The real world suddenly seems quite unreal, with the doors of our favorite haunts and performance spaces, among other familiar places, firmly closed. While you’re stuck at home, consider broadening your horizons (how’s that for irony?) with these fascinating and mostly little-known docs below.
“The Rolling Stones: Some Girls Live in Texas ’78” (YouTube, Amazon)
We’ll start easy with one of the Stones’ best performances captured on film. Still caught up in the punk-inspired energy of their outstanding 1978 album “Some Girls,” the band hit the road that same year with a no-nonsense intensity, renewed authority and palpable joy you can see and feel.
“Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.” (Amazon, Kanopy)
The prismatic life of rapper M.I.A. is a subject more unusual than this sometimes wobbly film can fully convey. But it comes close. Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, 44, alias M.I.A., is a lifelong activist of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, the daughter of a Tamil Tigers insurgent fighting an oppressive Sri Lankan government. She’s also a popular music producer and performer in the West, blending infectious beats, world music, dance and politics into something compelling. The 2018 film explores what some see as seemingly irreconcilable sides of her identity. Meanwhile, the concert footage here is pure excitement.
Tales of survival
“The Interpreters” (Amazon, YouTube, Google Play)
U.S. military forces rely on local interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting targets on the backs of these brave individuals and their families. Many have sought to come to America following their service, and Congress created a special visa to greatly speed up the immigration process for them. “The Interpreters” (2018) reveals how American bureaucracy tragically stretched that process over years, with a particular focus on three former interpreters whose lives became hellish during the wait.
“Among Wolves” (Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Tubi)
A motorcycle gang, the Wolves Moto Club, comprising grizzled Bosnian war veterans, looks scary but isn’t. Based in a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Wolves follow a higher calling after surviving destruction and death. Their leader, “Lija” Lijovic, a former paramilitary leader, is a tough bird. But his group spends its time launching blood drives, delivering gear to schools and helping out nuns. Poetically apt are the dreamy scenes of wild horses romping on what was once a minefield. Lijovic and the other Wolves take care of this herd, in all its free-spirited glory. (The 2016 film is in Croatian, with English subtitles.)
Cat city, dog city
“Kedi” (Amazon, YouTube)
Whenever I’ve recommended “Kedi” to cat-loving friends, they’ve feared possible scenes of cruelty toward felines. No way. “Kedi” concerns the historically warm relationship the city of Istanbul and its people have with thousands of stray cats, a tradition with religious undertones going back centuries. The 2016 film’s oddball shapelessness is as much fun as watching manic cat behavior in one’s home, and filmmaker Ceyda Torun often has to chase cats around streets with a camera to obtain usable footage. We meet good folks who pay vet bills for strays, or who run fish markets or delis where street kitties wander in and out and are met with great affection and snacks. (In Turkish, with English subtitles.)
“Dogs of Democracy” (Amazon)
Much sadder than “Kedi” is this look at Greece’s austerity crisis and social unrest through a heartbreaking consequence: the abandonment of pet dogs in downtown Athens by their impoverished owners. These discarded pups, already many and growing in number, survive through the largesse of a few distressed humans who provide them food. The sight of these naturally social creatures in this 2017 film — discarded, homeless and drooped across the surfaces of a city both ancient and modern — suggests a jolting Salvador Dali painting.
And one cultural treasure
“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” (Amazon)
This wonderful tribute to the legendary jazz record label Blue Note is a clear and powerful introduction to a labor-of-love enterprise that built its identity alongside generational changes in music. The 2018 documentary traces the label’s founding in 1938 by two immigrants from Berlin and (wait for it) an American communist who fronted the money. The film surveys Blue Note’s artistic reach, from swing music to the birth of modern jazz, to the innovations of Herbie Hancock and today’s sampling of historic Blue Note tracks in hip-hop. We’re reminded Blue Note has changed hands several times, sometimes unfortunately. But then we meet the label’s current steward: ubiquitous producer, dedicated archivist and fun guy Don Was. Sleep peacefully, jazz fans.