From Self Quarantine to Self Analysis

Six documentaries to expand your thinking while quarantined

Coronavirus has arrived with gusto here in America, or so it seems to most people. If you’re the responsible type , you’re practicing social distancing … if you’re selfish, you’re suddenly finding it easier to catch the attention of bartenders.

While many Millennials are joyously basking in an extra week of spring break at nightclubs and beachfront concerts, the virus is having a field day of its own. Boomers are holed-up in their houses … too afraid to so much as breathe the outside air. Not even a global pandemic can bring these generations together to reach a common goal, so it seems.

When the world is in a state of panic, it takes a sharpened mind to be at ease. We’ve been through this before — SARS, Bird Flu, Ebola, Swine Flu — and rest assured that we’ll get through this one too. But, with the central caveat this time around being a highly recommended two week period of self-quarantine, methinks the majority protest too much.

These next few weeks should be seen as a blessing to be used to our utmost advantage. Most of us now have enough free time to do things we could not before … read a 500-page book, deep clean the microwave or learn a new language. In essence, we all get to be kids again, to some degree.

If you ask me, this is the best time to catch up on some binge-worthy TV shows, and maybe … just maybe … expand your critical thinking skills in the process. So, here’s some contemporary examples that I recommend to achieve such ends.

Wild Wild Country — Netflix

Religion is a touchy subject, no matter where you are in the world … then throw the concept of cults into the mix and the water gets even muddier. We all know the infamous examples; Waco, Heaven’s Gate, The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, Aum Shinrikyo … but there’s one that often gets left behind, and boy is it a trip.

This six-part docuseries investigates a bewildering story that you’ve probably never heard of if born after 1985. ‘Wild Wild Country’ tells the tumultuous history of the Rajneesh Movement, which spread throughout the world from the late 1960s through to the mid-80s, starting in India and eventually making landmark in Antelope, Oregon. But, what sets this series apart from other documentaries of the type is that it is told through the lens of both the movement’s complicated organizers and the bold government investigators that opened a case of jaw-dropping legal infractions.

To describe the synopsis of this series while keeping things short and spoiler-free is nearly impossible. I will say this much: the series is a challenging one. Unlike many other documentaries that focus on cults, ‘Wild Wild Country’ truly does not take any sides and subsequently forces the audience to look deeply into themselves and question their own moral predispositions. Would Sanyassins be justifiably classifiable as cultists? Where should the line between religious freedom and government authority be drawn? Does American xenophobia induce an atmosphere that gives way for more extremism? None of these questions are answered concretely, but that’s the point of the film … it’s a beautiful metaphor of America.

We are a country of strangers from strange lands, coming together to reach the common goal of freedom and happiness. But, when does that freedom and happiness go too-far? That’s for us all to decide through civil discourse, not intimidation and violence.

Don’t F**k With Cats — Netflix

If you get a kick out of the adrenaline-pumping whirlwind that is the true crime genre, then ‘Don’t F**k With Cats’ deserves your full attention. This series also poses a difficult moral conflict: when should we as citizens take action against horror when the powers that be refuse to do so, even at the expense of legal precedent?

That may not sound like a wildly fascinating case study for true crime, but what makes this series so captivating is the simultaneous descent into a murder case that never once slows down. It recounts the microcosmic story of Luka Magnotta, the Canadian-born struggling model turned murderer and the international manhunt to bring him to justice.

Moreover, this series proposes the idea of lending credence to an interesting development in law enforcement: the need for a greater understanding by law enforcement officials of how the internet is used to carry out crimes. Because unlike most true crime documentaries, the champions of ‘Don’t F**k With Cats’ is not law enforcement officials.

Instead, an unofficial group of internet vigilantes did the lions share of investigation to deliver Magnotta a well-deserved slice of justice. But, just like Magnotta’s mother asks during her interview in the series, the same vigilantes make evident an unsettled crisis of conscious: should regular citizens be allowed to pursue such endeavors? Or, should it be the job of law enforcement officials alone to uphold the law?

It’s a tough call to make when lives are on the line.

McMillion$ — HBO

Crime is never black and white; there’s shades of gray everywhere and fraud is no exception. HBO’s six-part investigative series ‘McMillion$’ takes a highly in-depth and surprisingly emotional look at the McDonalds Monopoly fraud scheme that ensued from the late 1990s through to the early 2000s. It’s a lighthearted and silly series because it is self-aware of its absurd subject matter, but it never forgets that key aspect of nuance in corruption.

It is one of the more human documentaries available, mostly because it leaves no stone unturned. Filmmakers James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte pull apart the bizarre story with a fine-toothed comb, from the perspectives of those cracking it and those caught up in the controversy, even those in the peripheral. By doing so, it reveals layers upon layers of the balance between justice and patient mercy.

At its core, ‘McMillion$’ asks the viewer to hold judgement until they have the full story. A tall order, no doubt, but not to be discredited. Because like the film points out, the law is never as airtight as it seems and hastily made actions can lead to devastating consequences. The only way to achieve an equitable and principled outcome in a court of law is to look at the facts while maintaining a justifiable level of emotional reservation.

Tickled — HBO

Never before … never … have you seen a documentary take such a wild turn of events … and because of that, ‘Tickled’ may very well be my favorite documentary ever made. Kiwi journalist David Farrier unlocks one helluva crazy ride by coincidentally discovering the bizarre field of “competitive endurance tickling”, subsequently bringing forth consequences of homophobia, harassment and emotional abuse from social elites.

There isn’t a way to describe the events of this film without giving away key revelatory plot points. However, if you enjoy films that can be both tangential and clear-cut, there’s no denying that this one will tickle your fancy. All I can say is that nothing is as it initially seems in this film, even the character arc of the film’s “antagonist”, Jane O’Brien.

But, more importantly, the film stands to gain from exposing the ways in which living atop an ivory tower isn’t always as glorious as it seems. Sometimes, even the most despicable scumbags of our planet deserve to have their stories told … because if we don’t, the cycle of hatred and resentment will only continue to thrive.

The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary — Hulu

The outrageously vicious founder of New-Age, “gonzo” journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, is without a shred of doubt my favorite writer. But in a time like now, where the Vice network and YouTube freelancers have oversaturated the market and hijacked the very meaning of the buzzword, ‘the Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary’ proves to be a rare example of true gonzo journalism through brilliant, insightful and creative fashions.

This film is Ben Berman’s directorial debut, and hopefully not his last. In this rapidly changing documentary, Berman puts his quirky, comedic side in the back seat and reveals deeper layers of his own self while documenting the life of a once-famous and now dying magician, the Amazing Johnathan. But, Johnathan likewise reveals heavier aspects of his own life, some of which begin to interfere with the making of the documentary itself.

In short, the film challenges the very idea of what profile documentaries exist to achieve. Berman questions the intrusiveness of media by picking apart important, personal aspects of another person’s life; like love, loss and regret. Bravo Mr. Berman … Thompson would be proud of your bravery to prod yourself and others so deeply.

Minding the Gap — Hulu

If you’ve got daddy issues, ‘Minding the Gap’ will be a real tear-jerker. It’s certainly one of the more “amateur” films on this list, but it is an important example of discussing a seldom-addressed problem that is an absolute toxin on our society … the generational cycle of abuse.

We’ve all heard about it before, but few ever think deeply on the issue. While most films take a more dramatized or symbolic look at the problem, ‘Minding the Gap’ braves the storm and addresses the matter head-on. Filmmaker Bing Liu interviews his group of skateboard loving childhood friends, himself included, each providing a gut-wrenching vignette that strongly suggests the inescapbable sins of the father often pass on to the son.

In a world where toxic masculinity, spousal/child abuse and alcoholism all permeate our society with devastating actions perpetrated by seemingly-evil characters, Liu challenges viewers to re-analyze these offenders. We’re all in this together, and while violent offenders should always be held accountable for their actions, public condemnation may only be persisting the problem.

As cheesy as it may sound, reckless love, painful compassion and considerate understanding is what always evokes change in a society.

I write about right-wing extremism, Virginia politics & American culture | Student Journalist | Richmond, VA

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