Ten Recommendations For Compelling Documentaries of 2018

By Sarah Masters

The year is drawing to a close and 2018 brought an excellent choice of new and compelling documentaries! Compelling storytelling can raise awareness and steer policy, legislation and culture towards justice and equity. It is in this context that the Hartley Initiative works at the intersection of faith and film, to equip leaders of faith and moral courage with the media tools, documentaries in particular, to do their justice work.

Among the many excellent candidates for Ten Best Documentaries of 2018, my recommendations:


The life of 23-year-old Nadia Murad, co-winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, is exhausting to contemplate. She survived the genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq, was enslaved by ISIS, and eventually escaped to tell the world of her people’s plight and call for international action on their behalf. Her courage, calm demeanor and steely determination propel her to the UN to testify, to visits to refugee camps and endless media interviews and meetings with top officials from governments throughout the world. Upcoming screenings: Doris Duke Theater in Honolulu on December 22, Northwest Film Forum in Seattle on January 4, Cleveland Museum of Art on January 20, and Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on January 25.


Director Steve James, creator of the Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail and Hoop Dreams, is behind the newly released docuseries America to Me. Filmed over a year in a progressive suburban high school just outside Chicago, the film takes a microscope to the issue of racial integration. In the 10-part series, James overcomes some push back from the school administration to create an absorbing and nuanced, sometimes painful, sometimes joyous always intimate look at the subject of race through the eyes of both teachers and 12 students of different personalities and interests. Available on Starz.


This film follows Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first woman judge to be appointed to the Middle East’s Shari’a courts in the West Bank. She focuses on gendered justice and through her eyes the viewer catches glimpses of domestic issues such divorce, marital abuse and child custody. She also courageously battles the patriarchal judges who are her peers and superiors, all the while raising her own children. For more, go to iTunes, Vimeo or Amazon.


Dark Money has been called a political thriller. The camera follows a local journalist as he zeroes in on corporate money that can’t be traced and, reveal by reveal, shows how that money impacts both elections and elected individuals in the state of Montana. It’s a microscopic look at the devastating ripple effects of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. Distributed by PBS.


Fellowship, kindness and new allegiances emanate from the stories of four Syrian families struggling to adapt in their new city of Baltimore over the first eight months following their arrival in the US. The documentary depicts a detailed and empathetic portrait of their lives as they struggle to adapt under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee. Day-to-day portraits of new experiences in schools, struggles with English and learning the ins and outs of grocery shopping make the issues and situations these recently arrived refugees face in this country come to life. Check cable network Epix.


The consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing are at the crux of this film. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez films the aftermath of his sister Cindy’s 15-year sentence for conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend. Her long-term imprisonment is known in legal circles as “the girlfriend problem.” Cindy was arrested after she got her life together, met a good man and was breastfeeding the youngest of three children. Her brother picks up a camera and films for ten years to keep for Cindy a record of the childhoods she cannot as a mother be a part of. On HBO.


This is a gripping story of a courageous group of active duty Black and Latinx New York cops and a private investigator who blow the whistle on illegal policing quotas of minorities they are pressured to arrest. They risk their careers and are far from safe as a landmark class action lawsuit unfolds. Find it on Hulu.

In the Brooklyn Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, women are not welcome in the EMS corps Hatzolah. Enter Nashim, the first all-female ambulance corps in the city of New York. This female force risks their families’ and their own reputations to provide personal and dignified care to the women and girls of Borough Park. The women of Nashim wrestle with their faith and feminism in a moving, humorous and lively story. Airs on POV.


Director RaMell Ross weaves hours of footage he shot when he lived in Hale Country, Alabama, into a poetic portrait of life there and, in doing so, redefines how black Americans are shown on screen. His portrait of a way of life in Hale County is weighted by its history but poetic in the storytelling. Hale County opened in theaters earlier this year and is awaiting digital release.


Emmy and Peabody Award-winning Muslim filmmaker Deeyah Kah sits across from neo-Nazis and white nationalists to gain understanding of the personal and political motivations behind the rise of far-right extremism in this country. She looks for ways to connect and for solutions in how to bridge the divide while her own prejudices are challenged. Available on Netflix.

That’s 10 of the best documentaries released in 2018. Coming up are two more to add to the list! Why not? Happy viewing and Happy New Year! Sarah


Sydney Pollack filmed Aretha Franklin in this concert documentary in 1972, when she recorded a live album over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, backed up by the Southern California Community Choir. Production on the film was finally completed this year after technical difficulties and lawsuits kept it in limbo. Aretha sings for justice and mercy and is at the peak of her career. A theatrical release is planned for March of 2019.


Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, this documentary tells the global tale of children working out of sight in overcrowded factories and forced into child labor due to global demand for cheap goods. Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi and his team, at danger to themselves, rescue these children and work to reconnect them with their parents and educate them over the long-term. In theaters in early 2019.

Sarah Masters is Director of the Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn. The Hartley Initiative works at the intersection of faith and film, and equips leaders of faith and moral courage with the media tools to do their justice work.

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