What's Up? Docs

It was a banner year for documentaries, which were never hard to find
December 16, 2013

TV

When League of Denial, which chronicles the NFL's handling of head injuries, aired on PBS on Oct 8, two credits were to appear on screen: PBS's Frontline and ESPN. But ESPN withdrew after a reportedly tense meeting with its broadcast partner, the NFL. Though ESPN said it pulled out because it didn't have final editorial control, the off-screen saga jibed with the theme viewers saw on-screen. "You can't go against the NFL," Dr. Bennet Omalu says in the film. "They'll squash you." Frontline's central achievement was its comprehensive distillation of 20 years of science, sport and politics. The most damning story line tracked the NFL's efforts to discredit Omalu, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The program drew 2.2 million viewers—only 5.6 million fewer than the Giants-Bears game two nights later.

—Melissa Segura

NETFLIX

Films that focus on youths and their sports dreams tend to have two things in common: The kids see sports as a way out of a tough life, and they are old enough to know the stakes. Delightfully shunning both of those conventions, The Short Game focuses on a group of seven- and eight-year-olds as they prepare for the world junior golf championships. To say the documentary lacks the urgency of Hoop Dreams is an understatement, but these kids do have aspirations: They all want to win. One girl plans to be the first woman to compete at Augusta. And Allan Kournikova, Anna's brother, wants to earn enough prize money to open a golf facility that includes "a really good restaurant with tons of Italian food." It's easy to see why this charming film—which is streaming on Netflix—won the audience award at SXSW.

—M.B.

CINEMA

The rolling hills of the Rwandan countryside provide a picturesque backdrop for Rising from Ashes, but they also serve as ample training ground for a team of cyclists looking to escape from obscurity, poverty and personal tragedy. The film, narrated by Forest Whitaker, tells the story of the upstart Rwandan cycling team and its Olympic aspirations—most notably Adrien Niyonshuti, who lost some 60 members of his family during the genocide of 1994. The coach is an American, Jock Boyer, who has come to Rwanda perhaps to escape his disturbing past. (He served nine months for lewd behavior with a minor, in 2002.) In the end the film leaves viewers feeling conflicted—but given the atrocities and the darkness the film tries to mine, perhaps that's the only appropriate response.

—Sarah Kwak

INTERNET

FIRST AND 17

The Washington Post's stellar 13-episode web documentary series, First and 17, chronicled, in almost real time, the senior season of Woodbridge (Va.) High defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, a likable, self-described nerd who happens to be the top recruit in the nation. Beautifully shot and edited into bite-sized 10-minute chunks, it's a binge-worthy addition to the streaming-TV diet, but without the guilt (and glazed-over eyes) that come with watching five episodes in a row of a traditional program. The series does a smart job of exposing the full-tilt recruiting process and resulting media attention while being self-aware of its own participation in putting Hand under the microscope. Throw in a few intriguing subplots and you've got compelling television—on a newspaper's website, of all places.

—Alexandra Fenwick

PHOTONICK VEASEY/GETTY IMAGES/COURTESY PBS (LEAGUE OF DENIAL) PHOTOCOURTESY OF NETFLIX (THE SHORT GAME) PHOTOJOHN RUSSELL/COURTESY OF GRATIS 7 MEDIA GROUP (RISING FROM THE ASHES) PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DWAYNE BERNARD; JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST (FIRST AND 17)

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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)