13 thought-provoking doccies to keep you out of trouble


13 thought-provoking doccies to keep you out of trouble

ALI VAN WYK shares some documentaries that have stood out for him over the last few months, from glossy Netflix productions to a gritty 1955 archival film.



Director: Fisher Stevens
Four episodes

I challenge anyone to watch this series about footballer David Beckham and end up not liking him a bit. I enjoy the tendency of Netflix's documentary series, in particular, to paint a sympathetic overall picture of a public personality.

Certain sections of the media, especially the so-called yellow press in England, have in the past had free rein to focus on the most intimate details of public personalities' lives, sometimes with disastrous consequences for the person and little of the same for the publication.

When Beckham's career was at its zenith in 1999, I had only a passing interest in the game with the round ball. What I knew about Beckham and his wife, Victoria, filtered through to me from London tabloid newspapers. It created the image of a spoiled pretty boy and his pop star girlfriend who had a superficial and frivolous existence full of luxury and glamour.

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It is true that Beckham is an appealing man with a penchant for sports cars, branded watches and jewellery. But he's also a character with great talent and determination, and a revealing ironic sense of humour. At one point, he refers to his unimpressive academic achievements with a lopsided chuckle: “I never really did well at school. I wasn't intelligent. Believe it or not. Surprise, surprise."

However, what emerges in the series is a man who is exceptionally intelligent in many other areas of life. He's a genius on a football field, he handles media pressure on his family with striking emotional intelligence, and he has a particular commercial grip on “David Beckham, the company".

The series was made by Fisher Stevens, the actor who played Hugo Baker in HBO's Succession series. Stevens is also an award-winning documentary film producer.

One of the remarkable aspects Stevens focuses on is how Beckham commercially exploited his notoriety. In the 1990s, golf and tennis players conducted themselves as big businesses but Beckham was one of football's pioneers.

It is also a study in dealing with the inhuman pressure that the media and people's expectations can place on an athlete. Almost all of England, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, blamed Beckham when England dropped out of the 1998 World Cup after he received a somewhat unfair red card early in a game against Argentina. For months afterwards he was booed at every game and the crudest insults were hurled at him and his wife wherever they went.

It also paints a poignant picture of the relationship between a working-class father and his famous son, and a football star and the most successful club manager in the history of the English Premier League, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Above all, Stevens manages particularly well to tell the love story between two working-class children who became world stars — David Beckham and Victoria Adams, also known as Posh Spice.

* If you like football, also check out Messi Meets America on Apple TV+, about Lionel Messi's move to Inter Miami, where Beckham is a co-owner. The series has just been released.


HBO | Showmax
Director: Nick Hooker
1 hour and 40 minutes

If you haven't yet watched this 2017 documentary about a remarkable Italian, make a plan.

It is as much a recording of the tension between political and economic systems in post-war Italy as a portrait of a man. Italy was devastated after World War 2 and it was basically rebuilt on the back of Fiat, where Gianni Agnelli was the CEO between 1966 and 2003.

Agnelli was a privileged child. His grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli, was the founder of Fiat. Moreover, as a young man, he was a playboy with the accompanying boats, helicopters, fast cars and exceptional amounts of cocaine. He was also, before and during his marriage to Marella Agnelli, involved with a number of prominent women.

Apart from Fiat, Agnelli owned Juventus football club and Ferrari. He was a kind of king of Italy in the late 20th century. As his niece Diane von Fürstenberg says: “Every woman was in love with him, and every man wanted to be Gianni." He moved in the same circles as statesmen and had a special admiration for America and a good relationship with the Kennedys.

Director Nick Hooker had access to the people closest to Agnelli and to a rich archive of material to make a touching film about him.

The Saint of Second Chances

Directors: Jeff Malmberg and Morgan Neville
1 hour and 33 minutes

Mike Veeck and his daughter Rebecca, who died at 27 due to a rare nerve condition, Batten disease.
Mike Veeck and his daughter Rebecca, who died at 27 due to a rare nerve condition, Batten disease.

I know very little about baseball but I have seen two fascinating documentaries about people involved in it, and it is clearly a sport with character and characters.

This movie is about Mike Veeck, a marketer and manager in the baseball world, in his own words “a hustler". Actually, his father, the legendary Bill Veeck with the wooden leg, was a bigger figure in the baseball world, a legend. Mike describes Bill as a hustler, too, but also as a kind of “pied piper", which, funnily enough, is also the way other people describe Mike. These are no ordinary meat-and-potatoes type of guys.

Bill and Mike believed the point of baseball was to have fun, not to make money. Bill was a kind of cross between a pirate and a clown, and Mike, true to his generation, was more of an anarchist hippie. Both liked beer a lot.

After 10 years out of baseball, Bill decided to borrow money to buy the Chicago White Socks. The first thing he did was to involve his young son, Mike, who was a half-drunk rock musician in some nightclub, and eventually he became a promotions manager. Mike's idea of promotion was to create an irresistible spectacle to attract people to the matches. The problem is that he ended up creating a spectacle so big that it ended his father's career in the sport.

This is where the story really begins: of how Mike Veeck spent decades believing he was a failure then got going again, with spectacular results. It's a delightful and beautiful tale, and Malmberg and Neville tell it with good rhythm. Plus, Jeff Daniels is the narrator, and, you know, it's Jeff Daniels!

Still: A Michael J Fox Movie

Apple TV+
Director: Davis Guggenheim
1 hour and 34 minutes

Michael J Fox as he looks these days.
Michael J Fox as he looks these days.

To anyone who was 15 in 1985, Michael J Fox was not an actor. Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise were actors. Fox was one of us. He was part of the fibre of the 1980s.

He didn't seem to age with time either; he was forever the mop-headed kid in jeans on a BMX bike. That's why it was such a big shock when Fox announced in 1998 that he had been living with Parkinson's disease for seven years.

At first, I shied away from this documentary because it is not easy to watch someone who is dying, but I am glad I did. In addition to the fact that Americans can be so free-spirited, in many cases they are also honest about their faults, weaknesses and miseries. For many Americans, adversity is a good opportunity to attract attention with a strong recovery effort. I say this with admiration.

Fox lived beyond full speed when the disease was diagnosed. He already had a wife and two children but he lived too hard. Parkinson's took away everything in his life that was false and too much, and brought him to a standstill. This documentary is the story of that process, and it is touching and wonderful. The director, Davis Guggenheim, strikes just the right balance. Fox tells the story but he is no longer that perky little man with the mop head. He is an uncomplicated and bright individual with just the right amount of salt and pepper added.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

Apple TV+
Directors: Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer
1 hour and 38 minutes

I was never as fascinated by rocks as some of my friends.

I have an interest in Werner Herzog's documentaries because he has the sense of wonder of a child. Herzog makes this film about meteorites with an old collaborator, the vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer.

Together they visit famous meteorite places around the world. Oppenheimer does the talking and Herzog follows with a camera. He doesn't mind film-school conventions but he also trusts his instinct to focus on the elements of a story that will keep viewers nailed to their seats.

He ended up editing the material into a film, and we're talking here about the genius who made movies like Fitzcarraldo. The secrets locked up in these otherworldly rocks, some of them billions of years old, are fantastic. Some of them even indicate that life arrived on Earth through a meteorite.

For me, the most amusing part of the documentary was that a famous Norwegian jazz guitarist, Jon Larsen, is also an amateur meteorologist who collects micro-meteorites on the roof of a large sports complex in Oslo. Under a microscope, these meteorites are more beautiful than the jewels in the crown of the King of England.

After watching this, I like rocks much more than before.                             


Google Play TV
Director: Asif Kapadia
1 hour and 45 minutes

Some sports stars' religious sanctimoniousness annoys many people. However, this Formula 1 racer's incessant talk about God never bothered me.

Maybe because he never engaged in the kind of surprise marketing for Jesus that some Blue Bulls rugby players did.

Senna did not evangelise but spoke of his personal and mystical experience at 350km/h, on the brink of what should be impossible for man and machine.

Moreover, Senna had a kind of angelic aspect to his appearance and body language, and in this film he talks about “becoming God". I suspect he had more of a Catholic than a Pentecostal Protestant approach. What struck me further about Senna is that he seemed to carry with him the aspirations of millions of poor Brazilians, even though he was of a privileged class.

Kapadia's documentary focuses on the intense and later hostile rivalry between the intuitive, brooding Senna and the always meticulously calculating, almost emotionless Frenchman Alain Prost around 1990. It also looks at the safety concerns that began to plague the sport in the year and even in the days before Senna's fatal crash.

Kapadia puts together a film about a life gone by, from archival footage, with no talking-head interviews or authoritarian narrator, lending the film an undeniable vitality and credibility.

Eldorado: Everything the Nazis Hate

Director: Benjamin Cantu
1 hour and 32 minutes

For a short period in history, in the Berlin of the 1920s, queer and trans people could live relatively openly, only to see the Nazis ruin their freedom in the 1930s.

Through dramatisations and interviews with experts on LGBTQ+ history, Eldorado showcases these safe havens in Berlin, including the nightclub with the same name, which had a sign above the door that said, “Here's richtig" (“Here it's right"). It was where gay people like sexologist  Magnus Hirschfeld hung out.

Hirschfeld operated the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which was also a place of safety before a horde of Nazi youths looted it in 1933. Other people who visited Eldorado regularly were Dora Richter, the first woman to undergo full male-to-female gender-affirming surgery, and Gottfried von Cramm, two-time winner of the French Open tennis championship, who had an affair with Manasse Herbst, a Jewish actor.

Certainly, the most interesting visitor to Eldorado was Ernst Röhm, the openly gay top Nazi officer who got away with his behavior for years because of his friendship with Adolf Hitler. The SS eventually executed Röhm for his hyper-radical views, which made things uncomfortable even for Hitler.

Some of the dramatisations in the documentary are forced, but the power of the story makes it a film you should not miss.

The Secrets of Hillsong

Hulu | Disney+
Director: Stacey Lee
Four episodes

Former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz and pop star Justin Bieber in the days before the church got into trouble.
Former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz and pop star Justin Bieber in the days before the church got into trouble.

The worldwide megachurch Hillsong broke into contemporary pop culture on a level never seen before. It seemed to throw off the conservative shackles of the old churches with empathy towards gay members and other minorities. Its popularity among millennials was due to pastors such as Carl Lentz, who established the church in New York.

Lentz was nothing less than a rock star and sex symbol on stage. Time magazine said his services had more in common with Kings of Leon concerts than church services. Stars including Justin Bieber were baptised in the church.

The series is based on revelations in Vanity Fair by the journalists Alex French and Dan Adler. When the church's Australian leadership unexpectedly ousted Lentz in 2020, it sent shockwaves through the community. Infidelity in his marriage was presented as the reason, but Vanity Fair's investigation uncovered a tangle of sexual abuse of women and children, financial malpractices and labour irregularities.

However, the trouble began decades earlier when Brian Houston established the church in 1983.

Lentz breaks a years-long silence to speak with the producers of the series. In the end, his sins seem trivial compared to some of the atrocities of the bigshots behind the scenes. The story is told with empathy for the real victims.

The Murdochs: Empire of Influence

CNN | Showmax
Directors: Neha Shastry, Rachael Profiloski, Valerie Thomas
Seven episodes

I haven't finished watching the series, but it's important enough to mention. The impact of the Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch on the world of media and communication is decisive.

Most people know Murdoch as the founder of Fox News, but he is also the largest and most powerful media owner the world has seen. His political influence is more important than his business impact and he played a defining role in the rise of Donald Trump.

The series is based on a report from The New York Times in 2019 by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, and a large part of it focuses on the speculation about which of his three children from his third marriage — Lachlan, James or Elizabeth — will take over from him.

He is 92 years old and has already been near death. It is no secret that the HBO series Succession with the patriarch Logan Roy is loosely based on the story of the Murdochs. The only difference is that it has a little less plot than the real story.

Les Maȋtres Fous (The Mad Masters), 1955

Director: Jean Rouch
28 minutes

The German filmmaker Werner Herzog mentions The Mad Masters by the French ethnologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch as one of his favorite documentaries.

The original short film has a French narrator (Rouch himself) and the only version with English subtitles that I could find is on YouTube (it automatically creates English subtitles). It is not ideal, but I could follow the narrative.

The film is a recording of a collective annual ritual of a group of the Hauka movement outside Accra, the capital of Ghana (then the Gold Coast), during the colonialist 1950s. The Hauka was a kind of religious movement with about 30,000 members who mostly consisted of rural migrants from Niger who worked in the big cities.

During the ritual, the members become “possessed" by the “spirits" of typical white colonial characters — the engineer, the corporal of the guard, the doctor's wife, the evil major, the governor-general, and so on. Members of the group go into a trance which includes tremors, foaming at the mouth and grotesque postures.

During the ceremony, a dog is sacrificed, cooked and eaten. The next day, Rouch visits the participants again in their mundane jobs on the docks in Accra as truck drivers, soldiers and pickpockets. Everyone appears completely normal and friendly.

Numerous academic articles over the years have tried to make sense of Rouch's film, and not all have been flattering, but the broad consensus is that the ritual was a kind of therapeutic exorcism from the impact of the colonial masters; not so much a rebellion as a taking back of personal power through mimicry.

Three SA doccies


An Ordinary People

Amazon Prime Video
Director: Ernest Nkosi
1 hour and 35 minutes

I am surprised South Africa does not produce more astonishing documentaries. There are few other places in the world that are such a hotbed of cultures, customs and phenomena.

Sometimes I think we're so depressed about our politics and economics that we can't see ourselves any more. You don't have to walk around this country with a camera for long before finding something special to photograph.

An Ordinary People follows a few teams in South Africa's latest and probably fastest-growing motorsport, spinning. It's a uniquely South African sport of the people, where teams of between two and five acrobats do a series of breathtaking stunts with a car that mostly spins around, sometimes without a driver.

It allegedly comes from gang culture in Soweto, but nowadays it is a nationwide phenomenon. Some reckon it's the world's most reckless motorsport.

Like many motorsports, it runs in families, with stars such as Kaylin Oliphant, Bradleigh “Skopas" McGregor, Sam Sam Thubane, Lentja Motloung and Rizzo Davies. And if you thought it was just men? Aikôna.

Just watch it.

Fear and Loathing in South Africa

Journalist: Ayanda Charlie
52 minutes

Members of Operation Dudula at a meeting in Gauteng.
Members of Operation Dudula at a meeting in Gauteng.

This is a news documentary that journalist Ayanda Charlie recently made for the BBC about the increasing xenophobia in South Africa. It is not a documentary with a big budget and production values like some of the others mentioned here, but it is thorough and valuable news journalism.

Charlie was allowed to go around with one of the major xenophobic groups in Gauteng, Operation Dudula, as it approached and tried to intimidate foreigners. It is difficult to watch because it reminds us of so much that is uncomfortable and complex in our communities.

A Brother with Perfect Timing

Director: Chris Austin
1 hour and 34 minutes

This 1987 documentary is a classic South African portrait of a national treasure, the jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. It consists of a long interview and several excerpts from a concert by Ibrahim and his group.

Large parts of the conversation are about the pain and also the  inspiration of exile, because Ibrahim spent about 30 years living in New York, where he had a celebrated and successful career.

For me, what makes the documentary so stimulating is Ibrahim's extraordinary personality. He is many things, including a jazz guru, a music professor, a philosopher on most subjects under the sun, an Islamic saint, a comedian, and surely the greatest expert on South African jazz styles, especially the Cape variants.

Whether you agree with him or not, he shows a different perspective of South Africa than most of us are used to.


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