I watched several documentaries in 2016. Here are reviews of 4 of them.
The Confessions of Thomas Quick (dir by Brian Hill)
Like the majority of Americans, I had no idea who Thomas Quick was until I watched this fascinating and rather disturbing documentary. Thomas Quick was a Swedish serial killer. Or, at least, he claimed he was.
In the 1990s, a troubled loner and career criminal who went by the name Thomas Quick confessed to committing over 20 murders. Amazingly, even though his stories were often outlandish and didn’t always make sense, it appears that the authorities took Quick at his word. Even when Quick told an implausible story about being forced to eat a baby, no one doubted his confessions.
Over the next 20 years, Quick became something of a morbid celebrity. Whereas we’ve become sadly desensitized to stories of serial killers here in the States, this was still a rare occurrence in Sweden. Of course, as The Confessions of Thomas Quick makes clear, Quick was never actually a serial killer. His confessions were all false. How and why did Thomas Quick fool everyone? The film suggests that the authorities where more interesting in closing cases than actually investigating Quick’s claims. Meanwhile, among psychiatric authorities, there was almost a cult-like insistence that Quick was telling the truth.
The Confessions of Thomas Quick is a fascinating and creepy documentary about an incredibly creepy person.
Holy Hell (directed by Will Allen)
Speaking of creepy and fascinating, just check out Holy Hell. Holy Hell is about a former actor who became a highly successful cult leader. In many ways, Michel is a silly figure. With his permanently pursed lips and a face that shows the results of one too many face lifts, Michel looks like almost a parody of a false messiah. And then when we hear him speak in his reedy voice, we wonder how anyone could have ever followed him.
But, as Holy Hell makes clear, a lot of people did follow Michel and they still do, though Michel has changed his name and has long since abandoned his former Austin compound for Hawaii. Holy Hell was directed by Will Allen, a former member of Michel’s cult and one of the many young men who were sexually abused by Michel. (Michel demanded celibacy from his followers but, in private, he felt no need to hold himself to his own standards.) Will Allen was a film student and, as such, he spent twenty years filming the cult and directing some genuinely odd music videos, all starring Michel. When Allen finally left the cult, he lost most of his footage. But what he did mange to escape with is more than enough.
Want to see how a large group of otherwise intelligent people can be brainwashed? Watch Holy Hell. Michel may be a ridiculous figure but, by the end of this documentary, he was will have scared the Hell out of you.
Do you want to know how America ended up in this current political mess? Watch Rigged 2016. Rigged 2016 was originally produced to promote the presidential candidacy of Libertarian Gary Johnson. And while the film did not accomplish its goal of winning Johnson a spot on the presidential debate stage, it did offer up a portrait of a political system that has been rigged by money, media, and special interests.
Rigged 2016 devotes most of its time to discussing the threat of Donald Trump. However, it doesn’t let the other side off the hook. Supporters of Bernie Sanders discuss how his campaign was ultimately sabotaged by the DNC.
Rigged 2016 will make you angry and hopefully, it’ll inspire you to wonder why — year after year — we continue to settle for a rigged system.
The Witness (dir by James D. Solomon)
The Witness is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking documentaries that I have ever seen. It’s currently on Netflix and I could not recommend it more.
In 1964, a 29 year-old waitress named Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed to death on the streets of New York City. Reportedly, 37 people heard the sound of Kitty screaming for help and none of them called the police. None of them left their apartment. For decades after, Kitty Genovese’s case was held up as an example of public apathy. And yet — even after her murderer was caught and sent to prison — Kitty remained a mystery, a symbol who never quite allowed to be an individual.
Kitty came from a large family. Her younger brother, Bill, was shaken by the reports of people refusing to help to Kitty as she was being murdered. And so, he decided that he would always help people. He enlisted in the army, specifically because he wanted to help his country and help the world. He was sent to Vietnam, where he lost both of his legs.
The Witness, which opens forty years after Kitty’s murder, is the story of Bill’s attempt to understand who Kitty was and, hopefully, come to terms with his feelings about her death. As Bill freely admits, he never really knew much about his older sister but the shadow of her death hangs over every day of his life. Though the film may be about Kitty, it’s just as much Bill’s story. It’s a story that makes us ask how much anyone can truly know about anyone else.
Bill starts by investigating whether or not Kitty’s screams were actually heard and ignored by 37 people. The majority of the 37 are now dead but Bill finds a few who are still alive. He discovers that the legend of the 37 apathetic and/or cowardly witnesses isn’t necessarily true. He goes on to talk to some of Kitty’s friends. He tries to talk to his family but most of them seem to be weary of both Kitty and Bill’s obsession. Bill even gets a chance to talk to Kitty’s girlfriend. There are suggestions that Kitty and Bill’s father rejected Kitty because Kitty was a lesbian. We discover that, living in New York and away from her family, Kitty could finally be herself. It’s interesting to note that, at no point, does The Witness idealize Kitty. I’m sure the temptation was there. At one point, Kitty’s girlfriend admits that even she’s not sure she knew who the real Kitty was.
Bill also tries to reach out to the man who murdered Kitty. The murderer refuses to talk to him. However, in perhaps the film’s most poignant moment, the murderer’s son agrees to meet with Bill. It’s a tense meeting. The son weakly defends his father. At one point, he says that he’s heard rumors that Bill has Mafia connections. The son assures Bill that people know where he is, as if he’s concerned that Bill is planning on killing him.
I have to admit that, having spent 90 minutes watching the very engaging and honest Bill deal with his emotions, there was a part of me that really wanted to hate the son. But, by the end of the scene, it becomes obvious that both Bill and the murderer’s son are suffering because of one man’s senseless act. They’re both victims of the same evil.
Bill hires an actress to walk down the same streets that Kitty once walked down. Standing in the same spot that Kitty was standing when she was attacked, the actress lets out a terrifying scream. Bill flinches. So do we.
The Witness is a powerful meditation on life, guilt, love, and family. It’s on Netflix. Watch it.