What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Jan. 4
By Pat Mullen
Happy New Year! We begin 2018 with warm wishes for a great year in documentary. (Based on all the lunacy south of the border, some good docs are presumably going to be on the menu soon.) We also start the year by taking stock of the best films that 2017 had to offer. Over at Nonfics, a poll of 30-odd critics surveys the field for the best in a very strong year for documentary. Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places sits at #1 with a strong lead over Jane, Dawson City: Frozen Time, Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library, and Kedi. The results have some similarities with our own poll of Toronto film critics, which also calls Faces Places the top banana.
Alissa Wilkinson at Vox reflects on the year in documentary by highlighting the themes that ran throughout the best non-fiction fare. Overall, the year of “Fake News” proves that documentary is more relevant than ever with new or, in the President’s case, wildly distorted, realities. “It’s safe to say that the concept of “nonfiction” got complicated in 2017,” writes Wilkinson. “We rarely experience ‘reality’ directly; it comes to us filtered through the written word and the TV screen, the Twitter feed and the YouTube stream. And we already knew that ‘reality’ didn’t necessarily mean real, thanks to reality TV. But this year, that awareness spilled out of entertainment and into politics, policy, and social issues in a way that even those formerly comfortable with the squishy nature of ‘reality’ couldn’t ignore…In a mediated environment often driven by what sells advertising and what attracts eyeballs, the more modest and often long-gestating world of nonfiction film may prove to be a vital part of keeping our faith in reality alive.”
Similarly, Chris Cabin at Collider synthesizes the year gone by on the documentary front. He finds similar conclusions as Wilkinson does, but notes that, in a very good year for documentary, 2017 was also a very good year for Netflix, who released docs like Strong Island, Jim & Andy: the great beyond, and One of Us. “It  will also be known as the year that Netflix broke out as genuine creative competition to second-tier studios like A24, Fox Searchlight, Magnolia, and Focus, after doing the same to TV,” writes Cabin. “There’s nothing wrong with more straightforward fare…but as facts become more slippery and empathy becomes more elusive, the best documentaries must strike out into bolder directions to sift through the noise and find something wholly relatable, convincing, and intimate to hold onto.”
When in comes to forecasting 2018, Victoria Ahearn at The Canadian Press writes that Canadians should see a giant leap for Indigenous filmmakers. The creation of the Indigenous screen office makes new doors to be opened, and the addition of new funds and opportunities encourages a ripe field of diverse voices in drama and documentary. Speaking with filmmakers and figures in the community, Ahearn finds a stir of optimism for a journey long in the making. “I feel that we’re really going someplace where we’ve never gone before. I know that Canadians are really listening now and want to know the truth,” says Alanis Obomsawin, speaking about her seeing the evolution of support and opportunities for Indigenous filmmakers across her 50 film career. “It’s like a bomb everywhere — it’s so exciting.”
Obomsawin joins filmmaker Amanda Strong (Mia’) over at TIFF’s The Review for a conversation on the state of Indigenous filmmaking. The two generations of artists have a candid chat on who has the right to tell Indigenous stories, how filmmakers challenge traditional modes of narratives and storytelling, and how Indigenous cinema is a particularly strong field for women. “But even since I’ve started making films, which is getting close to 10 years now, it’s changed,” says Strong. Alanis talked about imagination. You’re dealing with a people who have access to imaginary worlds and truths we’ve never seen before. If you look at our Indigenous filmmaking world, it’s one that’s dominated by women. They’re way beyond half of who’s telling and directing our stories and that’s also exciting.” Catch Obomsawin and Strong at TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten festival with Our People Will Be Healed and Flood, respectively, when the festival starts Jan. 12. (But you can get a head start by watching Flood below.)
Moving from new voices to old ones, Craig Hubert at Hyperallegic takes in Michelangelo Antonioni’s rarely seen 1972 documentary, Chung Kuo-Cina. The film, which screens in New York at MoMA , is a three-hour epic about the revolution in Maoist China. Hubert writes that Antonioni claims objectivity in the film, but that the final product offended Mao so much that the filmmaker was deemed counter-revolutionary and the doc was banned for 30 years. “But what to make of Chung Kuo now?” asks Hubert after taking in the rare sight. “Antonioni was certainly making a political film, whether he knew it or not, and much of his voice-over blatantly contradicts any claims of distance: at one moment, he talks about how he asked his handlers to film a funeral, but was denied because they felt it was too personal; he details another moment where they were asked to stop filming, later realizing it was because they were passing the homes of party leaders, which Antonioni’s cameraman shoots anyway. Underlying the entire film is the premise that this is a place that we actively cannot see and that it takes the demystifying camera of a Western filmmaker to explore restricted depths.”
Far less controversial is the idea that dance frequently makes for a fine documentary. Deirdre Towers at Dance Magazine looks at what makes a great dance doc by examining the fancy footwork of films like Mr. Gaga and La Chana. “We can never actually capture a dance, so much as create an homage to it,” writes Tower. “A documentarian though can transmit an artist’s magnetism with the collaboration of a great team and the skill of a storyteller. Lighting is a filmmaker’s paint. It adds art, style, depth and heart to every scene. Framing and angling the camera in certain ways can clarify the emotional arch of a moment or phrase. Audio can emphasize the natural sounds of a dancer’s feet and breath, bringing us closer to them. And editing the footage is an art similar to choreography; it demands musicality and a gift for suspense.” After reading, shake a leg with other great dance docs like Step, Bobbi Jene, and Pina.
Finally, Jennifer Brea’s powerful Unrest is one doc on the Oscar shortlist that is now available on home video, if anyone wants to catch up on contenders. The doc is Brea’s personal experience with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, colloquially and problematically known as chronic fatigue syndrome, as she documents her struggle to stay healthy and fight for more research and better awareness of the disease. Brea sits down with Thom Powers on the latest episode of the podcast Pure Nonfiction to discuss her incredible film and the challenge of making the doc to encourage better visibility for the millions of lives missing to the disease. (We caught up with Unrest last night on home video, so check back soon for a review!)
Listen to Jennifer Brea talk Unrest on Pure Nonfiction here:
Short Doc of the Week:
Also new on the home video front this week is the strong short doc The Collection directed by Adam Roffman. We caught the film when it played at Ottawa’s Mirror Mountain Film Festival in December and loved its affectionate story of two collectors and film buffs preserving artifacts of film history. Roffman interviews collectors DJ Ginsberg and Marilyn Wagner as they restore a treasure trove of wooden blocks used to print classic movie posters. The collection is valued in the millions, but the images and interviews provide time capsules of film history as the doc presents relics of cinephilia that belong in a museum. The Collection is now available on Vimeo, so give it a watch below and start saving your quarters for the e-Bay sale!