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.
‘Bright Leaves’ (2004)
The personal-essay documentary is a mode that might seem like navel-gazing, but Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March”) has a way of making his investigations of himself and of his family disarming, accessible and profound. In “Bright Leaves,” McElwee, a longtime Boston-area resident (he teaches filmmaking at Harvard), returns to his native North Carolina for a “periodic transfusion of Southernness.” After the Civil War, his great-grandfather John Harvey McElwee made a killing growing a variety of tobacco called bright-leaf tobacco. But he may have been cheated out of his fortune by a rival, James Buchanan Duke (for whose father Duke University was named). McElwee learns from a cousin that a major film, “Bright Leaf” (1950), starred Gary Cooper as a tobacco manufacturer possibly based on their great-grandfather.
While John Harvey McElwee didn’t achieve lasting success, McElwee is troubled that his forebear may have made a substantial contribution to tobacco addiction worldwide. In voice-over, McElwee reflects on the fact that his grandfather, father and brother all became doctors: “John Harvey McElwee may not have left my ancestors any money, but by helping to hook the local population on tobacco, he did leave behind a sort of agricultural-pathological trust fund.” The filmmaker examines tobacco’s contradictory place in the state’s culture. On one hand, those bright leaves are a source of beauty and a treasured economic institution. On the other, he visits patients who have been hooked on a product that his great-grandfather helped popularize. (In a darkly funny running joke, two of McElwee’s friends — a couple — repeatedly vow on camera to quit smoking but never manage to do so.)
The director also reflects on the cinematic medium and the ways in which “Bright Leaf” might itself contain traces of documentary. He interviews the actress Patricia Neal, who starred with Cooper in the movie, and the film theorist Vlada Petric, who amusingly insists on wheeling McElwee around in a chair to give his segment a “kinesthetic” quality. When “Bright Leaves” played at the New York Film Festival in 2003, McElwee informed the audience that he had shot it on film; at that point, the doc landscape was turning to cheap digital cameras. Today, “Bright Leaves” looks even more like a movie out of time.
‘The American Sector’ (2021)
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, slabs of the barrier made their way around the world. In the experimental documentary “The American Sector” — shown at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival but overlooked amid the vagaries of pandemic movie releasing — the filmmakers Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez travel to roughly 40 sites around the United States in an effort to shoot footage of all the pieces that have wound up here.
Some locations (the State Department, the United Nations, the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library) make sense as final resting places for the remnants of a historic Cold War symbol. Other sites are far stranger. One piece has made its way to East Berlin, Pa., which was incorporated in the 19th century. Another chunk stands at an El stop in Chicago, ostensibly as a tribute to that neighborhood’s German roots (although as a onetime Chicago resident who lived near that train line, I can attest that many passers-by never notice it). Then there are spots that are outright surreal. What on Earth did a Hilton in Dallas, a restaurant in Georgia or Universal Orlando Resort do to deserve their monuments?
Stephens and Velez interview people about what the fragments mean to them. A private homeowner with his own segment in the Hollywood Hills regards the graffiti-covered wall as a sort of work of art: “the greatest canvas in modern history.” In some places, the concrete wedges have acquired new metaphorical freight. An immigrant in Los Angeles likens the wall — which she points out is a migrant in its own right — to the barriers she had to cross to build a life in the United States. A man in Cincinnati, noting that the Berlin Wall memorial is across the river from the former slave state of Kentucky, says the risks East Berliners took to cross to the West have a parallel in experiences of Black Americans. Two students at the University of Virginia discuss whether that campus’s wall slice constitutes a way for the university to nod toward someone else’s history while avoiding discussion of its own.
At 67 minutes, “The American Sector” is minimalist yet breezy. Like the appropriated stone, it invites viewers to make their own interpretations.
‘Lost Course’ (2021)
It’s rare for a documentary to capture a whole cycle of idealism and disillusionment, but in “Lost Course,” one of last year’s most epically scaled documentaries, Jill Li, a former video journalist making her first feature, shows a persistence in following her story that would put many more experienced filmmakers to shame. Spanning about half a decade, the movie follows the revolt that took place in Wukan, China, in 2011, when residents protested that the village’s leaders had improperly sold communal land.
The film traces the arcs of several leaders of the anticorruption movement that sprang up in response. One is Xue Jinbo, or Bo, whose death in custody, an event that occurs early in the film, adds to the outcry. Other leaders of the movement, particularly in the film’s second half (titled “after protests”), grow increasingly pessimistic on the odds of effecting change. One leader, who was imprisoned at the same time as Bo, resigns from the reformist seat he’s earned on the village committee and starts a teahouse before ultimately fleeing to New York. The film suggests that he had spoken up after seeing “people taking money.”
But the most pointed arc involves Lin Zuluan, an elder statesman among the protesters. After being elected as the director of the village committee at the end of the first half, he seems to undergo something like a change in sides. Residents don’t think he’s done enough to get the land back; he insists it’s a complex issue. It’s the kind of apparent character shift a documentary could only capture with true stamina; there would be no way of predicting how he would behave at the start. And over three hours, the filmmaker mostly allows her subjects to speak for themselves, using title cards to provide viewers with important context for the dense vérité material she collected. Casting a skeptical eye on the possibility of democratic reforms in China, “Lost Course” makes for a bleak illustration of the adage that you can’t fight city hall — or in this case, a village committee, if the committee is part of a much larger system.