What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-up - Jan. 8

Oscar winner Bryan Fogel’s latest doc The Dissident couldn’t land a home on a major streaming platform even though his previous doc Icarus won Netflix an Oscar.

By Madeline Lines

A lot has been “up” in the world of documentaries, and the world in general, since the previous round-up. Although the passing of time is arbitrary, many people hoped that changing the number on the calendar would provide some relief from the escalating chaos marked by the pandemic. If this week has been any indicator, that might be a tall order. Nevertheless, there is already plenty of material from 2020 and the first week of 2021 to fuel a field of documentaries.

In light of the storming of the U.S. Capitol and the recent discussions about the state of American democracy, Caty Borum Chattoo’s online feature in Documentary is an important read. Chattoo points out how the filmmakers who followed grassroots movements by women of colour for their doc And She Could Be Next were not surprised by Georgia’s crucial role in the 2020 election. (See All In: The Fight for Democracy, for example.) Chattoo also observes how documentaries can often foretell major historical movements by providing portals into different communities where stories bubble before they reach a boil that is felt on a national level. “Social problems and issues are, after all, simply the stories of people trying to get by, and documentaries can act as a portal,” Chattoo writes. The piece goes on to emphasize how the rise in prevalence and popularity of documentaries on streaming platforms has the power to convey crucial stories to people in an age where journalism is under fire, and where much of the public is more readily reached by a Netflix movie than a newspaper article.

In the New York Times, Nicole Sperling charts how a documentary about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has struggled to land on any major platform that would guarantee significant eyeballs, despite the director’s previous Oscar-winning doc Icarus being a celebrated Netflix release. Bryan Fogel’s The Dissident may not win an Oscar, but it appeared at Sundance, and won the praise of critics and Hillary Clinton alike. “Mr. Fogel said he believed it was also a sign of how these platforms — increasingly powerful in the world of documentary film — were in the business of expanding their subscriber bases, not necessarily turning a spotlight on the excesses of the powerful,” writes Sperling. While one Netflix deal need not preclude another, the trends of what major streaming services pick up and what they omit are worth keeping a critical eye on. Read two different takes on The Dissident from POV contributors Courtney Small and Jason Gorber for more insights on why the streamers chose not to bite.

On a lighter note, you’d better watch out – documentaries are invading the Oscars yet again, according to Steve Pond at The Wrap. Although the title evokes images of UFOs made out of film reels, the article looks at how docs are increasingly being submitted for consideration in the international category, and how the success of Honeyland may be ushering in a new age of docs at the Oscars. The seven docs submitted for consideration in the Best International Feature Film category are: Collective (Romania), Notturno (Italy), The Mole Agent (Chile), Babenco – Tell Me When I Die (Brazil), Once Upon a Time in Venezuela (Venezuela), River Tales (Luxembourg), and The Letter (Kenya). Of these contenders, Collective is tipped with the best odds for a nomination, which would be a first for its submitting country despite the popularity of the Romanian New Wave.

The case of Michelle Latimer’s false claims of Indigenous identity is reverberating in the film community beyond Canada. In Variety, Amber Dowling brings a wider audience up to speed on what has happened so far, from the bombshell CBC article to Latimer returning her DOC-Vanguard award to the DOC Institute. The article includes reflections from Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, and Drew Hayden Taylor on the complex discussion unfolding in Canadian film and among Indigenous people. A number of insightful pieces continue to be published, such as this piece by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in NOW magazine, whose feature-length documentary Kimmapiiyipitssini is set to premiere in 2021. POV recently published a statement on the Fall/Winter 2020 cover featuring Latimer and will have more soon.

As the pandemic nears its one-year anniversary in Canada, discussions around mental health take on a fiercer urgency. Hot Docs is showcasing a collection of films relating to mental health, in partnership with Bell Let’s Talk and Workman Arts, until January 28. The series is streaming for free at hotdocs.ca and includes Connecting the Dots and Rat Park. Another free series to add to your weekend watchlist is 150 Stories that Shape British Columbia, which premiered yesterday on Knowledge Network. The bite-sized docs aspire to create a video tapestry of the ever-transforming province and its people. You can watch them here.

Short Doc of the Week: My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes

If you liked Dick Johnson Is Dead’s playful yet sincere homage to a dying father, you can return to a similar feeling in Charlie Tyrell’s cinematic eulogy for an imperfect father. The highly acclaimed My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes animates the filmmaker’s father’s possessions in an effort to piece together an understanding of his dad, who passed away from cancer when Tyrell was in his early twenties. The cathartic and moving short by the Torontonian director was a hit at festivals around the world, made the Oscar shortlist in 2018, and is featured as part of the New York Times’ Op-Docs.