The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
‘Grey Gardens’ (1976)
Why “Grey Gardens,” one of the best-known and most-parodied documentaries from the “direct cinema” pioneers Albert and David Maysles? Partly it’s because several more offbeat Maysles selections — like “Showman,” a portrait of the producer Joseph E. Levine, or “In Transit,” an Amtrak odyssey that turned out to be Albert’s final film — aren’t available to stream. (Someone get on that!) And partly it’s because arguments about the potential cinematic exploitation of Kennedy-adjacent figures are raging again, thanks to the movie version of “Blonde.”
Funny, sad and intensely voyeuristic, “Grey Gardens” is eternally capable of starting a good fight about the relationship between documentarian and subject. The Maysles, who share directing credit with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, enter the private world of Big and Little Edie Beale, a mother and daughter who are relatives of Jackie Kennedy. They live together in seclusion at an ocean-view East Hampton estate whose upkeep leaves much to be desired. You won’t meet a less self-conscious onscreen pair, whether it’s Big Edie eating ice cream straight from the container in her cluttered bed or Little Edie expounding on her bizarre wardrobe choices. They argue about the spinster 56-year-old Little Edie’s former marriage prospects. Little Edie implies that her mother is keeping her from a more fulfilling life in the city. “Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring,” she says. “I mean, for too long a time.”
Still, Big and Little Edie are not so far gone in their folie à deux that they are unaware of the Maysles brothers’ presence, and they even interact with the filmmakers at times. In this mode of documentary, there is always the question of how much the camera influences behavior; certainly there’s a performative element to how the Beales comport themselves (and sing) for their audience, even if they seem utterly oblivious to how they come off. If you have a camera and shoot Little Edie emptying a bag of Wonder Bread to feed the attic’s animal population, perhaps it’s time for an intervention. Or maybe not, because it’s documentary gold.
‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?’ (2019)
Judy Hill, the proprietor of the Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, grapples with having to shut down the beloved institution she started with pennies. A teenager, Ronaldo, teaches Titus, his younger half brother, how to fight, in the spirit of keeping him out of trouble, even as their mother worries that Ronaldo is at risk of going down a troubled path himself. Members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense knock on doors in Jackson, Miss., as part of what the group’s chairwoman, Krystal Muhammad, calls a “people’s investigation”; they don’t trust what they’re hearing from law enforcement about the killing of Jeremy Jackson, an African American man who was decapitated, in what the film’s subjects strongly suspect was a racially motivated murder. Lastly, Kevin Goodman, a chief with the Mardi Gras Indians, prepares for festivities.
Unfolding in New Orleans (apart from the Panthers’ trips to Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson), the four basic strands of “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?,” directed by Roberto Minervini (“The Other Side”), all touch on issues of solidarity, resilience and the importance of community, although the movie trusts audiences to draw the connections themselves. An impressionistic documentary shot in black-and-white, the film lends itself to repeat viewings; different scenes emerge as revelatory each time. Hill has a particularly riveting screen presence. (Sean Baker subsequently cast her in a dramatic role in “Red Rocket” after Minervini connected them.) According weight both to small moments of tenderness and scenes of outraged activism, the film is proof that a documentary can simultaneously be politically pointed and poetic.
‘Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad’ (2021)
You may only have hazy memories of the Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan thriller “Proof of Life” (2000), but it’s hard to forget this documentary chronicling the events that inspired it — the kidnapping of an American agricultural journalist named Thomas R. Hargrove in Colombia. The director, Miles Hargrove, is one of Hargrove’s sons. When his father was taken by guerrillas in 1994 and held for ransom, his mother, Susan, encouraged him to videotape what was going on at home, so that his father would ultimately have a record of what happened. It may also have been a way for Miles to stay sane.
The result is that Miles made home movies of the negotiations as they unfolded. The camera is there as the kidnappers and the family’s designated interlocutor, who all speak in code, haggle by radio over the ransom price. It’s there through long periods of silence as the Hargroves and their confidants wait for contact, making nice dinners to keep calm and second-guessing decisions. It’s even there in high-stakes car rides when it’s time to make a payoff. The dizzyingly complicated logistics involve multiple steps. (“The only thing that’s missing is having an accident,” one of the Hargroves’ neighbors says on one such ride. On a later trip to secure yet another proof of life, there’s an apology for jerky camera movements when the car veers off-road.)
“Miracle Fishing” is also a portrait of how the family and a tight-knit group of friends became, to paraphrase Susan, kidnapped themselves. Despite some level of publicity for the case, they had to lie low and keep counsel mainly with one another. And they couldn’t let themselves be rattled during long stretches meant to sweat them out. In a sense, “Miracle Fishing” is as much a domestic psychodrama as it is a documentary. It’s the “Capturing the Friedmans” of international intrigue.