From Zombie Ants to the Shopocalypse: My Top Documentary Pics of 2009


I’ll leave others to review Avatar and Night at the Museum 2–here are my recommendations of the best documentary films I saw over the past year. Yes, call me a docu-geek, I probably watch more documentaries than other genres (thank you netflix!)–though animated cartoons come a close second! If you’re wondering why “The Yes Men Fix the World” isn’t on here–I just haven’t had a chance to see it, though I’m a big fan. Most have links to the official sites with trailers for viewing.

1)Planet Earth BBC Series: I know I’m a bit tardy with this one, but I only recently came across it–then I was addicted for a while.  What a gorgeous, awesome, mysterious globe we live on!  Nearly every scene is stunning. My favorite? The birds of paradise.  No, wait, the cute polar bear cubs and awesome whales.  No, actually it’s the zombie ants whose brains get taken over by viruses and then dissolved.  True story. I sometimes suspect that this is what has happened to me.

2)Young @ Heart: The story of a chorus of senior citizens learning and performing rock & roll and soul tunes.  Enough said!  It’s actually one of my favorites of all time–very inspiring.

3)Food, Inc. & King Corn: This is definitely the decade for people waking up to the realities of our industrial food system.  As the subtitles promises, “You’ll never look at dinner the same way.” If you want to stick your head in the sand and stay disconnected to the food you put in your body, don’t watch this.

4)Flow: For Love of Water& Blue Gold: World Water Wars :

These 2 films are extremely important, telling the story of giant corporations privatizing our finite and dwindling water supply, a basic human necessity is being transformed into a for-profit commodity.

These battles (a major flashpoint was in Chochabamba, Bolivia, 2000, sometimes called the Bolivia Water Wars) may in the end make oil wars look benign. We can adjust to alt. energy sources–we can’t survive without fresh, clean water.  Both privatization and water conflicts are increasingly taking place here at home–as cities give away water supplies and we misuse our water resources in highly irrational and wasteful ways. For example,

Flow profiles the case of Nestle (Ice Mountain bottled water ) stealing water in Michigan. Because of organized citizen action (I’m going to start putting that in bold-faced type with exclamation points to boost the meme) recognizing their common public good, they finally have won the battle.

And it’s not just water companies, but also soda & beverage companies, that are profiting handsomely from current arrangements.  Coca-Cola is stealing water world wide, and is known for its human rights and environmental abuses from India to Columbia.  In fact several universities have banned Coca-Cola from their campuses. When you go to India you are struck by the pervasiveness of Coca-Cola’s logos, even in the most impoverished places, even as the company steals water from aquifers, poisons its beverage with toxins, and pollutes surrounding farm land.  Because of these and other reasons I don’t drink Coca-Cola or bottled water (Dasani is owned by Coca-Cola).

These are simply in a long list of threats posed by the “corporatocracy” discussed in John Perkins and Naomi Klein’s book–privatizing what should be publicly controlled & managed resource. In fact, when I attended the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya it was a major topic of discussion as communities in Africa and India and Latin America are fighting these corporate parasites.  It will undoubtedly be one of the issues at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit this June.

5)Hacking Democracy: If you are at all concerned about the integrity of our election systems, watch this movie! It flows like a detective movie and Bev Harris is a modern-day hero.  However, if you think Diebold, ES&S, and other private companies should determine how we vote and how votes get counted–then skip this.

6)War Made Easy: Can I make a brief wish?: that this decade also be the one that people wake up about our war economy, the military industrial complex, and the true nature of American foreign policy. While I’m wishing, can I ask that this film is shown in every classroom across the nation, starting at age 7 1/2? Don’t wishes come in threes? Ok, numero tres: that more people start challenging this tragic way of doing things and reexamine our values and priorities (aka organized citizen action).  The film covers how almost every war & military engagement is accompanied by lies, omitting real motivations, then sold as a form of peacemaking on the basis of fear (wow, why does that sound familiar? oh yeah, Obama’s Peace Prize acceptance speech); it shows how the mainstream media plays a cheer-leading role for every war; and it shows how war really affects those on the other side of our screens.  While your at it , why don’t go ahead and “get your peace” on and make a cozy weekend of it sometime and also watch the following: Why We Fight (which focuses on the profitability of war & establishes beyond a doubt America’s imperial aims)  and Sir, No Sir! (about enlisted soldiers who resisted during the Vietnam War). I promise, ‘you’ll never look at peace & war the same way again’.

“It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other.”–Mark Twain, 1901, speaking of U.S. imperial policies in Philippines.

7)What Would Jesus Buy?: Exposing our credit-maxed, consumer binged, mega-corp dominated society doesn’t always have to feel like a nail through the sternum.  This is  fun ride, driven by super cool mad man Reverend Billy Talen (who didn’t beat Bloomberg for the mayor’s race in NYC, in case you were wondering).

He and his crew go a cross-country mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse (the end of humankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt)!

WWJB is produced by Morgan Spurlock (of 30 Days and Supersize Me fame, also highly recommended). U.S. consumer debt is over $2.5 trillion ($8,000/each person). But you “got to have the Christmas spirit flashing some new rims.”

8)Occupation 101: It’s a shame that too few people will see this film. It should be sent to every Congressperson.

This powerful film lays out the current and historical root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving a front row seat to what the occupation looks like from the inside, and dispelling many of its long-perceived myths and misconceptions. Palestinians are essentially living in a giant prison with the Israel Defense/Occupation Forces (IDF/IOF) playing the role of brutal guards and the prime minister of Israel & United States playing the part of the warden.  People are cut off from jobs, school, hospitals, while their land is being stolen, their houses demolished, an apartheid wall being built, and the people  killed and terrorized.

Some stats:

  • Israel alone receives about 1/5 of all United States aid dollars annually.  That’s about $6-8 million PER DAY over the past several decades. U.S. tax dollars. And Obama just announced $30 billion more over the next 10 years. Don’t we have problems here that we have to fix? You know like schools, jobs, health care?
  • Israel has the most extensive record of UN council resolutions criticizing its actions (130+).  However none have passed the Security Council because of the U.S. veto power.  The United States has used its Security Council Veto over 40 times to defend Israel from criticism,  being the SOLE nation in the world to do so, blocking any meaningful change. The first veto was cast in 1972 by George Bush, Sr., who was ambassador to UN at the time. (btw, was there a high level position that guy didn’t hold?)
  • Israel tanks = 4000; Palestinian tanks = 0; Israel F-16s = 362; Palestinian F-16s = 0; Israel nuclear warheads = 200+ ; Palestine = 0
  • 2000-Present: Israel children killed by Palestinians = 124; Palestinian children killed by Israelis: 1,441

What is the real role of the United States continuing the conflict, rather than pushing for the “peace process”? Why is there a media black out? If only Americans knew.  The Israeli occupation of Palestinian is a case study in the truth of the common peace chant: “know justice, know peace, no justice, no peace.”  See my first person dispatch from the Gaza Freedom March Solidarity action across the Golden Gate Bridge. Americans need to start being vocal about this (aka organized citizen action), but first they have to become aware of what is going on.

9)Apology of An Economic Hit Man: A film adaptation of John Perkins’ book Confessions of an Economic Hitman, this film shows his role as an EHM in various countries and the role economic aid from institutions like World Bank/IMF has in miring poor countries in permanent debt and force them to acquiesce to the interests of multinational corporations.  See my post under Top Reads of 2009.

Interspersing (somewhat cheezy) re-enactments of Perkins’ nefarious career with footage of his moving public apology in Ecuador for helping the U.S. and TNCs to undermine that country’s president, who refused to be corrupted and then soon thereafter died in a suspicious plane accident. Panama’s president soon suffered the same fate.  I also saw this at the CounterCorp’s Film Festival, so I don’t think it is available yet on Netflix, but you can find a version called Speaking Freely and you can find Perkins all over the intertubes. I suggest starting on his page and some interviews on Democracy Now.

10)War Dance: Don’t worry it’s not about war.  It’s about dance.  More specifically its tells the story of a group of  children refugees in Uganda preparing for the National Music Competition.  Okay, it’s a little about war.  These childrens’ parents have been killed by a militia and many have themselves been kidnapped and made to learn how to be soldiers.  But it is about overcoming that tragedy with music and dance as a form of healing and finding meaning. A beautiful and moving film.

11)Capitalism: A Love Story: We can’t forget THE documentary film of the year.  Or it should have been.  Finally a mainstream movie (well, at least it made it to the theaters) put some of our hallowed assumptions under the magnifying glass.  How can you not love Moore announcing he’s making a citizen’s arrest of a CEO with a bullhorn and rolling out crime scene tape around a bank? Showcasing worker-owned cooperatives, victims of insurance company greed, bank bailouts, etc., Capitalism: A Love Story is a sometimes funny, sometimes dead serious in its indictment of our current economic system & a rallying point for transitioning to different models. We can reverse that power grab that corporations have taken over the past century, where they have accumulated more rights than individuals with little of the responsibilities, by voting for responsible companies with our dollars, setting up new ways to do business, joining millions in moving money from mega-banks to local community banks and credit unions, revoking corporate charters, challenging corporate power over our politics, and organized citizen action.

While we’re examining assumptions, might as well watch Sicko. Of course the two are fundamentally related–we have a health care system that costs more and produces worse results that most other industrialized nations. The reason? Corporate control, aka radical capitalism based on profit, not people. That and we really, really like cheap corn fed industrialized cheese burgers & coca-cola, subsidized by cheap oil & water.

12)Sweet Crude & Crude: Recounts the stories of Big Oil’s devastation of the communities and environment of Nigeria (Shell) and Ecuadaor (Chevron), as well as efforts by the people to resist and have their grievances addressed.  I saw Sweet Crude at the Anti-Corp Film Festival in the Mission District, and the debut coincided with the trial in New York against Shell Oil and one of its executives, for their roles in the torture and killing of Nigerians protesting oil operations (Shell lost and had to settle!). Most recently a Dutch court ruled Shell can be tried in the Hague by Nigeria citizens. Everybody should learn the name of Ken Saro Wiwa, a modern day hero and martyr.

As far as Crude, and Chevron’s abuses in Ecuador, they are losing the PR battle and perhaps the political battle, and are posed to lose a court battle, the largest ever environmental case ($27 billion).  Right here in the back yard of the SF Bay Area, with its HQ in San Ramon and largest refinery in Richmond, the company has taken some community heat (I have been involved with some of that) and some hits (though recently Chevron has won some battles, when a local county court sided with the company). Yet it is encouraging that justice is beginning to catch up with these companies, some of the largest and most profitable ever to exist in the history of the world.  The communities continue to fight back (aka organized citizen action).

Honorary Mentions:

Cocalero: From coca farmer to head of state, this film shows Evo Morales’ journey to become the first indigenous man ever to be elected President in Latin America (via organized citizen action) .  Filmed just a year into his presidency it leaves off before the reforms of the last couple years.  I hope a sequel is in the works somewhere.

The Garden:Community Garden vs. Bulldozer. The Garden tells the story of the 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles and the struggle of those who cultivated (via organized citizen action) it to save it from City Hall and “developers.”

God Grew Tired of Us: Also set in that part of African, this tells the story of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan.”  The film follows the long journey of 3 orphaned boys (of the estimated 25,000) who walked through the desert alone to arrive at a refugee camp in Kenya. They were some of the few selected to be resettled in the United States, and the film shows their at first awkward attempts to adjust to their new surroundings, from where they continue to raise awareness about the situation in their homeland.

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