“Escapism” is an operative word when you’re hunkered down under quarantine and surveying your home viewing options, but how you interpret that is up to you. Many will opt for fiction and fantasy, for the furthest possible reaches from the glum news of the moment. Yet documentary films have their place in this comfort system too: they may not take you to another universe entirely, but at a time when a single global crisis unavoidably consumes all media attention and almost all personal conversation, the window they provide into other realities, past and present, can be a vital way to clear your head of current noise.
Netflix is a reliable source of good ones, and they’ve landed one of the year’s best so far in Crip Camp, an audience award winner at Sundance in January that manages to be a crowdpleaser without softening tricky subjects or taking sentimental shortcuts. It’s the second feature documentary to emerge from the Netflix-allied, Barack and Michelle Obama-founded production company Higher Ground: the first, last year’s outstanding American Factory, went on to win the Oscar.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Crip Camp earn similar plaudits for directors Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, the latter coming to this project with some personal investment. Born with spina bifida, and a disability rights activist since the early 70s, LeBrecht was once an attendee of Camp Jened, the groundbreaking New York state summer camp for young disabled people on which this moving film is centred. From 1951 to 1977, it was a place where teens with a variety of disabilities had their first experience of living as a community free from overprotective minders or oppressive bullies; many had their first, formative stirrings of both sexual and political consciousness along the way.
The directors blend heartening archive footage from the camp and contemporary interviews with its past beneficiaries, expanding from a nostalgia piece into a stirring overview of how the American disability rights movement hatched and grew from the spirit of empowered unity that the camp stood for. Judy Heumann, a former camp leader who became a leading activist and legislator for the independent living movement, emerges as the most prominent and galvanising hero in a film of many. From its blunt title’s defiant reclaiming of an ugly slur, Crip Camp is frank and forthright, warmly soulful but free of condescension: there aren’t many better new films out there right now.
If you’re still on a documentary bent, Netflix continues to provide: their wholly riveting (if less uplifting) new docuseries How to Fix a Drug Scandal started streaming earlier this week, and unpicks the more-than-meets-the-eye story of Sonja Farak, a disgraced lab chemist convicted of stealing the drugs she was supposed to be testing. (That is, assuming you’ve already gorged on the luridly eye-opening pleasures of the absurdly kitsch true-crime saga Tiger King.)
But if you’re after docs from further afield, head to the website for CPH:DOX, the wonderful Copenhagen-based documentary festival that normally takes place in late March but undertook a digital edition this year. The bulk of its streaming offerings are limited to those in Denmark, but an interesting handful have been made available internationally. Ocean of Love is a sinewy, tactile view into Cuba’s Army of Love project, which sees a variety of activists across age and social groups attempt to counter capitalist warfare with sensual healing.
Magnus Gertten’s Only the Devil Lives Without Hope, meanwhile, chronicles a young Uzbek woman’s fight for the release of her brother, one of many Muslims imprisoned by the government on false terrorism charges, and is a stirring window into a little-reported national crisis. Or for a lighter view, try the wry, hour-long Last Days of Summer, in which three Warsaw twentysomethings smoke, drink and wonder what life holds for them when the party’s over. It’s a lively, bittersweet reminder of life without social distancing. What could seem further removed from our current reality than that?
Also new to streaming this week
Colour Out of Space
One of those rare modern Nicolas Cage vehicles that matches his grand madness as a performer: Richard Stanley’s psychedelic take on the HP Lovecraft short story is occasionally hokey but often bewitching.
The true story of the unlikely charity chart-toppers becomes a crowd-pleasing underdog Britcom in the classic Full Monty tradition: it’s sweet and marshmallow-centred, though Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan give it some steel.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
(Modern Films, PG)
A bit prosaic and simplified in outlook, this documentary on a pioneering but historically sidelined silent film-maker is still an absorbing primer on a vital career.
The Elephant Man
David Lynch’s adaptation of the Joseph Merrick story blends gothic atmospherics with humane tenderness. Given a handsome 40th-anniversary rerelease on Blu-ray, it’s ageing very well.
A Bigger Splash
Not the summery Luca Guadagnino bonbon, but a very welcome rerelease of Jack Hazan’s essential 1973 documentary about David Hockney, his art and his relations: its queer fly-on-the-wall intimacy remains bracing.
Studio Ghibli retrospective
The third and final batch of titles from Netflix’s anime jackpot includes the delightful, dizzy Diana Wynne Jones adaptation Howl’s Moving Castle and Hayao Miyazaki’s final (so far) passion project The Wind Rises, plus five more.