Focus on Festivals

Always Something New at Festival du Nouveau Cinema

Report on Docs from Montreal

Ninth Floor
Courtesy of the NFB.

Montreal’s 44th Festival du Nouveau Cinema, which took place from October 7th to 18th, screened 152 feature films, with only 29 of them documentaries. Ten of the feature documentaries claimed Canada, at least partially, as their country of origin. There were no award categories for documentary films and none received any.

Of the films POV saw, a major success was Mina Shum’s documentary thriller, Ninth Floor, which chronicles the 1969 Black student protests at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (which later merged with Loyola College into Concordia University.) The film had a strong resonance with the local audience that was especially enhanced as it was screened, in collaboration with Cinema Politica, at Concordia. For more on the film, see our previous coverage here. [ Read more on Ninth Floor here. ]

This year FNC held an in-depth retrospective of the movies of photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank. The Swiss-born Frank moved to New York in 1946 at the age of 22 and soon established himself both as a professional photographer and an active participant in the Beat movement. The retrospective featured 20 short films, including Pull My Daisy, which stars Beat icons Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and was narrated by Jack Kerouac, as well as two of his feature films C’est Vrai and Candy Mountain. Also screened was a new documentary, Don’t BlinkRobert Frank, by Laura Israel, his long time film editor, as well as editor of music videos, including ones for Lou Reed, Keith Richards, David Byrne, and Patti Smith. Israel approached the doc with Frank’s own sort of free-jazz style of filmmaking, frenetically splicing together interviews she filmed, vintage interviews with Frank and friends, clips of his films, and of course a trunk load of his still photographs. Yet there is a structure that clearly carries us through both Frank’s work and life story, touching on everything from his apprenticeship under Walker Evans through the deaths of both his son and daughter. However, it never takes a breath to explore any of these moments long enough. We also get to watch Frank mellow over the years from angry young curmudgeon to cuddly old curmudgeon. The film is set to a rock ‘n’ roll beat, overseen by iconic music producer Hal Wilner, with tracks from Bob Dylan to the Mekons.

Never Release My Fist

Speaking of rock ‘n’ roll, until someone comes up with a better way of expressing teen angst, rock ‘n’ roll is probably here to stay; and punk rock is certainly its most distilled expression. Shui-Bo Wang, whose 1999 documentary short Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square was nominated for an Oscar, offers up an interesting look at China’s (and specifically the city of Wuhan’s) punk rock scene in Never Release My Fist. Like punk rock in the West, China’s revolutionary music started taking place in an industrial working class city, Wuhan, where a group of disillusioned teens in the late 1990s found solace and a voice after discovering cassette tapes of bands like Nirvana and The Clash. Again, as kids around the world have, they were inspired to pick up instruments themselves and form bands. The “star” of the film is Wu Wei, who formed perhaps the first punk band in Wuhan, named SMZB. Wu is no poser of punk fashion. He completely lives the punk aesthetic. Wu lives on the edge of society, been censored by the government and has given up playing on and off, but cannot seem to escape his need to express himself musically. The film follows his tale from dropping out of school to the present.

Wang’s doc also tries to include other Wuhan punk musicians’ stories, many of whom were either inspired by or at one point played with SMZB. The film’s editing has a DIY feel, which is in tune with the material, but begs for more structure as it wanders away from Wu to explore some of the other musicians, then back to Wu–more than a few times. These other musicians may have interesting stories but they are almost used as b-roll to avoid focusing entirely on Wu. Still, the film serves as a good primer for those interested in learning about the Chinese punk scene, and offers insights into a generation of Chinese youths for whom the new China isn’t exactly the social utopia the government would have outsiders believe it to be.

The Birth of Sake

Moving from China to Japan, a country so often depicted as obsessed with technology, robots, and machines, Erik Shirai’s first feature documentary The Birth of Sake takes us behind the scenes at the 144-year-old family run Tedorigawa Brewery (also known as the Yoshida Brewery) in Japan’s Ishikawa prefecture. There, they make sake the old-fashioned way, working with some machinery, but mostly by hand and manual labour. The workers spend six months of the year away from their families, living and working together at the brewery. The film takes its time, though time passes quickly nevertheless, as Shirai follows the lengthy process from grain to alcohol. But following the process is only half of the film. Shirai lucked out in that the factory workers are an interestingly diverse cast of characters. Their ages range from 20 to 70, and Shirai allows several to have their own arias, and not just by singing karaoke while at work. The men let us into their homes and lives during the other six months when they are relieved from their sake making duties. His two main characters are 68-year-old Teruyuki, the brewmaster, who spouts pearls of wisdom such as the inspiration for the film’s title, comparing sake-making to raising a child; and Yachan, the 28-year-old son of the owner. Over the course of the film, we come to understand that Yachan has a stronger relationship with Teruyuki than with his own father. In fact, he has dedicated himself to being the next brewmaster as well as becoming the factory’s next owner.

The cinematography is first rate, not surprisingly as the New York-based Shirai spent five years as camera operator on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Layover series. Here’s a guy who’s had some experience shooting food. Shirai took the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. A special shout-out should also be given to Ken Kaizu for his excellent original music, which enhances this flavourful doc.

Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang

There was a moment, about a quarter the way into Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang, when I questioned whether I was actually watching a “real” documentary. It must be celebrity impersonators, I thought. But I remembered reading in the news that this absurd event actually took place. I stepped away from the film and ran a quick Internet search.

Nope, I was wrong. It was really NBA Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman and Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jung-Un, and what I was watching was a real documentary. British Producer/Director Colin Offland, in his first feature documentary, managed to talk his way in to making this film and somehow was allowed access not just to Rodman organising a match between some of North Korea’s best athletes and a group of aging ex-pro US basketball players ostensibly in the name of “sports diplomacy,” but was there to capture Rodman’s descent into alcoholism (brought on by all the negative media attention to his plan), while still managing to pull the crazy thing off. Narrated by Matt Cooper, the story is presented as almost a naïve spoof of 1960’s sports documentaries, alternating between snark and sincerity. The film really finds its groove during Rodman’s flight to China where he’s hounded by photographers, journalists, and tourists with cameras in a montage sequence edited to Patti Smith’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

The whole sideshow grows more and more absurd, including a “Nerd-of-the-Year Nominee” American karaoke singing college science professor who unbelievably wheedles his way into Rodman’s inner circle based on his somewhat disturbing interest in North Korea. Again, I found myself thinking, “This can’t be real.” But as an emotionally unstable and drunk Rodman embarrasses himself at an official dinner in front of his teammates and government dignitaries, the humor turns to tragedy. Because, well, you’re kind of rooting for the guy, even if he thinks he’s drinking buddies with one of the most despotic leaders on the planet, and is probably only being used by the North Koreans as a propaganda opportunity. Or are Kim Jung-Un and Rodman really BFFs? And one day could we actually look back at this as a first step towards some kind of new diplomacy with North Korea? The film leaves us to figure all that out on our own.

Heart of a Dog

“The purpose of death is the release of love.” This message is one of many which artist/musician/[insert a few other disciplines] Laurie Anderson flings at us in her sea-floating bottle of a film, Heart of a Dog. Another she passes on from her Buddhist teacher, Yonge Mingur Rinpoche, who suggests we should try “feeling sad without being sad.” In only 75 minutes, Anderson delivers such meditative thoughts with a slyly humorous tone, while entrancing viewers both visually and aurally from the get go. But there is also a bit of slight of hand going on here. While the focus of her extended essay is the death of her rat terrier Lolabelle and occasionally of her mother (which was also a theme of her 2010 performance piece Delusion), there is a third death, unspoken of in the film-–that of her husband, singer/songwriter Lou Reed. While Anderson never mentions him once in the film, he makes two ghostly appearances. The first is an unrecognizable turn as a doctor in one of her flashback sequences, filmed before his death. The second is at the very end, when we hear him sing “Turning Time Around” over the closing credits. The clue comes when Anderson quotes David Foster Wallace: “Every love story is a ghost story.” And one cannot view the film without feeling Reed’s ghostly presence in the flicker between every frame, hiding behind Anderson’s musings.

The one element that doesn’t really work is Anderson’s introduction of 9/11 and its aftermath of homeland security and government surveillance. It plays a role in the first half but disappears in the second, and one keeps expecting/hoping it to circle back; somehow connecting it to the larger story or theme. But it doesn’t. And while it’s obviously on her mind, it sits in the film like a digression she abandoned in mid-thought, leaving us wanting her to return and finish it. Technical details are superb with a mix of HD footage, Super 8mm, animation, and drawings. And, of course, original music by Anderson herself.

Ron Deutsch has written for many publications including Documentary Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.

View all articles by Ron Deutsch »