What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Feb. 1

Weiner wins a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Photo: Sean McGing, courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of news and views from the non-fiction community brings more highlights from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (Read our midterm report, in case you missed it.) Realscreen reports that this year’s slate of Sundance winners include Weiner and Sonita for the American and World Cinema Grand Jury Prizes, respectively. The Canadian short film Bacon and God’s Wrath leaves Park City with a well-deserved shorts prize.

Over at Indiewire, Sundance’s class of documentary filmmakers share stories about the limits they tested while making their films. Among the challenges are whittling through 1300 hours of footage to find the right story (Gleason), devising the right method for delivering interviews with agents of sexual assault while preserving the anonymity of minors (Audrey and Daisy), and smuggling footage out of China (Hooligan Sparrows). It sounds as if the toils found great rewards this year!

Indiewire also poses a challenge to Sundance in the wake of its impressive nonfiction line-up, which includes a sizable portion of films from top platforms like HBO, PBS, and A&E. Anthony Kaufman looks at the class of insiders and outsiders at the festival this year and asks how ground-breakers and risk-takers may thrive at an indie showcase like Sundance when the growing commercial success of documentary pushes programming to favour the more mainstream non-fiction films. Festivals should have a strong element of discovery, after all. Kaufman wonders if changes to Sundance’s programming are on the horizon with a potential sidebar programme as an alternative section to spotlight true indies. The docs at Sundance this year seem to be great, but, as Kaufman writes, “the more that nonfiction flourishes in the marketplace, the harder it may be for truly independent documentary filmmakers to thrive.”

One other great debate at Sundance is that which The Park Record reports happened between filmmakers Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Joshua Oppenheimer (The Look of Silence). The filmmakers agree that documentary filmmaking is not synonymous with journalism, but that too many non-fiction filmmakers fall into the practice of rote reportage. Perhaps this approach stems from failures within mass media, which Herzog and Oppenheimer agree is one of the causes, but the filmmakers also emphasize the value in approaching material with openness and empathy. These leanings lead to greater invention in the filmmaking process, at which Herzog and Oppenheimer’s films excel. “What we’re trying to do,” Oppenheimer says, “is make visible the fantasies, lies, delusions and self deceptions that constitute immoral imagination, which allows us to feel everything is fine, when it is really catastrophic.”

Herzog’s newest film Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is among the Sundance docs featured in the POV report from Park City, as is the newest film from Liz Garbus, Nothing Left Unsaid. Garbus, like Herzog’s conversation companion Joshua Oppenheimer, is currently in the running for an Oscar and doing double duty on the press circuit. The What Happened, Miss Simone? director also holds one of the few nominations that went to a female filmmaker at the Oscars this year, and her recent essay over at Medium tackles the challenges of a female filmmaker getting the credit she deserves. Garbus writes about playing ‘First Boss,’ which is a schoolyard game that ultimately helped her assert herself and grow as a filmmaker. She looks to fellow doc makers like Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA, Miss Sharon Jones!) as fellow bosses.

Meanwhile, Slant Magazine gives a humorous rundown of the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature. The take isn’t especially flattering for the Academy (or to the nominees for that matter) as it lumps the five films into the two categories that predominate the awards: activist/political leaning docs and films about artists. “Only two rather basic flavors are represented in this year’s documentary Oscar rundown and it’s to the doc branch’s great shame that they couldn’t see fit to nominate a pair of movies each containing multitudes that would give Baskin-Robbins a cold sweat,” Slant writes while giving a shout-out to films like Heart of a Dog that didn’t make the cut. Slant tips Amy to win, but says the prize should go to The Look of Silence.

On the photography front, Ai Weiwei, activist artist and subject of the doc Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the author of a provocative new portrait. Macleans reports that Ai Weiwei recently re-enacted the controversial photo of a Syrian child who drowned and washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. The artist took the photo in India where it is currently on display.

Other photographers are being bold in their own ways. Canadian Press reports on the rise of “rooftop photography,” which is a daredevil practice in which shutterbugs crawl skyscrapers and snap a shot from high above. Is taking a picture from a ledge the same as taking a picture from a bench? What limits should an artist have to access?

Short Film of the Week:

This week’s short doc spotlight offers an essential watch in honour of Black History Month. Black Mother, Black Daughter is a cornerstone of Canadian film from directors Sylvia Hamilton (read more about her at The Canadian Encyclopedia) and Claire Prieto. This film shares the personal and collective stories of black women in Nova Scotia as Hamilton draws upon her experience and those of her peers to impart an aspect of Canadiana that the history books ignore.

Black Mother Black Daughter by Sylvia Hamilton& by Claire Prieto, National Film Board of Canada

What reads do you recommend for the week?
Let us know in the comments, or send a tip to pat[at]povmagazine.com.