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Documentaries That Grabbed the Public Spotlight

Documentary films are a kind of step-child in both Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Everyone gives lip service to how important they are, but the films themselves are ultimately lucky to get attention.

That’s a shame, because a number of documentaries released this year were not only well-crafted, but also helped put a narrative to complicated public policy issues that ranged from prison sentencing guidelines to hunger in America to the immigration system. And who would have thought a small movie would bring condemnation down on the mighty SeaWorld?

Here’s a quick look at some of the documentaries that helped shape the way we look at politics and the issues that can surround the public arena.

  • The ‘House’ That MLK Built: In January, Eugene Jarecki showed his film, “The House I Live In,” in Washington during a time when most of the political world was busy with the start of a new Congress and the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. It’s a tough film to watch, but it also is one whose topic, the war on drugs and the harsh prison sentencing guidelines that have accompanied it, has come back into focus, with the president himself lately addressing it.

  • ‘A Place at the Table’ Aims for a Place in the Public’s Eye: Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson’s “A Place at the Table” explores the plight of the hungry in America, a country where 50 million people are food insecure. With the ongoing debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, this movie that adds a human element to that discussion. Silverbush’s husband, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, is an executive producer and has been, along with the filmmakers, a constant presence on Capitol Hill to advocate for the food insecure.
    • Alex Gibney, Filmmaker to the Dark Side: When Alex Gibney’s new documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” came out, it happened right as news broke that the Justice Department had been keeping tabs on media outlets and the trial of Bradley Manning was about to start. Then Edward Snowden happened. Pretty good timing.
    • Film Series on Immigration Policy Is a Tapestry of Politics, Policy and Personalities: “How Democracy Works Now,” a multi-part series about immigration policy  over the past decade, premiered at the New York Film Festival in October. The series of films, which examine Congress and its people in a way few, if any, films have ever attempted, is a must for people interested in how public policy is made and the people who make it. A reminder of this came recently, when Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, hired Rebecca Tallent, a fixture in several of the series’ films, as his immigration policy director.
    • ‘Blackfish’ — Just When You Thought It Was Safe …: Who would have thought a lark-like documentary about how killer whales are treated in captivity would eventually lead to a public outcry over SeaWorld’s practices and prompt musicians such as Willie Nelson and Joan Jett to demand that the theme park stop using their tunes? Sometimes big things come in little packages.
    • AFI Docs Leaves D.C. Footprint: Washington has become a real haven for documentary films, thanks in large part to a population that loves delving into sticky topics. It is also home to the AFI Docs film festival, an annual rite of passage for documentaries and the audiences who love them. This year, the festival expanded more of its offerings to the city from its ancestral Silver Spring, Md., home at the Silver Theater.

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