From bribery to summer camp: the best 2020 documentaries


When describing a documentary, Collective ‘Plays like a thriller’ may be trite, but the phrase fits in the case of Collective, Alexander Nanau’s vigilant, genuinely harrowing film about the corruption-tainted aftermath of a 2015 club fire in Bucharest. From “All the President’s Men” to “Spotlight,” the two-hour film plays like the best journalistic report, as a team of sports journalists – clearly the only ones to ask the government difficult questions – penetrate the health care system of Romania, layer by layer, and wreak amazing havoc. In the Colectiv nightclub fire, twenty-seven people died, but another 37 died in the weeks that followed from treatable wounds, many of them from bacterial infections trapped in graft-ridden hospitals in the region. From car monitors, news conferences and meeting rooms, Nanau’s camera watches warily as journalists reveal a structure marked by rot. How will one expose the facts that the powerful are trying to conceal? How can one even bend a device that can’t be modified? These concerns and the collective’s scorching crusade stretch well beyond Romania. All In: The Battle for DemocracyThe film by Stacey Abrams about Amazon’s voting rights reveals two timelines of America’s inability to fulfill the democracy’s fundamental building block: fair access to the right to vote. One timeline goes back to the country’s founding, when only white male landowners were permitted to vote, and traces America’s painfully slow, non-linear history of voting rights, from the gains of Reconstruction and the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the South to the pledge of full democracy with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the new wave of electoral repression strategies used after a 20-year-old vote suppression strategy The shorter timeline brings up the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Abrams in Georgia, a state long known for its violent intimidation of black voters and where the purge of voter rolls by her opponent Brian Kemp possibly cost her the race.

A cogent history lesson, a sound alarm, and an inspiring call to action are given by All In. It is a widely open and incisive message worth listening to, given the foresight of Abrams’ work on voter registration in Georgia, which helped tip Joe Biden’s national election, and the fragility of America’s democratic gains. TimeIn 1997, Sibil Fox Rich and her husband Robert were convicted of a bank robbery in Louisiana, an act of desperation after a business loss and a crime for

Sibil entered into a plea bargain and served three and a half years.

Due to poor legal advice, Robert turned the offer down and was sentenced without parole to 60 years. Time, the wistful study of the agonizing passage of years after a crippling conviction by Sundance documentary winner Garrett Bradley, merging Sibil’s amazing, stirring home archives – videos of her belly pregnant with twins, birthday parties for her six sons – with true black and white footage as she battles for the release of Robert. Time denounces the prison system of America as a reincarnation of slavery, but unlike works such as the 13th by Ava DuVernay, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, or Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, the film by Bradley adheres to the purely personal, the burden of mass incarceration and excessive sentencing broken by a permanently changed family.

It is a painfully personal time-lapse portrait, at times almost like a narrative thriller, of the resilience of a black family in Louisiana and the never-ending cost of the punitive justice system in America that somehow manages to conjure moments of light. Boys StateWhat happens when you put 1,000 high school boys in charge of bipartisan self-government, alone in the Texas State Capitol? A rollicking, often encouraging, often scary trip known as Boys State, the long-running summer youth program of the American Legion and the title of Apple TV+’s Sundance breakout by married filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. Of course, the Texas Boys State Summer Convention 2018, where participants elect party leaders, run fast-fire campaigns and endorse party agendas, is not reflective of American democracy in the microcosm (girls have their own).


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