The hottest ticket at this year’s Rencontres internationals documentaires de Montreal (RIDM) was Abbas Fahdel’s Homeland: Iraq Year Zero. At RIDM’s closing ceremony, the film won the Best International Feature Prize as well as the People’s Choice Award. The International Feature Jury cited Homeland as a “patient, sensitive, and restrained yet expansive film that generously offers an intimate and singular perspective on a family’s and a nation’s experience through war and occupation.”
A genuinely unique experience far removed from superficial news network coverage, Homeland offers total immersion in a world that has never been depicted in such intimate, enlightening detail. Fahdel takes us to Iraq, mainly Baghdad, before and after the 2003 US invasion. Screened at RIDM with a 45-minute intermission, the six-hour, two-part documentary comes through as a richly coloured tapestry of a besieged country, private and public.
At times demanding, Homeland never gets monotonous as it pulls you into what a friend of mine calls the “profound mundane.” Paris-based Fahdel returned to his home country as the Iraqi government continued to deny the charge of harbouring “weapons of mass destruction,” and Iraqis knew that an attack could come at any moment.
Using low-tech equipment, the doc-maker began filming mainly members of his own family and then expanded outward, driving around Baghdad and to the countryside, shooting through windshields and meeting a variety of people.
Homeland offers measured cinéma vérité, taking its time to unfold many different kinds of moments. When characters talk to the camera, they address someone off-screen or Fahdel himself. Of the recurrent characters, the director’s 12-year-old nephew Haidar emerges as the most engaging and haunting. Self-confident, playful, the clear-thinking boy challenges stock opinions without any hesitation.
Part One of Homeland depicts people holding onto normalcy while living under a dark cloud. They do the simple things that are maybe the deepest human activities, especially when bombs and missiles will soon be raining down. Kids watch American cartoons and Saddam Husein propaganda on TV. They throw grapes off a roof to friends playing in the street. One sequence shows a food market, lavishing attention on an abundance of fish, peppers, olives, you name it Throughout the doc, Fahdel focuses on food and how it connects to life, love, and happiness, which are celebrated in an extended wedding sequence overflowing with sensual sights and sounds.
Anxiety about what lies ahead doesn’t stop the Iraqis from fooling around and even joking about the Americans. “We have to be happy,” someone says. At the same time, they stockpile bread and gasoline. In one poignant scene, Haidar duct tapes a window in the vain hope he is strengthening it.
Part One ends in a memorial museum to people who died in the havoc of the First Gulf War. The scene evokes the past and the future simultaneously.
Part two of Homeland opens three weeks after the invasion, which we never see. The sun shines brightly, the sky is blue, but the “new Iraq,” as someone puts it, is a topsy-turvy world of “military areas,” roadblocks, and burnt out buildings. There’s a tank parked on the steps of the national museum. Gunmen, guys who don’t feel safe without a gun, thieves, and looters are everywhere. Women don’t feel safe. “I have a knife in my bag,” says one young woman with a smile. A sign at the university sardonically offers female students the protection of F-16’s, tanks, and other weaponry of mass destruction.
In one scene we meet a man whose house and all of his ID, including passport, have been burnt to a crisp. In fact, the identity of the entire country is at risk, but people continue trying to hold onto their normality. At the same time, they are furious with both the Americans and Saddam, not to mention government officials. And myths abound. The Americans wear special glasses to see people naked. Saddam is touring the country.
After an optimistic sequence depicting the birth of a baby, Fahdel closes the film with a sudden and devastating death. Throughout, he never polemicizes or editorializes. He lets image and sound speak for themselves, and what they show veers between the hopefulness of people who affirm their will to live and a feeling of apocalyptic doom.
Another kind of apocalyptic despair is invoked in Mia Donovan’s Deprogrammed, the filmmaker-photographer’s follow-up to Inside Lara Roxx, her doc about a Canadian porn performer who gets infected with HIV two months after her arrival in L.A.
In her new doc, Donovan probes the world of cults via her half-brother, once affiliated with heavy metal Satanists before being “deprogrammed” by the man who invented the procedure, Ted Patrick. Panicked parents would hire him to rescue their lost children by abducting and sequestering them in some location where they would be subjected to the untrained Patrick’s relentless mind conditioning based on the mantra “You’re a mindless robot, a willing slave.”
Once she establishes her personal storyline, Donovan recounts the modern history of cult madness, from Manson’s Family to Reverend Moon’s Fantasy, that started in the 1960’s and continued into the 1970’s, 80’s and beyond. She covers relatively harmless hippie collectives and the malevolence of Jonestown and Waco Texas.
As the movie progresses, we get snapshots of the Children of God, The Moonies, the Krishnas, and other groups that emerged from the 60’s counterculture. From the vantage point of 2015, there is something weird about all those long haired kids acting like disciples of the Most High, whoever they deemed him to be. In Donovan’s film, cult members once nabbed by parents believing almost religiously in Ted Patrick recall their experiences, most of which were nasty.
Patrick, who agreed to appear in the film, comes across as an ambiguous character. Still believing in his mission to rescue lost youth, he was no doubt well meaning. But as characters in Deprogrammed say, he could be as intrusive and harmful as the cults themselves, maybe even a cult onto himself. A folksy kind of guy, who says he has a “PhD in common sense,” the African-American deprogrammer became a minor celebrity interviewed in Playboy. Apparently, his methods worked erratically, and he got locked up quite often for kidnapping.
This story has been told before in other docs and fictionalized versions. In the age of ISIS and other apocalyptic death cults, it makes sense to explore the subject anew. With her crisp assembly of TV footage, amateur recordings, and new material, Donovan has created a coherent, compelling, moving documentary. “Hate to me is like a blanket,” says her half-brother. He is now a physically powerful, massively tattooed man who survives, but seems haunted and damaged.
Expanding on his 2014 short, Unlocking the Truth, Luke Meyer’s Breaking a Monster covers a hectic, conflicted period in the lives of three pre-teen boys whose You Tube videos of their speed metal band catapulted them toward major music industry success.
Black kids from Flatbush, Brooklyn, guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse, bassist Alec Atkins and drummer Jarad Dawkins, were into hip-hop and r&b until they discovered metal via Japanese anime films. The doc makes it clear that Unlocking the Truth is a talented band, but it’s obvious that part of their appeal is the novelty of black kids power chording for primarily white audiences. The film tracks a surge of media attention from CNN to Stephen Colbert, and concert bookings from the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in California to Heavy Montreal where they opened for Metallica.
Breaking a Monster could have been a feel-good doc about three talented, cute African Americans getting a bedazzling break. It isn’t. Meyer rejected that idea from the start, and instead tracks conflicts like their bristly relationship with their manager, 70-something Alan Sacks. He’s an old-school L.A. industry type, who co-created the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, and among other issues, doesn’t entirely grasp the digital culture that helped to spawn the band.
Suddenly, the boys are dealing with record industry types at SONY, which offered them a significant deal, and a bewildering array of pressures and demands. Sacks doesn’t come across as a malevolent hustler, but he pushes hard when the boys would rather be skateboarding or playing Grand Theft Auto. “I’m too young for responsibility,” Brickhouse snaps at one point. Tensions build. Sacks says, “We have momentum, but we don’t have the assets.”
As the film progresses, we see Unlocking the Truth losing some of their innocence. In a key scene, Malcolm acknowledges that people at SONY might be using the band to show off their liberal cred. “It doesn’t matter,” Malcolm grins. He can accept being a trophy black kid. At the same time, we can see the trio growing as musicians and performers. They nail a signature song called ‘I Am a Monster’, which in the context of the movie has more than one meaning.
In the retrospective sidebar, A Photographer’s Eye: Photography and the Poetic Documentary, RIDM programmed three shorts tagged ‘Women Observed and Women Observing’. In U.S. born Canadian video maker Lisa Steele’s Birthday Suit – with Scars and Defects (1974), a thirteen-minute black and white tape, the artist sets up her camera, flicks it on, walks into a long shot and removes her clothes. Then Steele returns to the camera and angles various parts of her body into tight close-up, touching and identifying the various scars that have been collecting on her body since two infant surgeries. The climactic scar, below her right breast, resulted from a surgery to remove a benign tumour at age 27.
In Birthday Suit, Steele de-sexualizes the female body while offering up a memoir of pain that takes her from childhood to young womanhood. Viewers share in self-observation that that could trigger their own memories of physical and emotional trauma.
Steele’s video contrasts with and parallels German filmmaker’s Harun Farocki’s recently refurbished An Image (1983). The short documents a photographer and his crew spending four days labouring on a centerfold picture for Playboy magazine. For Farocki, they “perform their task with as much care, seriousness, and responsibility as if they were splitting uranium.”
From the construction of the set to the completion of the shot, we watch as a beautiful, voluptuous blonde is desexualized to create an image that is supposed to be sexy. She gets impersonally directed to make minute body adjustments like arching her back more on the pillows, moving a foot, showing a little more behind, etc. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, particularly the scene in which David Hemmings’s David Bailey-esque photographer and lanky-sexy supermodel Veruschka engage in sexual choreography during a fashion shoot, makes an interesting contast to Farocki’s short.
Unlike the Antonioni depiction of photographer and model, the shoot in An Image is static, sanitized, devoid of movement and heat. At one point an assistant says that the model, scrutinized from every possible angle, is “sitting there as if she’s afraid.” Nervous strings on the soundtrack heighten the tension. Farocki critiques the process, but at the same time, he seems to admire the team’s meticulousness.
Karsten Krause and Philip Widmann’s The Photographer’s Wife (2011) has a very different take on observing a woman through a lens. For 40 years, Eugen Gerbert, a clerk in the German railway system, took pictures of his wife Gerti. Many of the photos are nudes, all kinds of nudes. Gerbert made whimsical shots of her on a ski slope, spirit of nature pics in forests and near water, odalisques, and seductive images in lingerie. He kept shooting as she grew stouter and aged, playing with colour schemes and backgrounds. A scar on her belly is clearly visible; her nipples are usually erect.
Sometimes, Gerbert appears ghost-like in a picture. He is gone, Gerti is alive. We see her riffling thorough shoeboxes of her late husband’s works, which few had seen before the release of the doc. A voiceover recites facts about the images – places, dates, events—-many of which were taken on holidays. Over the 40 years, the amateur photographer exposed 1,241 rolls of film. The doc is about memories of a vanished relationship while raising questions about photographing a woman’s body. Obsession? Veneration of a homemade goddess? Registering the beautiful female form? Probably all that and more. At the end of the doc, Gerti poses in a red outfit as she once did, recreating a younger version of herself. She plays with different positions, getting a little coquettish. Her body changed; the spirit remains.
Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo projects a familiar take on the most well-known of the “Hollywood Ten,” moviemakers blacklisted during the 1940’s for their alleged ties to Communism. Dalton Trumbo and the rest of the Ten were victims of a vicious, paranoid hate campaign, but ultimately this is a feel good picture because good triumphs over evil, and the witch-hunt evaporates.
Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s documentary Red Hollywood sidesteps the familiar victim story to focus on the actual work done by the blacklisted filmmakers. The creators of this strangely mesmerizing essay doc spin off from Billy Wilder’s famous quip about the Hollywood Ten: “Two of them were talented, the rest were just unfriendly.” Deploying 53 Hollywood movie clips from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Andersen (best known for the evocative Los Angeles Plays Itself) and Burch argue that the blacklisted were both abundantly talented and genuinely subversive. Working in the studio system, they embedded messages about capitalism, war, racism, the oppression of women, and so on, into mainstream commercial movies.
As part of its Andersen retrospective, RIDM screened the recently refurbished version of Red Hollywood, which is structured into chapters with titles like Class, War, Sexes, and Myths. Some of the clips are from legendary movies like Abraham Polonsky’s noir Force of Evil and Robert Rosen’s Body and Soul. Others were extracted from less known, even obscure pictures like He Ran All the Way, scripted by Trumbo and starring John Garfield, not a Communist, but a man whose battle against the witch-hunt led to a fatal heart attack at age 45.
Many of the clips in Red Hollywood feature overheated rhetorical dialogue that is sometimes preachy and on-the-nose. Others display elegant wit in the way they score social and political points. The film’s most engaging interview subject, Abraham Polonsky, hits the verbal jackpot when he says on camera, “All films about crime are about capitalism, because capitalism is about crime. I mean ‘quote unquote,’ morally speaking. At least that’s what I used to think; now I’m convinced.”
Also in the realm of subversion, RIDM programmed a Guy Maddin double bill consisting of Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, a crazed short doc Winnipeg’s number one visionary made with Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, and Yves Montmayeur’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin, a pleasurable and insightful look at Maddin and his work.
Tim Horton, the title reflecting Maddin’s childhood obsession with hockey, not donuts, grew out of a money-making scheme to shoot a making-of, DVD extra feature piece for Paul Gross’s newly minted war epic, Hyena Road. Once on location in Jordan, the team balked and shot their own weirdo version of a promo flick. Maddin appears in it, mock complaining about the high budget luxuries of the shoot, compared to what he had to put up with on his projects. He’s asked to be an extra, playing a dead Taliban warrior, and we get big profile close-ups of his prone head suggesting Brando’s in Apocalypse Now. He rants in voiceover about feeling like a piece of set garbage—-what a comedown from the VIP treatment he receives at international film festivals
In the doc’s funniest moment, Maddin decides to shoot Green Screen in the desert. We see the awkward result: a Canadian winter scene embedded in a desert landscape because Maddin’s mobile Green Screen wasn’t big enough. On top of that, high-contrast, muddy looking footage of Gross’s battle scenes makes the action look like “nut job” meanderings on another planet.
According to the Johnsons, the production company’s “official line” is that Paul Gross likes the film despite its obvious deviance from expectations. In Maddin’s typically erudite style he calls it “a retort to Paul’s digestible adventurism.”
In September. Montmayeur’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin picked up the Classici Award for Best Documentary on Cinema at the Venice International Film Festival. The doc unpacks numerous clips from Maddin’s work, expertly synched to the director’s musings about his work. For instance, he claims that when he’s watching a film, or he’s holding a camera, he believes in ghosts. Otherwise, he doesn’t.
For Maddin, there are innumerable mysteries to movies, not the least of which is the connection between visuals and music. Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, John Waters, Luis Bunuel and The Three Stooges are among the biggest influences on his work. Maddin loves movies so much, the lost ones that never got made or disappeared torment him.
Montmayeur gives us a taste of Maddin’s Seances, which will be completed as a web project with the NFB but began as a 2012 installation at the Pompidou Center in Paris. Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros, and others play revenants trying to connect with the spirits of the films that never were. Elsewhere, Maddin favourite Isabella Rossellini speaks eloquently about his work and admits that she submits willingly to the onscreen humiliations he concocts for her.
One of RIDIM’s last screenings highlighted three shorts each visualizing the point-of-view of a woman living with loss and trauma: Tatiana Huezo’s Absences, Nika Khanjani’s Free World Pen, and Loïc Darses’s Elle pis son char (She and Her Car).
Absences plays as a tone poem about a woman whose husband and son disappeared four years ago on a Mexican highway. Huezo says of the film, “I decided that the walls, full of cracks and stains, could impart the feelings of exhaustion in her voice because in reality, the relatives of someone who has vanished are profoundly drained, exhausted; they’re tired in their heads and in their hearts. They never rest.”
Khanjani’s Free World Pen presents beautifully rendered shots of various locations around Montreal as we listen to the texts of letters written by her brother. For several years he’s been inexplicably locked up in solitary confinement in a Texas prison that was once used to house slaves. The onscreen images of Montreal–Mount Royal, the Café Italia, and so on–are from her point-of-view, heightening the vast gulf between the filmmaker and her brother.
She and her Car also juxtaposes the text of a letter with visuals. A woman, the director’s mother, writes a letter to a man who abused her when she was a child, and drives hundreds of miles to his rural house so that she can hand-deliver it. She wants to rid herself of the shame she feels she’s been carrying for thirty years.
RIDM 2015’’s paid attendance shot up by 34%, attracting 63,200 filmgoers. The festival offered 143 films from 41 countries in 178 screenings. It highlighted 25 world and international premieres, 24 North American, 23 Canadian, and 42 Quebec premieres. 135 international guest filmmakers and industry professionals presented their docs, connected with audiences at Q and A’s, and participated in various sidebar and special events. For me, RIDIM’s 2015 edition was a provocative and satisfying immersion into the emotional and aesthetic possibilities of documentary film.