What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-Up

Apu and political incorrectness make a cameo on The Simpsons

By Pat Mullen

A “What’s Up, Doc?” post from last November featured news on the documentary The Problem with Apu and the film is back in the headlines. The documentary by Hari Kondabolu tackles the problematic portrayal of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the beloved Indian Kwik-E-Mart employee on the long-running animated series The Simpsons and contributes to the growing conversation on race and representation in film and television. Now it seems that The Simpsons wants its say. The most recent episode features a scene in which Marge rewrites a childhood book she realizes to be politically incorrect for her daughter Lisa. Young Lisa, often the show’s voice of reason, turns to the camera and reflects on changing cultural attitudes with a bit of Lisasplaining that says the issue will be addressed at a later date, “if at all” before the image pans to a photo of Apu, a Hindu, signed with Bart Simpson’s catch phrase, “Don’t have a cow.”

The response from The Simpsons is being called everything from tone deaf, toothless, and insensitive to salt rubbed in the wound. Linda Holmes at NPR summarizes the problem with The Simpsons’ problem best, writing, “What is entirely missing from this response is any recognition of the effects on the people who find themselves not represented, or represented poorly — and they were at the center of Kondabolu’s documentary.” Holmes added that Lisa’s quip that the issue would be “dealt with at a later date. If at all” basically translated to: “We have heard how we have hurt people, and we honestly don’t care.” If Apu is problematic, which shows and films should audiences look to for positive and sensitive representations? Watch the clip below:

Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses, for example, is widely praised in large part for its representational purposes. The NFB doc about Toronto’s Villaways residents and the struggle for a community was a hit on last year’s festival circuit for giving a voice to people who are often left by the sidelines. Officer recently spoke with the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Art Matters blog about the significance of representing diverse communities onscreen and how documentary has a tenuous relationship with representation. “At first glance, it may appear that documentary film is synonymous with truth,” said Officer. “But in fact, documentary film is historically rooted in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialisms. For decades, North American filmmakers — predominately white men — have controlled the lens on what stories are told and what truths are presented on the screen. I believe that the choice of cinematic form – be it documentary or fiction – is inconsequential to creating something that is true. The responsibility for telling the truth belongs to the storytellers, not the medium.” Read more about Unarmed Verses in the feature Neighbourhood Watch.

Officer’s fellow NFBer Alanis Obomsawin changed the game for representation in Canadian documentary by giving a voice to Indigenous perspectives through her films. Obomsawin recently talked with George Stroumboulopoulos on his radio show House of Strombo to discuss her new documentary Our People Will Be Healed and the ongoing effort to create space of Indigenous stories and voices. Read more about Obomsawin’s work and career in this interview with Marc Glassman.

Canadian filmmaker David Eng shows that there are many ways to represent a subject with his new doc Grand Cru, which takes a lighter (but no less palatable) drink from the world of wine. The doc takes audiences to Burgundy, France with a portrait of Montreal poet-turned vintner Pascal Marchand who shares the grand tasting notes of one of the most popular regions in wine country. Eng recently chatted with The Montreal Gazette about his experience imbibing in the world of wines. “I wanted to make a documentary about wine in a way that I didn’t think had been made before,” said Eng. “One that would appeal to both experts and novices. I decided to do an artist profile. Focus on the winemaker as an artist. Documenting the labour and the intensity of the process. That way, even if you didn’t know much about wine, you could get a real sense of what’s going on.” Grand Cru is now playing in Quebec.

Over at Frieze, Sierra Pettengill reports on the field from this year’s CPH:DOX festival. Highlights include the festival’s overall winner The Raft by Marcus Lindeen and Ghost Haunting by Raed Andoni, but Pettengill reserves the highest praise for one of the festival’s retrospective screenings from master Jean Rouche. “In his groundbreaking film The Human Pyramid (1959), a hybrid documentary-fiction melodrama set in the Ivory Coast, a group of African and white French colonial high school students, who share an integrated classroom but live very strictly segregated social lives, venture to intermingle outside of schoo,” writes Pettengill. “Late in the film it becomes clear that these daring new interactions are actually fostered by Rouch’s direct intervention into their personal lives, and as such, The Human Pyramid’s often stilted-feeling scenes are transformed into powerful mirror image reflections of the stark awkwardness of nascent, socially-radical intimacies.”


The biggest and best of all documentary festivals, Hot Docs, is coming up soon and the festival’s industry blog Hot Docs Jots is writing up some highlights from this year’s festival and past favorites. Madelaine Russo recently interviewed the sibling filmmaking team of Jonathan Bogarín and Elan Bogarín, who are at the festival to premiere the feature 306 Hollywood after pitching the project at the Forum. The siblings describe their unique approach towards combing through their grandmother’s history and finding a universal language for sharing a personal story. “We had planned to make a magical realism documentary before we even started this film,” explains Jonathan Bogarín. “We wanted to find a way to make ordinary people’s lived experience extraordinary—we wanted to transform and elevate life to the level of myth and fairy tale…If you think about the ways that human beings have always spoken about big life transitions, whether it be birth or death or coming of age, they always use myth, including fairy tale, religion or magic.” Get showtimes for 306 Magic here and stay tuned to our upcoming Hot Docs Hub for coverage from this year’s festival.

306 Hollywood Preview Clip from elan bogarin on Vimeo.

The China Hustle director Jed Rothstein joins Thom Powers at Pure Nonfiction to discuss his compelling documentary about the sorry state of affairs for the global economy. “Basically, we’re all living in an economic nightmare. But we knew that, right?” wrote Daniel Glassman while reviewing The China Hustle at TIFF last year. But does Rothstein think the nightmare will ever break? Listen and find out! The China Hustle is now playing on Netflix.

Finally, the National Film Board of Canada gets a shout-out in the A/V Club’s appraisal of the 1998 electronica album Music Has the Right to Children by the band Boards of Canada. Sean O’Neal argues that one can’t help but enjoy the romp through nostalgia in one of the best and most important electronic albums of all time. “Nostalgia is right there in the group’s name, too, an homage to the National Film Board Of Canada documentaries that Sandison and Eoin watched as kids,” writes O’Neal. “Their music is explicitly intended to evoke the soundtracks of those warbling filmstrips you watched on your science teacher’s hangover day, or the retro-futuristic, synth-brass blasts that underscored ’80s production logos and myriad sci-fi curios now lost to VHS…The title of “Pete Standing Alone” actually takes its name directly from the subject of seven different National Film Boards documentaries, a displaced Albertan First Nations member whose struggles to maintain his tribe are also alluded to in the interlude ‘Kaini Industries.’ The recording bleeds an ominous synth burble into the faded, distant sounds of a Native American ceremony—a nod to civilization’s own fading collective memory.” Aren’t NFB films the soundtracks to all memories?

Short Doc (but not really a doc) of the Week:

Let’s run with the current of electricity and share the best film the NFB produced last year, The Tesla World Light as the short of the week. This animated hybrid by Matthew Rankin was recently made available to stream for free from the NFB following its win for Best Animated Short at the Screenies this year. The Tesla World Light is a Guy Maddin-ish oddity that features innovate use of light and electricity to tell a playful account of inventor Nikola Tesla. “Rankin’s technique, called ‘light painting’ draws with white light and plays with exposure to capture the lasting impression of illumination,” we wrote in our review of the film. “The production design is an abstract coup of jagged rays of light—a kind of expressionism that jolts with the subject’s creative energy. There’s also a fascinating element of documenting the presence of light as something tangible, but the flickering images, like Tesla’s own flashes of genius, are hauntingly ephemeral.”

The Tesla World Light, Matthew Rankin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada