharsis felt by the dancers as they discuss the impact the limelight had on their careers and personal lives. Some of their paths were very negatively impacted by their association with the myth that is Madonna and the abrupt way in which the Queen of Pop severed ties with them.
Melancholic and often indulgent, Strike A Pose is a fascinating examination of how stories can be appropriated and exploited, a crowd-pleasing exploration of the trappings of fame and the deep silhouette cast by the loss of instant celebrity.
There we have it. Happy viewings, stay healthy, be kind to each other and stay tuned to exberliner.com during the coming weeks for exclusive content and more home-viewing tips.