What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Nov. 21

A Better Man
Courtesy of the NFB

By Pat Mullen

After a hiatus that was much longer than anticipated, we’re back with our link round-up “What’s Up, Doc?” We’ll resume our bi-weekly effort to highlight news and views from the documentary scene and hopefully draw attention to some docs that might not be on your radar.

The top story in Hollywood right now is, of course, the unsettling flood of allegations of sexual assault and harassment that began with Harvey Weinstein. (This watershed moment has been dubbed “The Reckoning” and “Weinstein Spring” in some corners.)

One documentary that is particularly valuable in terms of adding to this conversation is Attiya Khan and Larry Jackman’s film A Better Man. The film sees Khan confront her ex-boyfriend Steve to discuss the abuse he inflicted on her during their relationship and work out how it affected both their lives. After debuting at Hot Docs earlier this year, A Better Man had its timely American premiere at Doc NYC in the wake of Weinstein Spring. If there’s a documentary that captures the pulse of the film industry and culture more broadly at this moment, A Better Man is it.

Doreen St. Felix offers an essential reading of A Better Man for The New Yorker on that front and looks at what the conversations between Khan and Steve say about the larger elements of power and control embedded within gender-based violence: “Sometimes Steve remembers, and sometimes he doesn’t. It’s not that he ever denies Khan’s accounts; rather, the violence, for him, seems to have dissolved into the churn of his volatile youth. This is the epistemological crisis of abuse, in which the burden of knowing and remembering falls on victim. Late in the film, Khan, in a voice-over, expresses anger at this cruel imbalance: “How could you not remember abusing me every day in that house? I needed you to be the one to say it.” Her question recalls that crucial “if” that has qualified the recent public admissions of guilt from so many powerful men—and those awkward codified phrases we have heard so often of late: ‘my abuser,’ ‘my rapist.’” Watch A Better Man when it premieres on TVO November 25 at 9:00 PM.

Another hot title from Doc NYC is Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem with Apu, which interrogates the racist implications of one of The Simpsons’ most beloved characters, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Apu is the Indian immigrant who runs the Kwik-E-Mart and is voiced by white guy Hank Azaria. Eric Deggans at NPR tackles the film’s character study: “The Problem with Apu often unfolds like a movie-length Daily Show segment – and that’s a compliment – deftly outlining the stereotypes South Asian people still struggle with in media depictions, writes Deggan. “But the attitude it exposes among Hollywood producers and performers, reveals the ugly truth of why these stereotypes persist. Until the pain of indulging the stereotype outweighs the success, wealth, and power that comes from feeding it, the awful images will remain.”

On the Canadian front, David Beers at The Tyee looks at the NFB doc Birth of a Family, a significant film moving audiences to tears on the festival circuit this year with its tale of a family brought together for the first time after being torn apart by the Sixties Scoop in which Indigenous children were taken from their parents and placed in the foster homes of white families who raised them with no connection to their culture or heritage. Beers gets the story behind the film from subject and writer Betty Ann Adam, a journalist who pursued her own story for the film. Adam says that putting one’s life on film involved taking a different perspective after so many years of keeping herself out of the stories she reported as a journalist. “I’ve spent my career persuading people there are important things in their life to tell,” says Adam. “The more touching, the more heartfelt, the better. I have learned over the years that the best way to explain an important issue is by telling someone’s personal story.” Birth of a Family is now available to stream on the CBC. Read the POV review of Birth of a Family here.

Unfractured director Chanda Chevannes tells her story about finding the motivation to fight and challenge herself while shooting her latest film. Writing at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ blog The Female Gaze, Chevannes relates her experience of documenting the work of activist Sandra Steingraber and being inspired to push beyond her comfort zone to tell the story. “Part of this is just an innate aspect of my personality,” writes Chevannes. “I am afraid of conflict. I ignore it, hide from it, and even run away from it. But there was something else going on. I am a woman, a person of color, and—maybe most tellingly—a Canadian. Society’s expectation of me and those who share these same identities is that we will be deferential to—and somewhat fearful of—authority.” Read more from Chevannes on what women and documentary filmmakers can to do inspire change in her powerful speech from Planet in Focus, Fighting with Our Whole Hearts.

Sometimes filmmakers find inspiration from their subjects, and sometimes they find it from other filmmakers. Norm Wilner’s podcast Someone Else’s Movie explores the latter source of inspiration by offering engaging conversations with filmmakers, actors, etc. about one film they really love and think other people should see. This week’s guest is director Jamie M. Dagg, whose new film Sweet Virginia opens soon. (He previously won the Canadian Screen Award for best emerging filmmaker for last year’s River.) Dagg’s pick is Ron Fricke’s stunning doc Baraka. It’s the first time someone on the SEM podcast has picked a non-narrative work and the openness of the film lets Dagg and Wilner have an engaging conversation about all sorts of mechanical tidbits on frame rates and film stocks that leads to an expected chat about Baraka in relation to Ang Lee’s misfire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the star-studded remake of Murder on the Orient Express. Have a listen and let us know which one doc could fuel an hour-long conversation about your love for movies.

Another take that comes out of left field is Barney Ronay’s piece at The Guardian that asks if we’re entering the golden age of sports documentaries. After films like Senna and ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, as well as new docs 89 and Kenny, Ronay thinks there’s more to this sports doc renaissance. “From a commercial angle it isn’t hard to see why so many are being made,” writes Ronay. “For a start, sports documentaries are cheap. There is a formulaic ease to knocking together another ready-made plot, with ready-made footage and a ready-made audience. And let’s face it, many of these stories are only being told because of grey-pound nostalgia. In an age when Premier League grounds are packed out by middle-aged disposable income, sporting docs tend to tell the story of a certain time, of vanished youth.” What other films put sports docs atop the podium?

Finally, the world of true crime might be the most popular category of documentary enjoying a renaissance with film and television both dabbling in the popular form of non-fiction. This rise led to the 30 for 30 doc OJ: Made in America, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature despite being an ESPN episodic work. This win inspired the Academy to overhaul the rules of eligibility in the doc category to ferret out TV docs masquerading as theatrical works to cash in on the extra publicity and accolades.

A new controversy is up this year with the decision that Errol Morris’s Netflix doc Wormwood is ineligible for Best Documentary Feature. Anne Thompson at Indiewire speaks with Morris to tackle the very strange situation in which his film, a true crime hybrid that features Molly Parker and Peter Sarsgaard in meticulous dramatizations, is eligible in all categories except Best Documentary Feature. Yes, a documentary can now take home acting prizes but not Best Documentary. The new ruling is exclusive to the documentary category. The fact that Wormwood opens as a five-hour screening in one theatre the same day Netflix dumps the episodes for binge-watching online only seems to be a problem in one of the 20-odd categories in which it could conceivably be a contender. If a drama were to mirror the same release, there would be no issue since rules haven’t been updated to reflect the changes in distribution and exhibition for drama. Writes Thompson: “Morris finds it ironic that the Academy is holding out theatrical definitions for Oscar viability when at the start of his career, ‘the whole idea that you would put documentaries in theaters was considered to be ridiculous,’ he said. ‘If a film was paid for by anybody, it was television money. It’s still true that the whole idea of documentaries being put in theaters is almost an afterthought.‘” What should determine a film’s candidacy: means of production, exhibition, or some combination of the two?

Short doc of the week:

A highlight from TIFF last year, Justin Simms’ slice of like doc Hand. Line. Cod trawls the waters off the coast of the Fogo Islands to observe the daily efforts of fishermen who catch the cods that make their way to restaurants across the country. “Simms’ film shows that some things are best done the old way,” we wrote back at TIFF, “while the intimate cinematography and folksy score evoke a similar emotion. Hand. Line. Cod is dedicated to the memory of the great NFB director Colin Low, who helmed 27 films in Fogo 50 years ago. It is fit to bear his name.”

Hand.Line.Cod, Justin Simms, provided by the National Film Board of Canada