What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-Up

The Raft

By Pat Mullen

The Raft won this year’s top prize at CPH:DOX, Copenhagen’s major international showcase for documentary where the jury praised it as a hallmark of the art form. The film by Marcus Lindeen revisits a peculiar social experiment from 1973 in which anthropologist Santiago Genovés put five women and five men on a raft that journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, Genovés anticipated a scenario akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in which the lab mice would turn on one another, but the results were a surprise.

Lindeen’s doc revisits this scenario with an unconventional approach. He reassembles the participants of the experiment (Genovés having passed away years ago), and has them discuss the experience on a soundstage complete with a makeshift boat. Lindeen, speaking with Pamela Cohen at Filmmaker magazine, describes how this theatricality aids the documentary by finding a unique form between artifice and reality. “If I worked with actors in a completely fictionalized situation, I would strive for it to be seamless and try to avoid any artificiality, making it as natural or authentic as possible,” says Lindeen. “The other way around is to start with documentary elements and add artificiality or theatricality to see what comes out of that. For me as a director, working in this obviously artificial way in a black box studio opens up a whole other toolbox with which I can work more freely with the documentary material.”

Photographers spending over 100 days at sea might want to consider picking up a Canon for all their waterproof documentary needs. Michael Zhang at Peta Pixel reports of the remarkable story of a camera that was lost at sea for two years and reunited with its owner. Zhang writes that students found the barnacle encrusted Canon on the shores of Taiwan and opened up a waterproof case to find a perfectly functional camera within it. The teacher flipped through the photos, posted them on Facebook, and helped the camera find its way home to its owner, a university student in Japan. Read the full story here about the little camera that could.

Also on the photography front, fstoppers gets the story behind the photographer taking the widely circulated shots of student and activists David Hogg and Emma González, two leaders in the #MarchforOurLives protests in which American youths rallied for changes to the nation’s gun control laws. Wasim Ahmad writes that the photographer taking these compelling portraits of Hogg and González is Emilee McGovern. Ahmad adds that the images appear in many outlets without McGovern’s consent, yet the photographer sees the portraits as a calling to a greater cause. “What matters is the authenticity of the moment, and that is exactly what you’re getting with these two portraits,” says McGovern. “I had no idea when I took them that they’d end up being as important as they have become. I didn’t know they’d ever be seen on such a large scale. I personally wanted their portraits, I wanted to remember this forever. So the most important tool I used that day was my gut. It’s also important to know that If you want to get emotion out of your subjects, you have to channel your own emotions, you have to convey genuine empathy.” Discover more of McGovern’s work at her website and Instagram account.

All I can say for the many people who believe things will never change, is that they’ve obviously never looked into the eyes of David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez. Two seniors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, who’ve spent the last 4 days not backing down. Holding the adults accountable. Calling out those responsible. Reminding us all that they’re the kids, and we’ve failed them as the grownups. With compassion, elegance, and a little bit of rage, they’ve challenged the entire core of this country. They’ve stepped up, and I think they are going to bring the rest of America with them. Rally to support firearm safety 02/17/18 #marjorystonemandouglas #msd #parkland #douglasstrong #gunreformnow #marjorystonemandouglashigh #coralsprings #ftl #mia #soflo #sofla #florida #broward #news #breakingnews #photojournalism #photojournalist

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A much different portrait of a less reluctant celebrity comes in the M.I.A. profile Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.. The doc features pop star M.I.A. in an intimate look at the singer’s personal life and career drawn from her personal archive of images and videos. M.I.A., speaking with Kory Grow of Rolling Stone, says she’s grown to accept aspects of a film that caught her by surprise when she first saw it at Sundance. M.I.A. opens up about her views on finding her voice in the industry as a woman of colour and cutting through the noise of so-called “woke culture” that often leaves her feeling like the amphibian man in The Shape of Water. “For me, it’s interesting to see that in the past two years, everything has turned around in America,” says M.I.A. “Within two years, the human brain can deal with racism, sexism, activism and all the ‘isms.’ And they’re so ‘woke’ to it. And they weren’t woke to it four years before, when it was happening to me. So to me it’s interesting to be back here [in America] and show this film and to get some sort of an idea of why there was this weird miscommunication happening. And oppression is oppression. Slavery is slavery. Being heavy-handed on somebody legally and not giving them rights, these are thing that happened to me in America.” Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. screens as part of the Scotiabank Big ideas series at Hot Docs with M.I.A. in attendance.

Alisa Wolfson at Moneyish explores several reasons behind the rise in celebrity profile documentaries. Wolfson looks at the excitement building (and driving) HBO’s five-part docu-series Being Serena about tennis superstar Serena Williams, the Lady Gaga Netflix doc Gaga: Five Foot Two, and other celebrity programming moving from reality TV to feature-length documentary profiles. The success is a mix of voyeurism, novelty, and marketplace. “By big stars making themselves so available, you don’t need to be satisfied with just paparazzi photos, because they’re completely opening themselves up here. And although it may seem somewhat voyeuristic, that’s all part of the allure,” writes Wolfson. The author adds that Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, observes, “We are increasingly in this fragmented world, and these types of shows are appealing to a much more fragmented environment. These things don’t need 30 million viewers; they can get a much smaller number and (still) be a big hit.” Read more about celebrity docs (which, admittedly, this writer quite enjoys) like Gaga: Five Foot Two, Long Time Running, and Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami.

Over at the LA Times, however, Ryan Faughnder writes that the rise in celebrity profiles, particularly music docs, is all a matter of dollars and bottom lines. Faughnder looks at two upcoming docs Bad Reputation about Joan Jett, which scored a lucrative distribution deal out of Sundance, and an upcoming David Crosby doc by Oscar winner Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), and observes how record labels see music documentaries as direct opportunities to create new revenue. “The music industry — finally enjoying a comeback thanks to streaming services Spotify and Apple Music — is increasingly looking to film and TV to grow its audience, as young people turn to sites such as Netflix and Hulu for entertainment,” writes Faughnder. “Labels also see film as a powerful way to promote artists on their rosters.” Faughnder adds that labels see these docs as more than marketing opportunities and see them through all stages of development. For example, Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia, was produced by Universal and went on to win the Academy Award, while Ron Howard’s Beatles doc Eight Days a Week enjoyed a healthy box office take from fans of the Fab Four young and old. Read more about the genre in the feature The Sight and Sound of Music Docs.

Not every documentary is an Amy, however, when it comes to balancing corporate intentions and the life story of a prized asset. Brand Stroud at Uproxx considers the new HBO doc directed by Bill Simmons about wrestler and The Princess Bride star Andre the Giant. The doc has been hotly anticipated by fans. “At the top of the film, in the credits, you’ll notice, ‘In association with WWE,’ and that’s key, because this is a very, very pro-WWE product,” writes Stroud. “But Bill Simmons isn’t Errol Morris, and WWE’s got an image to protect, so you’re not going to come away from the film knowing who the man was. You don’t hear anything about the trouble he got into beyond the talking heads saying Andre had a temper and smiling about it, and you don’t hear about his fight with Blackjack Mulligan or his issues with Bad News Brown. It’s very complimentary and safe, and I guess there’s no reason for it not to be.” Maybe try watching Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows instead.

Short Film of the Week:

This week’s short spotlight goes to a recent addition of the NFB’s new Indigenous Cinema channel. Indigenous Plant Diva is Kamala Todd’s portrait of Cease Wyss, a Squamish woman in Vancouver who harnesses the healing power of the plants within the urban landscape. This lyrical and visually dynamic eco doc spotlights the natural elements that give life throughout the city as Wyss teaches viewers about the history of the plants for future generations.

Indigenous Plant Diva, Kamala Todd, provided by the National Film Board of Canada