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.
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.