What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-Up

Rob Stewart free diving with Caribbean reef sharks. Freeport Bahamas.
Photo by Veruschka Matchett

By Pat Mullen

This week’s round-up of documentary coverage begins with a bittersweet continuation of the work by a voice lost too soon. The past week marked one year since the death of Sharkwater director Rob Stewart, who drowned while diving and researching his follow-up film Sharkwater Extinction. Holly Lake at iPolitics reports that Stewart’s parents were lobbying his cause on the anniversary of his death and making a case before the Senate’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans to make illegal the importation of severed shark fins. “Rob was a proud Canadian. He wore it on his sleeve. He wore it around the world. He died doing what he wanted to do, and he died doing what he thought he had to do,” Brian said. “We just want to continue that mission…If the last shark goes down, the balance in the ocean goes and we go down with it.” Read more on Stewart and his work in the profile A Calm Revolution?.

Stewart’s spirit for activism and preserving the planet would surely have found an ally in primatologist Jane Goodall and have been a fan of Brett Morgen’s sweeping doc about Goodall’s passionate work. Anne Thompson at Thompson on Hollywood looks closer at Morgen’s Jane and the snub that rocked the Oscar nominations. Jane looked like the frontrunner based on critics’ prizes and industry gongs, so Thompson does some digging: “Looking back, signs of weakness were apparent to the discerning eye,” writes Thompson. “Groups withholding top awards for Jane included the International Documentary Association, Cinema Eye Honors, the Independent Spirit Awards, and Gothams…But many give credit for the movie to cinematographer van Lawick. ‘There is bias against all Archival,’ wrote one branch member in an email. ‘And maybe a little wanting to support underdogs and their towering achievements.’” Read more about Jane in our interview with Brett Morgen.

Thom Powers talks with two of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, Yance Ford (Strong Island) and Bryan Fogel (Icarus) along with Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Coral) in the latest episode of Pure Nonfiction. Powers leads the trio on a discussion about injecting themselves into their respective documentaries since their presence within the films guides viewers through surprising discoveries. The three directors discuss standing before the camera from different approaches with Ford breaking his own rule against being in the film, Fogel becoming the default subject when wrangling an athlete into being a mole for the doping system didn’t work, and with Orlowski entering the film from a perspective of practical logistics. Which other films seamlessly inject the presence of the filmmakers into their devices? Listen to the episode below and check back for reviews of Strong Island and Icarus soon!

Let’s move from features to shorts as Sarah Larson at The New Yorker looks at Knife Skills, one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Knife Skills whips up a great story from director Thomas Lennon, who profiles the creation of Edwins, a French restaurant in Cleveland by proprietor Brandon Chrostowski who credits the eatery with saving his life. Larson discusses the doc with Lennon, who shares his journey profiling Chrostowski’s new lease on life through the restaurant and the greater implications of social reform and empathy the film invites. “We live in an era of readily available information,” Lennon tells Larson. “I’m defining my job quite narrowly: Can I make you think about an issue and care about an issue? Think about the people and care about those people?”

“If he can do that,” Larson writes, “we can easily learn more ourselves. The film is informed by sympathy and curiosity, but Lennon didn’t come to it by way of an intellectual grasp of criminal-justice reform or a passion about the history of mass incarceration, he told me…The story came to him.” Knife Skills is available to watch in full below via The New Yorker.

Doc fans eager to see some of the recent hits from Sundance can start by catching the new Gloria Allred documentary Seeing Allred when it arrives on Netflix this week. Nadja Sayej at VICE goes behind the scenes of Seeing Allred with directors Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman to discuss their timely profile of the polarizing civil rights lawyer with a career dedicated to fighting for survivors of sexual assault and harassment. “When the #MeToo movement exploded, Gloria was at the center of that,” said the film’s co-director, Sophie Sartain. “We felt we captured her 40-year career and we positioned her as very much still being in the fight. The stories in this film will keep going. It’s a complete story in itself.” Seeing Allred debuts on Netflix Friday, so stay tuned for the POV review! In the meantime, catch up on some of the Sundance hits with our report from the festival.

Netflix is making a killing by acquiring festival hits and top-level talent including the ever-prolific Alex Gibney (Zero Days). The Oscar winner maker returns to the streaming gitant with the new six-part series Dirty Money. The mini-series explores systems of power in capitalism and the machinery that makes for bad business. Gibney sits down with Killian Fox at The Guardian for a provocative interview that tackles the Trump question by interrogation his success and stature as a businessman and entrepreneur. “The essence of Trump’s appeal was that he’s a great businessman, so therefore he’ll be a great president,” says Gibney. “He was an absolutely terrible businessman. Every business he touched withered and died and he would always leave someone else holding the bag. You look at the trail of slime he left behind and just shake your head and wonder.” Dirty Money is now on Netflix.

Some world leaders like Trump continue to deny the evidence of climate change, but documentary photography continues to open eyes to the marvels of the world that deserve protection. The photography of Brendan George Ko captures the power and stories embedded within plants and flowers around the globe with his exhibition/series A Stranger in Two Worlds. Bryony Stone at It’s Nice That scores an interview with the photographer and highlights his work on plants in Hawai’I and Ontario that are breathtaking markers of human migration. “In Hawai’i there are species of plants that are found nowhere else in the world and in Ontario, the plants return to overrun the landscape in the summer,” says Ko. “The study of ecology often is about the relationship humans have on the natural world, how we moved plants, introduced them to a place, and the process of naturalization…When humans started to arrive in Hawai’i, they brought with them new species of life. Over the years, especially after European contact, the ecology of the islands rapidly changed. The landscape is marked by the tale of migration.” See more photography by Brendan George Ko in the current exhibition at CONTACT gallery in Toronto. (And enjoy a slideshow of his work below!)


Finally, a highlight of award season is always the annual Oscar lunch and its reports of who got the most applause in the room full of nominees. (Consensus this year tipped Mudbound cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the first woman nominated in the category, for getting the loudest woohoos.) But the media and stars in the room say that the nominee who stole the show wasn’t even there. It was Agnès Varda, who was too tired to travel but was present in spirit thanks to a life-sized cardboard cutout trucked out by her Faces Places co-director JR.

JR brings a cardboard cutout of his codirector #AgnesVarda to #oscarlunch

A post shared by Sandy Cohen (@sandola3000) on

Including one with her cat:

Keeping a watchful eye on the media:

Making shrewd campaigning moves from afar:

And rubbing shoulders with nominees Meryl Streep (The Post), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), and Allison Janney (I, Tonya):

Short Doc of the Week:

This week’s short spotlight goes to One Leg In, One Leg Out, the new film from director Lisa Rideout (Canadian Screen Award nominee Take a Walk on the Wild Side) and CBC Docs. Leg profiles Iman, a transgender Torontonian, as she strives to leave the sex trade. The intimate doc follows Iman on her walks at night as she discusses the lack of opportunities for trans-people in conventional customer service roles and the dearth of supports in place. She decides to remedy this gap by pursuing a career in social work and providing a voice for other women on the street.