Patagonia’s latest feature-length documentary claims feature-size stakes.
Patagonia’s latest feature-length documentary claims feature-size stakes. (Photo: Courtesy Patagonia/Masazumi Sato)

3 New Documentaries to Stream This Fall

These films about extraordinary athletes and inspiring activists are keeping us entertained as the days get colder

Patagonia’s latest feature-length documentary claims feature-size stakes.

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Not a lot is guaranteed these days except the end of daylight savings time (unless you live in Arizona) and the gentle return of an autumnal crisp in the air (unless you live in the climate-change-era West and just skipped right to winter). What to do as the days get shorter and social distancing gets more… distanced? You could follow my friend’s lead and invest in a tiny film projector. You could go further and stream any one of these new documentaries on your wall, maybe even on an outdoor wall with a few friends and blankets, and familiarize yourself with some incredible athletes and activists. As for the rest, we’re still trying to figure that out, too.

‘Purple Mountains’

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Recreationists of all political stripes often find common ground when it comes to the urgency of protecting our land, air, and water—even during a high-stakes election year. Still, climate change remains a polarizing issue. Snowboarder Jeremy Jones calls himself a “single-issue voter” for the environment and has been leading one of the outdoor industry’s most visible climate-action movements since he founded Protect Our Winters, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, in 2007. The new documentary Purple Mountains sends him on a journey to see if he can have open conversations with those who aren’t as sure as the 2020 elections approach. To the credit of Jones and the filmmakers, they don’t offer a glossy story of opening hearts and changing minds—instead they provide a helpful model of how awkward and incremental these conversations can be.

Jones starts out with some deeply unsatisfying video calls with climate deniers like Marc Morano, a former Republican political aide who now runs a climate-denial website. When Jones tries to explain how he’s seen snowpack changing over time, Morano doesn’t listen. “When I heard you say about the volatility, the extremes, that’s called weather, that’s called climate,” Morano says. The conversation cuts off here, at a frustrating point of realization: Morano doesn’t even bother to make a distinction between weather and climate. But the takeaway seems to be that only a select few are this far gone. Rather than try to persuade deniers, Jones spends most of the rest of the film meeting people closer to the middle of the spectrum in the mountainous swing state of Nevada. These conversations are more down-to-earth, conducted as Jones hikes, snowboards, and hunts with geologists, guides, and others who aren’t convinced that climate change is an urgent issue, or at least one worth voting for. It’s clear that Jones connects with the people he meets, approaching each exchange with respect and research. What’s unclear is whether or not he changed anyone’s mind by the end. But that’s beside the point of the film, which is that getting a little uncomfortable and continuing these conversations is a political responsibility in and of itself. 

Now streaming online.

‘Rising Phoenix’

(Courtesy Netflix)

Rising Phoenix, which covers the remarkable feats of Paralympic Games athletes, is unquestionably fun to watch. Much like the early-pandemic hit The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan’s run with the Chicago Bulls, Rising Phoenix appeals as a nonstop highlight reel. And there’s a dizzying array of sports represented: Track! Cycling! Basketball! Fencing! It’s an adrenaline rush and a well-produced reflection on the history and impact of the Paralympic Games as told by its athletes and organizers.

The tone of the documentary is set in the first ten seconds: “It’s funny, because when you see the last Marvel Avengers, well, it’s a team of superheroes who try to save humankind, save people, fight for success,” French track athlete Jean-Baptiste Alaize says. “And, well, we are quite similar.” There are more moments of swelling instrumental music than you can count. There are cool sculptures of athletes, like archer Matt Stutzman. There are several appearances by the royal family and cheetahs. On the one hand, this is as much production value as one would expect for elite athletes, and just as much bombast as directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui afforded their last documentary subject, fashion designer Alexander McQueen. On the other hand, many viewers will likely find that the dramatic touches start seeming like cue cards to feel inspired. It’s obvious that these athletes’ accomplishments speak for themselves, and if the action-movie tone isn’t quite your thing, you may find yourself wishing for a quieter, behind-the-scenes look at how they train and compete. Either way, the documentary offers almost two hours of amazing sports footage and personal stories. The takeaway may be better summed up in another early moment in the film. Former International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven recalls that, as the 2012 London Olympics finished, billboards popped up around the city ushering in the Paralympic Games: “Thanks for the warm-up.”

Now streaming on Netflix.

‘Stone Locals’

(Courtesy Patagonia/Andrew Burr)

Patagonia’s latest feature-length documentary claims feature-size stakes. Climbing has gone mainstream (Free Solo—heard of it?) and now the very misfits who found a home in the sport must fight to protect the natural spaces and close-knit communities that make it special. Whether or not that premise feels like a slightly dramatic generalization may depend on how long you’ve been interested in climbing (only three years myself, so sue me!). All the same, Stone Locals is a compelling depiction of the soul of the sport.

The film jumps between five different story lines about people who devote most aspects of their lives to climbing: German artist Daniel Pohl creates a sanctuary for fellow boulderers, called Avalonia, filled with elaborate rock carvings. Kathy Karlo tries to become the first woman to complete a triple crown of 5.12c roof cracks in Tennessee, while tackling conversations around race and gender in the outdoors on her podcast and beyond. Dario Ventura continues the legacy of his dad’s pizza place, a longtime climber hangout in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge area, and reminisces about the sport’s less polished past. Katsutaka “Jumbo” Yokoyama looks back on a legendary career as an alpinist and reflects on how growing his family has changed his perception of risk. And the Keithly family spends nearly all their time at crags, throwing around sitcom amounts of banter. (“Save your energy for climbing!” dad Jimmy tells his kids when they squabble.) The vignettes are each endearing on their own, but together they paint a bigger picture of what it means to serve your community through mentorship and environmental stewardship. It’s undramatic in just the right way.

Now streaming for free on Patagonia’s website.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Patagonia/Masazumi Sato

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