What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for June 13
By Pat Mullen
What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of documentary news and views highlights some Canadian films, Hot Docs favourites, and hot-button issues. Docs ranging from short online originals to mammoth mini-series are making headlines this week.
First up is the Toronto Star talking with filmmaker (and POV board member) Nimisha Mukerji on her excellent new doc Tempest Storm. The film, one of the strongest docs to premiere at Hot Docs this spring, is coming to theatres this Friday. The Star talks to Mukerji about her experience making a feature about octogenarian burlesque dancer, actress, sex icon, living legend, and glass-ceiling breaker Tempest Storm, a Southern beauty who defies just about every misconception about her trade. “There doesn’t seem to be any real acknowledgement … of what she did in her profession at a time when she really did not have that many options,” says Mukerji to the Star. “Especially a woman like Tempest, who was uneducated, came from the Deep South.” The director adds that it was difficult to get support for the project despite the star power of her subject, as prospective execs wanted her to focus on the saucy bits of Storm’s career, rather than her achievements and personal struggles. “It kind of bugs me when people just want to dismiss her as a stripper,” says Mukerji. “That’s not how I view her. I view her as a businesswoman.”
Mukerji’s account in the Star reflects the ongoing difficulty that films by and about women have making it the big screen. Variety reports that Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis wants to confront Hollywood sexism by producing a documentary about the subject. “I’ve been encouraged by my peers speaking out on gender disparity in recent years, but we still are not seeing the actual number change,” Davis told Variety. “There’s been no real improvement in the number of female roles since 1946 and there’s still a dearth of female directors.” The news brings its own controversy, though, as it comes with the announcement that Davis tapped Tom Donohue to make the project. Donohue, whose previous doc Casting By is about Marion Dougherty and other unsung casting directors, seems perfectly qualified to delve into Hollywood history, but the choice is already raising eyebrows and drawing concerns of sexism. Those concerns seem understandable: why confront the gender gap but perpetuate it at the same time?
Canadian filmmaker Clarke Makey has his own story of working women as Victoria Gibson of The Kingston Whig-Standard reports on his new doc Revolution Begins at Home. Mackey’s film offers a portrait of his mother, a painter who eventually became a Communist and factory worker until she left the party when she saw numerous contradictions at its core. “The attitude towards women, the dogmatism, the lack of openness to other points of view, the language that was being used to describe things? It eventually wore her down,” Mackey says to the Whig. The film recently premiered at The Screening Room in Kingston.
Moving from Kingston to Toronto, Desmond Cole at the Toronto Star airs some serious concerns about a new VICE documentary. Cole writes that VICE’s This is Dixon casts the Etobicoke neighbourhood in an unfair light as the team behind the doc interviews Somali residents about their awareness of members of the Blood gang in area. Cole writes that the doc reinforces anti-black racism and argues, “By repeatedly asking residents of Somali heritage questions about gangs they cannot answer — because they do not know, or because they rightfully fear being held responsible for crime — the documentary puts an unfair and racist burden on the community. Calling such a piece This is Dixon incorrectly defines the neighbourhood by the crimes of a small fraction of residents.” Watch This is Dixon below and let us know in the comments if the doc is unfair.
If VICE takes a step back in furthering representations of race through documentary with This is Dixon, then ESPN takes a giant leap forward with its acclaimed mini-series O.J. Simpson: Made in American. The five-part series, which premiered at Hot Docs earlier this year, is drawing well-deserved praise for director Ezra Edelman’s situation of Simpson’s success within the climate in which black Americans were perceived and portrayed during the formative years of the athlete’s career. The Hollywood Reporter offers eight major takeaways from the first part of the series and highlights Simpson’s views on race as one of the show’s strengths: “While Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown pushed for political change and African-American leaders proposed a boycott of the 1968 Olympics, O.J. just shrugged. ‘I’m not too well enlightened on the situation,’ he says in a vintage interview. ‘I don’t know exactly what they’re trying to do.’ Later, when Edwards implored him to take a stand along with his fellow black athletes, he declared: ‘I’m not black. I’m O.J.’” Did you tune in to the first episodes of Made in America? (Or make the marathon at Hot Docs?) How do you find the doc’s portrait of the fallen icon?
No stranger to the pages of “What’s Up, Doc?” is Dominic Gagnon’s notorious (and now deceased) doc of the North. The film rises from the dead in Reverse Shot’s ongoing symposium on documentary and drama in a provocative reading of the film with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North alongside Miguel Gomes’s Tabu. Some of the author’s points are problematic, saying that Gagnon’s mash-up video “functions as a populist response to Flaherty’s film: this is their North, not Nanook’s.” The author’s emphasis on ‘their’ is exactly the problem, since members of the Inuit community resoundingly reject the notion that this is ‘their’ north. Reverse Shot adds: “His ostensible intentions backfired. Critics of of the North are doing their damnedest to make sure that most people will not be able to see the film, and for the most part they won their battle: the film’s most recent iteration is 74 minutes of a black screen and silence. Both Tabu and of the North hold confidently contradictory viewpoints regarding issues of imperialist racism. Both respond to Flaherty by reversing the backward aspects of his films, but are left with products that are themselves slightly backward — of the North in its vindication of stereotypes, Tabu in its nostalgia for Portuguese Africa.” Read the full piece here and maybe read up on Hot Docs Audience Award winner Angry Inuk for a better doc on Inuit self-representation.
Finally, one doc that gets things right with its presentation of life in northern Canada (namely northern B.C.) is Nettie Wild’s KONELINE: our land beautiful. (Read the POV review here.) The film gets a great profile in Maclean’s from film critic and Al Purdy Was Here director Brian D. Johnson, who talks with Wild at length and draws some wonderful assessments of the film with apt comparisons to La Dolce Vita in Wild’s breathtaking visual scope: “It’s hard to think of another environmental documentary that has portrayed the sanctity of the wilderness and those who prey on it with such a magnanimous spirit, without muddying the issues. But then director Nettie Wild came to the film with a natural-born affinity for both the land and the miners.” Read more on KONELINE in the current POV feature Being Wild.
Short film of the week:
This week’s short doc is another queer spotlight for Pride Month. The Typist by Kristine Stolakis is a strong film that I caught at the short docs programme at the inaugural Mirror Mountain Film Festival in Ottawa this December. This compelling work draws upon audio interviews to create an intimate portrait of a man who wrote discharges for gay seamen during the Korean War. The irony? The typist was himself gay and forced to participate in the systemic discrimination against his own community.
What are you reading this week?
Let us know in the comments or send a tip to pat[at]povmagazine.com.