Perspectives: Week 2 - Finding Your Format
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 finding your format. Jamal joins filmmakers Lisa Jackson, Aïcha Diop, and Joannie Lafrenière to learn how they determine the format that’s the best fit for their stories, whether in feature length, short film, virtual reality (VR), or something new. 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 Lisa Jackson
Few contemporary Canadian directors have as broad a variety of formats in their body of work as Lisa Jackson does. Her Genie Award winning breakthrough Savage (2009) is a must-watch for anyone looking to define the power of a short film. In under six minutes, Jackson’s film juggles multiple genres—musical, prison flick, and comedy for starters—to unpack the legacy of residential schools in Canada, their toll on families, and the spirit of children not forgotten. Her short work takes a variety of formats itself, including the anthology film The Embargo Project in which Jackson and filmmakers Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Zoe Hopkins, Caroline Monnet, and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers each deliver unique portraits of Indigenous life. The project, an initiative from imagineNATIVE, invited the filmmakers to challenge one another and set parameters for their colleagues’ shorts in order to inspire them to push beyond their comfort zones. (Watch the film in full from Encore+.) Similarly, Jackson’s recent experimental doc Lichen explores a unique plant at levels both macro and micro with IMAX projections to let lucky audiences see lichen anew. (Catch its encore screening at Planet in Focus in October.)
On the feature and TV documentary front, Jackson’s work displays a keen sense for finding the right mode for delivery within a broadcaster’s house style. For example, her 2017 doc Indictment: The Crimes of Shelly Chartier, directed with Shane Belcourt (who appears in week three of Perspectives) uses the direct address format of CBC Docs POV to unpack the story behind a tabloid sensation. The doc lets Chartier tell her perspective on her headline making international scandal in which she was discovered to have “catfished” NBA basketball player Chris Andersen by posing as an admiring fan. Jackson and Belcourt’s doc lets Chartier explain the underlying factors that contributed to the boredom and anxieties that inspired her incident. The POV format lets the directors to interrogate their subject and the complexity of her situation, pulling back layers of history of the systemic injustices that shape the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada. Read more on Jackson’s perspective on her approach and watch the film in full below. Similarly, Jackson’s How a People Live chronicles the story of the Gwa’sala and ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations and how they were forcibly relocated from their villages to newly-built reserves in 1964. Using archival images shot through the settler gaze contrasted with contemporary verité footage of the current generation returning to their traditional land, and new interviews with tribal elders, the doc weaves diverse threads to convey the connections between place, roots, tradition, heritage, and origins stories.
Jackson’s work is especially significant for its innovations in interactive documentary and VR. With Highway of Tears VR, Jackson delivered the CBC’s first virtual reality documentary and found a new way to bring attention to the case of missing or murdered Indigenous women. The short doc transports audiences to the notorious 724 km stretch of road in British Columbia. Jackson lets users experience the unsettling beauty of the haunted landscape with a 360° view of the highway and the dense forests that surround it, while audio interviews with a victim’s mother evoke the ongoing tragedy that is inextricably linked to the region. (Experience the 360 video here.) Most significant in Jackson’s work with digital media is her groundbreaking 2018 VR project Biidaaban: First Light. Made with Mathew Borrett, Jam3, and the National Film Board of Canada. Biidaaban imagines Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square through the lens of Indigenous futurism and lets users experience the urban landscape through the languages, customs, and traditions used by the original inhabitants of the land. Jackson also just released Transmissions an online companion site to her new art installation.
The Films of Aïcha Diop
Having worked as a producer on dramas like Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls and the doc series Engraved on a Nation, Aïcha Diop introduced herself as a talent to watch with her first doc as a director, Nancy’s Workshop. This CBC Short Docs film quickly became an Internet sensation, amassing over 2.5 million views on YouTube to date since debuting in August. (And winning the audience award for short docs at Hot Docs 2020, proving there is life for online shorts in the festival circuit.) Nancy’s Workshop celebrates the hair of Black women. Diop’s film goes inside the salon of stylist Nancy Falaise to see how she offers a place for young Black women to embrace their hair in their natural form. Diop observes the processes for washing, detangling, and styling their hair, while also giving voice to the experiences of Black girls. This inclusive doc invites the girls to confront images of beauty pushed by mainstream media and see beauty in all its forms. Watch Nancy’s Workshop below and make a double bill with this year’s Oscar winning animated short Hair Love!
Diop is currently in development on the doc Gawlo, which was one of this year’s DOC Institute Breakthrough Development Award winners. The film traces the story of two strangers, Ciara and Mamadou, living in different corners of the world. The doc sees how Ciara, who lives in New York and works in advertising, knows little about her ancestry. In Senegal, Mamadou is a Gawlo (aka Griot), who keeps history alive through the power of stories and is one of few people entrusted to hold this archive of memories.
The Films of Joannie Lafrenière
Filmmakers eager to learn the art of landing a great character, on the other hand, will want to dive into the films of Joannie Lafrenière. The Montreal-based filmmaker has a knack for finding colourful film subjects and, more importantly, the right sparkle with which to tell their stories. Lafrenière’s 2018 film Snowbirds, for example, delivers something between a nature documentary, an ethnographic film, and a Wes Anderson lark with its portrait of Quebecois seniors who fly south for the winter. Featuring an eclectic group of snowbirds in their Florida trailer park, Lafrenière observes how Quebecois spirit endures within the distinctly American setting in which the seniors find themselves each year. Mixing offbeat portraiture with an eye for sociological scope, the film harnesses the infectious spirit of the characters, inviting audiences to bask in their warm spirits without ever making fun of them. Snowbirds screened on the festival circuit as a mid-length 47-minute doc, but endures in a 27-minute cut on CBC Short Docs, which demonstrates films may enjoy different lives in different formats.
Lafrenière’s droll and deadpan sense of human creeps into her work whether its an original or a commission. For example, her two-minute NFB portrait of the Board’s collections curator Marc St-Pierre carries her unmistakable stamp. Sharing the perspectives of the offbeat archivist, as well as the stories entrusted to his care at the NFB, Lafrenière injects quirky shots of objects and photographs that add to his tale. Her 2019 short doc King Lajoie, on the other hand, finds a subject that’s been tackled countless times before—Elvis impersonators—yet feels fresh in her hands. The film profiles Gilles Elvis Lajoie, the “King” of small town Quebec Elvis impersonators who’s had the region all shook up for 40 years. Again capturing the kitsch appeal of his passion without making light of it, Lafrenière uses her character study as a vehicle to explore the elements that inspire someone to dedicate their life to a pursuit that others might find very, very strange. The director’s interview aesthetic, seen in Snowbirds and The Woman Who Saw the Bear, uses wider shots to capture subjects with degrees of humour and lightness while using their surroundings to convey more about the characters. Throw in some octogenarian parents, an astrologer, and a new King in the making, and Lafrenière’s film wonderfully harnesses the strangeness of its subject.
Learn more about engaging with theme in documentary with these filmmakers and moderator Aisha Jamal in the second instalment of Perspectives on Thursday, Oct. 1 at 7pm.