What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for July 4

Producer Anita Lee
© NFB


By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of documentary news and views brings a class of Academy favourites both past, present, and – possibly – future.

Big news this week comes with The Academy’s list of invitations for the class of 2016. This roster of filmmakers and actors welcomes to join the Academy includes an impressive tally of Canadians, including Stories We Tell, Invention, and The Apology producer Anita Lee and the latter film’s composer Lesley Barber and film editor Mary Stephen. Other Canucks on the invitee list include, but are not limited to, Deepa Mehta (Water), Xavier Dolan (Mommy), Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Julie Roy (Kali the Little Vampire), and Patricia Rozema (Into the Forest). Notable documentary invitees include, but are not limited to, last year’s winner Asif Kapadia (Amy), Joshua Oppenheimer (The Look of Silence), and Kristen Johnson (Cameraperson).



Lee’s presence in this year’s Oscar class is part of the Academy’s notable and long-overdue improvement in terms of recognising female filmmakers and talents of colour. While the response to the internationally-oriented list is overall positive, some outlets, like The Hollywood Reporter , note that The Academy faces a steep slope in meeting its diversity target given that the record list of invitees includes a number of talents whose credits are mostly in television, or have only one of two films to their names. All the Canuck members of the Class of ‘16 are extremely worthy, though, as are the doc-makers, so which homegrown talents should the Academy consider for next year as Hollywood catches up to the Canadian film scene?

Roger Ross Williams is one of the rare cases of a black filmmaker winning an Oscar for a documentary, although his win for the short Music by Prudence is often overshadowed by what MTV calls producer Elinor Burkett’s cringe-worthy Kanye West moment where she bumped Williams off the mic during his acceptance speech. Williams showcases his voice in the new feature doc Life, Animated (read the POV Hot Docs review here) with an extraordinary portrait of autistic animator Owen Suskind, whose love for Walt Disney classics helped him communicate with the world. Williams talks with Documentary Magazine about his sensitive approach into his subject’s mind and the world of classic animation that inspires him. His conversation reveals the depth that filmmakers may find in their subjects with the right rapport: “[A]bout a third of the way through the film, he introduces original animation, which offers insight into Owen’s dialogue with the Disney oeuvre as he imagines himself heroically facing adversity as a member in a tribe of sidekicks. ‘I wanted to bring original animation into the film, but only when the audience is ready to go even deeper into Owen’s world,’ Williams maintains. ‘So by the time you see the sidekick animation, you’re completely immersed.’”

Speaking of Oscar-winners, Alex Gibney’s prolific career includes one little golden man for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side and the film is just one of several reasons why Vulture proclaims that the director is “reinventing documentary.” Looking at Gibney’s busy output in film, television, and, it seems, everything else in between, the article shows how the filmmaker’s approach expands possibilities for future doc-makers: “At his best, Gibney is not just an investigator or a crusader or an artist, but some rare hybrid of the three — animated by narrative ¬imperatives, driven to expose the secrets of the powerful, and expert at using the first to deliver the second to as many people as possible.”

One film that could be in the conversation for next year’s Oscar race is Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated documentary feature Voyage of Time. The doc, which Tree of Life star Brad Pitt narrates in one version and Cate Blanchett guides in the 35mm release, ends a project 30 years in the making for Malick. This rumination of life, death, the universe, and existence, hits theatres in IMAX on October 7. Watch the trailer below. (And don’t forget to watch the trailer for Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones! for another sneak peek at an upcoming doc!)

If Voyage of Time wants to capitalise on its October 7 release, doc fans can anticipate the film as a potential selection at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. That choice probably falls on TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers, who is the man to talk to on the doc front at the world’s biggest public film festival. He’s also the man to talk to on the best documentary podcast currently on the ‘net, Pure Nonfiction, which puts the programmer in conversation with some of the doc world’s biggest names. In a recent episode worth catching, Powers sits down with Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and cellist Yo-Yo Ma to discuss their new film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, which opens in Canada this week after premiering at TIFF last fall. (Read the POV review of the film here.) In this lively discussion, Powers and Neville talk all things music docs, making a short doc with Prince and Judith Hill (see below), the costs of music clearances, and discuss how the best music docs transcend their subjects. “Music is the language you tell the story in,” says Neville, “but ultimately you’re telling a different story”

Realscreen looks at how BBC America sings a new tune for documentary and interviews the makers of the new series The Hunt, its “first major natural history copro.” Series producer Huw Cordey and executive producer Alastair Fothergill talk with Realscreen’s Manori Ravindran about capturing animals in all their natural complexity using the right tools and approaches. “In order to create sympathy for predators,” says Crodey, “we have to create a language and stories that enable people to relate to them, and I think we were very encouraged by people’s response. People did start rooting for the predators and that was important. Yes we did anthropomorphize a bit, but I think it was very modest on that.” The Hunt is now playing on BBC America.

Finally, CBC talks with Barbara Doran about her new doc Newfoundland at Armageddon, which premiered on CBC June 30th. The film looks at Canada of 1916, Newfoundland’s deadliest day ever, when hundreds of soldiers died in France during the war. Doran says that her film particularly honours the stories of women in this chapter of history: “I think we often leave women out of the story of war and women made a huge sacrifice as well. Women on the homefront had to take over a lot of the work the men normally do — the fishing, the hauling wood, the preparing for the winter and all that.” Watch a clip from Newfoundland at Armageddon below.

Short Doc of the Week:

To mark Anita Lee’s invite to the Academy here is one of the short docs she produced for the NFB. Play, directed by Hubert Davis, celebrates the career of actor/director Albert Schultz with the artist and his peers from the Soulpepper Theatre. It’s important to know the people you’re playing with, eh Oscar?

Play, Hubert Davis, National Film Board of Canada

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