Documentary Sundays: 13th

A call for context and understanding.

There is a Sunday night tradition that I know many South Africans grew up with. If you were lucky enough to get M-NET, after dinner, the family would settle in to watch Carte Blanche. This weekly one hour news wrap-up was a window into the world around us. It was a time to reflect on what was going on in the country and the world, before we had news coming into our pockets at every moment.

Now there is so much content out there I know many people of that same community has turned off. There’s too much awfulness, too little idea of what to do about it, and quite frankly much more entertaining things to be watching.

So as a part of my 100 days of writing challenge, I’m going to write-up a short piece on some of my favourite documentaries every Sunday. I’ll do my best to explain why I think you should watch it, favourite scenes, things to look out for. Hopefully a well thought through recommendation may make you more more inclined to take that Sunday night traditional of expanding your world view with the beauty of documentaries. Obvs one of my favourite things in the world.

So, first up.


Where to find it: Netflix

Director: Ava DuVernay. Aka my personal hero/person I want to be when I grow up.

Length: Pretty long one, but worth it, at 1h 40mins.

Who should watch it?

Anyone who feels uncomfortable with the term “privilege”. This quote is from early on in the intro to the film.

“History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are white. If are black we are products of a history that our ancestors did not choose. Yet here we all are together, the products of that set of choices. And we have to understand that in order to escape from it.”

I am not American. But we all exist in systems of power and privilege, and the lessons from this film can be applied across many of these issues. We all have history. See if you can watch this film and not put it in the “other” box. Other people, other country, other time. We all sit on these timelines. If someone says something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to tell anyone but yourself, but try think about why it stings. Is it because there is a truth in it that you do not want to face, or because you truly believe it is untrue? Research. Ask around. Find out for yourself.

Why now? Context and nuance. It does feel like we are really in the gutter at the moment with vicious fights at all fronts. Everyone is yelling. Trump has shown us that a large proportion of the population does not value long form journalism or deep context and historical awareness. It’s very tempting to fall into too when the people you are coming up against don’t want to hear anything except their own opinion.

This film is one really intricate example of story-telling that holds your attention, while respecting the viewer to keep up with the layered cloth it’s weaving. What 13TH does, is show the multiple threads of economy, history, slavery, the legal system, the government, politics, power. It holds up each one for you to look at, to analyse, to understand. And then it picks up another, shows you how the one has become inexplicably linked with the other. And then another, And another.

Most powerful scene: 1:20:16–1:22:25 .This montage comes quite late in the film, and it brings together all these threads along with audio from Trump rallies. Keeping in mind he was not yet POTUS when this film was released. Again, this film is so respectful of the viewer. DuVernay places Trump right there. You have an undersntading of the political, cultural and historical system that means he has support. Listening to him bellow on about “The good old days”, contrasted with achieve of what actually went on in the “good old days”. Context. History. I don’t care if you love Trump or hate him (the film is very critical of Hilary too, no sacred cows here). But know your history. Don’t let people use triggers and push your buttons without your full awareness of it.

Doc nerdy stuff: I’m in love with the artwork of this film. It’s used to transition between scenes, with lyrics from artists ranging from Nina Simone’s “Work Song”, Killer Mike’s “Reagan” and Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype”.

The film makes the argument that the word “nigger” was replaced by “criminal”. Every time an interviewee says the word, it flashes for a few frames. It’s powerful and really draws your attention to the frequency with which this word was thrown around to continuously describe any resistance from the black community.

Where I’m not sure:This film’s interviews are framed in an really strange way to my eye. I would absolutely love it if someone could tell me a bit more about why this framing was used?

Let me know if you have seen the doc and what you thought about it. Also let me know if there are any films you think I should include in the coming weeks.

Until tomorrow


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