What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-Up
By Pat Mullen
This year’s festival marks a major milestone for Hot Docs. The documentary showcase celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018 and continues to rise as Toronto’s best festival for engaging a diverse audience with a wide range of films from around the globe. Hot Docs marks 25 years of great films and festivals by spotlighting some of the top docs from previous years over at their industry blog Hot Docs Jots. This week, Jots talks with 112 Weddings director and Hot Docs 2014 alum Doug Block about his experience making docs over the years, pitching at the Forum, and knowing how and when to cut yourself out of the story. “I usually don’t make a sample and start pitching until I’m almost, if not completely, done with the shooting,” says Block. “It’s one of the real advantages I have of making films the way I do. I’m a one-person crew, and so I can shoot most, if not all of the film without funding, which enables me to make a fundraising sample that is pretty evolved, and that can show a story arc and a character arc. So, anybody that’s coming on board is coming into an idea that’s pretty far along. They either buy into it or they don’t.” Read Marc Glassman’s review of 112 Weddings here.
One film we hope to see at Hot Docs is the Sundance sensation Hale County, This Morning, This Evening from director RaMell Ross. The doc is one of the most acclaimed films to emerge from Sundance this year having won a special jury prize for creative vision in depicting the history and nuances of life in the American South. Ross talks about his film and process with Bilge Ebiri of the Village Voice and highlights the ways in which his background in photography helped him deconstruct and consider representations of Blackness onscreen and hone the creative vision that viewers find so powerful. “And when you’re forced to contend with something as historically burdened as the black community or the black image, the amount of completion truly determines your relationship to the community, and your relationship to media, and your relationship to narrative,” says Ross. “The film is also a process of me coming to understanding the way in which I deal with imagery and the way in which I deal with myself and my own people. I immediately realized that it was a Rorschach test. My early large format photography kind of dealt with the plurality of truth — how different people would see images in different ways.” Read more on Hale County This Morning, This Evening in Jason Gorber’s report from Sundance.
Another Sundance highlight making headlines is this year’s winner of the directing award for U.S. documentary, On Her Shoulders by Alexandria Bombach. On Her Shoulders tells the story of Nadia Murad, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman who survived the atrocities of ISIS including sexual slavery and genocide. Murad offers a compelling editorial in the New York Times in which she shares her journey and looks for hope that she may one day return home to her village of Kocko, Iraq and see her rapists brought to justice. “That hope made us speak publicly about something as painful and private as our abuse by the Islamic State,” writes Murad. “By recounting what happened to us, we relived our pain and risked being judged harshly by those around us. When you ask a Yazidi to repeat her grim testimony, you should consider what an emotional toll that exacts. And when you recount what happened to us, please do not use that demeaning phrase “sex slaves” to refer to us. We are survivors.”
One of the hottest topics in contemporary documentaries is the serious crisis of displaced persons around the globe, many of whom were forced to leave home due to violence and devastation wrought by ISIS. Filmmaker and artist Ai Weiwei offers one of the best snapshots of the migration crisis in his powerful globe-trotting documentary Human Flow. Ai draws upon his personal experience growing up in refugee camps in a searing op-ed at The Guardian that reflects upon his experience shooting Human Flow. He offers a call to action for the West to accept its responsibility to help migrants and change its ways that forcibly displace lives around the world. “At this moment, the west – which has disproportionately benefited from globalisation – simply refuses to bear its responsibilities, even though the condition of many refugees is a direct result of the greed inherent in a global capitalist system,” writes Ai Weiwei. “If we map the 70-plus border walls and fences built between nations in the past three decades – increasing from roughly a dozen after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we can see the extent of global economic and political disparities. The people most negatively affected by these walls are the poorest and most desperate of society.” Read more about Human Flow in our review of the film.
Donald Trump ranks highest among the villains of the west devastating the planet. While he is no friend to democracy (or progress, humanity, common sense, good Twitter etiquette, etc.), his politics and extremism are undeniable fuel for documentarians and citizen journalists around the world. Bryan Curtis at The Ringer, for example, reflects on the impact of the Donald on podcasts and how the alternative voices of Americans delivered via podcasting are the new waves of diplomacy challenging the image of the U.S.A. that Trump embodies. “Whatever appeal American podcasts might have had in Australia is doubled if they offer an explanation for the Trump phenomenon,” writes Curtis. “A lot of Australians wonder how Trump got elected, and how he maintains even sub-40-percent levels of support. Moreover, Trump generates so much news that Australian newspapers and TV shows often don’t get deeper than the outrageous headlines…American podcasting serves a final diplomatic function. It not only explains Trump but is an antidote to him. Where Trump is insular and anti-intellectual, podcasting is a reminder that a large swath of America isn’t.” Read more on the art and business of podcasting in our report from the Hot Docs Podcast Festival.
On the photography front, artist and activist Jo-Anne McArthur is this year’s winner of the People’s Choice Award for Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the National History Museum in London. McArthur’s winning photograph is a striking black and white portrait of a gorilla named Pikin in Cameroon embraced in the arms of her caretaker, Appolinaire Ndohoudou. Katie Pivid at the Natural History Museum offers more on the story behind the shot that won the hearts of audiences: “Like Pikin, Appolinaire was forced from his home, having fled Chad because of a civil war. As he rebuilt his life in Cameroon, his work in protecting wild animals revived his appreciation for the natural world. He has built loving relationships with the gorillas he helps to rear – some of these animals have known him almost all their lives.” McArthur’s work and photography was previously featured in Liz Marshall’s extraordinary documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine.
A new VICE documentary, Steel Town Down directed by Shawney Cohen (The Manor) is making headlines for its raw and bold investigations into opioid addiction in the quiet city of Sault Ste. Marie. The doc shows Soo residents struggle with addiction and strive to encorage the city to take action. Soo Mayor Christian Provenzano offers a reflection on the film on his blog and agrees it’s time for the city to wake up to the state of things and help those in need. “There are a lot of positive things happening (and a number of really good initiatives) across our community which can rightly make us proud of our community and embrace it as a great place to live,” writes Provenzano. “However, we have to recognize that what we saw in the documentary is real and that it is happening here. We have to recognize that people are struggling, that families are in turn struggling and that people are dying. This community, the one that is struggling with substance abuse issues, exists alongside and within our larger community. We will not be helpful to the people in our community that need our help if we don’t start by acknowledging that the need exists.” Watch Steel Town Down below from VICE:
Kristen Berkely at CKLP 101.9 FM talks with Inuit filmmaker Assinajaq (aka Isabella-Rose Weetaluktuk) about her film Three Thousand. The acclaimed short film mixes archival images from the National Film Board of Canada with evocative animation to offer hopeful images for the future. “I went through the archives with everything that was labelled Inuit,” says Assinajaq on combing through the NFB files. “I think I looked at all the archives twice. I remember the first time that there were images that I kind of passed over and remembered and had to go back and find again. Going through them, all of those times really gave me a good idea of what had been captured of life throughout those times.” The film is currently a Canadian Screen Award nominee for Best Short Documentary after Assinaja was honoured by the Toronto Film Critics Association last year.
Finally, we are proud to sponsor the upcoming screening of Ulrike Ottinger: Nomad from the Lake at the Goethe Institute’s Goethe Films retrospective on the career of director Ulrike Ottinger. The documentary by Brigitte Kramer offers a personal and intimate portrait of the director who broke barriers who women and queer directors. We’re partnering with the Goethe Institute to send readers to see Nomad of the Lake on Friday, March 1 at TIFF Lightbox – visit the Goethe Institute’s blog to enter!
Short film of the week:
This week’s short spotlight goes to Martine Chartrand’s animated NFB doc Black Soul. Breathtaking paint on glass portraits convey history in rich and impressionistic details as an elderly woman passes lessons of the past on to her grandson. Read more about Martine Chartrand and her filmmaking process in the feature Character Studies.