What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Mar. 28
By Pat Mullen
What’s up, doc fans? This week’s round-up of documentary news and views comes after a fairly quiet few days on the doc front outside of the impressive line-up announcement for Hot Docs 2016. However, a festival south of the border seems to be scooping all the headlines.
This week’s “What’s Up, Doc?” starts with a story from the festival circuit that’s had critics, filmmakers, and programmers a-twitter. The big news is that the Tribeca Film Festival recently pulled the anti-vaccination feature documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe from its line-up. The response comes following considerable outcry that the film, directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, legitimises the efforts of a doctor-turned-doc-maker who has been largely discredited by the scientific community. Among Wakefield’s notorious rap sheet are charges that the former doctor retracted a 2010 vaccination study after Britain’s General Medical Council observed ethical violations of and financial compensations for the children on whom he based the study. Reports also say that the council revoked Wakefield’s license, yet Vaxxed allegedly lets him use documentary film as a democratic platform after losing his authority in the medical field.
The response to the programming choice is considerable enough that Robert De Niro, one of the founders of the Tribeca Film Festival, defended the film in a statement via festival’s Facebook page (see above). De Niro’s statement, which he later corrected after re-viewing the film and agreeing that Vaxxed didn’t offer a viable conversation piece for the festival, is the inspiration for this week’s must-read doc piece, a riposte to Tribeca’s early stance on Vaxxed from doc filmmaker Penny Lane.
Lane is the director of Our Nixon and the current festival hit Nuts!, which makes its Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs. Nuts! is a film about a doctor who, like Wakefield, was a proven quack. Lane’s passionate counter-argument to Tribeca in Filmmaker Magazine says that the fest’s position that it is “a forum, not a judge” does a disservice to all documentary filmmakers in this case. “Here is the problem with your statement,” Lane writes, “it assumes that Vaxxed is just like any other film taking on an unpopular, controversial or provocative subject. It is not. There is a big difference between advocacy and fraud, between point of view and deception. For you to claim there is no difference helps to perpetuate Wakefield’s fraud.”
Lane doesn’t advocate censorship and her response to Vaxxed echoes the recent concerns by Canadians over of the North, as she adds that validating the largely discredited voice behind the film is half the trouble with Vaxxed. “Issues around truth and ethics in documentary can get thorny,” Lane argues, “But this one is easy. This film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the “vaccines cause autism” hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.” Read Lane’s full open letter here.
The controversy around Vaxxed proves that documentaries are a great forum for debates of all different shades. It matters who tells a story, as Lane’s compelling essay argues. Similarly, Elizabeth McSheffrey in The National Observer writes how this year’s Hot Docs line-up, which has 40% of its roster directed by women, reflects the National Film Board’s own mandate to achieve gender parity in production. McSheffrey looks at one of several NFB films at Hot Docs ’16 selection, The Apology by Tiffany Hsiung, and discusses the role of the voice with the filmmaker. Hsiung suggests that the gender gap isn’t just in production roles, but in the ways in viewers see films. “For the younger generation,” Hsuing tells The Observer, “when they only see stories led and told by men, it’s not the full picture… It’s not the full truth, you don’t get everything. You need all perspectives, because it’s your audience that is going to learn from these stories, take from it and build from it.” Does any film tell the “full picture” though? Or are all films part of a larger conversation?
Another doc looking to inspire conversations is the current Canadian release Life Off Grid by Jonathan Taggart. The doc, which screens this week at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema, looks at the value of living outside of the hustle bustle of urban living. Steve Gow at The Toronto Star talks with Taggart about the challenges of achieving a relaxed and eco-friendly life outside of the daily grind. “I think what citizens can do is push their local governments,” says Taggart, “if you admire an off-grid lifestyle, go out and vote ‘yes’ in a transit referendum. Pay an extra minuscule fee on top of your property taxes every year so that everybody can have a better transit system.” In a way, the film extends to the broader dialogue of recent films like Suzanne Crocker’s All the Time in the World and Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine’s The Infinite Happiness, which challenge the ideologies around which humans structure their living space. Are there ways for urbanites to thrive without drinking the juice of the grid, or does one have to leave the city centre to change the pace of daily life? Also, if readers prefer to unplug, there’s always a paper subscription to POV!
In addition to the ongoing dialogue of subjects and voices in documentary, conversations of documentary form abound. Nick Fraser offers a great piece in The Guardian about the ways in which documentaries transform reality. Fraser looks at films like Stories We Tell and German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and observes how some of the very best documentaries transform reality in their unique approach to representing it. “The best docs celebrate a sense of the accidental,” Fraser writes. “And they matter. Like unknowable bits of the universe, they come into existence when a collision occurs… That’s the only real way to make a documentary film – by setting out what you believe to be true, or beautiful, and destroying any certainty by implying that, yes, it could have been described in a near-myriad other ways.” Read Fraser’s take here. What other docs “transform reality” with innovative approaches to subjects?
The passion for documentary that Fraser channels above continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers, many of whom rely on the festival circuit for exposure. No Film School offers a list of 6 do’s and don’ts for submitting to film festivals in an effort to guide emerging filmmakers through the tricky route from submission to selection. Among the tips? Find a ‘hook’ (know your film’s selling points), don’t be shy if you’re a minority filmmaker (organizations are under fire over diversity and inclusion, especially following #OscarsSoWhite, so know that every voice has value), and most importantly, ‘don’t get discouraged if you’re not accepted’. Quality is only one of many factors that determines which films play festivals and which ones do not screen.
Some filmmakers who might have benefited from the tips above are the filmmakers showcased at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival. Daniel Walber at Nonfics writes that the best emerging voices at this year’s festival are evident in three documentary shorts. The three standouts, Walber writes, are Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Reluctantly Queer (“beautifully simple and achingly complicated”), Ali Cherri’s The Digger (“constant reminder of the smallness of mortality”), and Isabel Pagliai‘s Isabella Morra (“a documentary of great literary interest”). Short docs often yield the freshest surprises at festivals, so be sure to check out recent festival gems like Just as I Remember, Gun Porn, and Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam in the new Hot Docs shorts packages on iTunes.
Short Film of the Week:
The Nonfics piece seems like a good segue to a short film spotlight. This week’s curated short is the German doc Still Life, which enjoyed its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2014. This exquisitely shot film from directors Johannes Krell and Florian Fisher offers a parable about preserving the world’s wildlife as a mix of living and taxidermed animals have their portraits taken in the wilderness. Sit back and let this film wash over you: it’s a beauty.
What are you reading this week?
Let us know in the comments or send a tip to pat[at]povmagazine.com.