From the Zine: Documentaries

From The Zine is a series inspired by our mini zine and is a celebration of film. We break it up into categories and focus on some of our favorite examples, compare and contrast, and sometimes throw in a little trivia knowledge. So, without further ado…

Documentaries really showcase the power of film. They can inspire change, offer a glimmer of hope, and remind us of our humanity. Thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Free Documentaries a wealth of first-hand knowledge and experiences are available to us.


Cartel Land (2015)

Directed by Matthew Heineman, this documentary tells the parallel stories of vigilante justice against the Mexican drug cartels on either side of the border. On the U.S. side, there’s the Arizona Border Recon, whose initial focus was targeting illegal immigration but later focused on drug smuggling and trafficking. Meanwhile, in the state of Michoacán Mexico, a medical surgeon by the name of José Mireles lead the Autodefensas, a self-defense group against the Knights Templar Cartel. Mireles had previously been kidnapped and held at ransom by members of the cartel, who had also murdered several of his relatives among other members of the community. In fact, one of the opening scenes is a mass funeral for men, women, and children who were murdered while working at a lime grove because the owner couldn’t afford the cartel’s extortion.

Heineman states, “I wanted to know what happens when government institutions fail and citizens feel like they have to take the law into their own hands.” A brutal look at the cartel’s influence on daily life, it offers an insight as to how people fight back and also why people flee.

See also:

  • Life In A Day (2011) - Directed by Kevin Macdonald, this is a crowdsourced documentary film comprising an arranged series of video clips selected from 80,000 clips submitted to the YouTube video sharing website, the clips showing respective occurrences from around the world on a single day, 24 July 2010.
  • The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) - Made in Argentina, this is the film that established the paradigm of revolutionary activist cinema. “For the first time,” said one of its writers, Octavio Getino, “we demonstrated that it was possible to produce and distribute a film in a non-liberated country with the specific aim of contributing to the political process of liberation.”



Holy Hell (2016)

While there is no shortage of documentaries made about cults, “Holy Hell” was the first time I had even heard about the Buddhafield group (perhaps because there wasn’t mass death or media frenzy surrounding them). Made by Will Allen, this documentary chronicles his 22-year-long experience as a member and documentarian of the Buddhafield cult. The group, which started as a Los Angeles alternative community and meditation group, grew to over 100 members and moved to Austin, Texas after scrutiny from anti-cult groups, and eventually residing in Oahu, Hawaii. Using stock footage and interviews with other ex-members, you see the shift in a group finding inner peace to the manipulation and sexual abuse of the megalomaniacal leader known mostly as ‘Michel’.


See also:

  • Wild Wild Country (2018) - A Netflix original directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, this documentary covers the controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his one-time personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers in the Rajneeshpuram community located in Wasco County, Oregon.
  • A (1998) - Directed by Tatsuya Mori, who was given exclusive access to the cult’s offices for over a year as news media were continually kept out, tells the story of the Aum Shinrikyo cult following the arrest of its leaders for instigating the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The film focuses on a young spokesman for the cult Hiroshi Araki, a troubled 28-year-old who had severed all family ties and rejected all forms of materialism before joining the sect.



Casting JonBenét (2017)

A Netflix documentary by Australian Kitty Green, this film takes a new approach to the genre. 20 years after her murder, people are still speculating and talking about the unsolved case. Set against the backdrop of casting a film about the murder and the media frenzy that followed, the documentary focuses on the local actors of Boulder, Colorado and their insights and feelings about the murder, often drawing from personal experience and relaying their own tragedies. Green states, “I wanted to make a film that looked more at the legacy of JonBenét Ramsey than the who-done-it aspect”.

See also:

  • Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008) - Directed by Kurt Keunne, this documentary serves as a scrapbook of memories of his close friend Andrew Bagby after he was murdered by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Jane Turner. Shortly after Bagby’s death, Turner announced she was pregnant with his child, whom she named Zachary. Keunne decided to make the film so the child could have something about his father, but as events unfold it turns into a true crime documentary.
  • Cropsey (2009) - directed by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio. The film initially begins as an examination of “Cropsey”, a boogeyman-like figure from New York City urban legend, before segueing into the story of Andre Rand, a convicted child kidnapper from Staten Island. The objective was to bring the distinct elements into one overarching narrative: the oral tradition of urban legends; the mystery of the missing children; the courtroom drama; the search for the roots of Staten Island’s obsession with the case, and the community’s need for catharsis.