Doc Talk: Documentaries on Netflix Need You to Save Them

Doc Talk: Documentaries on Netflix Need You to Save Them

Jul 27, 2011

I’m always looking to expand my familiarity with classic documentaries. And Netflix has typically delivered. In fact, until recently the service was streaming a number of famed old nonfiction titles available through The Criterion Collection. Such classics as Salesman, Grey Gardens, Sans Soleil, Burden of Dreams, Hearts and Minds and Harlan County U.S.A. are still currently available in disc form, but for immediate online viewing you have to head over to Hulu, and you’ll need a Plus account for most.

At least Hoop Dreams is still somehow on Netflix Watch Instantly (it appears to not be Criterion’s copy), as are plenty of other must-see doc classics like Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, The Sorrow and the Pity, The Thin Blue Line, Triumph of the Will, Man With the Movie Camera, Word is Out, Sherman’s March, The Civil War, The War Game (only available in streaming form), Louisiana Story (also only streaming) and four of the seven Up films.

The fact that some necessary films are only on disc or only streaming is a problem for the controversial new pricing plans at Netflix, which is also dividing many subscribers into disc only or streaming only branches. What’s a Robert Flaherty fan to do but pay for both services in order to rent both Nanook of the North and Louisiana Story? (Or she could buy the DVDs I guess.) That same fan is still out of luck with Flaherty’s Moana, however, which has no Netflix presence. I guess it’s understandable since this film seems difficult to come by through any means.

Usually Netflix will at least have a listing for a film as significant as Moana, and if it’s not in print or is otherwise unavailable it will have a “save” button where the “add” and “play” buttons belong. Recently I found out that this “save” button does not necessarily mean the film is a rarity on DVD. And I fear that we will soon be seeing a whole lot of films with this misleading status implication.

The example that caught my attention is Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile, a very important three-part documentary about the 1973 Chilean coup d'état. You may know it as the vérité epic so direct and endangered in its coverage that it includes first-person footage of a cameraman being shot and killed while filming. If you live in a big city, perhaps it recently screened in a retrospective timed to Guzmán’s latest, Nostalgia for the Light.

Now, if you want to get The Battle of Chile from Netflix, too bad. In full, anyway. While parts 2 and 3 are easily rented on disc, part 1 is listed as “DVD availability date unknown” and that green “save” button is there, just waiting for you to click it.

And you should click it, because although Netflix can’t tell us when it will be available through their service, I can assure you that the first Battle of Chile disc is very much available from its distributor, Icarus Films. They’ll happily send Netflix another copy as soon as it’s enough in demand, by Netflix’s determination.

Or, so Icarus believes. The company has dealt with the service for years and could usually keep them well stocked with titles. Over the years, though, I’m told Netflix has been pickier about what new releases they buy. Then recently they stopped reordering replacements to certain films (when discs are lost or damaged), which is what has happened with Guzmán’s classic. How many subscribers are needed to show interest by saving the doc is unknown.

Meanwhile, I’m hearing through the grapevine that some small documentary distributors (and likely those not strictly carrying nonfiction, as well) will soon be losing their licensing deals for the streaming service. So far no company will talk to me about this, even off the record, so I’m unclear what this means for them specifically. But it sounds to me like Netflix is going to be so wrapped up in paying the major distributors’ increased license fees that it won’t be able to bother with some of the smaller businesses.

Chances are if this happens many docs will still be available on disc. But the future of Netflix, and movie renting overall, is the streaming service. It’s already apparent that subscribers are siding with that option if they must choose only one. And this could in the long run be a huge blow to nonfiction cinema.

Which is extremely sad, of course, especially given what Netflix has clearly done for the documentary mode since the beginning. It’s the streaming service that has particularly been terrific for exposure. As’s own John Gholson said in response to the rumor, “That's bad news. When I don't know what to watch on NWI, I always watch a doc.”

He’s not the only one, either. I’ve lost count of how many people tell me that they got more into docs by curiously streaming them on Netflix. Half the students in a documentary history class I took last year claimed interest in the mode through the same service.

If Netflix stops being a documentary fan’s best friend, there are other great places to watch nonfiction films online, including Hulu, SnagFilms, Amazon, Fandor, Mubi, Documentary Channel, the National Film Board of Canada and other sites (tell me your favorite), many of them offering free content, with or without commercials. You just have to be more active about finding what you want. And while you’re still a Netflix subscriber, be active about what you want them to carry, by clicking more “save” buttons and writing them about titles not represented.


New Releases

There are roughly a billion movies out this weekend, or so it seems, and a few are brilliant documentaries that should be on your radar. One is Steve James’ The Interrupters, a film I've been predicting will garner the filmmaker his first Oscar nomination since Hoop Dreams (which was an editing nod). It follows a year in the life of Chicago “violence interrupters,” who work for the peacekeeping organization CeaseFire. Ignore everything you’ve read about the length, as it’s been cut down to two hours. I think I preferred the 162-minute version that screened at Sundance, if only because I couldn’t get enough of the true super heroes James presents to us. This film will be the most inspiring thing you see for a while.

A very different sort of experience will be had with Life in a Day, the crowd-sourced doc from director Kevin Macdonald and producer Ridley Scott that I called 'YouTubisqatsi’ back at Sundance. Don’t let that silly moniker discourage you, though, because this day-in-the-life of the entire world is breathtaking. And you might just come away with a new perspective on everything, the way you did with Tree of Life only more spatially than temporally. If it's not scheduled for your area, demand a screening here

Those of you with a lot of patience ought to check out the very slow, relatively context-devoid docs El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which pays off for foodies who don’t mind waiting for the money shots, and Sleep Furiously, a poetic portrait of a farming community in Wales that may put some to sleep, furiously, but which is a worthwhile trip if you can make it all the way (in addition to opening in NYC this week, Sleep Furiously will be streaming on Fandor this Friday only, for 24 hours).

Also out in the next couple weeks are two docs requiring another sort of tolerance. Both Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer and Alex Gibney’s latest, Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place, are full of really ugly archive footage. The former is strictly for the most aesthetically forgiving viewers interested in knowing about the titular politician, who infamously killed himself on live TV during a press conference. As for Magic Trip, the compiled footage and audio documenting Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 cross-country bus trip is only for those Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fans and ‘60s romanticizers who are absolutely curious to see illustrative material of this iconic moment. 

Until next time (August 10), enjoy the plethora of docs at your disposal and let me know what you've seen in the comments section. 

Categories: Documentary, Features
Tags: Doc Talk, Netflix
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