good documentaries streaming on netflix (part 2)

I’m much less busy than I have been in recent months, so I want to get back in the habit of blogging regularly. I’ve been researching some new topics to blog about, but for now I’ll take the unoriginal approach of doing a new version of one of my older posts. A while ago, I wrote about five good documentaries that you can stream on Netflix. Since then, I have seen four more documentaries on Netflix that I would describe as “good.” I could inflate the goodness of another pretty good documentary, say Mitt, to make my list have a solid five films, but the only reason to do that would be because we use a base ten counting system and five is half of ten. Besides, I’m considering doing a post comparing Mitt to the superior 1993 film The War Room, which followed Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign (unfortunately, The War Room is unstreamable). Anyway, without further ado, here is my list:

the house I live in

Photo from BBC News.

I first learned about this film from an episode of This American Life (one of my favorite podcasts). The episode discussed how the director, Eugene Jarecki, had been showing the film, which is about the war on drugs and the criminal justice system, in prisons around the country. Both prisoners and staff members would watch the movie, and the folks at This American Life decided to use the film as a catalyst for a discussion between prisoners and guards. The film depicts stories from individuals affected by the drug war and how it has devastated poor communities. The film’s website says, “Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before.” My favorite line in the movie is when David Simon, a former journalist and creator of HBO’s The Wire, explains, “It’d be one thing if it was draconian and it worked; it’s draconian and it doesn’t work…” Some of the most eye-opening parts of the film are when it explains how the history anti-drug laws has had a lot to do with race, the absurdly large difference between the minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and the financial incentives for cops and police departments to put most of their efforts into drug offences.

Overall, The House I Live In is fantastic and I strongly encourage you to see it. You can click here to view the trailer.

dirty wars

Dirty Wars is an Oscar-nominated documentary that has won numerous awards. Even comedian Louis C.K. tweeted that all Americans should see it. The film is based on a book by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, who previously authored a best-selling book on the private military group Blackwater. The film follows Scahill as he embarks on a journey that takes him to countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. He starts by examining a NATO and US military cover-up of the deaths of five Afghan civilians with no terrorist connections, leading him to learn about the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a highly covert military unit and the only one that reports directly to the White House. JSOC conducts night raids in Afghanistan, some of which are successful, while others result in the deaths of innocent people. Scahill discovers that in a three month period, about 1,700 night raids occurred. Later in the movie, Scahill explores the ideological transformation of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who was originally against terrorism but then became a radical who called for violence against Americans. Both al-Awlaki and his son were subjects of targeted killings by the US. His son may have been killed for no reason other than because he had the potential to follow in his father’s footsteps, which Scahill calls, “A twisted logic; a logic without end.” Dirty Wars is a powerful film that makes the viewer question if America’s actions in the Middle East are doing more harm than good.

Not only is Dirty Wars an extremely important film, it lacks any dull moments and is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat as Scahill uncovers secrets of American covert operations. Click here to view the film’s trailer or here to watch the first few minutes of it.

we steal secrets: the story of wikileaks

WikiLeaks’ Logo

This is a good film for anyone wanting to learn about WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Prior to viewing the documentary, I knew little about Assange, WikiLeaks, or Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), a soldier who leaked documents to the website. Director Alex Gibney chronicles the rise of WikiLeaks and how it published revealing documents on subjects ranging from an Icelandic banking collapse to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What amazed me the most about WikiLeaks was how small of an organization it is. In an interview, WikiLeaks supporter Gavin MacFadyen described it as “a corner gas station with some extremely bright attendants.” Journalist Mark Davis said, “I see this story entirely as one man against the world. One man against the world.” He also stated, “It was Julian Assange, his $300 laptop, ten SIM cards and a very, you know, cheap jacket that he’d put on to get through the interview.”

The film received much criticism from WikiLeaks, which made an annotated version of the script, aiming to correct inaccuracies. However, the annotated script WikiLeaks originally published the day before the film’s release did not contain crucial on-screen internet conversations between Chelsea Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo, probably because WikiLeaks may have been using an audio recording instead of the actual screenplay. Gibney made his own annotations in response to the WikiLeaks annotations. While I did not read every annotation, the ones I reviewed seemed to generally show that many of the facts presented in the film which WikiLeaks perceived as inaccurate were not, in fact, inaccuracies. In my opinion, Assange was portrayed favorably, at least until the section of the film that deals with the sexual abuse allegations against him. I thought Manning was portrayed in an extremely positive light. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir writes,

Many people in Assange’s orbit appear to have convinced themselves that Gibney is in favor of prosecuting Manning and Assange, overtly or covertly supports the mainstream media campaign to demonize WikiLeaks and is a defender of government spying and secret-keeping. That either means that they haven’t listened to anything Gibney actually says or that they think he’s lying. While the film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, it has only 4.3 stars out of 10 from IMDB users, a highly unusual split that may reflect an organized campaign by Assange supporters (whether or not they’ve actually seen the film).

Discussing WikiLeaks’ criticism of the film, Gibney said, “Instead of saying, ‘Go see this film and then read my commentary,’ it was, ‘Don’t see this film.’ Not exactly the transparency agenda.”

Click here to see the trailer.

the revisionaries

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

The Revisionaries is a film about how some Religious Right members of the Texas school board, led by former chairman Don McLeroy, have attempted to bring intelligent design into science textbooks and alter history textbooks to express their own political beliefs. For example, they tried to remove the idea that the constitution supports the separation of church and state from history textbooks. The standards the Texas school board sets affect the entire nation, because as the film’s website explains,

Texas is one of the nation’s largest textbook markets because it is one of the few where the state decides what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. Further, publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the requirements of the biggest buyers. As a result, the Texas board has the power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come. Varying estimates claim that between 45% and 85% of American classrooms use Texas state textbooks.

The film follows the conflict between board members and different groups trying to influence their decisions. It also tracks McLeroy’s reelection campaign.

Click here to view the trailer, which gives a very good idea of what the film is like.