Netflix DocFest film reviews: Icarus, Strong Island
Ivan Radford | On 18, Jun 2017
This week saw 2017’s DocFest once again take place in Sheffield, presenting the brightest and best new documentaries from around the world in one of the UK’s most exciting and interesting film festivals. With Netflix increasingly investing in non-fiction film-making, it’s no surprise that the streaming giant was out in force at the event, premiering several new movies that were snapped up at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: Chasing Coral, Icarus, Nobody Speak and Chasing Coral. With Nobody Speak out this Friday and Chasing Coral screening at Sundance London the weekend before, we check out Netflix’s other two originals, released worldwide later this year.
If you don’t want to have the results spoiled for you, look away now. An in-depth demonstration of how athletes, cyclists and Olympians can take performance-enhancing drugs without being detected, Icarus should come with a warning: you’ll never be able to look at professional sports in the same way.
Director Bryan Fogel hits upon a neat idea at the start of his project, planning to go full Morgan Spurlock in his quest to prove that the drug-testing system in place for cycling is inadequate. Racing through Switzerland’s amateur Haute Route tournament, he begins a doping program to help him win, so that he can unmask it later – a Lance Armstrong-inspired stunt to change the sporting world for the better.
What begins as an enjoyable hike up a steep mountain, though, soon pedals into unexpected territory, as Fogel finds himself introduced to Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Russia’s Olympics drugs team. Agreeing to help Bryan concoct a cocktail of banned substances, it turns out that he did exactly the same for Russia throughout the Sochi Winter Olympics, overseeing a state-sanctioned doping scheme to ensure that the country would win medals.
With Rodchenkov coming clean, his harmless experiment with Fogel evolves into a whistleblowing thriller, as the director races to get him out of Russia before he can be silenced. All the while, we get a first-hand account not only of his fight to stay a free man, but also the extreme lengths to which Russia went to secure victory. Bizarrely low-tech in some places and dizzyingly ambitious in others, the anecdotes whizz part like chapters in a heist flick, with Rodchenkov a hilariously charismatic presence on camera – almost always accompanied by an excitable dog.
The story’s unpredictable nature, though, is a weakness as well as a strength, as Fogel struggles to wrestle the winding narrative into a cohesive whole. Pacing and consistency sometimes flag, with the late introduction of title cards a noticeable attempt to impose some structure. But given three months by Netflix to tighten and tweak following its Sundance premiere, there’s a sense that things can’t be compacted more than they have been – and, in its final form, Icarus’ glossy titles, effective use of music and sheer access to a bombardment of eye-opening facts makes for compelling, endlessly surprising viewing.
As Russian President Putin stands there denying everything, despite the proof mounting up on screen next to him, and the Olympics governing body failing to ban the nation’s contenders across the board, the mind-boggling scale of this corrupt endeavour sinks in – and, with Qatar set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, you find yourself wondering if you can ever take victories in any professional sport seriously again. If this is anything to go by, we’re all losers.
It says a lot about the tragic state of the world that the notion of a documentary about the death of a young black man in America can almost seem familiar. Strong Island, though, makes the horror of loss all too alarmingly fresh: this is unlike any true crime documentary you’ve ever seen. That the same could be said of Netflix’s other notable original acquisition this year, Casting JonBenet, is testament to the streaming giant’s commitment to innovative and important documentaries – and even more testament to director Yance Ford’s astonishingly raw film-making.
Where a typical documentary might see the shooting investigated in chronological fashion, with evidence gradually unearthed, Strong Island is devastatingly personal – William Jr., who was shot at a garage 25 years ago, was Yance’s brother. Yance turns the camera not just on that event but on the family, capturing their frustration at not receiving justice from the police or the legal system, conveying their inescapable sorrow, and cycling back to William’s murder with new understanding and a building wave of tragedy.
The talking heads are hugely effective, shot with an affection and intimacy that allows Yance’s mother to be herself – wonderfully caring, hugely resilient and fiercely passionate, she’s worth watching the film for alone. The rest of the movie, though, is no less masterful. Yance’s most powerful moments, in fact, come when she turns the camera on herself: scrutinising close-ups see her answer questions with fearless honesty and nowhere to hide, turning what could have been an investigation about what happened that fateful night into a study of grief itself.
That personal weight turns the specific story of one sad incident into universal, powerful cinema, one that asks damning questions about why society allows these things to happen, why an all-white jury set William’s shooter free, why an unarmed black man was treated as the main suspect in his own death. Yance’s mother, at one point, reflects that she tried to raise her children as judging people based on their character not their colour. Was she wrong? Dazzlingly unique in its harrowing construction – and deconstruction – of race and bereavement, this bracingly subjective piece of art will stay with you for days.