Sometimes it seems like everything you watch is a variation on a theme; maybe it’s just a season where something stands out more than others. In any case, the last month or so, I’ve watched three “movies” (one, really a limited series) that I would describe with the adjective “unflinching.” That may sound off-putting, but the honesty and integrity of each of these important stories make them all must-see viewing.

First up: Unbelievable, now streaming on Netflix. This 8-part series, based on an awarding-winning article by The Marshall Project and ProPublica (with additional work by This American Life), begins with a woman who is not believed when she reports being raped and then ripples out to the work of the two policewomen who come together to finally solve the case. Not only is it insistent about detailing the trauma involved in the process of reporting an assault, it also makes the viewer feel deeply what it feels like to not be believed. And it exposes the way that rape itself is often not investigated or given the status and, thus, resources of other crimes.

But what takes the show to another level is its portrayal of the two female detectives. In the same way the show pulls no punches about the horror of being a rape victim, it also realistically portrays the two women detectives as professional, competent, and excellent colleagues to one another. That shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, but I struggle to think of another recent pairing where the detectives are both women and both normal. Yes, they are driven; yes, they are brilliant at their jobs, but they also have a working relationship rarely portrayed on film. On top of that, one of the detectives is unapologetically a woman of faith–she is shown praying with her family, going to church, and referring to a Bible verse taped to her car’s dashboard. Though it is a topic of conversation, it is always treated respectfully–and not as something that makes her a less good detective. It is certainly an intense program–and deserves it’s TV-MA rating-but it’s a remarkable story told in a remarkable way.

Two other documentaries tell equally amazing stories. The first, Maiden (available through pay services like iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, etc) presents the story of the first all-women crew to participate in the daunting Whitbread Round the World Race. This is recent history (at least to me)–and stunning to remember that in 1989 women were not thought to be hearty enough to do competitive yacht racing. The film charts the team’s difficulty in even being able to be on the water–and then, with incredible footage, demonstrates exactly how brutal the race was. Not only was the physical challenge gruelling, but the open denigration of the women by the press and by their male counterparts is stunning. Like the women detectives in Unbelievable, however, the women of Maiden provide a much-needed counter-narrative about what women can do, working together.

Finally, For Sama (currently in select theaters and premiering on PBS’s Frontline in November). I recently led a discussion of this film with members of the CALL (Calvin Academy of Lifelong Learning) group–and it was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had to undertake. In fact, when the film ended, I was tempted to have everyone just leave. It is that moving–and that profound.

It chronicles five years in the life of its filmmaker, Waad al-Kateab, as she marries and gives birth to her daughter, Sama–all while living in Aleppo, Syria, as it is under intense attack. Her husband, a doctor, heroically continues to care for patients in increasingly grim settings. The camera doesn’t blink as wave upon wave of injured and dying people are brought to the hospital, as the city is destroyed, as people face the very worst conditions imaginable (and here, even unimaginable). But as hard as it is to watch, its unwavering portrayal is a challenge to one’s own response to current events. It takes the abstraction out of a far-away news story–and asks how we could have ever allowed ourselves to let it be an abstraction in the first place.

In my Dante class recently, I made the point that Dante’s imagining of hell is not so much about the afterlife as it is about imagining the real consequences of our sin now. It’s trying to show fallenness without any varnish or excuse. For Dante–lost on his life’s journey–he needs to understand just how bad things are so that he can begin to own his own culpability, to change, to reorient his disordered life. These three films fearlessly do much the same, calling us to unflinchingly witness some very hard things–but they also show what can be done when brave folks are willing to not only resolutely look but, more importantly, act.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

5 Comments

  • Ann Clark Carda says:

    I wonder if you would be willing to share your notes on how you lead the discussion on the film “For Sama”. I’m intrigued about doing the same for a group at my church called “Holy Seeing” where we engage the arts through the lens of faith. My email: acarda21@gmail.com

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Dawn Riley skippered the boat. The book about the original trip was “Taking the Helm.” The co-author is Cynthia Goss. She was baptized and raised in the Locust Valley Reformed Church. Cynthia is herself an accomplished world class sailor. Her maiden name is Flanagan. It was my privilege to be the pastor to her parents, Ed and Harriet. Cynthia and husband Ty are competitive sailors on LI Sound. Harriet Flanagan was a daughter of Rev. James Hoffman, a pastor in the RCA ( a graduate of Union TS.

  • James Schaap says:

    Let me just second the motion you’ve made about Unbelievable. It is not only a terrific story, it is also terrific television with unexpectedly complex characterization.

Leave a Reply