This month’s nonfiction picks include one about uncovering a treasure trove of silent films and one that aims to uncover the methods of Kenny G.
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The proliferation of documentaries on streaming services makes it difficult to choose what to watch. Each month, we’ll choose three nonfiction films — classics, overlooked recent docs and more — that will reward your time.
Stream it on Kanopy or Ovid. Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Kino Now and Vudu.
A study from the Library of Congress in 2013 estimated that 70 percent of American feature films from the silent era are lost; the library maintains a list of more than 7,000 features that are known to be among them. But in “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” Bill Morrison (“Decasia”) winds his way through the complicated story of how 372 silent titles were rescued when they were accidentally discovered during a dig in Dawson City, Canada, in 1978. They’d had the good fortune to be preserved by the Yukon permafrost.
Explaining how those films wound up in the earth means telling the story of Dawson, a town that was founded during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s and whose fortunes rose and fell accordingly. Using photographs, films — including some of the preserved Dawson films — and text, this principally archival documentary charts the growth of Dawson. Morrison catalogs the improbable number of people whose lives were touched by the gold rush, including future Hollywood luminaries like the theater founder Sid Grauman, who we’re told saw his first film in Dawson, and William Desmond Taylor, a movie director and actor who was found shot to death in 1922. Morrison also acknowledges the fates of the Indigenous residents the newcomers displaced. He notes that to the south, Frederick Trump, the grandfather of the future president, seeded his family fortune by starting a brothel, the Arctic Hotel and Restaurant, in Whitehorse.
Part of the key to the films’ survival is that Dawson was the end of the line for film shipments; movies routinely played there two or three years after they were first released, and shipping back highly combustible nitrate stock was both expensive and dangerous. And Dawson saw hundreds of movies a year: The documentary describes them as a flickery gateway to the world beyond the Yukon. (A lot of the titles that showed were not among the lucky: We’re told that several tons of them were dumped in the Yukon River.) Even without all this history, “Dawson City: Frozen Time” would be mesmerizing simply for how it invites viewers to ponder the ghostly silent images, many identifiable as Dawson finds because of telltale water damage on the sides of the frame. But they are otherwise crystalline, making the past vividly present in a way that only movies can do.
Stream it on HBO Max.
“Listening to Kenny G” has a double-edged title: It’s not concerned with listening to music but with hearing out the musician. One of a recent series of music docs executive-produced by Bill Simmons, the movie was directed by Penny Lane (“Hail Satan?”), who wants to solve the riddle of why the syrupy-smooth saxophonist born Kenneth Gorelick is such a target for punch lines and music critics even as he maintains a fan base that has made him one of the best-selling instrumentalists in history.
Does the global public simply have terrible taste? Lane digs deeper, and her conversations with Kenny G never fully untangle whether he’s an insufferable self-promoter or a harmless dork. He’s usually both at once. As he bleats earnestly — as if he were his saxophone in human form — about how many hours he practices, it is hard to resent him for his success, especially because he seems so relentlessly upbeat.
But his naïveté must surely be calculated to some degree; Lane suggests as much when she includes footage of him asking her about how filming is going. (“I want to be the best interview you’ve ever had,” he tells her.) His detractors charge him with appropriating jazz innovations without contributing anything substantive in return. If he seems almost surprised that anyone would take offense at the idea of his playing “duets” with long-dead forebears like Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz (with permission, he notes), it’s because he doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time thinking about music conceptually or theoretically. With him, it’s about feelings. When we watch him rerecord a note in the studio to fine-tune it (“you can’t tell that there’s even an edit in there,” he says), something he indicates he has done often, he says it might look sterile, but it’s from the heart.
Ben Ratliff, formerly of The New York Times, tells Lane that he associates Kenny G’s music with a “corporate attempt to soothe my nerves.” When the filmmaker shows a segment on the use of the saxophonist’s song “Going Home” as an end-of-workday signal in China, she cuts to Ratliff asking if Kenny G’s music is “a weapon of consent.” At another point, Kenny G’s proposal to contribute his compositional skills to a World War II movie sounds less like a weapon than a threat.
Rent it on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Kino Now and Vudu.
Camilla Nielsson’s documentary concerns Zimbabwe’s 2018 national election, the first to be held after the dictator Robert Mugabe, who had ruled the country since 1980, stepped down under pressure — after a military intervention and an expulsion from his own party — in 2017.
You might think that Mugabe’s ouster would set the stage for a newly democratic Zimbabwe, but as Nielsson, in a sort-of sequel to her acclaimed “Democrats” (2015), tells it, that’s not exactly true. As the July 2018 vote approaches, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former right-hand man, holds the office of president, and his party, ZANU-PF, previously led by Mugabe, exerts an influence that, judging from the documentary, seems to pervade every aspect of governance. How can you win an election if the electoral commission, the soldiers, the police and the judicial system all offer reason to suspect that they are in the tank for one candidate?
Nielsson observes events from the perspective of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, which itself is undergoing a bit of upheaval. The death of the party’s longtime leader has thrust Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer, into the spotlight as MDC’s candidate for president. Some projections put him ahead, and victory seems possible — if Chamisa’s supporters vote in such commanding numbers that any efforts to rig the tally will be blatant. Chamisa gets an unexpected and not precisely welcome endorsement when Mugabe suggests at a news conference that he supports him. “When your enemy gives you a hug and a kiss, you just have to be careful that there is no bite in the kiss,” Chamisa says.
Then the vote happens, and things seem off. Awaiting the announcement of the results, international observers, at least as quoted in the movie, make equivocal statements to the press. The official numbers, from MDC’s perspective, defy both arithmetic possibility and statistical probability. Maybe it’s a spoiler to reveal the ultimate disposition of the election. But Nielsson is always cleareyed about what she thinks.