Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Doc Talk: avarice, terrorism, aviation, apartheid, clothes

A scene from “Winnie.”
A scene from “Winnie.”(Greg Marinovich/South Photos/Africa Media Online)

A 358-minute documentary about terminally ill patients in an intensive care unit might not seem the most entertaining way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but Frederick Wiseman’s “Near Death” (1989) may be the best movie experience you will have all year — especially since Wiseman himself will be on hand to discuss it. Rhythmically paced, intimate, and detached, the film follows the decline of four patients at the Beth Israel Intensive Care Unit and subtly observes the relationships among them, their loved ones, and the medical staff as they negotiate the inevitable. Unsparing and compassionate, it does not shrink from mortality and, because of this, is even more uplifting.

“Near Death” screens on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive in the Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge.

Gilded for some . . .

As Sarah Colt’s PBS “American Experience” documentary  The Gilded Age” makes clear, our country’s current disparities in wealth and opportunity are nothing new. In the 1890s industry boomed as capitalists made America great for themselves while exacerbating class divisions and stirring up discontent among the deprived and those who sought economic justiceWould America remain the land of opportunity, as demonstrated by Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from Scotland who rose up from nothing to monopolize the steel industry? Or would it become a country where millions languished in poverty without hope of advancement while a privileged few owned most of the wealth? More than a century later, these questions have grown only more urgent. 

“The Gilded Age” can be seen on PBS’ “American Experience” on Tuesday at 9 p.m. and is available on DVD for $19.99 and digital HD on Wednesday.

. . . but not for others

The Gilded Age was followed by an economic boom further stimulated by profits from World War I, making the rich richer and the poor desperate. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia also encouraged subversive activity in the United States, leading to one of the nation’s first incidents of domestic terrorism. Susan Bellows’s documentary “The Bombing of Wall Street” tells the story of the unsolved 1920 attack that left 38 dead and hundreds wounded and launched the career of the young future head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Bellows based the documentary on Beverly Gage’s book “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror.”

“The Bombing of Wall Street” can be seen on PBS’ American Experience at 9 p.m. on Feb. 13 and will be available on digital HD and on DVD for $24.99.

Air power

In a memorable scene from the Oscar-nominated “Mudbound,” an airman from the Deep South renounces his racism when he sees that the pilot of the fighter plane that just saved his bomber from Nazi Messerschmitts is a black man. Dan Wolf’s Smithsonian Channel documentary “Black Wings” (2012) shows how throughout the history of aviation, from biplanes to the space shuttle, African-Americans have furthered the cause of racial equality by proving their skill at flying aircraft. As the film puts it, black aviators would “conquer the forces of gravity, but conquering the forces of society could be a tougher challenge.”

“Black Wings” is available on DVD for $19.99.

A woman in charge

While Nelson Mandela is enshrined in the pantheon of civil rights heroes, his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy has remained ambiguous. Pascale Lamche’s documentary “Winnie” is an attempt to set the record straight and restore her reputation as one of South Africa’s most effective freedom fighters. 

While her husband was imprisoned for 27 years she served as his agent in the fight against apartheid, during which time she suffered imprisonment herself and torture by the authorities and earned the title “Mother of the Nation.”


But after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his election as president of post-apartheid South Africa, in 1994, accusations about involvement in terrorist and other criminal activities swirled about her. Lamche attempts to determine whether her fall from grace is fully deserved or the result of a smear campaign by her political enemies.

“Winnie” can be seen on PBS’ “Independent Lens” on Monday at 10 p.m. and is available for online viewing beginning on Tuesday.

Style conscious

It’s hard to resist a film with the tagline “Ten years. Thousands of outfits. One [expletive] camera. It’s more than a look. It’s a gesamstkuntswerk. Ja!” At the very least it makes you look up the meaning of “gesamstkuntswerk” (according to Wikipedia, “a term first used by German writer and philosopher K.F.E. Trahndorff in an essay in 1827” that means “total work of art”).

Performance artist, sculptor, and avant-garde structuralist filmmaker K8 Hardy’s Outfitumentary” (2016) chronicles 15 years of her evolving queer identity, sexuality, and sense of style. Long before the age of Instagram and selfies — though well after the first self-portraits in other media — Hardy began photographing the outfits she was wearing on a more-or-less daily basis. For some people, that would probably be the same picture repeated for weeks at a time. For Hardy it meant an ongoing and boisterous representation of the evolution of her selfhood and self-expression in a social and cultural context. Or something like that.

Hardy will be on hand at a screening at the Brattle Theatre presented by the Boston University Art Gallery .

“Outfitumentary” screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge.

Peter Keough can be reached at