Ottawa’s Mirror Mountain Film Festival, which offers the best in independent and alternative programming, returns for its third season this weekend and includes a mix of diverse docs. The festival includes the feature documentary selection The Reindeer Keepers about Sami reindeer guardians, but POV is eager to spotlight the short docs package True Stories that closes out the fest. (Both doc screenings happen on Sunday, Dec. 3, so one might as well make a day of it.) We’ve included a few of the films that are publically available in this review so that doc fans outside the 613 can see what they’re missing and pencil in the show for next year.
MMFF features a healthy range of local, Canadian, and international programming, and the True Stories line-up is no exception. On the local front, MMFF offers La Relève, directed by Mathieu St-Pierre, about a young woman named Jessica who plans to uphold the family tradition of working on the farm. Jessica explains in this slice-of-life doc that she doesn’t feel odd being the only one of her three siblings who wishes to stay on the farm and keep up the demanding job. The film observes Jessica relishing about her daily duties, like milking the cows and cleaning up after them, while she speaks to the laid-back pleasures of a lifestyle that, admittedly, sounds a lot more appealing than being tethered to electronic devices 24/7. La Relève comes from the class of Digi 60, one of the many (many) short film competitions that typify the Ottawa film scene, but it’s one of the better documentaries from the field since it simply finds a good character, a worthwhile story, and an easygoing manner of conveying the two. This doc is a personable tale of finding the best fit for oneself in life without any hesitation.
A highlight of the line-up is the American doc The Collection directed by Adam Roffman, which debuted at SXSW earlier this year. The doc probably has producers of the reality show Storage Wars kicking themselves for not getting this find on tape, since Roffman travels to Omaha, Nebraska to chronicle the story of an amazing rare discovery: boxes upon boxes of wooden blocks used to make vintage movie advertisements for newspapers. The collection is valued at several million dollars. Roffman interviews collectors DJ Ginsberg and Marilyn Wagner as they restore the wooden blocks and ready them for sale, and the film takes in a lost art of film advertising that drew upon the imagination before celebrity stills and Photoshop sold movies to the masses. Inky blocks for films like 8 ½, Casablanca, Bambi, The Godfather, and Dirty Harry provide time capsules of film history as the doc presents a treasure trove of items that belong in a museum. The real gold, however, is the infectious cinephilia that endures in Ginsberg and Wagner. We’d love to see this short on a double bill with Dawson City: Frozen Time in celebration of those who preserve film history!
MMFF also includes a trio of notable Indigenous tales in True Stories beginning with Kibidendamoyiin (Letting Go), directed by Jaimie Wawatie and produced by Wapikoni Mobile. This moving film offers a cathartic story of mourning and celebrating life as the director films a family while they say goodbye to their dearly departed father. Wawatie’s intimate film shows the ritual of removal all physical possessions of the deceased from a home so that his spirit may be set free, but the poignant doc finds the difficulty of letting go when the father put so much of himself into crafting the perfect home for his family. It’s a smart, observant, and respectful work.
The Australian doc Wirridiji by Tamara Whyte similarly shows a dutiful effort to let communities tell their stories in their own words as she tours the outstation of Malnyangarnak with ranger Otto Campion Bulmaniya. The Rembarrnga-speaking guide explains the tempestuous storms altering the landscape through a folk tale of duelling snakes. The story offers an effective decolonial morale for climate change.
The highlight of True Stories, however, is arguably Smoke that Travels, a powerful work by remarkable newcomer Kayla Briët that shares the language and history of the members of the Prairie Band Potawatomi. Briet, an 18-year-old wunderkind, is a most impressive force behind the camera having shot, edited, and scored the film in addition to directing it. The young filmmaker shows a strong visual sense by drawing upon powerful shape-shifting images of dance and storytelling that flow hypnotically from introspective narratives to evocative shots of her father, Gary Wiskigeamatyuk, sharing rituals known only by a few remaining people. Briët draws upon traditions of oral storytelling to have her father share the language (of which fewer than ten speakers remain) and the history of their people as she records it for the camera, ensuring the survival of a cultural that has all but been wiped out by colonialism. As the filmmaker works closely with her father to preserve a culture with hope for its survival, Smoke That Travels offers a powerful act of resilience and Briët proves herself a talent to watch.
Mirror Mountain Film Festival runs Dec. 1-3 in Ottawa.