What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Mar. 14

Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, one of three docs to make the list of Canada’s best films, as per the Internet.

By Pat Mullen

This week’s edition of “What’s Up, Doc?” begins with documentary news and views from Canadian perspectives, which seems appropriate given the recent finale of the Canadian Screen Awards. The top doc prize of the week is Alan Zweig’s Hurt, which readers may stream via Canada Screens.

One item that seems to be getting ample shares is a list—that ever popular and clickable new kind of reporting—about the “best” Canadian films of all time. CBC Arts offers the roster, made by the statistics website The 10 and 3, which accounts for a weighted ranking of the so-called top Canuck films of all time. This effort culls previous Canadian Screen Award winners and nominees and then gives them a weighted assessment of their IMDb rating and popularity among users. On top? Room, this year’s Candy winner, Oscar winner, and TIFF People’s Choice winner. Yes, the best Canadian film of all time is less than a year old, as deemed by the Internet.

As is always the case with lists, the effort is just as dubious as the results are, but they’re worth discussing. Only three of the fifty films on the list are documentaries despite docs accounting for a sizable portion of film production in Canada, especially in the earlier years of the art form when Hollywood was cranking out movies like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Lawrence of Arabia. The three docs in the Internet’s favour are Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (at #16), Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (#22), and Allan King’s Warrendale (at #41). Warrendale also happens to be the oldest film on the list with its 1967 release making it the only pre-1970 production to make the cut.

Allan King’s Warrendale

Why are there so few documentaries on the list? Is it really fair to offer a Canuck canon without Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance? It has an 8/10, but is three votes shy of 200, so it doesn’t even make the list despite having as good a rating as Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. has. Ron Mann’s Comic Book Confidential? A 7.0, as per the web. Forbidden Love? A 7.4 with less than 200 votes. Devil at Your Heels? A 7.8 with a paltry 114 votes. And, finally, Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media has a whopping 8.2 with nearly 3,500 votes, but it doesn’t even make the list. What gives?

The absence of Canadian documentaries from this list isn’t so much the product of a flawed/reductive formula, but rather the result of low consumption. People either aren’t voting for the Canadian films they see or, more likely, they simply aren’t watching them. What can POV readers do to create awareness and boost more docs into the canon? The first step is to see these films, and there’s no excuse not to have seen some of them, since films such as Devil at Your Heels and Kanehsatake are freely and legally available online or, like Forbidden Love, are available for rent. Which other films should doc fans watch so that they can boost some IMDb ratings?

Another relevant discussion comes from Johanna Schneller at The Globe and Mail who tackles the annual worrying that the Canadian Screen Awards/Screenies/Candys are in trouble. The article doesn’t tackle documentaries specifically, but it seems relevant. Schneller notes that it remains difficult to see the nominees from a pool that ranges from coast to coast with a mix of theatrical and festival screenings. The first step towards overhauling the awards show, which is really just one final product at the end of the industry chain, is to improve exposure, access, and distribution. “TIFF could be more aggressive about putting Canadian films, stars and journalists front and centre, as the French do at Cannes,” Schneller writes. “As one producer (who did not want to be named) puts it, ‘We shouldn’t have to fight to nab a tiny piece of our own territory.’ Cineplex could jettison any remaining restrictions against screening films that are also streamed on other media. (It’s the 21st century, people. The old delivery models are moribund.)” The latter point seems especially relevant to documentaries, which are finding more life on VOD and streaming services. What shapes the canon and discourse, doc fans? What’s the solution in terms of getting Canucks excited about Canadian content?

A more humorous list comes on the heels of controversy in Pakistan surrounding Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s recent win for Best Documentary, Short Subject for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. The Nation confronts charges that the short doc portrays Pakistan and Islam unfairly by offering a satirical piece that tackles the other Oscar-winning documentaries and seeing how they portray their respective nations unfairly. Their take on March of the Penguins? “Boring. Who cares about Penguins unless they have accepted Islam?” What other conspiracies drive the Oscars?

Colin Low

The Globe and Mail offers a second link this week with Liam Lacey’s wonderful remembrance of the late Colin Low. This insightful and comprehensive last look at the recently deceased documentary filmmaker highlights Low’s significant contribution to Canadian film and it draws upon several voices from the documentary community to convey Low’s legacy. Among the interviewees is POV editor Marc Glassman, who offers these fond words for Low, “Colin Low’s life and career reveal him to be a curious mixture of artist and civil servant… Trained as a draftsman and first brought to the National Film Board to work under Norman McLaren and his animation department, Mr. Low could have easily pursued a life as an animator and filmmaker. But whenever the NFB asked him to divert his efforts into production and administration – running the animation department in the 1950s and the board’s regional productions in the 1970s – he did so without hesitation.” Read more about Low in Glassman’s interview with the filmmaker.

Canadian film has some new voices who give hope for the future, including up-and-coming Matt Campea, whose doc I, Pedophile recently got people talking after airing on CBC last week. “No other part of the population goes through such demonization and witch-hunts,” says Campea in an interview with Martin Knelman at The Toronto Star. This bold, brave, and revealing film challenges viewers to empathise with pedophiles as it explores the science that creates a pedophile’s attraction to children and lets pedophiles explain their feelings and actions, and this take from the filmmaker is worth a read. Watch the film here at CBC and let POV know how you feel. How can we help these men? Do they deserve assistance and empathy?

Up and coming filmmakers often do more than just make documentary films. Indiewire tackles the plight of the starving artists as Chris O’Falt interviews numerous filmmakers at SXSW to see how they pay the bills. Alex Lehmann, for example, director of Asperger’s Are Us, says he funnelled money into docs by working as a camera operator, while Marina Zenovitch (Fantastic Lies) reports that she now makes a living as a doc maker after years of working for corporations to make ends meet. How do doc-makers on the pages of POV subsidise their filmmaking?

Short Film of the Week:

This week’s short spotlight goes to I Thought I Told You to Shut Up! by director Charlie Tyrell. Academy Award winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme narrates his funny and irreverent doc that chronicles the history of Reid Fleming, aka “the World’s Toughest Milkman,” as created by David Boswell. The film uses a mix of talking heads, archival footage, and ingenious animation to create the complicated history of the character and his even trickier path to the big screen. This previous Hot Docs selection is a spectacular treat.

I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!! from Charlie Tyrell on Vimeo.

What are you reading this week?
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