Quickfire round: American Murder: The Family Next Door

Despite its forgettable title (is it American Family: The Murder Nextdoor? Or America Nextdoor: The Family Murder? Neither!) this documentary uses incredible original footage to tell the chilling story of how, and why, Shannan Watts and her two children were cruelly murdered.

One person in this photo escaped death. Can you guess who it was?

I’ll start off by saying that this documentary shows how far we’ve come with technology in our society that it is able to tell the story in such a coherent manner with absolutely no voice-over and only first-hand footage (from police body cams and interview rooms, neighbours, news crews, text messages, and Shannan herself).

This method of telling the story makes it all the more terrifying. We start out with police body cam footage – after Shannan’s friend and colleague called the police, concerned for her whereabouts as she wasn’t responding to texts. The footage – otherwise entirely routine – immediately captures a scene of confusion and mystery as Shannan – and her two young children – are nowhere to be seen. Her phone is there and switched off, but the children’s blankets are gone. Her husband, Chris Watts, raced back from work at a remote oil well, and seems distracted as he speaks to officers about the last time he saw his wife alive and who – or where – she could have gone to.

Incredibly, the documentary also features Shannan herself. She was a prolific Facebook user, recording and posting footage of family moments almost daily. What a juxtaposition these happy videos of her and her husband are to the text messages she was exchanging with her friends and colleagues shortly before her death – telling a story of how her husband had become distant and uninterested in her.

I think I know what makes the documentary so gripping. The Facebook videos and text messages are all pre-death, of course. And the police footage is post-death. We therefore see the story unravel from two perspectives – Shannan’s, as she hurtles towards her murder, and the police, as they piece everything together. Everything is revealed in sync with each other – the text messages become more surreal and desperate as the police interviews become more dramatic and revealing. It’s great storytelling, if incredibly tragic.

If you like true crime, you absolutely don’t want to miss this.

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Quickfire Round: The Social Dilemma

I’m glad this documentary exists, as it’s made a lot of people wake up to the fact that massive social media companies like Facebook are hardly being generous by giving free access to their platform. Alas, corny acting prevents it reaching its full potential.

Haters gonna hate.

First, the good bits: this film presents first-hand accounts of how social media companies are engineering their platforms to maximise user engagement, putting the health and safety of their billions of users on the back burner as they compete to sell advertising spots. We hear about techniques such as A/B testing – tiny tweaks to the user experience, like moving the location of a button, are rolled out to a random selection of users to see whether it increased or decreased engagement.

Little nuggets of inside information and analysis like that are welcome – another example is Facebook’s photo tagging feature. Ever had an email like, ‘Emily tagged you in a photo on Facebook’? Notice how they don’t show you the photo in the email – you have to go onto the platform to see it. And while you’re there, you might as well check your notifications, and your news feed, and the latest group posts… you get the idea.

Okay, now the not-so-good. Firstly, the show entertains a little too much conspiracy for my liking. In some painfully acted live action scenes, we see ‘the algorithm’ represented by three Facebook engineers in a lab, watching their target’s life and deciding when to ping their phone to drag them into the platform and view an ad that they just sold for 3 cents. The thing is, Facebook does run instant auctions for advertisers to bid on an impression on a user’s Facebook feed. What they don’t do is literally spy on your actual life and ping you at the exact time it most benefits them. They just don’t.

The rest of the acted scenes are also pretty bad. I understand what they were trying to do with the part showing the teenage boy getting increasingly radicalised by far-right propaganda, enough to attend a rally and get arrested, but it didn’t hit deep enough and it just felt so weak as to be worthless.

Thankfully the takeaway from the film is something I can agree with: social media wasn’t invented to be evil, but evil it has become. Delete Facebook, the worst offender by far. If you need to, create a plain shell account to stay in touch with those who can’t be persuaded off the platform.

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What I thought about: [Un]Well

Bee sting therapy? Ingesting essential oils? Drinking breast milk? Water-only fasting? Sorry, hold up a minute, BEE STING THERAPY?! Alternative medicine – if it can be called medicine – is a booming industry. This series takes a look at some of the weirdest practices and see if any of them actually work.

Listen carefully while I make up some nonsense about what these oils can cure, and neglect to recommend that you speak to a doctor first..

What’s it about?
Each episode focuses on a different type of alternative medicine: essential oils, tantric sex, breast milk, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee venom. So yeah, some of these are pretty weird.

We hear from a number of people in respect of each treatment: desperate people who are looking for a cure to their ailments, the manufacturers / sellers / practitioners of the therapies, scientists who are vehemently opposed to the notion that any of them can be effective, and some scientists or doctors who, with a dose of caution, suggest there could in fact be some benefits.

I’ll answer some of your questions in advance. Yes, the bee dies after you get stung. No, you should probably not ingest essential oils. 99% is the percentage of Forever Living associates, who sell essential oils in an MLM scheme, who make only one dollar in commission. No, I did not watch the tantric sex episode.

What do I like about it?
It seems pretty balanced. I’m very sceptical of alternative therapies – and can you really blame me when some of them are distributed by literal pyramid schemes, that enrich the founder? Or when they’re peddled by a man who claims ‘we’re just as real as anyone else’ but then, in the same scene, looks at the camera with an incredibly creepy face and says ‘we consider ourselves a for-profit ministry’. This is essential oils we are talking about here!

But each episode provides anecdotal evidence from people who claim the therapy worked for them, as well as the journey of someone who hopes it will work for them (a chronic Lyme-disease sufferer heard that bee stings can cure her, and is desperate for a solution). It also balances this with studies and the views of medical professionals, some of whom outright deny the treatment’s efficacy (and/or warn about its risks) and some who try to explain a possible way in which the treatment may produce some kind of effect. I like these parts – if something unconventional actually works, I want to know why, and they can offer a bit of that.

What do I not like about it?
Nothing really, each episode is well done.

Worth a watch?
As long as you don’t hold me responsible for trying any of these things (in fact I suggest you DO NOT try any of these) then go right ahead, it’s interesting!

By the way…

  • Of course most of the people discovered this medicine on Facebook groups. Please do yourself a favour and delete Facebook before it’s too late.
  • BEE STING THERAPY?!

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Quickfire round: Speed Cubers

I caught this brief documentary on Netflix because it’s always fun to watch what people can do when they get nerdily obsessed with something – like solving a Rubik’s Cube. What I discovered, however, is that Speed Cubers is about something else entirely.

Feliks and Max together at a tournament – both clearly enjoying themselves

You see a documentary about people that solve Rubik’s Cubes really fast. So you watch it, thinking you’ll get some kind of history into the word records of solving them, known as cubing (participants are called cubers). Maybe it’ll explain the different world record categories, the little placemat you need to use to accurately record your time, or why they get an opportunity to inspect the cube before the timer starts running.

You don’t really get so much of that.

Instead, Speed Cubers is the story of an incredible friendship between two of the most successful cubers in history: Australian Feliks Zemdegs and Korean-American Max Park, who has autism.

We hear from the parents of both kids – Feliks became a national hit from a fairly young age and appeared on many an TV show in his native Australia. For Max, it was a different upbringing. Diagnosed at a young age with autism, Max struggles with communication and has the social skills of a person much younger than him. What Max really likes, however, is to solve a Rubik’s cube as fast as he can. When his parents discover this skill of his, it ends up having fantastic developmental benefits for Max. They take him to his first in-person tournament, and he does quite well. But his parents are less bothered about his speed cubing and more excited by the fact that this was the first public event they had taken Max to. And, according to his mother, he displayed traits that day that he had never displayed before, allowing him to develop those social skills that he lacked before.

Max is a really good cuber, and eventually beats most of Feliks’ records. Feliks isn’t salty, though. He in fact befriends Max and is always super supportive of him. They always hang out at the world championships (yes, this is a thing) and Feliks is regularly in touch with Max’s parents. He truly is a role model – not just to Max as a cuber, but to us all as a person.

So, in this 40-minute documentary you do get an insight into the world of speed cubing. But you also get so much more.

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What I thought about: Love on the Spectrum

Can people on the autism spectrum find love? Yes, of course, and for any doubters out there, this show sets out to prove it. Going much deeper than Channel 4’s The Undateables, this Australian series is awkward, endearing, funny, and genuine. Yeah, I shed a tear at the end.

This couple are adorable. Watch the final episode to get the waterworks going…

What’s it about?
Autism is a developmental disability that has different characteristics (hence the ‘spectrum’), but in one way or another makes it more difficult for autistic individuals to interact socially with non-autistic people, also known as neurotypicals. This can manifest itself in a particularly difficult way when it comes to dating. In this show we see problems in keeping the discussion going, an inability to process and understand social cues, and, occasionally, a complete mind-blank when things become too overwhelming for the individual.

The show goes deeper than just showing singletons on dates (although that does make up a lot of the show). We catch mini interviews with their parents, lessons from an autism behavioural expert who teaches them how to have a successful date, and there’s even coverage of two happy couples (all on the spectrum).

What do I like about it?
The show is better than The Undateables essentially because it goes deeper than just showing people on their dates. Viewers will gain a deeper understanding of autism because of it, which is important especially as it a disability that is often not immediately visible.

The show also covers differing sexual orientations, and also those with other disabilities (commonly deafness). Also, the parents of each of the show’s participants are truly adorable. None of them resent having a child with autism, and they’re all proud of how far their child has come from childhood (one parent tells the show that their child started out being non-verbal and having a tendency for violent outbursts. The grown up person we see featured on the show is talkative and caring).

What do I not like about it?
One good point I saw mentioned in another review of the show is that the people they dated were autistic, and all of the events they went to were specifically for disabled or autistic people. You do get a sense that there is some segregation, but one part of me feels as though it’s good to develop the social skills among people who better understand your own disability before trying it in the wider world.

Worth a watch?
Yes! This was an adorable series and it has one of the best since filming began… end credits scenes I have ever seen. You become really attached to the show’s participants by the end and you really want their love lives to succeed.

By the way…

  • Let me know your favourite participants – mine are Andrew and Maddi
  • The show was created and directed by Cian O’Clery, who is also the voice you hear asking the participants questions during interviews

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