Documentary filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are known for exposing societal epidemics and changing the conversation around them. Whether its the cover-up of rape by the U.S. Army in “The Invisible War,” or the same issue ravaging college campuses in “The Hunting Ground,” their films confront all the ways our institutions let us down time and time again, often with tragic consequences.
In their latest documentary “The Bleeding Edge,” now available on Netflix, Dick and Ziering focus on the profit-driven, multi-billion dollar medical device industry and how it’s destroying the lives — and bodies — of countless trusting patients in America. It’s a painful, pull-no-punches look at the traumatic physical effects products like cobalt joint replacements, vaginal meshes, and a female sterilization device called Essure have had on thousands of men and women (sadly, it’s mostly women) all in the name of profit disguised as “innovation.”
“The Bleeding Edge” is a difficult watch, but also an important wake-up call. There is a sense that if enough people see this film and make their voices heard, the possibility for change is real. It wouldn’t be the first time a documentary brought about change. Here are five other docs currently streaming on Netflix that have made a real world impact on their subject.
“The Hunting Ground”
Dick and Zearing’s aforementioned 2015 documentary about the rape epidemic on college campuses is harrowing not just for its accounts of sexual assault, but for its accounts of what happened next; when the victims tried to report the assault to their school administration. Within our most prestigious institutions of higher learning — from Harvard to Amherst to Notre Dame — exists a pattern of victim-blaming and cover-up for reasons that come down to what these things seem to always come down to: money. Colleges are afraid to jeopardize their two biggest donor industries – college athletics and fraternities – both of which have a history of predatory behavior.
Coinciding with “The Hunting Ground’s” 2015 release, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, along with two of the film’s subjects, reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety act which would require schools to apply standard practices to all reports of sexual assault. Since then, a larger reckoning has taken place that clearly goes beyond college campuses. Indeed, the insidiousness of the culture exposed in “The Hunting Ground” even touched the documentary itself, which was unfortunately produced Harvey Weinstein, a man whose own monstrous behavior is largely responsible for the #metoo and Times Up movements that are revolutionizing the way we define and deal with assault. The Hunting Ground is certainly controversial, but that doesn’t take away from the power and relevance of its mission.
The backlash against SeaWorld after the this unflinching look at their treatment of killer whales in captivity was so huge and swift as to become known as “The Blackfish Effect.” The film tells the story of Tillikum, an Orca taken from the wild and kept in captivity for decades at SeaWorld, during which it killed three trainers – attacks the park tried to blame on human error.
The film spurred intense activism and a wave of negative press against SeaWorld, which saw its stock plummet and attendance shrink. Musical artists like the Beach Boys and Willie Nelson canceled their SeaWorld concerts while Southwest Airlines ended its 26-year partnership with the park. Revenue dropped and the head of the company resigned. Then on March 17, 2016, SeaWorld officially announced they would end all orca shows and orca breeding programs. Blackfish has had its own share of controversy, but its “Effect” is undeniable.
“Who gives a f**k about a f**king monkey?” So asks a British mercenary brought in by oil interests to help seize Virunga, Congo’s vast national park and home to the endangered mountain gorilla. Orlando von Eisendel’s 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary follows the rangers in Virunga, as they protect the land and its wildlife from both the British oil company SOCO and rebel fighters during the bloody M23 uprising of 2012. And while the mercenaries and oil interests may not understand why these rangers are willing to die for these gorillas (and have by the hundreds), Eisendel certainly does, capturing the deep and meaningful bond that exists between Virunga’s primates and protectors.
Part nature doc, part war journalism, part action thriller, “Virunga’s” impact has been powerful. While SOCO officially denies the films claims (which are rather undeniable thanks to hidden camera footage) they have since announced that they will end oil exploration in Virunga, and as of 2015 no longer hold an exploration license in protected mountain gorilla territory — a victory the World Wildlife Foundation attributes in part to the film’s up close, often dangerous look at the conflict.
“The White Helmets”
‘Former Builder,’ ‘Former Tailor,’ ‘Former Blacksmith.’ These are the descriptions of the men interviewed in “The White Helmets,” Orlando Von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning documentary short (and follow up to Virunga) about the heroic volunteer rescue workers in Syria who have abandoned their former lives for a higher purpose.
These first responders have saved roughly 60,000 Syrians since 2013, rushing to bombing sites and pulling out bodies, often as the bombs continue to fall around them. It’s a harrowing documentary that shows the emotional and physical toll such heroism takes. But the necessity of such a sacrifice is reaffirmed again and again, like the incredible rescue of a one-month old infant dubbed ‘the miracle baby’ that is literally pulled screaming from the rubble. “The White Helmets” has given greater awareness not only to the horrors ravaging Syria but to the courage on display by this group of everyday superheroes. And they still need help. Watch this film and then donate to the White Helmets here.
“The Thin Blue Line”
The daddy of true-crime docs, Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” tells the story of Randall Adams, who ran out of gas at the wrong place at the wrong time on a November night in Dallas, 1979. Adams ended up hitching a ride with David Ray Harris, a teenager who’d stolen the car he was driving and later that night would kill a police officer — a murder he would pin on Adams, who was sentenced first to lethal injection and then later life in prison
Morris’ documentary flourishes are in full effect here — stylized reenactments, incredible interviews, an intense Philip Glass score — all culminating in the film’s unbelievable ending in which (SPOILER) David Ray Harris, now on death row for another murder, confesses to the crime. Upon the movie’s 1988 release, Adams’ case was reexamined and in the spring of 1989, all charges against him were dropped. After 12 years in prison, Adams was a free man. “The Thin Blue Line” is a victory in documentary journalism and set the template for everything from “Making a Murderer” to “The Jinx” to the recently updated Netflix docu-series “The Staircase.”