What to Watch: Netflix Documentaries

I watched two (count 'em, 2) documentaries with subtitles on Netflix this weekend. Both were nominated for Oscars for Best Doc.

First up, Cartel Land.

After loving Narcos, after seeing Sicario (review to come), I was interested in seeing a documentary about the Cartels in Mexico so streamed it on Netflix. The movie was primarily in Spanish and follows two plots, the first being the Autodefensas (basically a militia group of private citizens) group in Michoacán, Mexico. A physician begins an uprising against the violence of the cartels (specifically the Nights Templar cartel) and the corruption of the police / military. The second follows an American who lives on the border and tries to make an impact on the cartel's border traffic as an independent citizen. 

From IMDB:

With unprecedented access, CARTEL LAND is a riveting, on-the-ground look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy - the murderous Mexican drug cartels. In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as "El Doctor," leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona's Altar Valley - a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley - Tim "Nailer" Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to stop Mexico's drug wars from seeping across our border. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embeds himself in the heart of darkness as Nailer, El Doctor, and the cartel each vie to bring their own brand of justice to a society where institutions have failed. CARTEL LAND is a chilling, visceral meditation on the breakdown of order and the blurry line between good and evil.

Usually in documentaries I find someone to root for. I had a hard time with that in this documentary. It paints a bleak portrait of the Cartel wars. The people I felt the most for were the victims of the crimes. I found myself in tears along with a woman who's husband was kidnapped for participating in the Autodefensas, then she was kidnapped and forced to watch her husband's death, and she was assaulted. Those were the people I felt for. The Mexicans just trying to work and live their lives who aren't able to do so because of the cartels. The Dr. became less and less heroic, as did the Autodefensas, as the movie went on. The film is on the front lines--you see gunfire,  and drug cooking and people dead on the side of the road. I can't imagine how difficult it was to film this movie. While interesting, I found this so depressing that I had a hard time watching it. What could ever make a dent in the strangle hold the cartels have in Mexico? There was no slice of hope in this documentary, and it left me feeling defeated and overwhelmed and 1,000 miles away.

Watch the trailer here:

Next, Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

This documentary follows a student protest in Ukraine in 2012/2013 when the Ukrainian President Yanukovich refused to become part of the EU and instead signed a deal with Russia. Students saw their hopes for a better future fade away and began to peacefully protest. This protest eventually turned violent with the police assaulting unarmed students with iron bats. This let to several conflicts with the police which escalated to the police using real bullets on unarmed protesters, and begins the revolution that ultimately influences the current conflict in Ukraine about Crimea and Russia. 

From Netflix:
Chronicling events that unfolded over 93 days in 2013 and 2014, this documentary witnesses the formation of a new civil rights movement in Ukraine. What started as peaceful student demonstrations supporting European integration morphed into a full-fledged violent revolution calling for the resignation of the nation's president. The film captures the remarkable mobilization of nearly a million citizens from across the country protesting the corrupt political regime that utilized extreme force against its own people to suppress their demands and freedom of expression. ... The Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom filmmakers investigated the escalating political crisis in Ukraine from directly within the conflict zone. At the onset of demonstrations, they were there to record the special forces who were deployed to disperse the crowds, beating and seriously injuring hundreds of protesters. It was this moment that ultimately gave rise to mass protests and large-scale civil unrest in the country. In response, millions of Ukrainians rallied together to fight against the police state. Through interviews with protesters, activists, journalists, medical workers, artists and clergy representing multiple generations, social classes, nationalities and faiths, including a twelve-year old volunteer, the film tells the story of a diverse movement that self-organized towards one common goal, that stood their ground in the midst of extreme bloodshed, despair and the harshest of conditions.

I found this documentary incredibly compelling. A message of citizens asserting their rights as a free people. Dropping everything--jobs, obligations, family--and rushing to assert their Independence from a dictator who didn't have their best interests at heart. Hearing from the protesters, the doctors, journalists, the religious leaders who were involved (and even targeted by the police) was moving. I thought this was ultimately a very hopeful message for Ukraine and gave me a lot of background information on the conflict there that I thought was much more moving than watching the news. There are a few protesters they chronicle throughout the film and hearing from them beside the footage of harsh violence was artfully done, particularly the child protester. At the end of the film an older person talks about the generation who has grown up free (as opposed to ruled by Russia), and it was really inspiring. I highly recommend this documentary, though it is difficult to watch.

Watch the trailer here:

P.S. Three more documentaries to watch on Netflix


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