This post will take a look at the documentaries that aired on HBO from July – December of 2019. Each section will give an Overview, my Expectations of the film upon reading the description and seeing the trailer, followed bu my Gut Reaction to each piece. Upon the conclusion of this posting I’ll let you know what my favorites from the year were.
I LOVE YOU, NOW DIE
Overview: In July 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy committed suicide in his car at a parking lot in Fairhaven, Mass. Police soon discovered a series of alarming text messages from his girlfriend, 17-year-old Michelle Carter, that seemed to encourage him to kill himself. This discovery sparked sensational headlines nationwide, leading to a trial that raised difficult questions about technology, social media and mental health while asking if one person can be held responsible for the suicide of another. In July 2017, Michelle Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the suicide of Roy. In Aug. 2017, she was found guilty and began her 15-month prison sentence in Feb. 2019, following a failed appeal. I LOVE YOU, NOW DIE includes footage from Michelle Carter’s trial, where the filmmakers had the only camera allowed in court
Expectations: Going into this one I can just say I am often astounded by human behavior. I just want to unequivocally say that she is an evil person from the getgo; without her realizing she was so. She ‘loved’ him and she talked him into killing himself. But I know there is more to the tragedy than that. Let’s cut through the bull and get to the truth that both parties in this relationship were mentally disturbed. Wow! This grabs my attention and can’t wait to watch it.
Gut Reaction: This documentary is detailed & complete. It breaks the case in question down into two 1-hour+ installments; Part 1 is “The Prosecution” & Part 2 “The Defense.” If you think about it, the whole case is all spelled out in the text messages gleaned from the phones of both parties. We go through the investigation starting with the thousands of messages on Conrad’s phone and then eventually from Michelle’s. Upon accessing her texts the story opens up to be about two messed up youths.
And Erin Lee Carr, the filmmaker, treats the whole thing evenly and fairly. Like I said, who wants to label Michelle as manipulative, heartless and evil but, in the end, proves to be just as troubled and broken as Conrad. The story is sensational enough without the documentarian adding a tone to make it more so. That is a wise call and one that helps play out this story better. What starts out as a complex tragedy ends up a clarified one instead. A bonus message is left by the end as well – this disembodied connectivity we share is not a healthily one really. Debut: Tuesday, 07.09.19 for Part 1 & Wednesday, 07.10.19 for Part 2
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Overview: In 2008, 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar, and her family’s servant, Hemraj Banjade, were found dead in their home in Noida, India. More than a decade later, the case remains unsolved. Directed by P.A. Carter this two-part documentary examines the mystery of the double murder, which sparked a media frenzy and continues to haunt the nation today. After more than a decade, multiple twists and turns and three investigations later, troubling questions remain about what happened the night the two of them died. Featuring interviews with family and friends of the victims, as well as journalists, investigators and attorneys, this documentary reconstructs the case. Debut: Tuesday, 07.16.19 for Part 1 & Wednesday, 07.17.19 for Part 2
Expectations: An international crime scene for a change adds to the interest, but as soon as I knew that this was a case out of India, I knew what it was going to be the underpinning for this story. India has an issue with class boundaries and family honor and the strong feeling of embarrassment for any shade of shame.
Gut Reaction: It takes two installments of this story, by documentarian P.A. Carter, to sort through all this, but in the end the looming sense of cultural shame upon the family does loom. I’ve seen films about that topic before especially when VICE was on HBO and on my radar. What saves this case as being run-of-the-mill is how Carter presents it. Breaking it down into twp parts certainly helped as did the judicious use of ‘talking heads’ dominating the piece. Of course, the interviewed are present but the fat is trimmed off of what they tell us.
The big clincher her is that the case is unsolved, so don’t look for a tidy ending or justice. Part I leads the case in one direction that proves a dead end, literally. Part II reopens the case with the parents of the murdered 13-year old Arushi and shifts the blame unto her parents thus, bringing the notion of an honor killing to light. The documentary, for those who follow them like me, does not offer a new topic here, but most Americans might not be aware of the impact family honor has on some international cultures making this film a bit of a surprise. It serves as a good example of the issue as I walked away with easily feeling the parents were the guilty party. BEHIND CLOSED DOORS is worth the time, especially if you are not familiar with the issue.
WHO KILLED GARRETT PHILLIPS?
Overview: On October 24, 2011, 12-year-old Garrett Phillips was murdered in his home in Potsdam, a small town in upstate New York. Police quickly zeroed in on a suspect in this unthinkable crime: Oral “Nick” Hillary, a black man in the mostly white community, who was a soccer coach at Clarkson University and the ex-boyfriend of Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus. From two-time Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner Liz Garbus (HBO’s “A Dangerous Son” and “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper”), the absorbing two-part documentary looks at the case from the initial investigation through the arrest and numerous legal twists and turns that culminated in Hillary’s trial for murder five years after the crime. Debut: Tuesday, 07.23.19 for Part I & Wednesday, 07.24.19 for Part II.
Expectations: On the one hand I want this to be another round of good television and on the other hand with true-crime stories, this was the murder of an innocent and you feel bad reducing their life to just ‘good TV.’ Out of all the heinous crimes out there, what does the Garrett Phillips case offer us? Why tell this story over any other? There is something important to tell here; the trailer alludes to it, but I want to know.
Gut Reaction: This documentary is not just about the murder of a youth, but about a judicial system not on the up and up. I didn’t know how much the piece was going to delve into that aspect of the story. It isn’t about finding a killer as much as it about racial profiling and trying to find some sort of justice at any cost regardless if it is the right justice or not.
The documentary chronicles the five years following the murder, as Garrett’s grief-stricken family and community relentlessly seek justice, and Hillary desperately fights to prove his innocence. There is clearly a mystery here. Discrepancies and gruff attitudes and lack of cooperation all cloud the case that perhaps should have otherwise been an easy crime to solve. Behavior from authorities indicates that Mr. Hillary could be a scapegoat to resolve the matter quickly; off-kilter timelines keeps the suspicion on Hillary. You are left with an investigation in shambles and an interesting story. Sadly, the title question is not answered and equally as sad, the story here isn’t the crime but the fouled process of handling the murder case at all.
UNMASKING JIHADI JOHN: ANATOMY OF A TERRORIST
Overview: In 1995, Mohammed Emwazi was a grade school student in London with a promising future ahead of him. By 2015, he was better known as “Jihadi John,” a masked, ISIS terrorist in Syria, notorious across the globe for broadcasting his brutal executions of Western hostages. The revealing documentary examines what propelled Emwazi’s journey down a violent path, the points at which intelligence agencies were aware of his growing radicalization and attempted, unsuccessfully, to deter him, Emwazi’s use of social media as an ISIS recruitment tool and launchpad to notoriety, harrowing first-hand accounts from his surviving hostages, and the collaboration between the world’s leading intelligence agencies to track him down and bring him to justice. Directed by Anthony Wonke. Debut: Wednesday, 07.31.19
Expectations: This is tough. I’m curious but don’t really want to know Jihadi John and his methods and thoughts. How detailed is it? Am I going to leave this documentary disturbed? Just who are we talking to in order to get this story told?
Gut Reaction: The revealing documentary examines what propelled Emwazi’s journey down a violent path despite US and British authorities being aware of his extremism. It also highlights the self-declared operational failures by counter-terrorism officials as Emwazi became ISIS’s chief executioner and propagandist. Emwazi’s brutality is illustrated through harrowing, first-hand accounts from his surviving hostages, and the collaboration between the world’s leading intelligence agencies, including the CIA and Britain’s intelligence agents, who ultimately tracked him down and ended his life.
Surprisingly, to me at least, is that this work is able to start back with Emwazi’s youth with interviews with people from school. It is the riveting first-hand accounts from surviving hostages Nicolas Henin and Federico Motka, as well as interviews with family members of executed hostages James Foley and David Haines, that hold the shock of the film, however. The making of a terrorist is darkly interesting but also distressing. At least this one’s reign, discussed in the ending moments of UNMASKING JIHADI JOHN, has come to an end. An intense view and one worth facing on HBO.
ALTERNATE ENDINGS: SIX NEW WAYS TO DIE IN AMERICA
Overview: In 2018, for the first time, more Americans chose cremation than traditional funerals and burials. This film explores the changing attitudes, rituals and mechanics of death, including the ways it is recognized, and how the end of life is approached. Subjects include the choice to use medical assistance, unique celebrations of life and ways to honor loved ones as they die. Directed and produced by Emmy winner Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz. Debut: Wednesday, 08.14.19
Expectations: Okay some are fascinated with death and others are uncomfortable dealing with it on any level. We all face it and some point and have no control when it is the time so, how about choosing how we are laid to rest and honored afterward. I get it and see the need for this look at the choices out there. Let’s watch this thing.
Gut Reaction: Other than because of a deep religious foundation, I don’t know why most people wouldn’t think it acceptable to practice non-traditional methods if they so choose. There are two aspects of the experience to look at here – the treatment of the loved ones remains and the services for the bereft. This mindful & considerate documentary isn’t out to advocate any of the unique options here but has the overall tone, I feel, of letting us know that there is no wrong way of honoring a loved one’s wishes and/or celebrating a life.
The six ways presented here can leave a lump in the throat for sure but proved meaningful for the people involved and that is all that is important. It says something strong about them all, I think, that they documented the issues in this film. We have cremated remains becoming part of an artificial reef; a ‘living wake’ (or celebrating a life before it ends), medical-assisted death, which is legal in some states; a ‘green burial’ (a nice way of saying a shallow burial that lets the remains enrich the soil); a ‘space burial’ (launching the remains into orbit) and the carnival party bash (as seen for a funeral for a 5-year old.)
A good lesson here – try to put some control into your death and go out the way you want to. Amen!
IN THE SHADOWS OF THE TOWERS: SYUVESANT HIGH
Overview: When the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, students had just started their day at Stuyvesant, the prestigious New York City specialized public high school, blocks from the World Trade Center. Directed and produced by seven-time Emmy-winner Amy Schatz (HBO’s “Song of Parkland”, “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm” and “An Apology to Elephants”), this documentary revisits the events of 9/11 through conversations with eight Stuyvesant alumni who, as teenagers, lived through the attack and whose lives were forever changed by it. Debut: Wednesday, 09.11.19.
Expectations: As the time of year rolls around again to that date we know we can never forget it and that we shouldn’t forget it. The only problem lies in finding a new way to recall the events. Though the eyes of youth can be one way of doing just that.
Gut Reaction: Eight alumni of the school share their stories recalling the terrorist event that seared images into our minds. They are able to recall quite well the play of events – witnessing the planes impact, the structures collapse, the billowing dust cloud and the aftershock of it all. Those are moments that have replayed for us time and time again. The real interesting moments were of the moment not often talked about. There were comments made of the distress of finding as afe haven and getting back to family after been shuttled to school in the city and there was talk of students of foreign ethnicity fearing a gut reaction response of retaliation in the heat of the moment. In the end it proved a well thought out approach to the event.
WHAT HAPPENED ON SEPTEMBER 11
Overview: Born after the terror attacks, a generation of young people wonders – What happened on 9/11? Why did it happen? What was its impact on our country and the world? Exploring these and other questions in a kid-friendly way, HBO Family’s latest documentary is an introduction to the events of 9/11. Directed and produced by Emmy® winner Amy Schatz. Debut: Wednesday, 09.11.19.
Expectations: Merely serves as a companion piece to the previous documentary.
Gut Reaction: This 31-minute film is informative and sensitive. For those born after the events of 2011, I can see that history needs to be explained. The whole incident is put into terms they understand as we watch classrooms of children talking to survivors, seeing the aftereffects and learning of what happened on that day and in the following days. A good approach to the subject and a different way of broaching the topic for us all.
Overview: This revealing and personal documentary follows Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and author, Buzz Bissinger, as he experiences a sexual awakening while collaborating with Caitlyn Jenner on her tell-all memoir. A verité portrait of his transformative journey, the feature documentary is directed by his childhood friend Andrew Shea. As he works to perfect Jenner’s book, Bissinger simultaneously examines his own heteronormative constraints, exploring previously uncharted sexual desires in ways that test his marriage, family and sense of self. Interweaving editing sessions between Bissinger and Jenner with personal insights into Bissinger’s sexual evolution from his family, BUZZ is a deeply personal film that explores the pursuit of true freedom of expression. Debut Date: 9.25.19
Expectations: This falls into the category of I never head of the topic, but it can’t hurt to find out why it warrants a film. Buss Bissinger, am I going to care about you?I hate to just pass off my thoughts so so easily here but sometimes a topic does not place me in deep thought and this is just one of those films.
Gut Reaction: This one hour and a half film suffers from bad pacing in my opinion. That made it a bit more difficult to get fully focused on it. That seems to truly defeat the purpose as Buzz B. seems to want all eyes on him. Though his story is valid and truly his to tell, to me, he makes a poor poster boy for the gender-questioning personas out there. Sorry, Buzz Good point here though is that it does make you walk away with the creed that we all need to display the self-expression that is right for us. Whether that is wildly expensive all-leather ensembles or no doesn’t matter, it is the need to settle in your own skin that counts. If the Pulitzer winner for “Friday Night Lights” needed to wrestle with that so be it.
Bissinger’s self-realization takes place in two ways, via the examination of his sexless relationship with his third wife Lisa and through his professional relationship with Caitlyn Jenner, which allowed him to examine himself a lot deeper due to Jenner’s own reveal of her gender identity. It all gets you thinking of the gender roles and such but the structure of the piece just impaired my investment into the topic.
TORN APART: SEPARATED AT THE BORDER
Overview: At least 3,000 families with children were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018. This documentary offers first-person stories of how the immigration crisis has affected two of those mothers and their young children, who were separated from each other for months. Directed and produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Talos Films, this intimate 40-minute documentary followed those families for nine months after they fled life-threatening conditions in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States Debut: October 10, 2019
Expectations: Yeah, this is going to be a bit disturbing. Listen, the whole immigration situation is complex, but the bottom line is that human rights, respect & decency need to prevail. Let’s see how the scenarios featured hold up to that.
Gut Reaction: María is in El Paso, TX, and she tells her harrowing tale of escaping the violence in her home country of Honduras. Vilma left Guatemala because she couldn’t live with her abusive husband anymore; both women are seeking asylum in the U. s. and both are separated from their children due to the actions of ICE. The good news, after we are briefed on their respective circumstances, is that they all will be reunited. But, for how many is that not the case. The 39-minute film does not give us exclusive and detailed examinations of Maris or Vilma’s situation however but also delves into the policy and statistics surrounding the whole immigration issue at our southern border.
We still could have been told more about these two women and the process of seeking asylum, the tearing about of parents from children and the whole plight. It isn’t often I find a documentary that could actually tell more and run a few minutes longer, but this is one of them. At moments this really is saddening to see that America treats people this way. This is a good peek into that whole scene. Watch it.
LIBERTY: MOTHER OF EXILES
Overview: This documentary casts new light on one of America’s most familiar symbols, The Statue of Liberty, revealing its little-known history, and celebrating it as an enduring beacon of hope for generations of immigrants. begins with the groundbreaking ceremony for a new museum at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and follows legendary designer Diane von Furstenberg, “godmother” to the statue, who led the museum’s fundraising campaign, in her quest to discover how sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s dream became a reality and what the statue has meant to generations of people worldwide. The film reveals the statue’s unexpected history – a story filled with many false starts as well as significant financial and technical challenges that were ultimately solved in innovative ways. Additionally, we meet others who help shed light on Lady Liberty’s past, present and future. Debut Date: 10.1719
Expectations: I’m already familiar with some facts about Lady Liberty, but I’m interested in getting the full story and I am equally interested on having Diane von Furstenberg be the one to do it. It just seems a nice change of pace piece at this time on the schedule too.
Gut Reaction: This just may be my favorite of the year. Every kernel of information was interesting to learn; every angle of the statue was beautiful; every glimpse of its interior was awesome and every inch of design work and manufacturing was wonderful. I’m still stumped, however, if this praise is because of the documentary itself or just because of the emblematic representation of what the Stature of Liberty means to countless. Besides just the artistic aspect of it all hearing what the Statue symbolizes is something this country need never forget. this documentary captures it beautifully, I think.
The approach seemed a fresh one to me. We didn’t have a narrated piece or one littered with fact cards or just ‘talking heads’ sitting around. What we were given was von Furstenberg walking us through history, as if it were a travelogue. Her active participation in the new park space and her love for all things Lady Liberty drew me in more so than a more clinical piece would have done. This is a great documentary.
SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL
Overview: In June 2018, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive legally for the first time. Set at The Saudi Driving School in the capital city of Riyadh, which caters exclusively to women, this documentary follows Saudi women as they embrace a new way of life and the freedom that comes from being behind the wheel. Through intimate interviews and revealing verité footage, the eye-opening film captures how women’s lives are changing in Saudi Arabia, the hope that they have for greater gender equality and the challenges they face in a Kingdom that appears to be making strides forward but continues to silence and jail female activists. Directed by Erica Gornall and produced by Nick London. Debut Date: 10.24.19
Expectations: Sometimes you are just surprised by the subject matter that someone is inspired to make a film about. This topic, of course, is big news for Saudi women as they become more equal partners in their society. But can such a film hold interest for anyone else?
Gut Reaction: Congratulations Sarah Saleh, Amjad Al-Amri and Shahad Al-Humaizi for getting your driver licenses. It shows improvements in our global community for you to have achieved this milestone. What they each candidly state about that this right means to them proves interesting enough. Sarah is a car salesperson at a dealership relishing the opportunity to learn and the freedom it will allow. For Amjad she wants to make her mark on the race car circuit and we witness her speeding on the track and then there is newly hired Uber driver Shahad who uses her improved status to peruse further equality in all sectors. Though these sound like joys the film also shows the other side of the coin, a number of men are interviewed who hate the ruling and how it affects their social structure. The female driving instructor’s husband states that women are like a palm tree; they need to be protected in the courtyard to bloom not exposed to outdoor elements that may cause them to wither & die. The women seem ready to brave the elements and learning to drive is one small step in the right direction. In the end, I’m surprised how much I liked this peek into the issue.
THE BRONX, USA
Overview: This documentary follows producer George Shapiro as he returns to his hometown of the Bronx. Revisiting the streets, stores and memories of his childhood, Shapiro reflects on the singularity of the borough he grew up in and the close friendships he made there that have stood the test of time. A love letter to a special part of New York City and its distinctive residents, the documentary also introduces the next generation of Bronx-ites – the 2017 graduating class of DeWitt Clinton High School, who may come from different backgrounds from Shapiro’s class of 1949, but whose passion, drive and emphasis on the power of friendship connects them with the seniors who came nearly seventy years before them. Debut Date: 10.30.19.
Expectations: I don’t know why The Bronx gets a shout out over anyplace else, but so be it. Of course, this is not to just be a travelogue piece. The angle of Shapiro going back to his old haunts juxtaposed with how youth see the neighborhood today adds weight to the whole idea.
Gut Reaction: We have everything thrown at us here. We have a Richard Klein number and words from fellow citizen of the borough like Hal Linden, Alan Alda, Colin Powell, Melissa Manchester, Chazz Palminteri, Grandmaster Melle Meli and Carl & Rob Reiner. They all have praise for their youth and their neighborhood. But what sticks with you is what Shapiro discovers, that the place still holds its charm and pride after all these years. The best moment is the indoor stickball game they muster up with modern youth who had no clue of the game. That scene alone illustrates the connection all communities across this country should have between the older generations and the newer ones. A great message to lay on us even if it was tucked away in a 1-hour 23-minute program.
Overview: This film, directed by Oscar and Emmy winner Roger Ross Williams chronicles the unique history and contemporary legacy of New York City’s landmark Apollo Theater. Over the last 85 years, what began as a refuge for marginalized artists has emerged as a hallowed hall of black excellence and empowerment. The film weaves together archival clips of music, comedy and dance performances; behind-the-scenes verité footage of the team that makes the theater run; and interviews with such artists as Common, Jamie Foxx, Savion Glover, Patti LaBelle, Smokey Robinson and Pharrell Williams. In addition to the examination of its archives, the film offers an in-depth look at the present-day venue, spotlighting the 2018 multi-media stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ acclaimed book “Between the World and Me” as it comes together on the theater’s grand stage. Debut Date: 11.06.19
Expectations: The Apollo Theater of Harlem. Wow, what a great hall. I’m sure the sweeping history of the iconic institution cannot be covered in one short documentary. I’d think this would need a huge Ken Burns treatment to handle its story. I’m interested on what this piece will selectively reveal.
Gut Reaction: When this documentary began and it talked about the early pioneers to the stage, I thought how is the history of The Apollo going to be presented in just a 1 hour, 44-minute timespan. Well, it is obviously forced to condense it down, but it still manages to capture some big name talent and some key times in the theater’s history. Though I enjoyed the musical history of the place its rich history is just not because of the celebrities, like James Brown for instance, but the political and social ramifications of its existence also.
It crams a lot into the time given and keeps the story hoppin’. If I cited a complaint it would have been to showcase more of the classic history of the business and had edited out what how the space is thriving today. I’m glad the space is open but some coda to the work could have expressed that it continues today in order for more rich history to get screen time. A great institution – and a great documentary. .
Overview: This first documentary portrait of fashion icon Ralph Lauren is a feature-length film that reveals the man behind the icon and the creation of one of the most successful brands in fashion history. With an uncanny ability to turn his dreams into reality, Ralph Lauren has built a multibillion-dollar, global powerhouse out of his aspirations, becoming a living embodiment of American optimism and the American Dream. For more than 50 years, he has celebrated the iconography of America and defined American style, translating his vision and inspiration into one of the world’s most widely recognized brands. In VERY RALPH, as he enters his sixth decade in business, Lauren reflects on his journey from a boy from the Bronx who didn’t know what a fashion designer was, to become the emblem of American style all around the world. VERY RALPH is directed and produced by award-winning documentarian Susan Lacy directed. Debut date: 11.12.19
Expectations: This may seem a bit contradictory to what I said about the previous film on our list but, celebrity biographies are my least favorite type of documentary; I know I’ve mentioned that fact before. So, when I noted I had to endure a hour 48-minute piece on Ralph Lauren I just cringed. Now, I don’t usually cringe at the assigned documentaries from HBO, but this one I honestly did have a bad reaction too, before even watching a frame of it. You see, not only do I have little interest in celebrity, but I have less of an interest in fashion. I’d have to go through to see if I even sport a Polo shirt from RL. Wish me luck here.
Gut Reaction: I’ll admit that the film was a difficult one to see to its end. It is well structured except it offers too many ‘talking heads’, some of which I didn’t know who the hell they were without their name on the screen. That means I recognized famous models but not all the fashion designers.
Even though the documentary held little interest I did walk away with knowing quite a bit about the man, his life and his business. Foremost is the notion that Ralph Lauren tapped into, celebrated and capitalized on Americana like no other. We know what it means to be American through his campaigns. I note and again I am no fashionista, it was through his marketing he achieved this, not the clothes themselves, but what do I know.
In the end, I could see why he deserved this cinematic profile and that he has contributed to the fabric of our culture, but then, so what? Personally, I just wish Susan Lacy had kept this one back at PBS and not on HBO. That’s just me; as you were.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Overview: For 40 years, filmmaker Alan Berliner ripped out photographs that he liked from The New York Times and filed and indexed them meticulously. This documentary film written, directed, and narrated by Berliner himself, uses these clippings to show the importance of print media, how greatly technology has affected the lives of human beings, and what has changed in the world from the time he started his collections Debut Date: 12.04.19
Expectations: The angle here sounds good enough, but is it enough to hang a film on? Is it enough to intrigue viewers to take it in? It can’t get any simpler than that.
THIS VIDEO IS NO LONGER OBTAINABLE
Gut Reaction: This documentary is three things; a chronicle of history, a cry out for print journalism and a labor of love for Berliner. Isolating to just one of these points would have made this a weak piece, but addressing each of them here made it more watchable. The most significant part for me was the death of print journalism debate as technology weakens the need for the printed page, but we’ve had that lesson out of HBO docs already. In the end it didn’t hold much of my interest then I thought it would.
ERNIE AND JOE: CRISIS COPS
Overview: In San Antonio, Texas, a small team of police officers are responding to individuals going through mental health crises in an innovative way and putting compassionate policing practices into action with dramatically positive results. The work follows Texas police officers Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, who are part of the San Antonio Police Department’s thirteen-member Mental Health Unit. Chronicling their daily and sometimes harrowing encounters with people in crisis, the documentary shows how their innovative approach to policing, which takes mental health into account, can help diffuse dangerous, potentially deadly situations and lead people to critical mental health services instead of jail – one 911 call at a time. Directed by Jenifer McShane, the film offers a verité portrait of the two partners and friends who share a unique bond and offers viewers an intimate glimpse into their personal lives. Debut Date: 11.19.19
Expectations: I’ve always felt that the law enforcement system needs to evolve along with other all other facets of society and that it really has not done so. Perhaps, this documentary can convince me that what Ernie & Joe do is the evolution the system needs.
Gut Reaction: Yes, yes yes, MHU or Mental Health Units could be a vital component to many a law enforcement facility, This documentary has me convinced that such units should strive to be employed, at least, in every major city. Watching the officers explain their role and dealing with, for example the woman about to jump from the overpass is quite effective. The tough part iin all this is finding enough officers to take the extensive crisis training and once educated following up on all the contacts they encounter in the long term. Ernie and Joe are exemplary and this documentary highlights their task quite well and speaks for what we can hope is a new breed of police personnel in the future.,
MOONLIGHT SONATA: DEAFNESS IN THREE MOVEMENTS
Overview: A deeply personal and moving intergenerational story of a close-knit family’s experience with deafness, this film explores the meaning of loss through the stories of a deaf boy growing up, a deaf man growing old, and perhaps the world’s most famous deaf person, Ludwig van Beethoven, who crafted a sonata that would resonate across time and cultures. Debut date: 12.11.19
Expectations: All accounts heralding this film state how touching and moving it is. I haven’t felt that too often this documentary year, but I’m up for a strong dose of the emotions here. Let’s close out the year with a moving, memorable piece or two
Gut Reaction: First, let me say a favorite classical piece, Moonlight Sonata is just perfect for this story about deafness. A viewer just might not be attuned to the issues that complicate the disability, but this documentary presents it in a unique perspective via a unique family. It is not just a story about how a deaf family copes, but a look at the meanings of ‘deafness’ and ‘silence.’
The subject are young Jonas, son of the filmmaker, and his grandparents Paul and Sally. All three have cochlear implants. After a life of deafness, the elder couple deal with now being able to hear via modern technology. And Jonah, having the implant placed at an early age, likes turning it off otoplay his piano in silence. It all makes fvor an interesting piece worth watching.
FINDING THE WAY HOME
Overview: J.K. Rowling’s LUMOS foundation highlights the distressing circumstances for the eight million children living in orphanages and other institutions around the world and focuses on reuniting them with extended family members or placing them into loving foster families. FINDING THE WAY HOME interweaves insights from families who have been torn apart, the social workers who have helped reunite them and the dedicated foster parents who have taken in children with stigmatizing disabilities, to illustrate what it tru0
Expectations: We tend to believe that orphanages don’t exist anymore, right? We shouldn’t. Eight million children in such institutions is a lot. This film thankfully will draw from some positive outcomes from just a small fraction of these lost ones.
Gut Reaction: Not a fun topic to take in but an important one. The story of each cannot be told but the seven orphans presented here offer a good picture of the plight of many. There is Maria of Moldova, Diego of Haiti, Isus of Bulgaria, Bishnu of Nepal, Karolina, Karina and Kettelyn, sisters from Brazil and Livya from India. Thankfully, they find hope and homes or this film would be a real downer.
That concludes nm brief look at each HBO Documentary Films presentation for 2019. My favorites? While I LOVE, NOW DIE was a shocker piece LEAVING NEVERLAND and its reveal was tantamount. Byt my favorite of the year was LIBERTY: MOTHER OF EXILES. Its timing was the main reason I think.