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Documentaries That Could Change the World: The Best Non-Fiction Films of 2012


By Tench Phillips, co-owner Naro Cinema

Each of the last few years I have compiled an annual list of the year's best films and divided them into fiction and non-fiction categories. Since "best of the year" lists are so prolific, my own focus is on non-fiction documentaries that don't receive as much media attention.

The term "non-fiction" should not be confused with reality or "the truth". There's no better example of a deliberate manipulation of facts than this year's top grossing documentary, 2016: Obama's America. Written and directed by conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, it is essentially a paid partisan polemic based on the premise that Barak Obama is a radical socialist who was informed by his long deceased Kenyan father. Although the Naro was harassed with multiple harangues by "true believers" who tried to persuade us to play the film, we would not program this latest example of fear-mongering. Nevertheless we'd like to draw more conservatives to join our political documentaries and discussions, but unfortunately there has been little interest in our film events.

And then there are the recent fictional dramas based on historical events that are produced in a realistic, documentary style to make the viewer feel like they're watching reality on the screen. Zero Dark Thirty uses this to great effect and so is all the more deceptive when events are manipulated to justify the use of torture and the covert operations deployed by the U.S. in its "War on Terror". Argo is also filmed in a gritty, true-life style. But the film is not just another revenge story, and so this thrilling and courageous tale is a rather guiltless experience. Nonetheless its depiction of past operations by the CIA in Iran effectively glorifies the mission of American empire.

Below is a list of some of the deserving films that received a local booking at the Naro through the end of January. No other theater in the area chose to show any of them; they are not easily marketed and don't generate mega-boxoffice. Many premiered in our "New Non-Fiction Film" series on Wednesday nights that includes a post-film audience discussion led by informed facilitators and speakers. These public forums allow for lively conversation and bring vital national and world issues back down to our own community. The costs of these film events must be entirely covered by ticket sales since the Naro receives no funding from big corporate sponsors or from non-profit grants. This is grassroots public media produced in the interest of a well informed community.

The titles are listed in alphabetical order. Most will subsequently find their way onto the shelves of Naro Video. Many of these films could change the world; if only they could reach a wider audience.

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Best Non-Fiction Films of 2012

AI WEI WEI: Never Sorry China's notorious international artist and human rights activist bravely confronts the authoritarian state.

BROOKLYN CASTLE Underprivileged urban middle schoolers in Brooklyn who learn chess begin to excel in life and in academics. The Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) is having similar success.

CHASING ICE National Geographic photographer James Balog was once a climate skeptic, but that was before traveling the world documenting catastrophic glacier melts.

DETROPIA The citizens of the Motor City struggle to survive postindustrial America and build a radically different future.

ESCAPE FIRE: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare A grassroots national movement has begun to force the medical industry to replace its profit-driven care with patient-driven care, and to transform a disease management system into a health prevention system.

THE HOUSE I LIVE IN The film exposes the human and social costs of the failed and racist "War on Drugs", and its toll on black urban youth who trade in drug contraband because it's the only business in town. They are then arrested by a for-profit law enforcement system and fed into the ever-expanding for-profit prison system in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE The story of the activists who confronted the government and pharmaceutical companies in order to change AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

THE INVISIBLE WAR Brave young military women who have been victims of rape must now struggle for justice within a patriarchal military culture.

THE ISLAND PRESIDENT The inspiring story of the international climate and political activist who became president of the slowly sinking island nation of the Maldives.

THE MAN NOBODY KNEW The CIA spymaster William Colby testifies to Congress about some of the agency's darkest secrets of the Vietnam War. A very personal story directed by Colby's son about his enigmatic father.

SAMSARA Breathtaking images and transcendent music that infuse the ancient ways with the modern from the producers of Baraka.

SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN A forgotten sixties era folk musician named Rodriguez living in obscurity in Detroit discovers that his records had been hugely popular in South Africa, and subsequently finds superstardom when he travels to perform there.

SIDE BY SIDE: Can Film Survive Our Digital Future? The world's best filmmakers weigh in on the meaning of the end of the era of film as the medium of cinema.
YOU'VE BEEN TRUMPED How the ever-shrewd Donald Trump bought up Scotland's wild and pristine coastal refuge to develop condos and a "world-class" golf course. Only a few local landowners who won't sell are standing in his way.

The Naro Expanded Cinema is in Norfolk, Va.

This was originally published in Veer Magazine.

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