"There's Something Evil Rising": How Political Turmoil Inspired This Year's Documentaries

Chris Kleponis/Polaris/Bloomberg via Getty Images; James Meehan/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics; Nafis Azad/Utopia; Courtesy of Tribeca; Courtesy of Netflix; Courtesy of Rio Grande Film

From border stories to an LGBTQ group's journey through the South, filmmakers took their cues from headlines sweeping the nation.

If you spontaneously tear up (or get red in the face) every time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's face appears as a winner in the Democratic Party's primary election in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, you are not alone. "A lot of people say that," says director Rachel Lears, who followed the cultural phenomenon from candidacy announcement to election triumph.

While it was a powerful moment both onscreen and in real life, Lears doesn't believe the viewers' emotional reaction to Ocasio-Cortez's victory exists in a vacuum. "The secret sauce is the other characters and what you see them go through," says the director, who followed four women recruited by Justice Democrats and members of Brand New Congress to run for office in 2018. "It was very important to us to explore the losses alongside the victory, not just because the four of them were running as part of a movement, but because if make it seem as if you go through all this and there's a happy ending, it's like, 'Great, the system works.' There's a lot of work left to do."

Knock Down the House is just one in a series of documentary films that address swimming upstream in the current political climate. Ben Masters' The River and the Wall takes a look at the land surrounding the Rio Grande and how the campaign promise of a border wall will impact the area in practice. David Charles Rodrigues' Gay Chorus Deep South follows a San Francisco gay men's choir as they travel through the Southeastern states with the harshest anti-LGBTQ legislation. Matt Tyrnauer's Where's My Roy Cohn? introduces viewers to the man who, by some accounts, inspired Donald Trump's presidency. And American Dharma, helmed by Errol Morris, looks at controversial political strategist and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Though the filmmakers all differ by way of professional experience, ethnicity and gender, there is one thing they have in common: Had the 2016 election swung in the other direction, their films likely would not exist.

"I didn't want to make this film. I felt obligated to," says first-time filmmaker Masters, who has spent much of his life on the border of Texas and Mexico. "The idea started off as a desire to document all these landscapes for the historical record before a big wall is built through them. What I did not expect was to have so many personal stories interwoven into the final product." As Masters and his team of environmental experts travel from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, conversation drifts from nature to naturalization, the emotional journey inspiring some teammates to share their personal stories. In the doc, river guide Austin Alvarado opens up about his family leaving Guatemala in the early '90s and crossing the river into the U.S., where they lived illegally until they were granted asylum in 1997. Award-winning cameraman Felipe DeAndrade also shares his story of living undocumented in America for 14 years. "Honestly, I've never had the opportunity to meet people that have lived undocumented for a large part of their lives," says Masters. "It's easy to dehumanize the issue and say, '100,000 people tried to seek asylum,' or '10,000 crossed over the border last month alone.' I think it's important to humanize the issue. Those are individuals, and they all have different motives."

Proponents of the wall will not find themselves represented in Masters' film (which was released by Gravitas Ventures). While the nature enthusiast wasn't overly concerned with being objective, in this case, the absence of a representative from the opposing side is not for lack of trying. "You would be surprised how difficult it is to find a person who is pro-border-to-border wall that can make a sensible argument for it," says Masters. "I can find people who know very little about the issue who are like, 'Yeah, build the wall, that will fix the problem.' But we went three months without finding a single person who could make a good case for a physical border wall."

In film, conflict is often used to move the narrative forward, to the point that when none exists, it starts to worry a filmmaker. When Rodrigues came across a news article about the San Francisco Gay Chorus embarking on a tour of the Southeastern U.S., the director anticipated shining a light on challenges faced by the choir members as they traveled across Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. What he brought back to the editing suite did not reflect these expectations. "When we got back with all the footage, I sat down with my editor and our first gut reaction was, 'Oh my God, do we have enough conflict?' " Those who have seen the film know there is hardly any skirmish to speak of. It is, for the most part, a heartwarming film about Americans coming together to try to understand one another's differences. "Our team and the chorus went there wanting to be heard, but what we understood was that if you really want to be heard, you have to listen first," says Rodrigues.

Even if it was the great political divide post-election that inspired Rodrigues to make the MTV Films project in the first place, it was ultimately more important for the director to make the film truthful to his experience than try to drum up drama for the sake of making a point. "We already have that in the news," he says. "Because of the grim times we're living in right now, there's a lot of necessary focus on the negativity, but I feel like there still needs to be some beacons of light."

Not every doc is intended to ignite hope. Sony Pictures Classics' Where's My Roy Cohn? about Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel, ruthless political fixer and an early Trump lawyer, is a glimpse into the mind of our country's current leader, inspired by the man who mentored him. "The minute Trump won the electoral college, it was clear to me that Roy Cohn had created a president from beyond the grave," says Tyrnauer. "The influence is that direct, and the key to Trump is understanding Roy Cohn."

Before the election, Tyrnauer had been working on a documentary about Studio 54, which prominently featured Cohn, the legal representative of the legendary New York nightclub. He knew there would be no shortage of footage featuring the infamous and fame-hungry lawyer, but even Tyrnauer was surprised to discover how eager some of those who knew him personally were to add their two cents. "In the case of Cohn's cousins, it was as if they were waiting by the telephone for 40 years for someone to say, 'Will you please denounce Roy Cohn in a documentary film?' " says Tyrnauer. "Roy Cohn was the evil seed of the family, and they're horrified and embarrassed by him. So at this moment, in the context of a Trump presidency, they were very much willing to get on their soapbox and denounce him."

Though Cohn undoubtedly was a brilliant man, Tyrnauer wants to emphasize that, in his documentary, he is neither hero nor anti-hero. "He's an antagonist," he says "This movie is not at all laudatory of Cohn. I would say it's more of an essay on the origins of evil in our society."

The importance of highlighting some of the darker characters in recent history, says Tyrnauer, is to remind citizens to stay alert and aware of how we got into this predicament in the first place. "Our only hope is that people who have platforms will use them to shine a light on the darkest aspects of our society and educate people and light the fires of recognition about what's happening in a culture that's dominated by Real Housewives and Kardashians, which are opiates," says Tyrnauer. "We need to be awake and aware that there's something very evil rising within the culture. And only understanding of what that is, and action to stem it, is going to save us. Documentaries are good for that."

How the other documentaries go about lighting that fire is a somewhat different approach. "I think that there's a real value in creating tools for movements to really sustain the work of organizers and activists that are already dedicating their lives to social change," says Lears. "We all aspire to reach beyond those audiences, but the film is being used in educational institutions and grassroots organizations, really giving sustenance to the people who are already committed to this."

While discrimination and anti-LGBTQ laws continue to be of growing concern, parts of the wall are being erected and social change can appear slow-moving and often futile, Rodrigues has witnessed at least one positive effect in what many perceive as dark times. "We were speaking to a liberal political lobbyist, who told us that not since the Nixon years has there been this much activism and people wanting to be politically engaged in the history of our country," he says. "Within the moment that we're living in, that is definitely a very hopeful part."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.