What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-Up

By Pat Mullen

Anyone who fears the saying “You should never meet your heroes” should read Kiva Reardon’s interview with Agnès Varda. Reardon, a POV contributor, is the editor of cléo, a journal of film and feminism named with a nod of thanks to Varda’s film Cléo from 5 to 7, the groundbreaking feminist work from the French New Wave. The latest issue of cléo is dedicated to the grand dame of cinema, who is more popular than ever at 89-years-old thanks to the success of her Oscar-nominated doc Faces Places.

The highlight of the issue is Reardon’s conversation with Varda from the French filmmaker’s home. The piece reads with bonne camaraderie, but doesn’t neglect the hard issues. After decades in the business, Varda reflects on the recent change in conversation about misogyny in the film industry and finds a note of optimism—as one expects with her infectious joie de vivre. “What’s happening now is good in a way because it pushes the women to say something,” says Varda. “But the fact is true: power in society leads to sexual power. Very often. Very often men have been taking advantage of their positions to hurt women—young or not young. It is a serious problem and subject. And society will slightly change because some men have understood they’ve become accomplices. If men can understand they should not hurt somebody because they have the power, or strength to, that might change society.” Read the POV review of Faces Places here and catch the film at the Lightbox tonight with an intro by Reardon.

2017’s other great lady of documentary—Jane Goodall—receives an unexpected appraisal from Kate Blair in the new issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room devoted to magical realism. Blair examines the elaborate archival tapestry of Brett Morgen’s National Geographic film and reflects upon Jane’s ability to transport audiences to new worlds and points of view through turns of fantasy and subjectivity. “While it utilizes documentary wildlife footage, the film is just as firmly planted in the world of fantasy, of subjectivity rather than objectivity,” writes Blair. “While the technological magic has evolved in the intervening years, the immediacy of film remains potent. Take, for instance, the moment Goodall discusses the individuality of the chimpanzees she has come to know: ‘Staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee, I saw a thinking, reasoning personality looking back,’ she says. As she speaks, we see each ape in deep close up and are given time to examine the features and expression of each one. Like Jane, we are suddenly face to face with these magnificent apes, able to see them as they truly are.” Read more about Jane in our interview with Brett Morgen.

Fantasy and subjective experience fuel the popularity of virtual reality as users see new worlds and experiences from their point of view. Dorothy Woodend at The Tyee reports on new VR experiences at Vancouver’s Reel to Real Festival—a hot topic with Steven Spielberg’s VR VFX extravaganza Ready Player One clogging the multiplex. “A number of the VR projects actively question the idea of technology and pose philosophical questions. Which is something that Ready Player One only traces the surface of. Porn and videogames have driven VR development, but now artists are getting involved, and the results are fascinating,” writes Woodend, who looks at a number of VR works from Canada and the NFB including Lisa Jackson and Mathew Borrett’s feat of “Indigenous futurism” Biidaaban: First Light. “Biidaaban is a fascinating experience that recreates a future version of downtown Toronto. The urban environment has been overtaken by the return of the natural world. Mossy pools fill the subway line, and trees sprout from the sidewalks,” explains Woodend. The title is an Anishinaabemowin word that means ‘the first light before dawn,’ and encapsulates a much larger conceptual framework that ‘refers to the idea of the past and future collapsing in on the present.’”

Over at The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman wonders if we’re already living in a virtual world à la The Matrix. He takes readers through a new project called Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment spear-headed by VR researchers Mel Slater and Mavi Sanchez-Vives. The results—and implications—are unsettling. Compared to a work like Biidaaban, the goal is not to transport users to a new world, but to a new body. “Virtual embodiment has a different goal: convincing you that you are someone else,” writes Rothman. “This doesn’t require fancy graphics. Instead, it calls for tracking hardware—which allows your virtual body to accurately mirror the movements of your real head, feet, and hands—and a few minutes of guided, Tai Chi-like movement before a virtual mirror. In Slater’s lab, at the Universitat de Barcelona, I put on a V.R. headset and looked into such a mirror to see the body of a young woman wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and ballet flats. When I moved, she moved.”

Author Camilla Gibb tries to make sense of her own reality this week at CBC’s The Doc Project. Gibb reflects upon her family history of mental illness and a reunion with her father after 30 years of estrangement. Now the same age he was when his life took a dark turn, Gibb wonders about the future. “I have spent most of my adult life worrying I have inherited my father’s darkness,” writes Gibb. “I myself have experienced two deep and protracted episodes of depression: one that saw me hospitalized in my mid-to-late twenties; and one that has challenged me now for the past eight years. My father was 49 when he disappeared — dropped off at the side of the 401, planning to hitch a ride out west. I am 49 now. It haunts me, this fear of how it unfolds from here; I worry I could go off the rails just like him.” Listen to the full documentary at The Doc Project.

Moviegoers at Hot Docs searching for some serenity might want to grab a ticket to Yuqi Kang’s A Little Wisdom. The feature about four-year-old Buddhist-monk-to-be Hopakuli is a stylish and enlightening journey. Co-producer/cinematographer Amitabh Joshi shares his experience shooting the film with Kang over at No Film School and highlights their stylistic approach to the moving story. “It’s important to try to capture full scenes during production. Terms like ‘B-roll’ were never used while filming this documentary; we considered everything that was shot as footage that would be used towards storytelling,” writes Joshi. “Yuqi emphasized the need to capture complete scenes. Yuqi had developed a good sense of the children’s behavior and routine, which allowed us to be at the right place at the right time. She knew where certain scenes might take place and how they might play out. As a crew, we were continually around the children and, as with most docs, they forgot that we had cameras after a point.” Read more about A Little Wisdom in the upcoming issue of POV.

Finally, Anthony Kaufman at Indiewire reports that streaming giants Netflix and Amazon are cooling the spending sprees on documentaries they created just a few years ago. “But that’s not to say that documentaries are losing their heat,” writes Kaufman. “On the contrary, the appetite for documentaries is growing, with major players turning to the nonfiction space in larger numbers…In fact, this time next year, the overall documentary marketplace could shift back to streamers in a big way. Nascent digital platforms such as Apple, Facebook, and YouTube Red are all currently in the mix, say sales agents, and are likely to emerge in a larger way in the coming months.” Kaufman adds that the changing marketplace for docs is shaping the films themselves with a growing emphasis on “characters” over “subjects,” consumer friendly content, and a decline in work tailored for costly theatrical screens.

Short Doc of the Week:

Last week featured troubling news in The Globe and Mail that Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to killing six men and wounding many others in a mass shooting at a Quebec mosque last January, was motivated to commit murder because he thought Canada’s policies on immigration were too lax compared to those of Donald Trump. Today’s CBC Short Doc Home No More explores the growing Islamophobia in Quebec and Canada more broadly through the perspectives of three Muslim women in Quebec City. This doc by Zahra Moloo asks some tough but necessary questions about the country we perceive Canada to be and the one we wish it to become.