From overheated town meetings to presidential runners-up, Massachusetts is a hotbed for political action. Of course, those before-football patriots set a high bar. Since our statewide run-up to midterms has lacked the drama of revolution, here’s a list of non-fiction viewing that reflects the commonwealth’s legacy of political involvement.
Local Docs On Local Issues:
In Massachusetts, town meetings have been called “the purest form of democratic governing.” The whole town’s invited to vote on any issue with enough support to be on the docket. When Jean Hill’s grandson tells her about an oceanic trash island the size of New Jersey, she vows to ban water bottles in their hometown of Concord. Her tactic? Neighbor to neighbor, of course. “Divide in Concord” is one of the most memorable local docs about what it takes to effect change. It’s not a spoiler to say a little New England saltiness helps. While the filmmakers hail from Detroit, they capture the challenges and rewards of this more than 300-year-old civic tradition through the eyes of a feisty octogenarian.
While working as a carpenter on Martha’s Vineyard, Thomas Bena noticed that large homes had suddenly become colossal. “McMansions” exceeding 10,000 square feet but left unoccupied most of the year were taking over the coastline. Bena decided to lobby fellow Chilmark residents to pass a bylaw to limit home size. This first-person documentary records that multiple-year process as well as the changes in Bena’s personal life that test his convictions. Since The ARTery’s reporting from the island premiere in 2016, Bena has traveled with the film to communities like Portland, Oregon, and Honolulu, where similar debates about home size and gentrification rage on. Bena has tracked these national conversations on a map on the film’s website.
'Left On Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive' | Watch For Future Screenings Here
Today’s women’s centers and domestic violence shelters exist because of grassroots feminist organizing. In Cambridge, the mandate came to a head when a 1971 International Women’s Day protest turned “left on Pearl” and ended at 888 Memorial Drive. During a 10-day occupation of the Harvard-owned building, women vocalized the necessity of equal pay and access to child care, birth control and abortion. They also cut their hair, laughed a lot and disagreed over representation. As this well-paced documentary shows with contemporary interviews, archival photos and TV news footage (it was well-covered), their activism birthed the nation’s longest running women’s center. The film started as an oral history project and became a documentary that the film’s instigators intentionally structured as a collective story. In other words, it refuses to focus on a few women because the intent of the occupation — and the women’s movement — was, is, to benefit all.
'If It Fits' | On DVD
Set the clock back to 1976. Haverhill's once vibrant shoe industry is on its last breaths. Can the mayor get the town back on track? This documentary about a mayoral race functions on one level as a fascinating time capsule. It shows the era’s brown polyester suits, enormous diesel-chugging vehicles and the labor-intensive shoe manufacturing process. Just as relevant is what hasn’t changed. Grocery stores have wide aisles and too many choices, and campaigning is a still grind. Forty-plus years later, one can appreciate the undeniable challenge and heartbreak that comes when a town’s lifeblood industry fizzles out. Likewise admirable is the perseverance of homegrown leaders who embrace the machinations of local democracy.
Docs About Local Issues:
The following documentaries do not have known local ties but address topics related to the three ballot questions:
- Question 1: “The Providers,” “Nurses Needed” or “The Waiting Room”
- Question 2: “Dark Money”
- Question 3: “The Most Dangerous Year” and the films included in the Women Make Movies' "screen in" united under the theme #WontBeErased, a response to Trump's proposal to roll back civil rights protections of transgender people
On campaigns and voting: “Capturing the Flag” takes on the imbalance of voter rights in the November 2016 election. Kazuhiro Soda’s “Campaign” provides a radically different perspective on how campaigns could look in the U.S. by depicting the strict limitations on how Japanese candidates run for office.
Local Docs On National Issues:
'Monrovia, Indiana' | Nov. 4-24 | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Have you ever been in a gun shop? Or attended a Masons’ ceremony? Cambridge’s Frederick Wiseman opens the door to one tiny town’s handful of businesses and gatherings public and private, then lingers inside. We see how Dawg House Pizza hand rolls breadsticks, watch the barber on Chestnut give buzz cuts and hear how one man’s housing development has fire hydrants but no reliable fire service. Whereas fellow Cantabrigian Errol Morris tackles partisans from on high (Steve Bannon is the subject of his latest, “American Dharma,” which premiered in September), Wiseman opts for a distant, sociological gaze on the everyday and arguably overlooked. The politics are subtle. Sometimes reflected in a knowing look between members of the town planning committee. Their judgments are far more complex and personal than an impenetrable red or blue border might suggest.
'In God We Trump' | iTunes And Amazon
Filmmaker Christopher Maloney grew up as a Christian evangelist. As an adult living in the Boston area he turns the camera on evangelist influencers as a way to understand their role in Trump’s victory. Or to find out, as he says in the narration, “who was to blame.” The doc unfolds partly as a media analysis, unearthing clips that most Clinton voters might never otherwise see (“Thank you Lord for bringing Jezebel down!” says one pastor to his congregation). The doc also explores the moral divide felt by Christians who defend the rights of marginalized groups. Those interviewed decry evangelicals for selling-out their values to “keep their machines running.” In their mind, Trump’s promises are on equal footing with televangelists’ (and snake oil salesmen’s) shady sales pitches. As Maloney’s high school friend sums in a sort of stand-in for the filmmaker whom we hear but do not see: “For most people their politics is their politics and they use their faith as a way to justify it.”
Stalwart journalist Hedrick Smith (formerly with the New York Times and frequent "Frontline" producer) worked with the Boston-based Northern Light Productions to document various grassroots efforts underway to make American democracy more transparent and functional. His field reporting tackles contentious issues like gerrymandering, voter rights and murky campaign finance practices. Brief profiles of groups like TakeItBack.org in South Dakota demonstrate the populist support for ballot measures such as publicly-funded campaigns. Smith makes his stance clear — it’s not necessarily partisanship that’s holding democracy back but the corporatization of politics at large. Presented in the form of short videos on Smith’s call-to-action website, the cumulative documentary anticipates November’s most significant stakes.
'Our New President' | Vimeo and iTunes
Consider this doc a primer on the modern Russian media complex. Harvard alum Maxim Pozdorovkin hit it out of the park as co-director of 2013’s “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” and again exposes the heavy hand of state control. As entertaining as it is disturbing, “Our New President” focuses on the lead up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election by splicing together absurdist TV news and homemade bits that demonize Clinton (as cursed by a mummy princess) and lionize Trump. In this strange new world, propaganda is an old-fashioned, even quaint term, begging the question: Does Trump’s narrative imitate Russia’s or is it the other way around? As unsettling as either answer may be, if late night comedy-writing teams aren’t watching Russia Today, they’re missing out on some great material. (Here's an abbreviated version.)