It was a big week for Jon Ossoff, the fresh-faced 30-year-old who shook up Georgia’s congressional race by landing 48.1 percent of the vote, catapulting him into a June runoff with Republican Karen Handel in a state that hasn’t had a Democrat in Congress for four decades. The excitement and speculation about Ossoff’s momentum sending a message to the Trump administration about waning interest in its platform has ignored one key detail: He’s a documentary filmmaker. In recent years, Ossoff has served as an executive producer on television documentaries that wrestle with a range of pressing issues, from ISIS to ebola outbreaks.
That places him in a longstanding tradition of documentarians with an activist bent. And while Ossoff may be the only non-fiction director jockeying for elected office this year, plenty of other documentary filmmakers will present new work designed to help a troubled world in 2017 — and they stand a good chance at making a difference. Here are five ways documentaries could save the world in the coming months.
The first major film festival to show new work in the Trump era was Sundance, which took place as the 45th president was sworn in. One of the challenges ahead was environment progress, with the specter of Scott Pruitt taking over the Environment Protection Agency signaling a break from Obama-era reform. Sundance came prepared with an entire section devoted to the environment that included eye-opening looks at climate change such as “Chasing Coral.” But the festival really got the ball rolling on opening night, which began with the well-received “An Inconvenient Sequel.” The movie follows Al Gore in the years after “An Inconvenient Truth” as he continues his crusade to save the environment, and contains footage all the way through Trump’s election. It shows Gore as a genuine fighter aware of challenges at every turn, but somehow capable of projecting an air of optimism as he talks through an eco-friendly future with skeptical parties.
At the same time, it shows the precise nature of his activism, particularly his crucial role at the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015. One key scene finds Gore talking to an environmentally friendly mayor in a hard-right Texan town. As a whole, it delivers exactly the blend of idealism and practicality that should help drive positive conversations about the apolitical nature of environmentally friendly policies when the movie comes out this summer. The movie next screens at Cannes, which will also showcase “Napalm,” Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about another pressing subject in the headlines: North Korea.
Assange Faces a Reckoning
It has been almost a year since Laura Poitras followed up her Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” with “Risk,” a sympathetic portrait of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Well, 2016 happened, and Wikileaks’ role in the presidential election made him a much more complicated figure — even for Poitras, who was suddenly less keen on supporting him. “Risk” went back to the editing room, and Poitras has reworked it as a more complex portrait of Assange’s thorny contradictions. Assange’s libertarian causes have been harder to defend in the wake of his role in leaking DNC files that may have swung the election, and his apparent alliance with Russia to that effect. As reports that the U.S. is angling to arrest Assange build up, Poitras’ film will start making the festival rounds ahead of a summer release, and will be sure to add an authoritative voice to conversations surrounding this divisive figure and the new media landscape epitomized by his work.
Syria Won’t Go Ignored
Much of the war in Syria is misunderstood or underrepresented in Western media, with only the recent images of horrifying gas attacks by the Assad regimes — and the U.S. missile response — revealing some small window into the suffering that the incursion has caused for millions of Syrians. Fortunately, several new documentaries pull back the veil on the struggle for survival in Syria taking place on a daily basis. In February, Netflix’s “The White Helmets” won the Oscar for best documentary short, spotlighting the efforts of volunteers in the country’s bomb relief unit struggling to rescue citizens from Assad and Russian rockets that shows no sign of letting up. Meanwhile, much of Syria suffers from the debilitating effects of ISIS strongholds; fortunately, a few citizen journalists have sought grassroots strategies to fight back. Some of those efforts are chronicled in “City of Ghosts,” Matthew Heineman’s Sundance-acclaimed documentary about the journalists in Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a collective that uses a variety of innovative methods to leak stories about ISIS oppression to the rest of the world. At Sundance, the film sold for $2 million to Amazon, suggesting that it will have sufficient resources to bring its subjects’ efforts to a wider American audience.
And it’s not alone. The White Helmets also take center stage in “The Last Men in Aleppo,” another Sundance hit set to come out later this year, while the HBO documentary “Cries From Syria” puts the broader nature of the conflict in focus.
Calling Out Bad Men
In addition to the Assad regime, Russia won’t escape scrutiny. In “The Force,” a major whistleblower on the country’s secret efforts to rig the Olympics speaks out, breaking down the clandestine nature of the government’s efforts at the highest level. Tech schemer Peter Thiel will face the spotlight in “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Trials of a Free Press,” which takes a scandalous topic and transforms it into a treatise on the broader challenges facing honest media at a moment of extreme crisis. Sundance premiere “The Force” explores the story of police corruption in Oakland in detail, chronicling its development over the course of several years. And the Tribeca Film Festival premiere “Get Me Roger Stone” will land on Netflix to reveal the machinations of this menacing Trump whisperer once and for all.
It’s a tough road ahead for LGBT activism in the Trump era, as new policies are anything but tolerant of gender and sexual identity. Fortunately, there are plenty of non-fiction films in 2017 designed to raise awareness for LGBT causes and heighten sensitivities to various needs. At Tribeca, there’s “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” the latest effort from “How to Survive a Plague” director David France, which focuses on the black trans woman who threw the first brick in the Stonewall riots. Out of Sundance, “Strong Island” provided an intimate look at the experiences of transgender director Yance Ford, who simultaneously struggles with memories of his brother’s murder and its impact on their family as a whole. And there are many more to come.