This year marked the 39th edition of the Montreal World Film Festival (Festival des Films du Monde). The festival screened over 270 feature films this year. Of those, 44 were feature-length documentaries, with five from Canadian filmmakers.
For some years now, the festival has been accused of being lackluster or worse. Last year, the Quebec government agency SODEC (the Society for the Development of Cultural Enterprises) withdrew funding for the festival, which turned into a public spat between the two sides. This year, tensions broke out during the festival with employees going public over problems getting paid.
Montreal mayor Denis Coderre even weighed in on the eve of this year’s festival stating he feels it’s past time for a regime change. Speaking of festival founder and director Serge Losique, Coderre said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette “I have respect for him, but at some point we have to call a spade a spade,” adding, “I’m ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the festival next year, but is it going to be the end of something or the beginning of something?”
With all that said, here’s a look at some of the documentaries featured.
First up is Brad Rothschild & Jon Reiner’s Tree Man, which takes us backstage for the annual migration of Christmas tree salesmen who come and set up along the streets of New York City. Its main character is the Québécois “François, the Tree Man,” who has made the drive south for the last decade to help the city dwellers fulfill their yuletide dreams. However, once they establish François’ and his employees’ day-to-day routine, the filmmakers smartly introduce us to other tree salesmen (and salesladies), as well as some of François’ regular customers (including CNN’s Fareed Zakaria) to make up for a lack of story. Several questions go unanswered which would have added to the film. Such as, while we learn the majority of tree sellers come from Quebec-–Why? How did this migration from Canada begin and how did it become so ubiquitous? (P.S. – the trees come from North Carolina!)
One vendor tells us she rents an apartment for the month with 16 other tree sellers, which begged for a visit there. Issues of class, and the financial hardships of the sellers in contrast with the wealth and comfort of the buyers, pokes its head up throughout the film, but the filmmakers quickly avert our attention for yet another heart-warming scene. And finally, we never learn what François does for the other ten and a half months of the year. Still, it’s hard not to walk away from the film without a twinkle of Christmas cheer, looking forward to perhaps one’s own annual ritual of tree shopping, and an appreciation of the tree seller’s life.
Staying on the subject of class and financial struggle in the Big Apple, Homme Less, the first feature documentary from Austrian Thomas Wirthensohn, paints a portrait of part time fashion photographer, part time actor (he’s in Men in Black 3), and full time homeless resident of New York Mark Raey. Even a decade ago, a guy like Raey could have eked out a living and afford a roof over his head but not anymore. The film, which took the Grand Jury prize atDOC/NYC this year, covers a period of two years in life of the handsome, well-dressed Raey, who is in his early fifties. (It’s easy to imagine Ted Danson playing Raey in the Hollywood version). If you met him, you would never guess he sleeps in an alcove of a brownstone rooftop, sheltered by tarps. Wirthensohn has been friends with Raey since they were both models, and we’d never get such an intimate picture if they hadn’t been. At times, it’s like Raey’s got the world on a string, but we also see him treading in a pool of despair. Raey defies our preconceptions of homelessness in America today, but like so many of the homeless, he tries to get through the day with dignity and hope. As Raey says of his life philosophy: “Follow your bliss, but be prepared to live your nightmare!” Beautifully photographed by Wirthensohn, the city itself becomes a living character in the story.
Next, we turn to Cuba for two tributes to two very different musicians.
Ernesto Lecuona is perhaps the greatest Cuban pianist/composer, certainly of the first half of the 20th century. Cuban Pavel Giroud and Spanish Juan Manuel Villar Betancort pay tribute to his works in their joint project, Playing Lecuona. The film brings together (though each in different locations) three modern pianists influenced by Lecuona – Cuba’s Chucho Valdés (performing in Cuba), Gonzalo Rubalcaba (playing in Spain), and Dominican Michael Camino (in both New York and the Canary Islands, places where Lecuona lived after leaving Cuba). The performances are generally solid, often with guest stars including Spanish Flamenco guitarist Raimundo Amador and Cuban diva Omara Portuondo. But between the music, there’s not much going on.
The keyboardists discuss their love of Lecuona, but the filmmakers don’t seem to be interested in sharing much information about Lecuona himself, so you best read up and become familiar with his most well known pieces. And this is the film’s greatest failing. Most of the musicians are doing interpretations of the master’s compositions, but without giving even a taste of the originals, being able to appreciate what they are interpreting is lost. Adding to that, the filmmakers neglect to offer both titles of songs as they are played, nor who the guest performers are, again assuming we are in the know. But for nothing else, see it for the show-stopping Valdés’ and Portuondo’s duet of “Siempre en Mi Corazón” (which I had to Shazam get the song title on my phone while viewing the film).
Most people when thinking about Cuban music have artists like Valdés and Portuondo in mind, but may not know there’s a pop/rock tradition as well. The Poet of Havana looks to correct that myopic view. The film, directed by Toronto filmmaker Ron Chapman, blends interviews with Varela, colleagues (including Brazilian composer Ivan Lins and American singer/songwriter Jackson Browne), and friends (such as actor Benicio del Toro), with performances from Varela’s 30th anniversary concert, which took place in 2013 in Havana. Varela grew up in the 1970s, listening (illegally) to American rock music, and recorded his first album in 1989, coinciding with the economic crisis in Cuba following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He became a voice for the generation coming of age during those austere years, and regularly fell in and out of favor with the government thanks to his sometimes metaphoric, and sometimes direct lyrics aimed at the powers that be. Often called the “Bob Dylan of Cuba,” he’s better categorized along such ‘70s folk rockers as Browne, Tom Petty, and Dave Matthews. While Varela has had some international recognition, Chapman’s film seeks to introduce him to a wider audience through his well-made film. Its release comes at an appropriate time with the normalizing relations with the United States having just taken place.
Finally, we turn to two documentaries, which have been hit with controversy in their countries of origin.
The Battle for Banaras, from India’s Kamal Swaroop, an exploration of the election process in the world’s largest democracy, was to have its world premiere at the festival on September 2, but didn’t. Nearly a week earlier, Indian media outlets were reporting the film had been refused certification by India’s Censor Board of Film Certification. The Board stated they had rejected the film because it contained language which “did not fit [the Board’s] guidelines,” though it was suggested the real reason was simply that the government was unhappy with how it was depicted in the film. Nevertheless, there were no press announcements of the premiere’s cancellation in Montreal and the festival’s website continued to list it with screening times, so attendees were surprised to discover there was another film playing in its stead. A festival spokesperson later told us the director had never sent the film.
The second—which did screen—-was Bakur/North, from Turkish duo Çayan Demirel & Ertuğrul Mavioğlu. Earlier this year, while not “officially” censored by the Turkish Ministry of culture, its premiere at the Istanbul Film Festival (IFF) was canceled over a certificate technicality, which was seen by many as a move by the Turkish government to suppress possible sympathy for the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the subject of the film. The balance of the IFF was canceled as many filmmakers pulled their films in solidarity, and eventually the festival director stepped down. Since then, the film has had several “unofficial” screenings in Turkey. Bakur/North offers sumptuous cinematography of the mountainous region where the PKK are encamped, but the film was shot during a ceasefire in 2013 (which has since broken down). While we are unprecedented privy to the daily lives of these guerrilla fighters, after watching them cook dinner, sing and dance, tell each other stories, and train–and not much else–it gets very monotonous. Even a visit to a medical tent has the medics sitting around bored with nothing to do.
The award for the festival’s best documentary was released some time after the events had all concluded. The result was a tie between Marzia, Ystäväni (Marzia My Friend / Marzia Mon Amie), directed by Kirsi Mattila (Finland) and Playing Lecuona, which was, of course, directed by Pavel Giroud (Spain-Colombia).