Midway through the 2019 documentary film Collective, newly appointed Romanian health minister Vlad Voiulescu sits in defeat. After months of crusading against corruption in his country’s healthcare system, Voiulescu realizes that nothing has changed. Mobsters, politicians, and businessmen still put profits above human lives and resist any of his reforms.
Utterly forlorn, Voiulescu drops his head in his hands and asks, “How the hell do we fix this?”
I often feel the same way when I watch documentaries. Where narrative films often take artistic liberties or restrict themselves to metaphor, documentaries carry a greater expectation of truth, which makes them uniquely suited to recording political and legal problems. Documentary films have educated me about such topics as the connection between American racism and American prisons (13th, 2016), the mindset of genocidal dictators (The Act of Killing, 2012), and the power of unions (Harlan County, U.S.A., 1976).
But while this access is indispensable for anyone wanting to unmask the powers and principalities of our world, it can become overwhelming. Documentary filmmakers can throw light on dark corners, but one grows weary peering into the night. I can come away from even an amazingly well-crafted film feeling powerless.
That’s why I’m almost shocked to find that some of the most inspiring scenes in recent cinema have appeared in documentaries. More than just happy endings, these films show examples of actual justice served. The 2020 movies Athlete A, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, Coded Bias, directed by Shalini Kantayya, and Time, directed by Garrett Bradley, deal with some of the most pervasive sins of our generation, including sexual abuse, systemic racism, and the prison industrial complex. But even as I watch and learn about my responsibility toward these wrongs, these filmmakers also provide images of justice, reminders that I serve a just God who cares deeply about those whom the powerful want to exploit.