About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
This chatty playlist is brought to you by Leshu Torchin, who has been driven to distraction not only by the lockdown, but also by the peculiar success of Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness (Eric V. Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, 2020):
It feels churlish to begrudge anyone the pleasures than can be found when so many of us are limited to what is most easily delivered to our homes. To that end, this list is not a condemnation of the amusement anyone derives from this true crime docu-series about the subculture of big cat traffickers. It is more a response to what I don’t like about it combined with the frustration that as a documentary scholar and teacher, I had to familiarise myself with this show turned phenomenon. In effect, ‘don’t watch it’ wasn’t really a viable option and for that I might be all the more exorcised about this programme. So consider this not so much a ‘watch instead’, but here are some alternatives and/or additions to what about Tiger King delivered gratification and/or discomfort.
1. Documentaries about animals (and the humans with whom they interact): One of the most painful things for me in watching Tiger King has been watching the abuse of animals. The sight of infants ripped from the care of their parents in order to tame them for visitor photographs (or other forms of institutional caging and exploitation) is something that makes me physically recoil. While some of these zoos might be sites for rescue and conservation, Joe Exotic’s operation isn’t. But if part of the attraction was looking at these beautiful creatures and reflecting on the bonds humans have with this part of the natural world, why not watch:
Kedi (Deyda Torun, 2016): Yiman Wang (UC Santa Cruz) describes this documentary as ‘a veritable city symphony of Istanbul – through the eyes of the street cats and the voices of the local human residents‘. It is a beautifully shot and loving portrait of the city’s cats and the people who love and care for them in an ecosystem threatened by the privatisation of public space. It should come as little surprise that this ‘Citizen Kane of cat videos‘ is available on YouTube Red and many many other streaming services. Visit their website for more information: https://www.kedifilm.com/
Also in this vein and not to be overlooked are Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s gorgeous Taskafa: Stories of the Street (2013), which turns to Istanbul’s street dogs and the people who care for them. It is a story of belonging, of relationships between living beings and space, and the ways we see, understand, and protect these relationships. You can rent it on Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/taskafa
Unfortunately unable to view via streaming (but available for purchase as DVD) is Molly Dineen’s The Ark (1993) which looks at London Zoo in a period of crisis as privatisation forces a rethinking of what the job of a zoo is, from a proud display of empire to a task (or performance) of conservation. It is a riveting reflection on ‘Survival of the Fittest’ for humans and animals alike.
2. Documentaries about subcultures and interesting characters:
Having offered this heading, I realise I set myself up for something too big. Documentary and documentary displays have historically been about presenting viewers and visitors with cultures they do not typically encounter, from ethnographic films, world’s fairs, and museums to freakshows and Mondo Cane (1962). However, if you’d like to watch a film about a subculture that is less about disdain and horror and more about appreciation and engagement, why not Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? () about the Satanic Temple and their media-savvy actions that seek to speak truth to power. It’s streaming on Netflix, and available for rent on Google Play and YouTube.
And I’ll say less about this documentary than I’d like to, mostly because I’m not quite sure how you can find it but Ovarian Psycos(Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, 2017) is a glorious film about The Ovarian Psycos Cycle Brigade: a crew of women of colour on bicycles who are committed to fostering community and fighting injustice. These women and the documentary a a radical joy to behold.
Fortunately, more widely available is the delightful Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham, 2020) currently streaming on Netflix. This film reminds us of the power of a community coming together to change the world for the better as it traces the rise of the disability rights movement from a summer camp to the occupation of government buildings and beyond.
Errol Morris has made a career of showing us an array of engaging and odd characters (when not asking us to consider larger questions of truth, reenactment, and documentary). Sure he has made documentaries about Holocaust deniers & execution experts (Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr) and war criminals (The Known Unknown). But there’s also some more gentle ones, like The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2016) which is streaming on Netflix (https://www.netflix.com/title/80145699).
3. Documentaries with (or about) a more ethical approach:
My suggestions in section 2 might seem tiresomely geared to the uplifting or inspiring, but in part that’s for the reminder that subcultures, for their names, are not below or beneath a single, approved culture. And that might be one of my largest problems with Tiger King: The position the filmmakers hold in relation to their subjects and the one they encourage between the audience and the subjects is unbearably condescending to say the least. Indeed, when one person on a Facebook thread referred to it as the ‘dregs of humanity’ I realised the source of my greatest objection to this film. It’s not that I have to like or approve of characters (see the discussion on Errol Morris above) but I think there is an ethical obligation in question. Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin might be exploiting animals in their parks, but does that legitimise the documentarians’ exploitation of the characters on screen? Can we intervene into this mise-en-abyme? Who has tried and who has at least acknowledged this challenge?
This is a rhetorical entry into yet again another category whose scope is massive. But if I were to suggest films that open up these ethical questions, I’d suggest:
Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport, 2008): This documentary begins about the chronicle of an Iraqi film student given an internship to work on a Hollywood film, but soon becomes a question of what obligations a documentary filmmaker holds to her subject, and for how long? What is the exit strategy when you’re working with real people? Available through Fandor on Amazon.
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn, 2013), a disturbing documentary experiment wherein perpetrators of a genocide are handed a camera and license to make a film about the events from their perspective. Streaming on Amazon and for rent on YouTube and Google Play.
Frustratingly, Wu Wenguang’s brilliant Fuck Cinema! (2006) is no longer available to stream, but if you can find it, watch it. Here Wenguang follows Wang, film extra and aspiring cineaste, as he tries (fruitlessly) to sell his movie script. The exploitative nature of a film industry comes into play not only on screen, but in the interplay between filmmaker and subject– especially in a scene where Wang accuses Wenguang of profiting from sharing his misery. If you can find it, grab your chance.
I’ll conclude with Pratap Rughani’s Justine (2013), a short film about an averbal young woman. What is striking is how Rughani works to tell a story and work with a subject who might not be able to clearly (at first) communicate her own concerns, limits, and stories. His own reflective approach and project for engaging potential filmmakers in ethical questions around making are essential for touching on issues of consent, freedom, responsibility, collaboration, and representation. This short film is streaming on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/287269881.