Even with a larger captive home audience in times of coronavirus, launching a new independent streaming service is a challenge these days. With the best of artistic intentions, trying to get a suitably large subscriber base to support your niche programming amid the spangly distractions of Netflix and the like isn’t easy. Still, I recently encountered one that merits a second glance: True Story, a new-on-the-scene, UK-based global streaming service dedicated to documentaries.
A handful of similar nonfiction-focused platforms have popped up over the years, sometimes stymied by a library of films too small to encourage a monthly subscription, however carefully curated. True Story, smartly, offers punters both subscription and pay-per-view options: you can feast on their entire (and not insubstantial) selection of documentaries for £6 a month — following a free trial — or simply rent films individually at £3.90 for a week.
As for the programming, it’s selective and distinctive, largely made up of strong, compelling documentaries that made a dent on the festival circuit without cracking a general release elsewhere. This week sees them offering up a UK premiere: The World Before Your Feet, a New York-focused charmer that did well with American critics two years ago but never made it across the Atlantic until now. Genial and disarming without straining for forced uplift, Jeremy Workman’s film follows former engineer Matt Green as he resolves to give up his job, home and material possessions to embark on a six-year walking tour of the Big Apple, travelling every road, alley, bridge and byway of the five boroughs in pursuit of, well, some elusive sort of personal fulfilment. The film doesn’t romanticise or grit up his quest, but it does make for a surprising, ground-level travelogue of a city we think we’ve already seen portrayed every possible way.
The rest of True Story’s selection isn’t all as easy-going as that, but it’s illuminating. A special section is dedicated to highlights from London’s discerning Open City documentary festival: among them is The Trial, a remarkable achievement from the brilliant Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, built wholly from archival footage of a 1930 show trial of eight Soviet economists and engineers accused of plotting a coup against Stalin’s government. Presented in immaculately plain, procedural fashion without directorial comment, it’s the kind of film you can hardly believe exists.
Other standouts include Lebanese documentary The Swing, an intimate, intensely moving study of director Cyril Aris’s grandparents, as they process various losses and their own ageing from the confines of their Beirut flat. There’s a hint of Chantal Akerman to its clear, steady perspective. I loved Chez Jolie Coiffure, a jagged, candid, fly-on-the-wall observation of a Cameroonian expat hair salon in Brussels, where serious immigrant concerns mingle with idle gossip as locks are treated and teased. And Laila at the Bridge is an urgent, real-life character study, taking as its subject Afghan “mother of the addicts” Laila Haidari, a formidable woman managing a recovery clinic for Kabul’s inordinate number of opium addicts; a tough-minded film with a hearty emotional payoff. After months of living in on-off lockdown, it can feel like your world has shrunk a bit – sites such as True Story help expand it again.
Also new on streaming and DVD
Not to be confused with anything involving Victor Hugo or Hugh Jackman, French director Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated debut is a street-level thriller with formal punch and swagger to spare, sharp in its portrayal of tension between crooked police and oppressed residents in the Paris banlieues – though the perspective of its cop characters is surprisingly dominant.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula
The word “presents” appears in tiny type on the marketing materials for this Korean zombie thriller, making it seem a more direct sequel to Yeon Sang-ho’s raucous 2016 romp than it is. More of a standalone adventure set in the same apocalyptic story world, it has a less playful tone and shoots for grander action set pieces than its predecessor, but there’s fun to be had.
Alan Ball, the writer behind American Beauty and Six Feet Under, directs his first feature film in more than a decade, and it’s softer and sweeter than we’ve come to expect from him. Starring Paul Bettany as a gay NYU literature professor reluctantly reunited with his conservative southern family when his father dies, it’s a pleasant period ramble, and a welcome leading showcase for Bettany, though it could use a bit more acid.
Fear: Classic Monsters
A wintry treat on this YouTube channel devoted to horror film: a season of classic Universal monster movies, one a week, each free to view for seven days. Their current selection is the 1935 curio Werewolf of London – does what it says on the tin, and good, clean, schlocky fun – with future selections including Creature from the Black Lagoon, Son of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. Perfect alternative festive fare.