Vancouver’s DOXA Festival distinguishes itself on the international stage by sourcing some of the world’s most unusual documentaries. These are films that defy expectations, that are “a little more off the beaten track,” says Dorothy Woodend, the festival’s programming director.
“We want to show films that traverse a lot of different boundaries, not just in terms of the subject matter but also how it’s presented,” adds Woodend. “So, we show a lot of hybrid docs, films that make people go, ‘Wait a minute—is this a documentary?’ It’s exciting to have access to films that are on the fringe.”
Woodend certainly didn’t hold back in selecting a gutsy genrebender to open DOXA. Métis director and writer Marie Clements’ The Road Forward is a musical documentary. No, not a film about music or musicians. Remember Jesus Christ Superstar? Just as those actors break out in song after song to tell the story of the last week of Jesus, The Road Forward features a large cast of Indigenous singers and musicians performing tunes that recount the history of the Indigenous civil rights movement of the past half-century. The first anthem starts where it all began, inside the West Vancouver office of Canada’s first Indigenous newspaper, The Native Voice, circa 1960s. Typewriters click a beat that gets stronger as more reporters join in. A writer begins to sing, while the news team adds the harmonies—the lyrics are about hard fights for treaty rights. The paper’s publisher, the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood of British Columbia, was a leader of the advocacy movement, and, after the song, elder members recall old victories and dissect current grievances, which naturally inspire more musical numbers.
It’s an ambitious work that has been years in the making. The first iteration, a nine-minute live performance, blew away audiences at Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics. The strong reaction inspired Clements to develop a full-length theatrical piece. After a sold-out workshop production in 2013, the show evolved again into a 19-song multimedia work performed by an 11-piece ensemble, which premiered at Vancouver’s 2015 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“We sold out every single time our people went on stage,” says Clements. “After every show, it was like an explosion: people stood up, clapping and shouting and crying. There was always this energy. So, we thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if more people could see this?” Clements pitched a feature documentary concept to the NFB, which came on board as producer. Transforming the work yet again allowed Clements to deepen her creation, to give voice to the important headlines, archival photographs and film footage that appear on a large-screen montage behind the performers during the live show.
“To really experience and to understand [that] this history is ours, and to see the grace and civility of these Aboriginal change-makers, you think, wow, I wish I was able to see this when I was 11 or 12, you know? It might have changed some things,” says Clements.
Prior to making The Road Forward, Clements’ artistic career focused on the stage—first as a performer, and then, “wishing for deeper roles that represented the way I felt about the world,” as a writer. She has penned more than a dozen plays, including Copper Thunderbird, about Norval Morrisseau, and The Edward Curtis Project.
“What I love about filming is that it is similar to walking out on a stage,” Clements says. “There’s no going back…When you’re ready to shoot—and no matter what your budget or your timing, you never have enough of either—there’s that similar kind of immediate energy We’re going in and we’re going to get this.”
While the build-up to The Road Forward took nearly a decade, filmmaker Charles Wilkinson capitalised on the moment to make a film about Vancouver’s wild housing market. As the director was wrapping his beautiful and important film, Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World (winner of Hot Docs’ Best Canadian Feature award in 2015), Vancouver’s boom was turning into a crisis of affordability. Even while shooting No Fixed Address, home prices increased by 40 percent.
Everyone was talking about it; everyone had a different opinion. Why was it happening? Was it a bubble? How can it be controlled?
“It became absolutely necessary to show people what’s at stake,” says Wilkinson, on the phone from an editing suite, where he is finalising the film’s music. “Because what’s at stake is the most beautiful city in the world, and it’s becoming less beautiful every day.” And the reason “is straightforward: our housing market has been turned into a commodities market and less fortunate people are paying the price.”
Wilkinson’s film, produced with partner Tina Schliessler, covers a lot of ground as it supports this premise. A favourite character lives in his van. “Life’s a money game,” the old pensioner says. Five adults share a cramped East Van bungalow. An urban gardener worries she won’t be able to have children because, she says, “I can’t even fathom the cost of space for that.” Then there’s the Asian woman lounging by the pool of her mansion who says that for her and her immigrant friends, Vancouver’s unpolluted air was the allure. Experts and players like Condo King Bob Rennie, Seth Klein of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, journalists Sam Cooper and many others tackle aspects of the phenomenon laid out in one of Cooper’s headlines: “Nearly half of Vancouver’s most expensive homes are secretly owned, raising fears of money laundering.”
The film points at China but doesn’t wag a finger. It was a perfect storm of events that saw Chinese offshore investment transform Vancouver’s condos into “stocks in the sky.” After the 2007 global crash, the Chinese government printed money to revive its economy. By 2015, China’s money supply quadrupled. With threats of bubbles and currency deflation, people sought to get money out and into hard assets. That year, a record $1 trillion left China. And home prices in Vancouver hit a peak.
The radical shift of the city from a place for human settlement to a commodity sold on the global market sees Vancouver, post forestry and fishing, regarded once again as a manufacturing city. “We manufacture condos. They are for export. But they just stay here,” says the journalist Sandy Garossino.
Vancouver is usually easy on the eyes, but another reason No Fixed Address looks beautiful is because Wilkinson spent 30 years working in television drama and feature films before turning to documentaries, and he brings a rich cinematic aesthetic to his nonfiction work. Even as the film exposes heartbreaking scenes of the Downtown Eastside and makes clear that the skyline is composed of “stacked safety deposit boxes, ” you still want to move there. His camera loves the sunset’s golden glow on beaches, the peace of sailboats. Construction sites look like abstract paintings. “My worldview through films, not just my own, but the films I love and respect, is that the world is a terrible and beautiful place simultaneously,” says Wilkinson. “Roses grow on a dung heap. For everything horrible, there’s an opposite.”
Carmen Pollard’s For Dear Life finds beauty in what should be appalling: Her camera follows one of her best friends to his death. It’s a sensitive, graceful work of art that’s funny, gripping, amazing and ultimately a tremendous gift for viewers.
The director grew up with her close cousin James Pollard, who since high school worked in theatre with many Vancouver companies “He saw the world through theatre,” says Pollard. “Life was a performance for him. And dying became his final act.”
Diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009 and given six months to live, James lived for seven years, finally succumbing in May 2016.
He is witty and upbeat when we first meet him at his coffin sizing. We learn that he will preserve his body in clay, just in case scientists ever want to know the effects on a body of cancer treatments, of which he’s had plenty. Many moments of lightness and sarcastic humour take place as James lines up his death logistics before he actually closes in on death. Then his body goes into full shut-down mode, he morphs within six months into something unrecognisable—and the drama of it is riveting. Dying carries weight like nothing else.
James’s journey is “a story about the language of death, or the lack of language,” says Pollard. But the film is also about the art of dying. “I hope it inspires conversation and helps de-stigmatise the dying process. And beyond that, I’d love for it to inspire people to find their own art in dying. James showed us that it is part of our living experience and [told us] not to be as afraid of it.”
James is a loveable character, but his two young adult children—their reserve so different from his expansiveness—also fascinate. “One thing that’s interesting is they’re of the generation that is not as concerned with being filmed,” says Pollard. And besides, “they already felt like they were acting, or that they were supposed to act a certain way around their father’s dying process. But they didn’t actually know how to act. They were navigating that constantly. That’s why I feel that telling the story and shifting our whole relationship with death is so important.”
For Dear Life is told with a grace that attests to Pollard’s storytelling skill, which she has honed as an editor of many feature documentaries and projects, including Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor (2015) and Dirt (2008), for which she won a Leo for best editing.
“I love the magic that happens in the editing room,” says Pollard, who edited (and shot) For Dear Life. “There’s this euphoric moment when you go from feeling like pulling your hair out to seeing it come together, and it’s indescribable. And I’m addicted to that experience. So, obviously I’m going to keep editing.”
Pollard edited four years of footage to make For Dear Life and admits that “there were times during the process of making the film [when] I questioned whether it was a good idea to shine a light on such a difficult journey for our family. But our job as documentarians is to question and explore and go in deep as you can, to completely immerse yourself in a subject.” And James repeatedly made it clear to her that he wanted to share the story. “Death is messy and terrifying, so we turn away from it. James wanted to ask people to embrace what he, and inevitably all of us, will one day face.”
One of the weirder documentaries at DOXA is the closing film, Manifesto. German filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt’s experimental art piece may not have made much of a splash outside art galleries were it not for its star, Cate Blanchett, but with the Oscar-winning actress playing 13 characters, each espousing the tenets of a different art movement (Fluxus, Dadaism, and more), the film premiered at Sundance and garnered good reviews. “It’s pretty cool,” affirms Woodend. “One of her texts is the Dogme 95 film manifesto, which she delivers in the guise of an elementary school teacher to her class.”
Manifesto is part of the fest’s annual Spotlight feature, a collection of films with a common theme. For 2017, Woodend determined it needed to be Troublemakers. 10 films here mess with the status quo by celebrating deviance in craft, subject or both. In addition, the legendary French producer Thierry Garrel guest-curates a selection of six new documentaries from France as well as a retrospective of the influential documentarian Chris Marker. This year’s DOXA runs from May 4 to 14.
Visit DOXAfestival.ca for more information on this year’s festival.