Paste Magazine's Best Documentaries of 2020

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tags: Civil War, documentaries

Jim Finn’s The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant is less concerned with the particulars of its eponym’s legacy than it is with unpacking the fall of the Confederacy and the rotten underpinnings of The Lost Cause. Composed of narration detailing stories alongside Grant’s path liberating the South, modern images of historical sites and stop-motion animation of battle strategy board games, the film appears at first glance a matter-of-fact travelogue. Finn pairs historical anecdotes with quiet, almost picture-book-like images lensed on 16mm, his narration providing the sort of moral clarity one wishes could replace the “state’s rights” strain of history textbooks, though condemning the Confederacy and its white supremacy is a relatively low ideological bar to clear, fascinating as the stories and research may be.

Thankfully there’s more to it: As the contrast between the images and narration starts to develop, Finn arrives at something. He films ruins, monuments and battlefields in their current state, and it is in these visits to places like Stone Mountain up the tram, and stop-motion board games and bubblegum cards, where Finn finds a perspective beyond a corrective history lesson: the cheap commodification of Southern history, sanitized and glazed with a sort of he-man plasticity, revealing the strange ways our culture can present the past as benign myth when its direct effects are still readily observed. On its own, Finn’s arrangement of research remains rich and compelling, subtly exposing the core of The Lost Cause and its legacy. But what makes the film work on a level worth praising are such stories in conversation with images of today’s public presentation of history: the highways where it has been paved with modernity, the gaudy products of myth-making and the silent landscapes where it is at once forgotten and remembered. —Daniel Christian


Crip Camp, a documentary about a summer camp for disabled teens, is a movie that, in a casual director’s hands, could turn very easily into a piece of exploitation honed in on adversity. But Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham aren’t casual. They’re coworkers, having collaborated on three documentaries together over the past decade and a half, and Lebrecht, who has Spina Bifida, attended said summer camp in 1971. The film is a personal matter for Lebrecht, facilitated with his longtime colleague, and guided by their relationship, Crip Camp functions partly as a portrait and partly as advocacy.

Half of it is spent strolling down memory lane, revisiting either through oral history or archival footage days at Camp Jened in the Catskills, where teenagers with disabilities—deaf teenagers, blind teenagers, teenagers who survived polio, teenagers with cerebral palsy—congregated under the care of hippy counselors. Here the teens, many for the first time in their lives, were treated simply as teens, and not as societal inconveniences. The other half of the movie unfolds against the backdrop of the battle for Section 504, fought in 1977, as disabled Americans, many of them former Jened campers, organized protests and a famous sit-in to persuade Joseph Califano to sign the important regulations into law. The campaign for disabled rights deserves a spotlight for its own merits, as this isn’t really a chapter in history standardly taught in American schools, but the specifics of Crip Camp’s subject speaks to a broader, urgent point about the power of community: When people unite under one banner for a common cause, there’s little they can’t accomplish. A message as timely as it is timeless. —Andy Crump

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