The RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) screened 141 docs from 44 countries, many of the titles playing to big, enthusiastic audiences. It’s clear that the festival is continuing to grow and is taking its place as one of the top doc events in North America. The prestigious Grand Prix for Best Canadian Film at RIDM went to Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Susan Avingaq’s emotionally charged Sol, a movie about 26-year-old Solomon Uyurasuk, who died in a Nunavut jail cell after getting arrested during a brawl. The RCMP claims he hanged himself with bootlaces, a scenario that his friends and family doubt.
Through copious home movie and archival footage of Sol, a life-affirming and appealing musician, poet and acrobat, Cousineau and Avingaq (2010’s Before Tomorrow) evoke haunting memories. The constantly smiling Sol, who travelled to Mexico and other places, seemed to have every reason to live, his only perceptible dilemma being his suspension between two worlds.
Like many young Inuit, Sol’s inclinations and aspirations may have collided emotionally with traditional life in Igloolik. Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk once told me he hated the heat and food of Cannes (the year his film Atanarjuat screened at the festival) and wasn’t that crazy about the Canadian “south.” But for a younger generation, the utilitarian austerity, mind boggling cold and winter darkness of a place like Igloolik might be depressingly limiting, especially if you’ve lost a vital connection to the awesome landscape around you that traditional practices like hunting once provided.
Sol’s competition for Best Canadian Doc included Paul Cowan’s and Amer Shomali’s hybrid take on the first Intifada The Wanted 18; Claude Demers’ personal view of Montreal’s Verdun neighbourhood D’où je viens; Diane Poitras’ Nuits, an evocation of Montreal streets at night; and Alanis Obomsawin’s blistering look at First Nations peoples’ resistance to Canadian political demagoguery, Trick or Treaty?. The People’s Choice for favourite film was no surprise. American director Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour sets up clandestine encounters with the world’s best-known fugitive, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, when he was hiding in Hong Kong. Deploying simple techniques, this is a film about a man who acknowledges that he could end up in a prison cell or shot dead for warning the world about the frightening extent of government surveillance.
The prize for Best International Feature went to the Turkish film Once Upon a Time, directed by Kazim Öz. The doc exposes the horrible working conditions endured by Kurdish workers in Ankara, while, at the same time, it blossoms into a love story. The jury praised the film for “touching real questions that must be confronted, for realizing the beauty and poetics in extreme situations and avoiding condescension, for the fragility of a cinema that still wants to try to change the course of things.”
The winner of the annual Magnus Isacsson prize, named for the Montreal doc-maker who died in the summer of 2012, was Amar Wala’s The Secret Trial 5. The documentary focuses on the plight of five Muslim men who for ten years have been entangled in the Canadian legal system without charges being laid against them. According to government officials, they could be dangerous radicals who pose a threat. The film, like all Magnus Isacsson winners, poses tough questions—in this case, how far are we willing to go for the sake of national security?
High-profile RIDM 2014 presentations included Frederick Wiseman’s latest opus, National Gallery; Ron Mann’s portrait of Robert Altman; and Stray Dog, a movie about a biker and Vietnam vet directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, the Oscar-nominated 2010 feature that drew the world’s attention to Jennifer Lawrence).
The festival’s enjoyable Beat Dox section, a platform for films on music, featured Tim Sutton’s Memphis, about blues musician Willis Earl Beal; Florian Habicht’s rock doc, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets; and Alexandre Frénois’s Sur la piste des Djs, a look at Montreal DJs A-Trak, Kid Koala, Champion, Misstress Barbara, Poirier and Kobal. RIDM also programmed a 30th-anniversary screening of possibly the most kinetic, ecstatic concert film ever made, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984) his revelatory look at David Byrne and Talking Heads.
In the same lineup, Tamás Wormser’s The Wandering Muse opens on an orthodox Jew blowing on a traditional ram’s horn and then takes off into an exploration of Jewish music around the world. At the beginning of the film, one of the many performers who appear says that “Ivri,” the origin of the word Hebrew, is linked to the word for wanderer.
For Wormser, a Budapest-born, Montreal-based filmmaker, the many forms Jewish music takes defines constantly changing Jewish identity. The Wandering Muse implies that Jews don’t have a fixed identity. They are everything from Montreal Hasidim with their wild celebratory dances to musicians performing a kind of punky version of Yiddish protest songs in Berlin. Among the striking performances are two from Montreal’s klezmer hip-hop star, Socalled, a.k.a. Josh Dolgin. On his website, Wormser is building an archive of video clips that will eventually present more than 1,000 musicians.
Playing to packed and charmed houses, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s The 50 Year Argument, a celebration of The New York Review of Books on its 50th anniversary, demonstrates that it is possible to make an engrossing movie about a magazine. The film is a master class on fluidly merging freshly shot material with archival footage and stills. Split-second timing on every cut keeps you alert and interested in the people who have written for the publication, the subjects of their articles, and the sometimes acrimonious debates they engaged in over the years. The doc, like the magazine, covers a who’s who of New York’s literary and intellectual scene: Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Vaclav Havel, Isaiah Berlin, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Derek Walcott, Michael Chabon, Noam Chomsky, Mary Beard and Colm Tóibín.
Barbara and Jason Epstein, Robert B. Silvers, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick created The New York Review of Books (NYRB) in 1963 out of dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of The New York Times book section. Barbara Epstein died in 2006; bright and impeccably dressed, Robert B. Silvers is still editing the publication. From the start, the NYRB challenged orthodoxy and sought out top-shelf writers who could handle any subject, hopefully against the grain of what the other papers were saying.
Words that appeared in the publication’s articles pop on the screen, highlighting exciting ideas and controversial opinions. Issues that came up over the years get revisited in interesting ways. With Paul Desmond, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis on the soundtrack, the doc has a jazzy pulse in keeping with its obvious affection for the speed and crackling wit of Manhattan literary life during a bygone era. If you’ve never entirely given up on that dream of a fabulous Manhattan, the film is especially irresistible, one of the tastiest items on RIDM 2014’s slate.
RIDM opened with Le nez, a clever and charming film about the human sense of smell directed by Quebec director Kim Nguyen (the Oscar-nominated 2012 film Rebelle). It closed with Nicolas Wadimoff’s Spartiates (Spartans), a Swiss-French production about a mixed martial arts teacher who runs a school for young people in a rough Marseilles neighbourhood. Throughout its 10 days, the festival consistently screened provocative, appealing docs.