Perspectives: Week 3 - Genre
By Pat Mullen
The third and final entry in the 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, tackles an overlooked element in documentary: genre. Jamal joins filmmakers Maya Gallus, Shane Belcourt, and Maya Annik Bedward to learn how they choose the right generic style or aesthetic for their stories, whether undertaking a talking heads doc, observational film, archival work, hybrid, cinema verité, or other approach. The conversation is a natural extension of the previous conversations on theme and format. 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 Maya Gallus
Toronto audiences should be familiar with the films of Maya Gallus. The filmmaker and POV contributor received the festival spotlight as the Focus On honouree in 2017. Gallus’s films reflect the question of genre as they frequently adopt a two-pronged attack to their stories, which frequent put women’s perspectives and queer voices at the forefront. For example, her 2013 doc Derby Crazy Love spotlights the intense world of women’s roller derbying—like the Ellen Page movie Whip It, but the hard knocks are real. The film puts its own spin on sports doc conventions with a mix of interviews with derby girls who speak about their passion for the rock’em, sock’em sport, while Gallus further expands the portrait with roller rink-side footage that captures the intensity of the action. Together, the collective voices and punches break down stereotypes of “women’s sports” and draw an invigorating feminist essay.
Similarly Gallus’s Hot Docs 2018 opening night selection The Heat: A Kitchen ( R)evolution invites women to take back the kitchen by spotlighting the work of female chefs. Gallus employs a mix of interviews and verité footage to show the chefs in their elements, whipping up food and pleasing their customers, challenging the perception of women’s relationship to cooking as a domestic duty rather than a professional feat. (The film is a fine companion to Gallus’s doc Dish , about waitressing and service.) Interviews with the chefs underscore the need for diversity in the world’s kitchens as the women reflect upon the experiences that inevitably season the plates they create. Talking about grub is important, but any entry in the food doc genre needs some mouth-watering shots of the goods. Watch the feature for The Heat below and the broadcast cut here .
Also notable is in terms of genre is Gallus’s literary docudrama The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche. The film explores the life of late Canadian author Mazo de la Roche with talking heads, who put an interesting spin on her life, saying that much of her autobiography is a fabrication. Dramatic re-enactments explore Mazo’s story, especially her relationship with her cousin/adopted sister Caroline. The two lived together in a “Boston marriage” and Caroline often assisted Mazo with her work, filling in the gaps when Mazo’s poor health made it difficult to write. Their daughter also testifies that Caroline often liked to fill out the documentation/records for Mazo and herself, showing off her own knack for fiction by making things up. This apparent gap created by the sketchy records and unreliable autobiography puts a fun spin on the dramatic scenes of the film, queering a Canadian icon. The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche shows that all Canada really seems to know about one of its early literary figures is her fiction.
Stream the film in full from the NFB (embedding disabled) and watch two clips below:
(The clips are different despite the thumbnail. See clip one for the more “documentary” style and clip two for the dramatic interpretation.)
The Films of Shane Belcourt
Shane Belcourt might best be known as a director for making Indictment: The Crimes of Shelley Chartier with last week’s Perspectives panelist Lisa Jackson. Offering a spin on true crime, Indictment recounts Chartier’s ordeal in which she catfished basketball star Chris Anderson by impersonating another woman online. However, Belcourt and Jackson put take a point of view documentary approach to Chartier’s story and make her the chief witness in the case. What follows is an exploration of mitigating circumstances that might lead one to commit such seemingly senseless crimes.
Further bringing elements of true crime into the most iconic corner of Canadian content, Belcourt’s work with Historica Canada’s Heritage Minutes complements last week’s discussion on format. These once-cheesy reminders of our nation’s history, burnt toast and all, are now valuable tools for reconciliation that use short form filmmaking to educate the masses. Belcourt’s piece on Chanie Wenjack shares the story of the young man who died while trying to escape the violence of his residential school. The short features Wenjack’s sister narrating the tragedy while dramatic interpretations take viewers inside the unsettling institutions. Belcourt similarly draws upon re-enactments for his Heritage Minute Naskumituwin (Treaty) to offset the obvious absence of archival material. Listen closely for narration by Alanis Obomsawin!
Belcourt’s work with arts documentary, meanwhile, can be seen in the exquisitely shot Kaha:wi – The Cycle of Life (2014). The doc features choreographer and artist Santee Smith in performance as she interprets Iroquois legends through dance. While fluid cinematography captures the action and energy of the dance, Belcourt evokes the different worlds of which Smith speaks through stylishly transformative sequences. (Watch a clip here.) Perspectives attendees will also note Belcourt’s work in the current APTN docuseries Amplify, which spotlights the stories and creations of diverse Indigenous artists. Belcourt actually directs the upcoming episode airing November 6 about Anishinaabe poetic vocalist Ansley Simpson. He also directed the season’s first episode, which featured multidisciplinary media artist, performance, and musician Cheryl L’Hirondelle. Using a mix of interviews, on the ground footage that captures the artist’s daily experience, and evocative musical numbers, the work amplifies an artist’s voice while contextualizing it. Learn more about the series here and watch a clip of Belcourt’s work below. Check out the trailer for a further taste of the series.
The Films of Maya Annik Bedward
On the subject of arts-related filmmaking, Perspectives’ participant Maya Annik Bedward has notable pieces to add to the conversation with music videos. As the unsung form of short film, music videos allow artists to create visual interpretations of work by other performers. Some of Bedward’s music video portfolio veers on the experimental, like her kaleidoscopic take with co-director Luke Mistruzzi on Language Arts’ “With Me.” Similarly, as a producer, her music video for Petra Glynt’s Sour Paradise, directed by Blake Macfarlane, is an out-of-this-world environmental parable. Sometimes finding the right fit may simply be a matter of feeling the groove.
Fans of the short film Nancy’s Workshop by last week’s Perspectives panelist Aïcha Diop will want to check out Bedward’s short The Haircut to see how differently the two filmmakers approach a similar topic. While Diop’s film looks at a workshop that teaches young Black girls to love their hair, Bedward’s film examines the humour and horror of a bad haircut. The film shares the story of Bedward’s father, who was the only Black student in his Ottawa high school and still feels the pain inflicted upon him by a white society that didn’t understand cultural differences. There were no Black barbers in the city when he was growing up and he suffered some humiliating hack jobs because white folks didn’t know what to do with his hair. Taking a personal approach, Bedward’s portrait of her father humorously examines the forms that resistance takes in the face of assimilation.
Finally, Bedward’s first feature draws upon an often under-explored and under-utilized non-fiction genre: the horror documentary. Black Zombie, currently in development, looks at the long-term consequences of cultural appropriation by examining the specific contexts from which zombies emerged. While these ghouls appear as brain-eating machines in everything from Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead, Bedward’s film takes audiences to Haiti to understand their roots in folklore and route to mainstream monster.