What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-up

By Pat Mullen

We’re back with “What’s Up, Doc?” collecting the best documentary news and views from around the web! (Pardon the delays—we jumped right into grant writing season after Hot Docs.)

The big story this week is the first progress report on the NFB’s Indigenous Action Plan. Barry Hertz has the scoop at The Globe and Mail and reports that Indigenous productions account for 10% of spending at the NFB with 35 works in progress, while the launch of the Indigenous Cinema streaming hub was a major effort. Titles in the pipeline include Michelle Latimer’s adaptation of Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers’ Kimaapiipitsin, and Alanis Obomsawin’s Jordan’s Principle, which will be her fifth consecutive film about the rights of Indigenous children. The fourth, Our People Will Be Healed, debuted at festivals last year and marked Obomsawin’s 50th film. However, there is still work to be done in terms of changing workplace culture. “It’s more than just attending a three-hour session,” NFB commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur tells Hertz, “but training that requires time and ambition, so that everybody by 2020 gets a good knowledge of Indigenous culture and all the things we sometimes take for granted. There is so much to learn.”

Naked Island – Hipster Headdress, Amanda Strong, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Longtime readers of POV might recall catching snippets and references to Alanis Obomsawin’s music career in articles such as The Long Walk of Alanis Obomsawin, but Michael Barclay at Maclean’s gives the full story of the director’s career predating her filmmaking days. “Obomsawin started performing in Montreal in the early ’60s, where she hung out with Leonard Cohen,” writes Barclay. “She performed in Yorkville cafés in Toronto, was an early supporter of Buffy Sainte-Marie, once played 64 shows in a month-long tour of residential schools on the Prairies, performed frequently in prisons, and booked an Indigenous stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto for nine years running in the 1970s. Her musical career is almost as impressive as her filmography, and yet it’s a secret side of Obomsawin that few even know about—until now.” Watch Obomsawin’s landmark doc Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance here.

Troubles south of the border make audiences hungry for documentaries. Steven Zeitchik at The Washington Post looks at the two non-fiction box office hits of the moment, Ruth Bader Ginsburg profile RBG, which just passed the $10 million mark, and Fred Rogers retro Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and finds the pair of films to be quietly reflective of audiences’ political appetites. “While movie theaters don’t break down patrons by political affiliation, the distributors of both films believe their releases are popular because of anti-Trump sentiment. These movies, they say, offer a safety valve for steamed times,” writes Zeitchik. “Film experts have been intrigued by the fact that the anti-White House film movement is taking this form instead of the more usual path of [Michael] Moore and … It might be that people are already getting the anger they once got out at the movie theater onto social media. Or it may be they feel that what they dislike about this White House has as much to do with personality as policy, and thus demands a new form of counterstrike.” Read more on the films in our review of RBG and interview with Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville.

Robert Klara of AdWeek digs into another trend rising in documentary: the role of branded content. (Even this week’s Canuck release Design Canada is made in part by start-up success Shopify.) Klara looks specifically at the new doc Unbanned about Air Jordan sneakers and wonders if it might be the future of feature-length branded content. “As its title suggests, Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 is a film about Nike’s Air Jordan sneaker and, by extension, about its influence on the NBA and the culture at large,” writes Klara. “The film’s writer and director is Dexton Deboree, co-founder of creative agency Los York, whose client list just so happens to include Nike. The logical assumption, then, is that Unbanned is a feature-length piece of sponsored content, a ‘film’ that’s really just a long, praise-filled commercial. Except that it isn’t.”

The differences between outright commercials and objective documentary filmmaking often arise in celebrity profile docs, which sometimes omit blemishes and hard questions in favour of hagiography. Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald, for example, gives late pop diva Whitney Houston the warts and all treatment in the upcoming doc Whitney. While Whitney had the support of the Houston dynasty, last year’s Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me?’ by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal did not. Shannon Bowen at The Hollywood Reporter looks at how filmmakers like Broomfield and Dolezal make a film about a subject when access becomes a problem. “A number of Houston’s friends and colleagues did speak to Broomfield, but it’s clips from hundreds of hours of never-before-seen footage shot by co-director Rudi Dolezal in the 1990s that provide the clearest view of her struggles,” writes Bowen. “Over the years, a number of companies and people, including Davis, had tried to buy the footage, but Dolezal wasn’t selling.” Read more about Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me?’ in our chat with Rudi Dolezal.

The new documentary McQueen about late fashion designer Alexander McQueen doesn’t see many problems with access or objectivity. This fascinating doc—one of the year’s best—combines an impressive range of interviews and archival material to create a full picture of the late artist. Ella Alexander at Harpers Bazaar chats with directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui to get their views on finding objectivity with a great subject. “The greatest film-makers don’t have to know the subject first-hand; it’s about having the ability to learn a lot, but to remain objective,” says Bonhôte. “We’re not involved with him on a personal level. We could be objective, and I think the audience needs that. We had the emotional sensitivity that this documentary needed, but enough distance from the industry and the man to approach some of the more difficult subjects without being scared or upset by them.” Read the POV review of McQueen here.

The new Netflix miniseries The Staircase has viewers a-twitter with conspiracy theories and debates about filmmaker objectivity. The true crime series by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade continues the 2004 mini-series about the trial of Michael Peterson over the mysterious death of his wife Kathleen. “It’s difficult to be an objective observer, especially when the other side doesn’t want to participate,” de Lestrade tells Josh Modell at Vulture. “We kept trying to shoot with the prosecution and with Kathleen’s family. I really wanted them to be in the film. But because they refused, we were much more close to Michael Peterson. It’s more his point of view, yes, but I really tried to be objective. But it’s the real world, it’s impossible to be objective. I hope that I let people think what they want. If they think he is guilty, that’s fine. The purpose of the series was never to let people think Michael Peterson wasn’t guilty. It’s the mystery of Michael Peterson that was really interesting.”

Finally, true crime fans will undoubtedly want to catch the heist hybrid American Animals this weekend from director Bart Layton, who previously wowed audiences with the stranger-than-fiction doc The Imposter. Yours truly chats with Layton for the Toronto Film Critics Association to discuss heists, hybrids, and true crime. “With The Imposter, the documentary interviews drive the narrative and character, and with this one the other way round,” says Layton. “The documentary scenes perform a very, very different job. It was really an experiment that I wanted to explore. Nothing is impossible in movie terms. A lot of people will preach a set of rules, which aren’t really rules. I think audiences are ready for a movie which is a little more honest in terms of the way in which it presents the process, so that was always the intention—that and being a bit cynical after watching movies that start with “inspired by true events” and give you pictures of the real people as the credits roll. I thought there has to be another approach which is greater than the sum of the parts—a visceral engagement.” Check back tomorrow for the POV review of American Animals!