Focus on Festivals

Review: DocNow Festival - Day 1

Ryerson’s doc festival kicked off with a captivating two-part programme

ASH (dir. Ken Robinson)

DocNow, Day One

The first screenings of DocNow, Ryerson University’s Masters in Documentary Media graduate festival, offered a captivating two-part programme. The first set of films, In Jesus’ Name and Mistissini Healing, focused on exploring the problematic issues and tragic history of the Canadian Indigenous community. The following films, Lovesick, 60 Seasons, and ASH, offered unique and beguiling characters, who are placed in the context of Ontario’s Lovesick polluted lake, Port Hope, Ontario’s burgeoning permaculture scene and South Korea’s underground music scene.

While thematically and stylistically different, both sets of films share a yearning for constructive dialogues. All five documentaries dig into the core of their subjects, offering the audience their nuanced and intimate portraits. Alert and observant, the documentaries challenge the societies and systems that their subjects are operating within.

Loss and memory are the themes that resonate loudly throughout the programme. Whether it’s the forfeit of one’s innocence and youth or the destruction of a precious environment and subculture, the films treat their losses with deep respect and concern . If there is one word to describe all five documentaries, it would be “enlightening.”

Trailer for In Jesus' Name: Shattering the Silence of St. Anne's Residential School from Susan Enberg on Vimeo.

In Jesus’ Name by Susan Enberg, the programme’s opening film, Is perhaps the heaviest and most agonizing of all, as it exposes the history of the infamous St. Anne Residential school. Operating for most of the 20th century, St. Anne’s repeatedly subjected Indigenous children to violence and sexual abuse. The film openly condemns the Canadian government, which forcibly separated Indigenous kids from their parents and overlooked the horrific atrocities perpetuated by the school’s officials. Through the accounts of the survivors and chilling archival footage, the documentary reveals the appalling degree of inhumanity, brutality and sadism endured by Indigenous children. Estranged, traumatized and incapable of dealing with the wounding past, numerous survivors took their own lives or engaged in substance abuse. To this day, the government hasn’t fully compensated the Residential School survivors. Thoroughly researched, Enberg’s In Jesus’ Name offers an unblinking set of revelations of bestiality and abuse while asking its viewers to take direct action against those who committed the crimes against Indigenous youth.

Mistissini Healing by Stephanie Vizi is a brave and moving documentary, which also sheds light on the Canadian Residential School system. Unlike In Jesus’ Name, this documentary explores the life and struggles of the second generation of survivors. Adversely affected by the tragic legacy of their abused parents, these survivors struggle to find a successful path amidst their alienated communities. Vizi’s documentary follows two Cree women, Maryjane (25) and Dayna (15), who live in the James Bay Cree Reserve at Mistissini, Quebec. Having parents and grandparents, who suffered from the violence and abuse in residential schools, Maryjane and Dayna strive to weather the intergenerational trauma. Forming personal relationships with these women, Vizi enlivens the film with intimate conversations. And the filmmaker’s ingenious use of social media, using texting to show intimate thoughts, echoes Dayna’s generation. The documentary tackles such problematic issues as drinking, isolation, foster care and the dreadful repercussions of the residential school system. Nevertheless, the stories of Maryjane and Dayna leave the viewer with hope and confidence for their futures.

Lovesick by Lauren Bridle is a visually mesmerizing love letter to a much-treasured Canadian lake. Despite its minor size, Lovesick Lake carries a substantial legacy. Bridle’s documentary is redolent of the previous films as it touches upon the history of Canada’s Indigenous people. They were the first ones to inhabit the shores of the lake and relish its rich biodiversity. After First Nations’ people were forced off their land, Canadians started populating the area. The lake has gradually become part of Ontario’s cottage country. Through multiple interviews with its residents, the documentary explores the intertwined history of the lake and Canada’s cottage culture. The firsthand accounts and the archival visuals create an authentic sense of nostalgia. Most importantly, Lovesick warns against further pollution, which has drastically aggravated the health of the lake and its inhabitants. The film scrutinizes the way commercialization and residential tourism affects our environment.

60 Seasons (dir. Jeannette Breward)

60 Seasons by Jeannette Breward continues and expands the environmental focus of DocNow’s day-one programme. The film challenges monoculture farming – an agricultural practice of cultivating a single crop. Due to its profitability, monoculture farming is excessively used by industrial farmers. The practice endangers our environment, health and biodiversity. An alternative to monoculture, permaculture aims to replenish natural resources and preserve biodiversity.

Following a couple of passionate farmers and an environmentally conscious city dweller in Port Hope, Breward’s documentary vividly demonstrates the way people use permaculture in their daily lives. She follows a couple whose lives have been transformed through diverse organic farming and an entrepreneurial advocate who has created “punk rock produce,”—vegetables and fruit, which he donates to the local food banks. Amid global warming, the film’s subject couldn’t be more relevant and important. 60 Seasons is well constructed and visually pleasing. It mirrors Breward’s photography background through a series of observational and picturesque scenes.

ASH (dir. Ken Robinson)

DocNow’s first programme concluded with ASH by Ken Robinson. His documentary invites you to immerse yourself into the South Korean underground music scene. Robinson surprises the audience with his film’s versatile focus. The documentary offers a vigorous visual essay of Seoul’s hot music culture. It masterfully captures the energy of loud punk rock venues and its passionate performers. His exploration of the subculture rapidly changed into a refined and entertaining socio-psychological examination of the rebellious Korean youth. Through intimate and often humorous conversations with the Korean DYI performers, the film confronts such burning issues in the Korean society as gentrification, sexism, conservatism and classism. The documentary juxtaposes the musicians’ accounts with their performances, producing an ambivalent and complex perception of the people on the screen. The nuanced portrayal of the Korean DYI music followers mirrors Robinson’s profound collaboration and understanding of the subculture. Erratically jumping from loud venues to the bustling street of Seoul, there is never a dull moment.

DocNow has additional screenings on June 14 and June 21 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.
Please visit for more information on this year’s festival including encore screenings.