7 great political documentaries streaming online

A scene from a march to Tibet led by exiled monks and activists commemorating the 49th Anniversary of the region’s bloody Chinese takeover in Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s documentary THE SUN BEHIND THE CLOUDS: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom. Courtesy of White Crane Films.

A scene from a march to Tibet led by exiled monks and activists commemorating the 49th Anniversary of the region’s bloody Chinese takeover in Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s documentary THE SUN BEHIND THE CLOUDS: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom. Courtesy of White Crane Films.

Maybe it’s the collapse of our democratic institutions, or maybe it’s the fact that people finally seem to have the patience to watch documentaries, but this is a great time for political works. Take a break from the relentless scandal emanating from the White House (which maybe will someday yield us some great documentaries?) and check out these seven superb political docs from the 21st century.

Title: The Fog of War (USA, 2003)

What it is:
Let’s start things off in the United States with Errol Morris’ epochal The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Consisting largely of sit-down interviews with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the film provides remarkably frank insight into the key episodes from its subject’s career, ranging from the fire-bombing of Japanese cities in WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the doomed American war in Vietnam, for which McNamara -- and this is almost unprecedented in our politics -- admits to wrongdoing. It's a fascinating look at bad policies and the people who execute them.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon, Filmstruck.

Title: Before the Flood (China, 2005)

What it is: This provocative film depicts the plight of one of the many Chinese villages displaced by the construction of the enormous Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. As the villagers are eminent domained out of their homes, we follow their tense disputes with the government over relocation and compensation, and are struck time and again by the remarkably open criticisms of the government that these people feel comfortable making. Before the Flood is representative of a great flowering of combative Chinese documentaries in the 21st century, pushing the envelope of acceptable speech in an authoritarian system.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: The Sun behind the Clouds (India/UK, 2010)

What it is: There are few figures more highly esteemed on the international scene than the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual (and formerly political) leader. But as this controversial documentary displays, there are a number of Tibetans who feel that the Dalai Lama’s attempts at peaceful reconciliation with the Chinese government have failed to bring Tibet and its people any closer to freedom. The Sun behind the Clouds introduces us to a number of young Tibetan activists, torn between traditional esteem for the Dalai Lama and despair at the plight of their occupied country.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: Debtocracy (Greece, 2011)

What it is: Made at the height of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, Debtocracy is a compelling, politically committed look at the roots of the Greek crisis, the perils faced by small countries in the system of global capitalism, and the subversive concept of “odious debt,” which suggests that the people should not be held accountable for debts incurred by governments which don’t act in their interests. The film has been made available for free under a Creative Commons license, as has its sequel, 2012’s Catastroika, which depicts the evils of privatization and austerity.

Where it’s streaming: YouTube.

Title: The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years without Images (France, 2011)

What it is: Well, it’s a bit of a mouthful, but don’t let that put you off. This fascinating film tells the story of communist militants from the Japanese Red Army and their children who set up shop in Lebanon in 1970, with a focus on May Shigenobu -- daughter of Red Army leader Fusako Shigenobu and a Palestinian militant -- and Masao Adachi, director/writer of politically committed soft-core porn films who ended up in Lebanon for 27 years. With the “revolution” over and the movement largely anachronistic, Shigenobu and Adachi are faced with making new lives for themselves after 27 lost years.

Where it’s streaming: Fandor.

Title: The Gatekeepers (Israel, 2013)

What it is: The Mossad may get the lion’s share of international media coverage, but Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, has had a pretty dramatic history too, as evidenced by this film based on sit-down interviews with every surviving director of the organization. Tasked with fighting Palestinian militants and Jewish extremists, the Shin Bet has done some pretty dubious things and made some pretty difficult moral decisions, but regardless of how one feels about Israel’s security policies, The Gatekeepers is a must-see look at how those policies were put into practice on the ground.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

Title: All Things Ablaze (Ukraine, 2015)

What it is: The Euromaidan protests of 2013-14 saw extensive street fighting in Kiev, and brought civil war and Russian invaders to Ukraine. All Things Ablaze hasn’t generated quite the same excitement as Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, both of which follow the protests in cinéma vérité fashion, but it presents a vision of comparable intensity and greater frankness. Only All Things Ablaze feels comfortable asking questions like, “Do people attempting to throw Molotov cocktails ever accidentally set themselves on fire?” and answering with, “Yes, all the time, here’s what that looks like.” (But don’t worry, none of the would-be incendiaries in this film get too badly hurt.)

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.