TOPS: Ten 21st Century Documentary Films That May Make You Want to Occupy a Street


This week many local governments across the country, with various versions of force, began to disperse their city’s version of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Fears of increasing violence or general concerns for lack of sanitation have reportedly caused the crack down. Statements by city leaders indicate it is apparently the presence of actual people that have caused the demise of the protests. Otherwise each elected official supports a citizen’s right to free speech. Lucky for us, we have documentary films, and theatres with running water.  So if you’ve been forced to come in from the cold or if you weren’t quite sure why those protesters were out there in the first place, here are ten films covering some of the most important issues facing our nation and the world at the dawn of the 21st Century. By the spring you may be ready to take to the streets again. But this time you’ll have a plan of exactly who among the one percent you want to target and why.

10.  Inside Job

Start your journey with Charles Ferguson’s 2010 Academy Award winning film, “Inside Job.” This film outlines the players in the 2008 global financial crisis, and details how these men were allowed to go rogue. Their actions ended up costing the world more than $20 trillion dollars and many American’s their homes and jobs. Narrator Matt Damon implores viewers to demand changes in the current climate of deregulation which created this free for all financial system.

9.  Miss Representation

Jennifer Siebel Newsom examines how women are portrayed in the media and how this portrayal has resulted in the under representation of women in power in this country in her 2011 film “Miss Representation.” According to the film less than three percent of the decision makers in the media are women, resulting in the over sexualization of woman in the images we see every day in mainstream media. These images set an impossible standard for all women.  Siebel Newsom exposes that most of them are fantasy, as even beautiful stick thin models are photo shopped to present a societal view of what is beautiful. The young women in this film, who radiate with intelligence and promise, will inspire you to make a better world for them. But if you are a woman and plan to seek public office, just like the women in the film, be prepared to answer questions about how you will care for your children, whether or not you’ve had a boob job, and what size your clothes are.

8.  Blue Vinyl

Directors Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold explore in this 2002 film the hazards of a material that may literally be surrounding you right now. As Helfand attempts to find a better alternative to the blue vinyl siding on her parent’s house, she uses humor to convince both her parents and the audience that the manufacture and disposal of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is not worth the maintenance free living promised in a vinyl covered home. This film will remind that you that change begins with you, and your purchasing decisions. In addition to being a film maker, Helfand is the co-founder of Working Films a non-profit organization dedicated to linking documentary film making to long term social change.

7.  Bowling for Columbine

Statistically Michael Moore is part of the one percent.  But since this is due to the success of his documentary films about how the one percent prey on the 99% to maintain their lifestyles, he’s been allowed to maintain his 99% status.  “Bowling for Columbine” is perhaps his most poignant film. Each of Moore’s films expose how the power and greed of some rely on the exploitation of others. Most disturbingly those exploited are likely to be folks just trying to earn an honest living and the bravest among us, putting their lives on the line when we need it the most. In “Bowling for Columbine” Moore takes survivors from the Columbine school shooting to the headquarters of K-Mart to discuss on camera why it was so easy for the shooters to purchase ammunition at in their store. As suspected, it seems the students will get nowhere, but then a stunning statement from the company is released. Unlike Moore’s other films, this one includes a payoff. This film beautifully demonstrates how activism begins with simply asking for change, and sometimes it works.

6. An Inconvenient Truth

Before you get too excited that your activism will be easy because you have common sense and facts on your side, take a look at Director Davis Guggenheim’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” This film chronicles Al Gore’s most important campaign of his life, not one for public office, but one for common sense. The earth is getting warmer, and human activity is causing it. In 2007 the Academy recognized this film for Best Documentary, but unfortunately there are still folks unable to recognize that the presence of people on the planet have an effect on it. Apparently that argument only flies when those folks are protesters camped out in a public park, exercising their right to free speech.

5. Gasland

Depressed at the earth’s impending doom, you may barely have the energy to scan through the day’s mail. Among the bills and past due notices, you may be lucky enough to find that a gas company would like to pay you $100,000 for the mineral rights to your land. Yippee, the best street of all—Easy Street! Wait, that sounds too good to be true. Josh Fox thought it did. He received such letter, which lead him on an odyssey to research exactly what it would mean to cash in. He brought his banjo and a camera crew along as he traveled through his home state of Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Texas to view the effects of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or fracking, on local water supplies and local economies. The most shocking thing in this film appears to be a man lighting his tap water on fire. But later you will realize that the struggle of individual people to preserve their land and their livelihoods against giant energy companies is nearly futile. If the foreclosure crisis hasn’t robbed you of your American dream, an energy company just might swoop in for the kill.

4. Who Killed the Electric Car

Those energy companies have some experience at killing things, as you’ll learn in writer and director Chris Paine’s 2006 film “Who Killed the Electric Car.” Paine shares how energy companies and auto makers are in cahoots to stifle new technology, while purporting to be championing them.  The film shares how GM buys the best electric car technology, but instead of utilizing that technology to improve their electric car the EV1, they sell that technology to Chevron, who then squelches it. GM appears to go along with a California mandate to produce zero emission vehicles, while simultaneously fighting it. They are allowed an exception to the mandate, based on “consumer demand” then proceed to monkey with the numbers claiming there is no demand for the vehicles. That was easy, since they had refused to sell them in the first place. They only leased them, so when the time came, they pulled them off the road. GM is accused of “going backwards into the future” in the film.  Too bad it is with your tax dollars. This is mind boggling, especially in light of the US government’s 2008 bailout of General Motors. A sequel is scheduled to hit theatres on November 23, 2011.

3. King Corn

You may now be experiencing stress induced eating, and that comfort food extravaganza is most likely a festival of the king of all food commodities: corn. Nearly all of America’s processed foods contain some derivative of yellow dent corn, the type grown in Iowa and the rest of the Midwest as the dominant cash crop. In King Corn, two east coast college buddies, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis discover they have roots in the same Iowa county. They also discover, by way of hair analysis that their bodies are made up mostly of corn. That has nothing to do with their genetic roots, it has everything to do with what they are eating, which given the ingredient labels of their favorite foods is also mostly corn. So they travel to Iowa for a growing season, to raise their own acre of corn and learn a bit more about how and why it is America’s most dominant food. This film, directed by Aaron Woolf, garnered much less attention than two other food films “Super Size Me” and “Food, Inc.”  That’s unfortunate because this film gives voice to the farmers raising the corn, and explores the reasoning behind farm subsidies:  to ensure an abundant and cheap food supply. Today Cheney and Ellis spend less than half of what their great-grandfathers did on food, and absolutely zero time preparing it. The DVD of the film includes an interview of Iowa Senator Charles Grassley where he discusses the belief that any country in the world is nine meals away from revolution. Since the making of this film, the earth’s population has surpassed 7 billion.  If they are all three days away from revolting on an empty stomach providing them access to a safe, affordable, nutritious and abundant food supply is clearly one of the most pressing issues facing the world.

(This film does not examine the debate regarding food vs. fuel, as that public relations campaign based argument, created by a lobbying organization for grocery manufacturers seeking cheaper raw materials, did not launch until after the making of this film.  However, pay special attention to exactly how much, or how little of Ellis and Cheney’s acre of corn actually goes into the production of energy when they discuss how their acre of corn will most likely be used.)

2. Restrepo

While Gasland and King Corn may make us ponder if future wars will be fought over water and food, our nation is still engulfed in two wars in the Middle East. “Restrepo” follows the men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade as they build an outpost in the most dangerous valley in Afghanistan. This 2010 film is a gritty reflection of how turbulent or how boring war can be. Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger spent a year going in and out of this war ravaged area to make this film. Watching it makes you thankful that there are people brave enough to fight a war to defend your freedom.  You will also wonder why have all the other images you have seen regarding this war seem so sanitized.  Ultimately you will seriously question just how brave you would be in a similar situation, or if you have ever been brave at all. Especially when you learn that Director Tim Hetherington was killed in April of 2011 while filming conflict in Misurata, Libya.

1. Orange Revolution

Emotions elicited from watching this list of films will run the gamut from sadness to laughter, and hopefulness to angry fatigue. But there is one last film to watch. “Orange Revolution” chronicles how in 2004, half a million citizens took to the streets in Ukraine’s capital city, during freezing temperatures, to protest the results of an election they believed to have been stolen by the ruling party. They rallied behind their opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who in addition to having appeared to have lost the election was also experiencing an altered physical appearance due to being poisoned. This film is inspirational as it displays how citizen action of taking to the streets can actually cause change. It will also serve as a reminder to us all, just when we think our own political campaigns have gotten as low down and dirty as they could possibly be, we can still stop and say, well hey, Newt Gringrich hasn’t poisoned any body, so we can still hold out hope for democracy. But, democracy requires vigilance and activity on the part of its citizens. Just when you believe that you have raised enough ruckus, and everyone is finally on the same page, if you let your guard down for even a moment, there is someone there ready to move in and sway all the efforts in opposite direction. Yes, freedom can be exhausting, but it is worth every minute of effort.

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7 thoughts on “TOPS: Ten 21st Century Documentary Films That May Make You Want to Occupy a Street

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  2. I’ve heard a lot about that film, but have not seen it. It is definitely on my list of films I want to see. I worked in higher education and then for a private education company for many years. I think I may have avoided it, feeling I was a bit too close to the subject matter. But now I think I can have more of an objective view.

    Just recently saw “The Bully Project” at a film festival. It will be released in March. Hopefully there will be some buzz about it as it was really moving.

  3. Pingback: November Recap « themovieblog8

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