What’s Up Doc? Doc Talk for Jan. 30

The Oslo Diaries
Courtesy of Sundance

By Pat Mullen

This week’s round-up of documentary news and views looks to the snowy success of Sundance. Reports from Park City indicate a hit-and-miss year for the festival overall, but documentary-goers note that the non-fiction front was better than the dramatic side of things with topical films tackling the Trump era and ongoing conflicts of war and migration. We also catch up on some of the Oscar-nominated documentaries. (Sorry for missing last week’s round-up…the Oscars overtook all!)

On the Canadian front, the co-pro and Sundance selection The Oslo Diaries recently went to HBO. T’Cha Dunlevy at The Montreal Gazette looks at the Quebec connections that helped bring this story of peace talks between Israeli and Palestine to the scene. (The film features recent Oscar winner Sylvain Bellemare, for example, on the sound team.) “To many, the Oslo Accords’ eventual collapse following the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 proved that the talks were a failure and there can never be peace between the countries,” writes Dunlvey, who discusses the project with the husband and wife directing team of Daniel Sivan and Mor Loushy, who highlight the successful aspects of the talks in this retrospective look.

“Everyone said, ‘A film about peace? Boring, It will be all statistics, about land, clauses, sub-clauses and contracts,’ ” Sivan recounted. “We started searching for how to bring the film to life through a personal, emotional journey. These were simple people, none of them were famous or high-level politicians. But they changed history.” Read more about The Oslo Diaries Here.

At The Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri looks at two documentaries, RaMell Ross’s Hale County, This Morning, This Evening and Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap to discuss how they create a new cinematic language. The films pose questions and inject elements of uncertainty as part of their interrogations. “By fragmenting our point-of-view, [the filmmakers] draw our attention to what we can’t know,” writes Ebiri. “All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life?”

Anthony Kaufman breaks down the Sundance deals at Indiewire and observes a notable shortage of theatrical releases lined up for documentaries. Kaufman discusses what he considers to be the festival’s standout non-fiction films, like Robert Greene’s Brisbee ‘17, the aforementioned Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, and Michael Dweck’s The Last Race, and notes that the films that most demand a big screen release still have uncertain futures post-Sundance and the festival circuit. “But maybe the definition of ‘theatrical,’ matters less these days anyway,” writes Kaufman. “Consider that two of the biggest nonfiction productions at Sundance, hailing from Oscar-nominated filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Steve James, respectively, are TV projects…If Heineman and James don’t need theaters, maybe the rest of Sundance’s doc-makers don’t, either.”

Steve James earned his first nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category this year for Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. (And about time, too!) The film is one of two docs representing Kartemquin Films at the Oscars. (The other being the short Edith + Eddie.) Tim Horsburgh and Betsy Steinberg of Kartemquin Films sit down on the Chicago Stories podcast with Rahm Emanue, mayor of the Windy City, to discuss the production company’s prolific history of activist filmmaking. The team talks about making Chicago proud with Kartemquin’s legacy by telling stories of Mid-western values and highlighting what makes Chicago so ripe for telling stories of social justice. The Kartemquin reps also talk about working with James and extending their stories beyond their native city to look at broader stories with universal themes. With James, they highlight his ability to work with filmmakers who want genuine relationships with subjects and audiences. Listen to the podcast below:

Steven Zeitchik chronicles a gripping story behind the Oscar nominee Icarus at The Washington Post and the efforts to protect the film’s central subject, whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov. The doc features Rodchenkov as he reveals drug-doping tactics used by Russia during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. However, the team behind Icarus, including producing/financing company Impact Partners, worries that the Russian government may retaliate against Rodchenkov by undermining his credibility (and the film’s) or go so far as to capture and silence him. It’s a story that could fuel another documentary. “Finishing the movie that summer and fall then became a spy-like operation,” writes Zeitchik. “In a series of actions [Dan] Cogan [co-partner of Impact] describes with a mix of pride and worry, he and [director Bryan Fogel] hid hard drives around the country backing up footage of Rodchenkov interviews; the editing room in Santa Monica and Impact’s offices on the Brooklyn waterfront were not considered safe. Cogan bought burner phones for himself, Fogel and his team. The staff members were to use their usual phones for all other business and talk about Icarus only on the disposable devices.” Check back soon for a review of Icarus!

Icarus and fellow Best Documenary Feature nominee Strong Island are among the films representing Netflix at the Oscars and the streaming giant has another contender in Heroin(e) to defend its honour in the shorts category where it deservedly won last year for The White Helmets. Director Elaine McMillon Sheldon talks about the doc with Caity Coyne of the Charleston Gazette Mail to highlight the film’s laudable approach to substance abuse, intervention, and overcoming stigma for the subjects in West Virginia. “When making Heroin(e), I set out to be truthful, be honest and represent my state the way it really is, with empathy,” Sheldon said. “The way you see these three women treat people can help eliminate the stigma that often holds us back. It all comes down to how we treat one another.”

Director Peter Lynch has a new drama in theatres with the nourish thriller Birdland currently on screens, but readers might best know Lynch for his documentaries, like the wild and offbeat hybrid Project Grizzly. The film is the focus of the Royal Canadian Movie Podcast retrospective with guest panelist actor/activist Jeff Kaiser joining hosts Cameron Maitland and Becky Shrimpton. The trio discusses one of Canada’s most unique cult classics, metal suits, how Americans and Canadians might approach the wacky project differently, and the unsung grizzly man of our national art form in a fun and lively conversation that befits the quirky film. (There’s also some talk on the joys of seeing weekend lunchtime screenings at the Varsity.) The wild gesticulations on Project Grizzly start around the ten-minute mark. Listen to the podcast here and watch Project Grizzly below. Is the film a tragic character study or a tale of a male flop like Devil at Your Heels?

Project Grizzly , Peter Lynch, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Short Film of the Week:

This week’s short spotlight bookends the post with Canadian content from Sundance. Director Matthew Rhys adapts his feature Anote’s Ark to the New York Times Op-Docs short Sinking Islands, Floating Nation. The film sees Rhys visit the small and obscure Pacific nation the Republic of Kiribati where he joins former president Anote Tong to observe the consequences of climate change on the low-lying island. “This century will see unprecedented climate-induced migration, and the Kiribati case is merely the beginning,” Rhys writes at the Times. “By conservative estimates, some 200 million citizens will be forced to flee their homelands by 2050. Where will we relocate all these climate refugees? For this unfathomable problem, we are now seeing equally unfathomable solutions.”