What’s Up Doc? Doc Talk for Jan. 9

The Rape of Recy Taylor

By Pat Mullen

Earlier this week, Oprah Winfrey rocked the Golden Globes with a powerful speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. Her words were the highlight of the night thanks to her compelling perspective on the value of seeing oneself represented onscreen. Part of Winfrey’s speech focused on the recent death of Recy Taylor, who was abducted while walking home from church in 1944 and raped by a group of white men.

Soraya Nadia McDonald at The Undefeated unpacks Taylor’s history and legacy within the context of the new documentary The Rape of Recy Taylor. The film, directed by Nancy Buirski whose doc The Loving Story inspired last year’s Oscar-nominee Loving, was recently released in the States and tells of Taylor’s remarkable life as an activist fighting to prevent further Black women from becoming victims. “What happened to Taylor and countless other black women and the obscurity of their story within the broader narrative of American history is emblematic of the way black women’s trauma is repeatedly given short shrift even today,” writes McDonald. “The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.” The Rape of Recy Taylor is currently without Canadian distribution.

The subject of representation and visibility receives a strong consideration in “A Place at the Table: Doc Filmmakers with Disabilities on Building Careers and Disproving Stereotypes” by James Labrecht at Documentary, which stresses the next stage of representation to which the film industry needs to turn its focus. Labrecht speaks with filmmakers such as Jason DaSilva (When I Walk) and Jennifer Brea (Unrest), who notes a “near universal blindness” to the experiences of people with disabilities in film, to highlight the ways in which representation behind the camera and onscreen needs to change. “We are a community that isn’t very well known,” write Labrecht. “In fact, I’d venture to say that the general population isn’t aware that there are millions of us out there who identify culturally as disabled or Deaf. For those of us who do identify that way, there is a rich history of art, dance, theater, music (well beyond Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles) and now, film. I believe that we need to tell our stories because we can do so from our own perspective, not one that is filtered through someone else’s lens.” The filmmakers in this article have extraordinary stories of directing while blind, directing remotely from their beds, and other circumstances, so why hasn’t disability factored more prominently into the conversation for diverse representation in film?

A much different reflection on representation and storytelling arises in the virtual reality world and, particularly in the new project Carne y Arena by Birdman and The Revenant director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The much-ballyhooed installation lets users tiptoe through the sand while experiencing the journey of crossing the border from Mexico to the USA. This project, which received a special Oscar and the first Academy Award ever for VR, polarizes critics with its 360-degree migration saga. Jordan Cronk, for example, offers a tough but hilarious reflection on the experience over at Film Comment, writing, “By its very design, Carne y Arena …endeavors to reconcile two seemingly incompatible extremes: the demands of commerce and the nuances of empathy. With regard to the former, it’s safe to say no expense was spared…But who exactly is Carne y Arena for? Its $55 admission fee and air of exclusivity aren’t exactly inviting for those outside the art-world bubble. As a VR experience, it’s only intermittently transporting, unintentionally confirming that cinema’s imaginative dimension—a crucial ingredient for any visual medium endeavoring to break the dictatorship of the frame—has yet to find a strong corollary in the virtual realm.” Does Iñárritu need a reality check, or does the critic? Or, perhaps, does VR?

A documentary has never won Best Picture at the Oscars, nor has one been nominated, but Emily Kubincanek at Film School Rejects gives an unexpected documentary reading of an Academy classic. Cecil B. DeMille’s big screen circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth scooped the 1952 Best Picture Oscar, hopefully due to an accounting error, but amidst its cinematic spectacle might be some pepperings of documentary. Kubincanek writes: “Most scenes were filmed on tour with the real circus from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Those that weren’t were filmed in Sarasota, setting up the big top as if it were just a regular show and even doing a full traditional circus parade, which hadn’t been done in 30 years. Instead of using a soundstage and artificial glamorous lighting, DeMille opted for a more realistic and sometimes flat lighting. The circus doesn’t lack color, however, and the film is still a beautiful Technicolor dream…It was a revolutionary combination, a real-life spectacle with the storytelling of Hollywood.” The Greatest Show on Earth might be one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time, but maybe we’ll credit it a few points for documentary and bump it above groaners like Forrest Gump and Crash.

We come to the audio portion of today’s documentary round-up. First on the plate is a must-listen interview for the commute. Doc legend Alanis Obomsawin sits down for a fireside chat with Hanna Bächer of Red Bull Radio,. Clear an hour to listen to Canada’s reigning documentary icon discuss her ever-impressive career! (And don’t forget to see her in person when Our People Will Be Healed screens at Canada’s Top Ten next week!)

Also on the audio front is an engaging conversation about the latest evolution in documentary distribution. Scott Feinberg sits down with Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vp original documentary and comedy programming, for the Awards Chatter podcast at The Hollywood Reporter, and offers an insightful perspective on the benefits of expanding the audience for documentary online. Nishimura talks about finding motivation from seeing big box stores dismiss documentaries from their tidy displays to see the rewards of the “infinite shelf space” of the Internet. Part of the discussion involves changing the conversation back to seeing documentary as an art form, rather than as a product to move units, and this insight from the streaming giant gives some perspective on how and why Netflix has grown the audience for documentary so significantly.

Finally, it’s a dire year for everyone as Tr*mp approaches the 365th day of his presidency, but Sarah Hutto at The New Yorker has a good laugh rounding up “reactions” to the 15-hour, seven disc Ken Burns documentary on the Idiot in Chief’s reign of terror. “This simply is not the sort of thing our country needs right now,” observes media icon (and potential 2020 candidate) Oprah Winfrey. Miss Teen USA gives the film a “thumbs-down,” saying, “I found this movie really unrealistic. No developed country would ever allow this sort of thing to happen.” We can’t wait for the Amazon reviews!

And… we don’t usually add crowd-funding, but our friends at Nonfics have launched a Patreon campaign. Subscribe and support documentary culture!

Short Doc of the Week:

The NFB recently released a whack of docs for free and one short film worth watching is Home Cooked Music by Mike Maryniuk. This really cool hybrid whips up some home-cooked documentary footage and eclectic animation to offer a musical profile of Lorne Collie and his collection of offbeat instruments. Back at Hot Docs, we wrote, “Home Cooked Music is a funky nod to self-invention and a whimsical chord of Canadiana.”

Home Cooked Music, Mike Maryniuk, provided by the National Film Board of Canada