Netflix offers documentarians access to wider audience
The documentary genre never gets its due unless one wins an Academy Award and garners a lot of attention. Rarely are they released to theaters, so filmmakers have to rely on other platforms for their work to be seen. Netflix and cable outlets have been haves for documentaries, widening viewership and bringing attention to subject matter that is as relevant as it is provocative.
I’ve seen two recently that were riveting and deserve a look. “Disgraced” is a detailed investigative look at the 2003 murder of Baylor basketball star Patrick Dennehy. You may remember that Dennehy was first reported as missing, a story that dominated the news that summer for over a week, until his roommate and teammate, Carlton Dotson, finally confessed to shooting him and told authorities where they could find his body. It was a strange story, and as this documentary reveals, there was never a clear motive. And as it stands now, it will forever remain a mystery.
As sad as this story is, the documentary’s other focus is the ensuing NCAA scandal that rocked Baylor’s athletic program when it was revealed during the investigation that Coach Dave Bliss had paid players’ tuition and expenses — revelation that led to the discovery of deeper corruption in the program. As it turned out, even Dennehy’s family thought he was at Baylor on scholarship, only he wasn’t.
Bliss and other former Baylor athletic staff incredibly agree to be on camera and give frank answers to some tough questions posed by director Pat Kondelis. There are some startling denials, particularly the way Bliss tried to frame Dennehy as a dealer who may have been murdered over drugs. Even as he admits he learned something in the scandal that cost him his livelihood for the 10 years the NCAA forbid him to coach college athletics, he still sticks to the story the Dennehy was involved in drugs — something all others interviewed denied as true.
This documentary had its premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin and is available on Netflix.
Many years ago, I had the chance to see “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey” in a theater in Houston. It was a loving tribute to the filmmaker by his son, George Stevens Jr., about his great career, which included the time he spent in the military in World War II. While on assignment in Europe making movies for the military, Stevens brought his own camera and filmed what he saw. There is something about seeing the horrors of that war in color, particularly his footage of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.
I’ve never forgotten that 1984 documentary for that reason and because I loved the work of George Stevens and now understood why, having once been known as one of the best comedy directors of his time, he concentrated on only dramas after his war experience.
This led me to the 2014 Mark Harris book “Five Came Back” about Stevens and four other notable directors who served during World War II in a similar capacity, making what amounted to war propaganda movies and traipsing across Europe, Asia, and Africa documenting the war. Harris’s excellent research and insight was begging for a screen version, and it’s here.
Now it is a fascinating three-part documentary filmed for Netflix by Laurent Bouzereau. It chronicles the directors before, during and after the war in great detail, recounting their success prior to the war and what followed. In addition to Stevens, there was Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler and John Huston, who all spent several years on the war effort. Though none are living now, there is plenty of past interview footage drawn on for this, and it is remarkable to hear their accounts. In addition, five current filmmakers — Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan — discuss the film careers of the five and how their war experiences shaped their post-war films.
Each of these directors has made incalculable contributions to film, and knowing their war experiences provides valuable insight into their choices as directors. “Giant,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “The Searchers,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and so many more are just a part of their collective legacy. I admire them all and have a better understanding of their work through this documentary, available now on Netflix.