Feels like a good time to watch some documentaries, doesn’t it? The news reel of every passing day is likely to end up in some filmmaker’s montage of the dread in our times — or the hope, I guess, if you’re more capable of that feeling than I am at the moment — years down the line. These are exciting, exhausting, surreal times we live in, and documentaries do good by grounding the present feeling of unreality into a wider context, showing that for as fucked up as it all seems right now, it’s been fucked before and will be fucked again.
Starting off with a front runner for this year’s academy award for best documentary feature is “13th,” which highlights the injustices of the U.S. justice system and its intersections with race and mass incarceration. It takes its title from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars slavery in the country but maintains a major caveat in the text “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” a loophole that filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores in relation to the American political and prison system.
The movie moves along at a quick pace, shifting between different voices and exploring the history of race in America from the Civil War to the present day. The portrait of America it paints is fist-clenching and throat-drying, where the ideas of crime and punishment are distorted into a means of oppressing citizens based on their race. “13th” was released last fall in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, though a different outcome at the polls would not have made the movie’s message any less timely and pressing.
If “13th” gives you reasons to be angry at the slow-moving systems society has in place now, documentarian Werner Herzog’s latest release, “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World,” asks you to cast your eyes to the future with wonder (and some dread) to the systems that are yet to come.
Examining the Internet and artificial intelligence, Herzog brings his signature humanism to the churning hamster wheel of modern technological innovations. He checks in on topics as seemingly innocuous as university students programming robots to play soccer to tech darling Elon Musk delivering warnings of the potential destruction that unchecked AI could have on society.
Childlike wonder with a twinge of harbinger to looming cataclysm has often been a part of the Herzog shtick, and the subject matter of “Lo and Behold” offers about as perfect a platform for staring gleefully into the void as any, whether the void holds gadget-frying solar flares that send civilization back hundreds of years or a slightly more advanced version of Asimo now capable of performing the hula. For as bleak as the filmmaker’s narrating drone can sometimes get, the window he offers is ringed with an infectious curiosity that makes it hard not to meet his promises of doom with anything other than oohs and aahs.
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