You don’t expect a documentary about volcanos to begin in freezing temperatures, but in the first scenes of Sara Dosa’s enthralling new feature, Fire of Love, married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft struggle to free a jeep mired in icy slush. Farther down the road is a fiery pool of molten lava. Much later in the film, they trudge through the gray ash of a recently erupted Mount St. Helens, a setting that looks cold even though it is baking hot. Both landscapes seem unreal, even with Maurice and Katia in the frame. Their footage is so remarkable that I would have watched a 90-minute slide show of their photographs. Fire of Love is much more than that, but the film and photo archive is at the heart of the story, and it’s where Dosa looks for clues as she tells the story of the Kraffts’ career, one that was inseparable from their romantic partnership.
As Omicron descends, this is the documentary to watch–or avoid–depending on your temperament. Director Nanfu Wang takes viewers back to the earliest days of the pandemic, opening with eerie footage of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Wuhan, where thousands of revelers, some of them likely already infected with Covid-19, mingled in close quarters, sang, cheered, danced, and generally did everything we’ve been avoiding for the past two years. Wang herself was there, celebrating with her family. On New Year’s Day, a stray news item caught Wang’s attention: eight people were punished for “spreading rumors” about a new form of pneumonia that had emerged in local hospitals. The punishment was the headline, not the pneumonia, and it wasn’t a big story. No one gave it much thought, even Wang, who was preoccupied with her return to the U.S. where she is a naturalized citizen. It was only in retrospect that she realized she had witnessed the Chinese government’s early response to the threat of Covid-19. Her documentary takes a close look at the Chinese government’s failure to communicate the dangers of Covid-19 to its citizens and to the world, and compares it with America’s response, three months later, which was dispiritingly similar, with political leaders downplaying the virus until the very last minute.
Beyond The Visible (2019) Director: Halina Dyrschka
In the winter of 2018, I was part of the record-breaking crowds that swarmed the Guggenheim Museum to see Hilma af Klint’s mystical and enigmatic paintings. Like most museum visitors, I had never heard of the Swedish artist before her retrospective at the Guggenheim. Although af Klint is one of modernism’s pioneers, with abstract works that predate Kandinsky and Mondrian, she barely exhibited her work in her lifetime. According to the instructions in her will, her artwork was to be kept out of the public eye until at least twenty year after her death. She also stipulated that they could never be sold. Af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, and when her paintings were finally examined in the 1960s, the art world didn’t know what to do with them. Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art turned them down, not understanding their value. Beyond The Visible argues that the blindness has to do with the fact that af Klint was a woman making explicitly spiritual works. Her genius couldn’t be seen because it wasn’t male.
Pete Souza was the Chief Official White House Photographer to both President Reagan and President Obama, and he also documented Obama’s time in the Senate, accompanying him on foreign trips and on the campaign trail. Both Obama and Reagan were unusual in the amount of private access they offered their photographer, and Souza got to know both men well. Souza’s photographs are remarkable for the way they show the human side of the presidency. His images show Reagan and Obama laughing with friends and family, ribbing spouses, hugging children, and joking with staff. Souza’s photos also reveal the weight of the office; we see anxiety, stress, and even sadness on both former president’s faces as they mull situations with grave consequences.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019)
Director: Eva Orner
The corrupt guru is a tricky character, because he often imparts knowledge that is good. Bikram Choudhury was your classic bad guru: hypocritical, greedy, domineering, and cruel, but his “hot yoga” routine was so popular that people were willing to overlook his bullying style, which was peppered with racist and sexist taunts. This changed in 2013, when several women filed charges against him for rape, sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. Their accusations, along with allegations of racism and homophobia, threw the Bikram yoga world into turmoil as devoted students and Bikram studio owners rushed to defend him. Others were disgusted and cut ties to him altogether. Bikram, meanwhile, fled the country after being convicted for unlawfully firing his personal lawyer, who tried to address his harassment.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Roy Cohn Story (2020) ★★★
Director: Ivy Meeropol Streaming on HBO
The first time I heard of Roy Cohn was when I read Angels in America. He’s the play’s villain, lifted from real life, a ruthless fixer and corrupt lawyer who denies that he is gay but then uses his influence to obtain experimental treatments for HIV in order to prolong his life. Abusing power was Cohn’s thing: he started his career by tampering with evidence so that the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg would be sent to the electric chair for espionage. After the Rosenberg were executed, their children were adopted by the Meeropol family. Director Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, and she is understandably interested in Cohn, this person who destroyed her family in order to show the world that he was tough on communism — and to gain personal notoriety.
Hillary (2020) ★★★1/2
Director: Nanette Burstein Streaming on Hulu
Ever since Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with her, reading interviews and post-mortems, as well as Clinton’s own memoir about the 2016 campaign, What Happened? I also read Amy Chozick’s memoir, Chasing Hillary, about covering both of Clinton’s presidential runs for the New York Times. When I heard that Nanette Burstein had made a 4-hour documentary about Clinton’s life, I didn’t think I’d be interested in revisiting material that I already knew so well. At the beginning of the quarantine, I gave the first episode a try, but it didn’t grab me, especially when I saw how reliant it was on first-person interviews with Clinton, as well as Amy Chozick. I felt like I’d already heard from both of them and I wanted a new perspective.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) ★★★1/2
Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham Streaming on Netflix
Crip Camp is a Netflix film, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, but I had the unusual experience of seeing it on the big screen a few weeks ago for a press screening. I say unusual not only because this is a documentary that most people will watch at home but because I ventured out to see it when people were just starting to feel nervous about Coronavirus. I wasn’t even sure I should go, but at that time, my kids were still in school, my husband was still going into to work and out to evening events and except for everyone washing their hands a lot, things were relatively normal. It’s eerie how quickly things have changed.
Anyway, I went into the screening feeling anxious and scatterbrained but left feeling centered and full of hope. Crip Camp tells the story of the disability rights movement, which was seeded at a teen summer camp called Camp Jened. The camp itself, located in upstate New York near Woodstock, was ordinary and in terms of its offerings. There was a pool, arts and crafts, sports, and music. The usual. What made it extraordinary was that every kid who went was disabled, which meant that a bunch of teenagers who were used to being pushed to the side were suddenly front and center. For the first time in their lives, the kids experienced what it was like to be among people who were not put off or scared by their disabilities, and who saw them in terms of their personalities, interests, and dreams. It was so freeing that for many of the campers, it was a political awakening. As one camper puts it, there was a realization that “the problem with the disabled isn’t with the disabled, it’s with the outside world.”