What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Feb. 22

Gianfranco Rosi, winner of the Golden Bear for Fire at Sea, poses with Berlinale jury president Meryl Streep.


By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? The big news on the documentary front this week is that the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, headlined by Meryl Streep, awarded the festival’s top prize of the Golden Bear to a documentary by deeming Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea the best film of the fest. This win marks impressive back-to-back honours for Rosi as his previous doc Sacro GRA won the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. The Guardian says that Streep and company got it right, writing, “Rosi’s masterstroke was to not approach the hot-button material – of sinking boats, clamouring migrants, bellowing officials – head on, but instead watch it at one remove, through the eyes of the locals on Lampedusa, the Sicilian island that has become a major gateway for the exodus.”

The other big news on the doc front is the home stretch of the Oscar race, which looks to award one film for a very strong year in documentary. The Hollywood Reporter takes an in-depth glimpse at the films in contention with Amy, Cartel Land, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Winter on Fire, and The Look of Silence offering an impressive, if bleak, group of nominees. Says THR, “The five films chosen as finalists by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary branch offer up a woeful smorgasbord of malice, mayhem and misery.” Check back soon for POV’s take on which films will win/should win at the Oscars!

Anne Thompson at Thompson on Hollywood! chats with What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus about her film, which is a dark horse in the race. Garbus illuminates her approach to structure this excellent doc and to finding the right way to cut interviews together to best answer Maya Angelou’s titular question of “what happened?” The filmmaker also talks about the challenges and benefits of working in documentary nowadays with more films being made and more places to show them. She ends with a promising take: “It’s a good time for filmmakers to have all these options and competition for our skills. And the public’s desire to consume non-fiction storytelling is higher, and films are doing so well. Maybe it’s a change that will last for some time. When the level of practice of the game with so many people in the inner field is so high, it’s good for everybody.”

The International Documentary Association offers a valuable piece on the pros and cons of awards campaigning. Talking to filmmakers like Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) and Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, On the Ropes), and seasoned publicists, the IDA tackles the complexity and overwhelming intricacy of the awards game. What’s more important: the campaign or the film?

On the shorts front, Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is in the running for her powerful doc The Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. The film is making an impression as it brings to light the story of violence against women, honour killings, and the pervasive silence that perpetuates such crimes. The Express Tribune reports that the film screened for the Prime Minister of Pakistan with dignitaries and policy makers in attendance. Even if it doesn’t take the Oscar, the film is a winner for inviting debate and action. (Read more about Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in the POV feature on her Oscar winner Saving Face.)

Also in the news is the tidbit that legendary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann will make his first appearance at the Oscars this year. In Contention at Variety reports that Lanzmann is going to attend as the guest of director Adam Benzine. Their doc Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is a nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject. POV hopes that Lanzmann makes it to the stage. Read more about the film in Benzine’s Indiewire feature on the valuable lesson a filmmaker takes away from Lanzmann’s incomparable work on his doc landmark Shoah.

On the Canadian front, CBC looks at the new documentary The Pass System, which examines the rules restriction the movements of First Nations persons outside of reservations. The film, directed by Alex Williams, explores at this policy, which last for nearly sixty years despite being enacted as a temporary measure. The film documents the largely undocumented history of the pass system and draws upon oral records, which, as the director says, are “extremely crucial — not just to understand the emotional impact of what happened, but purely as evidence because these documents have been destroyed, we don’t have a clear record.”

Realscreen talks with the filmmakers behind the Sundance hit Notes on Blindness. Peter Middleton and James Spinney tell why they resist labels of fiction and non-fiction in the practice. Their approach, something akin to hybrid filmmaking, sounds ingenious as the employ archival interviews and contemporary actors to mouth the words. Read more here and be sure to check out Part One and Part Two of POV’s Sundance reports if you missed them!

Finally, Nonfics reports that doc filmmaker Aaron Aites needs our help. The filmmaker, whose credits include Where the Light Takes Us and 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Documentary, is now battling an aggressive form of kidney cancer. Aites and partner/filmmaker Audrey Ewell are currently crowdfunding for treatment. Visit the Go Fund Me campaign here.

Short Film of the Week:

This week’s short spotlight goes to Jeffrey St. Jules’s extraordinary 2012 NFB film Let the Daylight into the Swamp. This wild, zany, and ingenious film pushes boundaries of form, genre, and style. It earned a well-deserved Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Short Documentary and is an absolute must see for anyone who found themselves drunk over St. Jules’s feature debut Bang Bang Baby last year.

_jules/” title=“more films by Jeffrey St. Jules” target=”_blank”>Jeffrey St. Jules, National Film Board of Canada