6 Docs To Watch For A Break From the News Cycle

Gates of Heaven

By Madeline Lines

Reality has felt stranger than fiction lately. As the news and meme cycles zoom past our screens, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and want to tap out. Pandemic-related anniversaries are beginning to roll in and act as a reminder of how the world has had to deal with so much in so little time. While the floodgates of COVID-era docs have just begun to open with films like Totally Under Control and In the Same Breath, the pandemic is bound to linger in film and our cultural consciousness long after it subsides.

If you’re one depressing headline away from the edge, we’ve rounded up some docs that will take you away from it all for an hour or two. We’ve selected some docs that zero in on unique subcultures and stories, immersing you in entirely different worlds while keeping you grounded in reality with the help of non-fiction. While it’s obviously ill advised to stop keeping up with the news for good, a little distraction could be a much-needed balm.

Gates of Heaven (1978)

Streaming on: Prime Video

Errol Morris discovered the seed of his first film when reading the newspaper headline, “450 Dead Pets Going to Napa Valley.” A little digging revealed the subject for his first feature documentary, Gates of Heaven, which illuminates the emotional business of pet cemeteries in colourful detail. The film hears from the owner of a failed graveyard and follows the relocation of hundreds of dead pets to another site, Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. Underneath the character study of the people involved in this unusual vocation lies a story that touches on grief and mortality in unexpected ways.

Show Girls (1998)

Streaming on: NFB

Travel back in time to Montreal in the early-mid 1900s, where the city’s jazz and nightclub scenes buzzed with the energy and talent of Black performers. Back when prohibition ran much of Canada and the United States dry, Montreal’s lax rules made it a destination for drinking and nightlife. This doc collects stories from some of the women who made their living on the stage, and weaves the retrospectives within rare footage from the inside of the lively venues. The doc will remind you of the origins of Montreal’s reputation as a freewheeling city of fun, and how Black women kicked were the life of the party with their electric energy.

Show Girls, Meilan Lam, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)

Streaming on: Kanopy

One of the many oddities of San Francisco is the flock of tropical birds that you’ll see flitting around the area of Telegraph Hill. What began as a handful of escaped parrots has now grown into a family of over 200 of the neon-coloured birds, living on the tree covered steps of the urban hill. This doc is dedicated to the misplaced house pets – the theories as to how they got there, what they’re doing now, and who is taking care of them. The film follows an eccentric man who has appointed himself as their unofficial caretaker, and the relationship that ensues.

Snowbirds (2018)

Streaming on: CBC Gem and YouTube

Somewhere in Florida, there’s a spot where you won’t hear a word of English. The short doc Snowbirds explores a slice of Quebec that’s emerged from older Quebekers fleeing the province for palm trees and sunshine. The film even spots them reading their own special newspaper, “Le Soleil de la Floride.” It’s a fascinating look at a trailer park that’s become a haven for French-speaking retirees, and the small pockets of Quebec culture that reside in Florida. Some of the interview shots echo Gates of Heaven with their droll compositions, so why not pair the films for a double bill?

Hail Satan? (2019)

Streaming on: Netflix

Hail Satan? might not give you a sense of relief from the absurdities of the day, but it will certainly make you laugh about them. The film by Penny Lane introduces the Satanic Temple in a humanizing light, introducing a number of members who are involved for reasons you wouldn’t expect. While it began as a joke, the congregation of the Satanic Temple has evolved to emphasize advocating for the separation of church and state. The doc is a hilarious, enlightening, and surprising look inside a misunderstood religious movement with a bark bigger than its bite.

World Famous Gopher Hole Museum (2016)

Streaming on: CBC Gem and YouTube

A whole town of gophers lives in Torrington, AB, immortalized by taxidermy. They endure dressed up and placed in elaborate little dioramas that mirror the town itself. This doc captures the prairie charm of one of the province’s most bizarre tourist destinations, the Gopher Hole Museum. This short doc takes you inside the world of the gophers as well as the world of the residents of Torrington, who live parallel lives. As the museum’s curator Diane struggles to keep up in old age, the future of the quirky exhibit is in question, but nevertheless endures in this fun doc.

Stay sane!