Focus on Festivals

7 Female-Directed Docs to See at VIFF 2015

New films from Chelsea McMullan, Phyllis Ellis, Ondi Timoner and more

Fully one-third of the 200-plus features that the Vancouver International Film Festival presents every year are non-fiction. Wondering where to start? Here are 7 female-directed films to get you started.

All Eyes and Ears
Vanessa Hope’s debut feature weaves political punditry with the stories of three people situated on the see-saw of contemporary American-Chinese relations: the U.S. Ambassador to China, his adopted Chinese daughter, and a blind Chinese activist under house arrest. She fails to follow up on a few of their more provocative statements, but the trio still offers humane illustrations of the pundits’ points. As director of programming Alan Franey observes, the doc is “like reading several books on modern China and its place in the world and listening to a lot of very smart people to get a coherent, balanced picture of the pros of Chinese prosperity and rapid development, and then the dangers.”


Brand: A Second Coming
Comedian-turned-activist Russell Brand got cold feet after participating in this documentary by VIFF regular Ondi Timoner and made his own doc with Michael Winterbottom. But Timoner’s take is something special: a frank, fast-moving look at how Brand’s working class British upbringing, drug use and Hollywood experiences led to his mission to inspire a revolution against current systems of government. “A lot of people attending the film will just want to see Russell Brand and what he’s up to,” says Franey. “But to us there’s also the crossover with our theme of inequality. That’s something we’re wearing front and centre this year.”


Circus Without Borders: The Story of Artcirq and Kalabante
Susan Gray’s slower-paced doc travels from Nunavut to the Republic of Guinea, where two groups of acrobats have found common ground. Some of the circus stuff feels flat, but once the film starts exploring the groups’ emotional differences—the community spirit despite the suicides in Nunavut and the drive to escape Guinea—it really takes off. VIFF programmer PoChu AuYeung notes that “while the film doesn’t shy away from the challenges of poverty, unemployment and drug addiction the youth face in these communities, it offers a hopeful glimpse of how art and movement can transform their lives and build their self-respect, especially given the dedication of their mentors, both of whom are very endearing.”


A Dog’s Life/Chienne de vie
Hélène Choquette’s a VIFF novice, despite being a prolific filmmaker in her native Quebec. She has four TV documentaries up for Prix Gémeaux this year. A Dog’s Life offers a glimpse into the daily grind of homeless people in Montreal and Toronto—one that’s bearable only because of their dogs. As Choquette points out in a brief email interview: “The majority of us have a natural empathy for dogs. It’s not the same with the homeless. Many homeless people would tell you that most bystanders worry more for the dog’s condition than for its master.” A Dog’s Life is her sensitive yet unsentimental corrective to that.


Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John
Chelsea McMullan’s last film, My Prairie Home, was awarded Best Canadian Documentary by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Her latest looks at two sets of siblings named Michael and Shannon on different sides of the planet as they deal with the death of their deadbeat dad. He’s not as interesting as she might’ve hoped; however, VIFF’s Canadian programmer Terry McEvoy believes that “through eerie music, unsettling montages of Thailand’s night life and comments from the participants, McMullan and her collaborators create a subtly condemning and creepy portrait of foreigners doing bad things in far parts of the world.” He’s right—it’s an intoxicating ride.


Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven
Phyllis Ellis follows three art lovers’ trek into Algonquin Park to photograph the sites where the Group of Seven’s works were painted. She also re-creates, in an earnest, old-timey style, the painters’ treks too. Non–art lovers might find this doc as dull as watching paint dry, but there’ll be no denying the beauty of the landscapes on the big screen. McEvoy gushes, “The cinematography’s fantastic. It’s just an extremely well done documentary that’s important for Canadians and students of art.”


Very Semi-Serious
Again, it helps to be a fan of the subject of this documentary. Leah Wolchok crafts rich portraits of New Yorker cartoonists, veteran and aspiring, while focusing on their editor’s evolving approach. Even if you find the cartoons twee, the people behind them most definitely aren’t. Franey says the film made him “think about human nature and the value of comedy as a tonic in our lives, philosophically.” Very Semi-Serious is part of VIFF’s spotlight on films about comedy this year.

The 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival runs September 24-October 9, 2015. For more on the documentary selections at this year’s festival, click here.