Perspectives: Week 1 - Tackling Theme

Moderator Aisha Jamal joins Yung Chang, Baljit Sangra, and Ngardy Conteh George in Perspectives: Tackling Theme


This week’s Perspectives series with Aisha Jamal, presented by the DOC Institute with the generous support from presenting sponsor Vistek and made possible with the support of OntarioCreates, focuses on translating theme. Jamal joins filmmakers Yung Chang, Ngardy Conteh George, and Baljit Sangra to learn how they capture the thematic characters of their documentaries through artistic, narrative, and technical choices. To help prepare attendees for this week’s workshop, we’ve rounded up some highlights and films from the panellists’ careers that will be part of the discussion.

The Films of Yung Chang

Chang is best known for his 2007 feature documentary Up the Yangtze. Both intimate and epic in scope, the film traverses the Yangtze River on a cruise ship to observe the impact of the Three Gorges dam. Through the eyes of the young men and women, including a family devastated by the destructive force of the dam, the film mirrors micro and macro levels between the family and the Yangtze River, expanding its gaze to witness a nation in transition. The film won the Genie Award for Best Documentary Feature, and was selected by POV as one of Canada’s 10 documentary essentials in 2017.

Rent Up the Yangtze from the NFB:

Additional examples of Chang’s ability to translate theme through the style and form of his work can be seen in The Fruithunters (2012), which playfully excites the senses to share the global passion for exotic fruits, and the short Gatekeeper (2016), which hauntingly conveys the personal toll felt by a detective who commits himself to preventing suicides in Japan. China Heavyweight examines China’s confrontation with the changing cultural tide as an aging boxing coach recruits and trains young men from rural communities to excel at a sport that was previously deemed “too Western” for Chinese athletes. Shot on film at a time when most docs had transitioned to digital, China Heavyweight’s striking images reflect the salt of the earth character of the coach and the grit his fight embodies.

His latest film, This Is Not a Movie, goes to the frontlines of independent journalism with Robert Fisk. The film looks at how on-the-ground, old-school reportage remains vital to the integrity of news media at a time when journalism is under attack. Using a mix of verité footage, archival materials, still photos, and contemporary interviews, the film builds upon Fisk’s love for analogue technology. The tactile images weave the past within the present, drawing upon the images of a reporter on the ground in the thick of the action (rather than reporting remotely from a coffee shop) to convey the integrity of his work. Rent This Is Not a Movie at Blue Ice Docs.

The Films of Baljit Sangra

Baljit Sangra proved one of the breakthrough directors on the 2019 festival circuit with her first feature as a director, Because We Are Girls. The film, which opened the 2019 DOXA Documentary Festival in Vancouver and premiered at Hot Docs, gives voice to three Indo-Canadian sisters who were abused by a close family member. The intimate nature of the film speaks to the discomfort that arises when confronting questions of violence within the family. Reflecting the cathartic benefit of collectively speaking out to heal personal traumas and inspire greater consideration about the social and cultural forces that perpetuate violence, Sangra’s film unites the sisters’ voices through personal confessionals. The film won the award for Best Canadian Feature at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and received an honourable mention in the Canadian documentary category from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle.

Watch Because We Are Girls in full for free from the NFB:

Because We Are Girls, Baljit Sangra, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Similarly, Sangra’s 2014 film Many Rivers Home reflects upon the experiences of South Asian Canadians to examine the legacy that elders leave for the community. It draws upon the families connected by a Vancouver retirement residences to observe mortality and aging, as well as the values passed between generations. Her 2009 documentary Warrior Boys studies gang violence within Vancouver’s South Asian community in order to understand its root causes. The film follows two teenagers who are at risk of joining the list of anonymous statistics reported in the headlines. As Sangra’s doc examines the boys’ lives, learns about their close-knit families, and sees their desire to rebel and break from tradition, it unpacks the tensions that face first generation youths. The film invites a third voice—one who escaped the gang life—to show the costs of violence and share what supports are available to youth in need.

Watch Warrior Boyz for free below:

The Films of Ngardy Conteh George

Finally, participants in the Perspectives series can learn how to adapt their themes through an evolving situation with Ngardy Conteh George’s 2019 doc Mr. Jane and Finch. The film, which won the Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary Program, follows community advocate Winston LaRose as he throws his hat in the ring for the 2018 Toronto municipal election. This portrait of the neighbourhood figure asks how one can translate activism into civic engagement. However, the profile of LaRose intersects with the controversial moment in which Ontario premier Doug Ford threw a grenade into the election and reduced the number of seats on Toronto City Council by half, therefore making LaRose’s feat twice as challenging. The doc provides a fascinating example of what happens when the story changes, as the spunky character study ultimately becomes a portrait of the fight for fair local representation.

Watch Mr. Jane and Finch on CBC Gem.

Before tackling representation and gerrymandering in Mr. Jane and Finch, George had a breakthrough moment by asking the question, “Do you believe a one-legged man can fly?” This query fuelled George’s award-winning pitch with director Allan Tong, which topped Telefilm Canada’s Pitch This! at TIFF 2011. Their question forms the heart of the 2014 doc The Flying Stars. The film looks at amputees’, survivors of violence in Sierra Leone’s civil war, who defy the odds as soccer stars. Using the energetic and uplifting trope of a sports documentary, The Flying Stars expands its scope to consider a legacy of violence and the human spirit that endures. Read more about The Flying Stars in co-director Allan Tong’s filmmaker diary about the production.

Learn more about engaging with theme in documentary with these filmmakers and moderator Aisha Jamal in the first instalment of Perspectives on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 7pm.

Register here.