The spotlight for the 14th annual DOXA Documentary Film Festival is “Satire and Subversion,” themes that programming director Dorothy Woodend and her team settled on in March after realizing the films they had chosen fit these narrower terms better than the broader “Humour” spotlight she had pitched in her grant applications a couple of years earlier. But all three themes run through this year’s eminently humane slate.
DOXA’s opening film is a classic example. Woodend chose it despite its prominence at other festivals because she believes in its crowd-pleasing potential. How to Change the World, Jerry Rothwell’s take on the origins of Greenpeace, premiered at Sundance and will also play at this year’s Hot Docs (see Adam Nayman’s article). Woodend feels it’s one of those films “where you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck going up,” plus it has built-in local appeal. “It’s footage of Vancouver that I’d never seen before, like when [early Greenpeace activists] come back from their first campaign against Russian whalers and everybody’s gathered on Spanish Banks to welcome them and they have this little concert,” she says. “It’s really interesting to think of the history of Vancouver as this hotbed of radical activism. It makes you proud of Vancouver in a way that you maybe haven’t felt for awhile.” (screens Thursday April 30, 7:00pm at Playhouse and Saturday May 2, 12:00pm at Vancity Theatre)
Where the humour comes in is more subjective. Woodend sees How to Change the World as of a piece with another spotlight gala, The Yes Men Are Revolting, directed by Laura Nix and the Yes Men. This doc, already featured at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, follows the latest antics of the two Americans who’ve made a (badly paid) career out of impersonating government and corporate stooges in their elaborately staged activist pranks. The gonzo nature of Greenpeace and the Yes Men is what will make people laugh, Woodend argues. “It’s like you’re going up against these insane institutions and all you have is this bunch of raggedy-ass hippies trying to change things,” she says. “And there’s just something so incredibly courageous and admirable about that. You’re laughing and crying at the same time ’cause it’s just so human.” (screens Wednesday May 6, 7:30pm at Playhouse)
Several films in the spotlight hide a darker edge under their satirical surface. In Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Jeanie Finlay chronicles the rise and fall of Jimmy Ellis, an Alabama singer who was blessed with a voice like Elvis’s. Two years after Elvis died, a producer decided to capitalize on this resemblance by having Ellis record and perform new songs as if he were Elvis, back from the grave. A phenomenon was born. “You go in thinking, Ha, here’s this masked Elvis impersonator with giant belt buckles and glittery capes and stuff,” Woodend says of the documentary. “But there’s terrible human suffering in the story despite those campy elements. It’s a really two-sided experience. You think it’s going to be one thing and it kind of flips on you mid-film.”
That “flip” is key to understanding what attracted Woodend and her team to some of the more confounding films in the spotlight. While How to Change the World and The Yes Men Are Revolting are about using satire and/or subversion as tools to speak truth to authority, both are classically assembled documentaries. They’re subversive in content, not form. In the past few years, though, Woodend has found herself increasingly drawn to documentaries that subvert audience expectations, as Orion does. And on a deeper level, she’s interested in films that subvert expectations of what a documentary should be. (screens Saturday May 2, 8:30pm and Saturday May 9, 2:30pm, both at Vancity Theatre)
For instance, there’s nothing satirical or subversive in the content of Hit 2 Pass, Vancouver’s Kurt Walker’s film about his journey with his friends to Prince George to take part in a demolition derby. It was the first documentary confirmed for the festival—and sure to be one of the more controversial. Except for one riveting interview with an Aboriginal local, the rest of the film is simply close-ups of car parts, derby footage and shots of Prince George. At times it verges on the alienatingly amateur, like when the friends give their camera to a kid who just swings it around.
It took Woodend a few viewings to come around to the film’s charm—something festival audiences may not make the time to do. “It’s one of those films where the first time I watched it I thought, “What are you doing?’” Woodend admits. “The more times I watched it, the more it grew on me. It almost flies to pieces—it’s right on the edge of just coming apart. And I think that’s its glory.”
Woodend admires the “gonzo sensibility” of Walker and his pals. (Sound familiar?) “They were making the film that they really wanted to make and going about it in a fairly free-form way,” she explains. “There’s a definite subversiveness in upending people’s expectations of what’s going on. [The film] becomes greater than the sum of its parts.” (screens Saturday May 9, 7:15pm at Vancity Theatre)
Another controversial choice is I Think You Are Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, a documentary about Seattle author David Shields’ cabin getaway with a former student who disagrees with everything Shields believes in. Their arguments about life and art have already been turned into a book, but for the documentary, the actor James Franco films them in split-screen, a format that works quite well to keep their conversation in focus. The bigger problem may be the pair’s implicit agreement that everything they have to say is fascinating.
Woodend says the film split her programming committee down the middle. Half liked it; half hated it. Regardless, DOXA is hosting its world premiere. Shields was a guest curator for DOXA in 2012, so Woodend has a familiarity with him and admires his work, especially his books extolling the creative non-fiction genre. “I think his approach is still kind of funny and interesting. I thought the film was actually quite funny,” she says.
Moreover, Woodend appreciates that “it’s a film that’s playing with form. I like things that you look at and go, ‘Um, what the hell is this?’—that aren’t presenting themselves in that conventional format that people have come to think of as a documentary. And documentary can be many, many different things, which is Shields’ whole point in his non-fiction work: that it encompasses a broad spectrum of formats.”
Woodend has faith DOXA audiences will respond positively to these docs, citing the great reception the experimental Swedish film The Reunion got last year despite her fears some would question whether that self-reflexive work even qualifies as a documentary. (screens Sunday May 3, 6:30pm at Vancity Theatre)
Outside of the spotlight, there’s plenty for audiences to engage with in a more conventional way. Two hot-button documentaries echo the buzziest Hollywood releases of the year so far. The Ceremony, novice filmmaker Lina Mannheimer’s artful peek inside the lives of 84-year-old Catherine Robbe-Grillet and her coterie of French dominatrices, flips Fifty Shades of Grey on its head and shows how empty that head is. Mannheimer films the BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) “ceremonies” in Robbe-Grillet’s chateau from an elegant, controlled distance, yet the interview segments are breathtakingly intimate and insightful. It’s all a very sober affair, but Woodend flirted with the idea of putting the film in the spotlight thanks to its more outré moments. “There’s one scene where [the dominatrices] have these hairy, macho dudes and they make them dash around like chickens. It’s hard not to want to laugh. There’s an element of humour even though everyone’s really serious about what they’re doing. Maybe that’s why it’s funny? Or maybe we’re just immature. I don’t know,” Woodend laughs. (screens Thursday May 7, 9:15pm and Friday May 8, 3:00pm – both at Vancity Theatre)
Another French documentary, Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War, puts American Sniper to shame with its sensitive exploration of how American veterans of the Iraq war deal with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Fascinating revelations abound in the group therapy sessions: there’s more drama in one traumatized vet’s retelling of a child’s death he heard about second-hand than in American Sniper’s entire body count.
And yet, there’s a controlled distance to Bécue-Renard’s filmmaking, too. Woodend believes his cross-cultural perspective serves the film’s subjects well. “When you first look at Of Men and War, you wouldn’t think it’s necessarily a French film because it’s so much about America,” Woodend says. “I think there’s a certain remove in that story … that comes directly from Laurent himself, because he’s not part of that culture. He didn’t have that kind of emotional gut reaction to their stories, so he was able to give them space.” (screens Friday May 8, 6:00pm at Vancity Theatre)
Of Men and War was selected by guest curator Thierry Garrel as part of his spotlight on seven new French documentaries in the French/ French program. The other guest curator is Yaxuan Zhang, who’s showcasing five films in the Wild Grass: New Chinese Documentaries program, including Li Wen at East Lake by Canada-based Chinese filmmaker Luo Li. The theme of subversion runs through these programs too. “You see it in the Chinese films especially, because they’re so much about the reaction people [in China] are having towards modernity and urbanism and the destruction of the environment,” Woodend notes. “They’re really angry but they can’t come out and say it directly so they say it obliquely.”
A highlight of this year’s Justice Forum program is the harrowing Tell Spring Not to Come This Year —Woodend’s personal favourite film of the festival. Co-directors Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy embedded themselves within an Afghan national army unit battling the Taliban after NATO troops withdrew from the country in 2013. It’s a combat documentary, but Woodend calls it “a poem as much as a film. You get such a close-up and intimate relationship with this group of soldiers.” (screens Friday May 8, 6:00pm at Cinematheque)
And ultimately, intimacy is the greater theme of this year’s festival. Woodend has a deep affection for all the subjects of the documentaries selected, whether it’s the “raggedy-ass hippies” who are trying to change the world or the soldiers who are trying to survive in it. And that’s definitely by design. The programming committee’s choice to focus on humour came as a result of noticing the glut of documentaries about stand-up comedians in the past few years, including one that screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that Woodend claims is “the least funny film about a stand-up comedian that I’ve ever seen.” (She declines to mention its title as she feels sorry for the comedian.) However, DOXA’s final slate this year may have been chosen more in reaction to a decidedly unfunny documentary about a small-town conflict that’s currently on the festival circuit.
“I hated that film,” Woodend says, again declining to name it as she doesn’t want to offend the festivals screening it. “I hated it because it was sensationalized and it smacked of reality TV and it was stupid…Ultimately you don’t have sympathy for anyone. And it just made me think, you know, documentary is better than that. It’s better than just watching idiots be idiots. There’s enough of that on reality TV. I don’t think it lends anything in terms of making you feel better about the human condition.”
In Woodend’s view, documentary can be “the highest form of culture. It’s not frightening. It’s not inaccessible—it’s completely accessible. I just don’t want people to think that documentary should be these cheap, stupid stories. It should be great stories. It should be profound stories.” And if those stories make you laugh and cry and occasionally wonder what the hell is going on, all the better.
More DOXA 2015 films featured in POV:
On The Trail of the Far Fur Country (Saturday May 2, 7:00pm at Cinematheque)
Seth’s Dominion (Friday May 1, 7:00pm at Cinematheque and Monday May 4, 3:30pm at Vancity Theatre)
Sugar Coated (Monday May 4, 12:30pm and Tuesday May 5, 6:00pm, both at Vancity Theatre)
Deep Web (Sunday May 3, 5:45pm at Cinematheque)
Guidelines (Friday May 8, 8:45pm at Cinematheque)