On the Netflix Hollywood compound recently, a capacity crowd gathered in an amphitheater for an event with the crackling energy—and almost the look—of a UFC title bout.
The contenders in the ring at Real to Reel: A Netflix Documentary Showcase Presented by Deadline were all heavyweights, not in MMA but nonfiction filmmaking—Oscar nominees, Emmy winners and Sundance honorees all with important new work streaming on the Netflix platform.
“Documentary filmmaking is about capturing truth,” declared Karim Amer in round 1 of Real to Reel. He and Jehane Noujaim directed The Great Hack, a film untangling the complex Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal that exploded after the 2016 presidential election.
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Deadline’s Awardsline editor Joe Utichi refereed the discussion, asking Amer and Noujaim about the truth they capture—that information shared by people through social media is “being bought and sold like stocks.”
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“In many ways I think people will look back at this time like this was the grand theft, where we gave up so much of our autonomy without fully realizing by [skipping over] the terms and conditions” of social media apps, Amer observed.
The Great Hack has triggered “a really strong reaction,” Noujaim commented. “Everybody who has a cell phone and uses social media…cares about this. From women that have seen it and have decided to delete apps because they’ve read the terms and conditions and realized they don’t want their kid near it to the reaction that we got in Trinidad and Tobago because they realized that their election was manipulated, to here.”
“I think that no matter what happens with the data, we have to mobilize people,” responded Rachel Lears, director of Knock Down the House, which documents the 2018 insurgent primary campaigns of four Democratic women candidates, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“I think that our democracy is stronger the more people believe that their voice matters,” Lears continued. “That’s very much what we were trying to do with Knock Down the House is make everyone feel at multiple levels—emotionally, intellectually—that their voice matters and not just their vote but that you can work and organize and come together with your neighbors and friends, colleagues and really build a movement that can challenge established power structures.”
The theme of round 1 of Real to Reel was “The World of 2019.” No film speaks to contemporary times more directly than American Factory, from directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. Issues related to globalization, U.S.-China relations and, indirectly, immigration come up in the documentary about a billionaire Chinese auto glass entrepreneur who built a factory in Dayton, Ohio in the shell of an old GM plant.
Bognar addressed how he and Reichert gained the trust of so many characters—Chinese and American factory workers, managers and even the billionaire chairman himself, Cao Dewang.
“It is an ongoing relationship,” Bognar noted. “Someone can say, ‘Yeah, you can hang out with me for awhile,’ but if you are not a good person in the room…and say that stupid thing that was in your head you can easily derail a relationship and then the film can go off the track… Access is one thing; trust is a whole other level, and trust is an everyday kind of question.”
Filmmaker Nadia Hallgren developed trust by empathizing with subjects of her short documentary After Maria, about people from Puerto Rico who sought refuge in New York after Hurricane Maria wiped out their island home.
“They’re still struggling in the ways that many people do when they don’t have active employment,” Hallgren revealed. “There are deep trauma issues from the storm and the way that they were treated while they were in Puerto Rico, having no access to food, having no access to water and then coming to the United States and losing their dignity in a lot of ways, the way that the government handled them. So those experiences don’t just go away.”
A year ago the Camp Fire incinerated Paradise, California, killing dozens of residents and displacing tens of thousands of others. Filmmaker Drea Cooper, who had spent time in the community as a boy, returned with cameras to document the devastation for his Netflix short documentary Fire in Paradise.
“What we found was a lot of these people hadn’t really told their story yet,” Cooper shared. “This was just an amazing testament to the documentary process where it becomes this therapeutic process and can be very positive and revelatory. It’s a chance for a lot of people for the first time to just verbalize what they’d gone through. And just in doing that you could see this weight kind of lift off people.”
Identity was the theme of round 2 of Real to Reel. African-American identity and the struggle to share in American opportunity come into focus in The Black Godfather, about Clarence Avant, a behind-the-scenes power broker who quietly advanced the careers of black entertainment, sports and political figures. While making the film, producer Nicole Avant—Clarence’s daughter—discovered how her father helped NFL great Jim Brown transition from the gridiron to movie stardom.
“I did not know the Jim Brown story,” Avant commented. “My dad [had told me] he knew him and helped him with something and then I see the footage. ‘Helped him with something? You created a whole career for this person! And helped change civil rights in this country based on him trying to get into Hollywood and get into these films.’ I just didn’t realize the layers of humanity, the layers of the human soul that we were going to catch…It’s about civil rights, social justice, dreaming against all odds, dreaming through adversity, dreaming for other people, serving other people.”
The identity at stake in The Edge of Democracy is an entire country’s. Petra Costa’s film questions whether her native Brazil is heading back towards dictatorship.
“One of the main things I learned making The Edge of Democracy was how Brazil as a nation decided to forget its past, the time of the military dictatorship and the crimes committed during the military dictatorship,” Costa observed. “As many other nations—Portugal, Spain—they thought that that was the best way to deal with the pain because otherwise it would re-traumatize, it would create anger. The United States did that with slavery to a certain extent and when you do that your past comes back to haunt you.”
The challenge of putting subjects at ease was a constant refrain for filmmakers at the Real to Reel event, whether Brazil’s ex-president Dilma Rousseff in The Edge of Democracy or the families in Life Overtakes Me, the short doc by Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas.
“We ate a lot of cookies, we had a lot of cups of coffee. I did magic tricks for the siblings in the families,” Haptas explained. “But it just took a lot of time of being there before some of these parents could tell their very difficult stories.”
The difficult stories in Life Overtakes Me involve refugee children in Sweden. Hundreds of them have mysteriously fallen into a coma-like state, all kids from families traumatized by war in the Middle East.
One such child Samuelson and Haptas filmed eventually awoke, but remembered nothing.
“Basically she said, ‘Was I sleeping?’ But she just picked up her life as if she’d gone to bed the night before even though she was a year older,” Samuelson stated. “That is not always true for children who undergo this. Sometimes they have some memories. Some of the things they talk about is feeling like they were in a glass cage underwater or if they moved they would die.”
All of the films in the Netflix Real to Reel showcase are contenders this awards season and many have already claimed prizes, including Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. That feature, about a rollicking Dylan tour of 1975, won the Stanley Kubrick Award for Bold & Innovative Filmmaking at the Traverse City Film Festival and it’s up for three awards at this weekend’s Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards.
“Dylan’s been such a touchstone for [Scorsese], just the music and the poetry and also the trickster kind of nature of Dylan,” producer Margaret Bodde noted, adding that Dylan—true to form—wasn’t the most eager of interviewees. “We have a subject who really was not interested in being there…He didn’t want the hundred days [of shooting]. He wanted the least amount of time. ‘Get me out of here. I don’t remember anything.’”
Dylan wears a mask of white greasepaint at times in Rolling Thunder Revue, in keeping with his desire to remain opaque. The subjects of the Netflix short Ghosts of Sugar Land concealed their identities behind masks for different reasons—to speak about a fellow Muslim-American friend who left the U.S. to fight for ISIS.
“They wouldn’t agree to do it without the masks,” stated Farihah Zaman, the film’s producer. “It became really like their avatars. Like, ‘Okay, I’ll do it but only if I can be Ironman.’ We were a little bit surprised to see how much it conveyed emotionally.”
A terrible secret is unmasked in Ed Perkins’ film Tell Me Who I Am, the extraordinary story of twins Marcus and Alex Lewis. After Alex sustained a traumatic brain injury in an accident, he remembered only his twin Marcus and nothing else. His brother helped Alex reconstruct his memory, but intentionally omitted their devastating childhood of physical and sexual abuse. Over the course of the film, the brothers eventually confronted what really happened.
“That’s one of the paradoxes of the story we were lucky enough to tell,” Perkins noted, “which is so often the importance of talking about our past and learning from it is key and yet the human experience also suggests that sometimes it’s easier to believe a lie than to admit the truth.”
In recent years Netflix documentaries have claimed multiple Oscars and Oscar nominations, including Icarus, The White Helmets and The Square (the latter film directed by The Great Hack’s Amer and Noujaim). Nonfiction filmmaking is in the streamer’s blood, said Lisa Nishimura, vice president of independent film and documentary features, as she introduced the Real to Reel showcase.
“From the very inception of Netflix…documentaries have always been core and essential to the Netflix experience,” she affirmed. “Our commitment to the craft and to the unique filmmakers who bring these incredible stories alive only continues to grow.”
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