Dok.cetera: Stay cool with these documentaries

20 July, 2022

I don’t need to tell you that it’s hot out there! At the time of writing, we’ve been going through a nearly month-long heatwave. And, according to today’s ten-day forecast, there is no relief in sight. In fact, the entire world is going through extreme heat, with countries like the UK, Spain, and Japan all approaching record local temperatures. At the same time, the Middle East registered the highest ever temperature on record (50.4C in Iraq). In case your local cinema isn’t sufficiently air-conditioned, at least several documentary films are available to keep you cool and maybe even help you learn something along the way. Although how comfortable your own space is, well that’s up to you!

Here, we’ve broken down the text into three sections, each showing a different side to the idea of cool. From locations at the ends of the earth to the cold-blooded nature of true crime, to some people and groups who simply exhude coolness, hopefully these titles can provide any sense of relief during these dog days of summer.

Encounters at the End of the World
Encounters at the End of the World (dir. Werner Herzog)

Cool Locations

Not everywhere on Earth is scorching under the sun. There’s Antarctica that, at least for the moment, still exists. Although you can find several documentaries on the continent, Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World may be the best. As something of an antithesis to March of the Penguins, Encounters at the End of the World is both a character study of the quirky souls that inhabit remote Antarctic research facility (all of whom, in real life, are a far cry away from the pseudo-military one depicted in John Carpenter’s 1982 horror masterpiece, The Thing). Of course, the vast ice sheets, crevices, and wildlife of the continent act as their own characters, with Herzog’s unmistakable narration providing the kind of existential context we’ve come to expect (if you’ve seen the film, you don’t need to me to tell you about the fate of the lone non-conforming penguin).

Suppose Encounters at the End of the World doesn’t satisfy your cool-location Herzog itch. In that case, there’s also his 2010 documentary (co-directed with Dmitry Vasyukov), Happy People: A Year in Taiga. Though a year includes (checks notes) several seasons and not just the cold ones, the Siberian wilderness of this remote village really is guided by its isolated subarctic climate, and year-on-year survival in one of Earth’s harshest (and coldest) inhabited areas. Herzog’s abridged version of Vasyukov’s four-part film has since brought some renown to the location, which now features a local anthropological museum created and curated by Andrei Tarkovsky’s nephew Mikhail (who features prominently across both versions of the film).

Furthermore, in the vein of the Oscar-winning Free Solo (2018) and My Octopus Teacher (2020), Netflix and HBO Max are stacked with documentaries on mountain climbing, surfing, and other cooling-off activities. Though more nature or adventure docs than anything else, check out HBO’s The 100 Foot Wave and Netflix’s 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible or Beyond: An African Surf Documentary for some cool scenes and a bit of travel inspiration too.

The Confession Killer
The Confession Killer

Cold-Blooded

We’ve spoken about True Crime before, with an extensive feature in last year’s premiere print magazine. Nevertheless, it remains the juggernaut genre that doesn’t stop with streaming services as ground zero for all its many sub-genres. Across platforms, there is content for everyone, from singular and serial murderers, cheaters, scammers, looters, and, of course, the cold-blooded practices of business. This genre may not be the most relaxing, per se, but still, it is undoubtedly one of mass media’s most escapist, accessible, and followed. Perfect for cold, dark rooms and bowls of ice cream. So, where to start…

Let’s start with cold-blooded killers, where Netflix’s multi-part Conversations With a Killer series is a must-watch. Featuring multiple episodes of real conversations with two of the most cold-blooded killers of all time, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, this one’s sure to pass some of that summertime heat outside and satisfy the guilty pleasure itch. If it doesn’t, and you’re still looking for a similar fare, then try the Conversations offshoot Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes or The Confession Killer, telling the story behind the 1986 cult favorite Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

But if murder content isn’t your idea of cooling off, then perhaps fraud is…? Recently, Netflix has presented two bonafide cultural phenomenon shows on fraud, The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna – not a documentary, but there is no shortage of non-fiction content on its main subject, Anna Delvey. But, for me, Dirty Money is the ultimate cold-blooded content on Netflix. Following the old adage that we seemingly can never get away from, “The rich get richer”, this 6-part series takes an in-depth look at scandal, corruption, and greed across the business world. Bank fraud, corporate-government cronyism, natural resource depletion, and wide-scale pollution are all on display, as Dirty Money is sure to rile up your inner anarchist.

This Much I Know to Be True
This Much I Know to Be True (dir. Andrew Dominik)

Cool.

Ok, enough about fraud and murder. Besides that content, the streaming channels are full of great documentaries covering some of entertainment, art, and culture’s coolest people and collectives. First, there is McQueen on the fashion rule-breaker. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool literally has the word in the title. Devil at the Crossroads tells the story of maybe the most important rock’n’roll musician of all of time, Robert Johnson – who infamously sold his soul to the devil to play guitar the way he did. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s docu-fiction take on Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder Revue, exudes both a cinematic and musical cool, through a grassroots, DIY sensibility and Scorsese’s narrative trickery.

Continuing with cinematic cool, there is the biography of Wim Wenders’ favorite actor, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, as well as Django & Django, on the spaghetti westerns of Italian maestro Sergio Cobrucci, that prominently features interviews with Quentin Tarantino – a major figure of cool culture in his own right.

MUBI also has some documentaries that follow interesting personalities suitable for this sub-section. It has just released the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis centered This Much I Know to Be True. Tripping With Nils Frahm has featured on the platform for some time, as has Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Finally, with an uncompromising attitude, fashion, and eye, one of the coolest to ever pick up a camera, Agnes Varda, features heavily across MUBI with, in my opinion, 1968’s Black Panthers the most apropos to include here. Through huge personalities, including this film’s focus on its imprisoned, and later murdered, leader, Huey P. Newton. This Black Panther activist cool can also be seen in Stanley Nelson’s excellent The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Göran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, unavailable to stream but worth seeking out.

So, there you have it… more than enough recommendations to get through the next ten days or so. But, if you’re feeling masochistic and want to go in the opposite direction with some ultra-hot content, check out Sara Dosa’s TIFF-screened Fires of Love – on the lives and careers of volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft.



"New to Bucharest by way of Amsterdam, Brooklyn, and a few others, Steve is the communications manager/industry editor for Modern Times Review documentary magazine. He was also senior editor for New York-based IndieWood/Hollywoodn’t. At Films in Frame, his documentary column features on the last Wednesday of the month.