After too many years of assembling top ten lists, I’m feeling more comfortable with offering advice on films I enjoyed during the year without rating them in a numerical format. It’s tough enough to state that these are docs you should see!
This was a good year for Canadian docs but not an exceptional one. Too many years of funding restraints have made it so tough to make feature documentaries here that it feels miraculous when more than a dozen are completed every twelve months. [Read Pat Mullen’s picks for the best international docs of 2019 here.]
But this country is filled with passionate filmmakers, who genuinely believe that documentaries can make a difference in our society and they continue to create important works for us to see. I’d like to salute all of them, including those who didn’t make this list.
Dir. Tasha Hubbard
Tasha Hubbard’s absorbing indictment of this country’s treatment of its Indigenous people, nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up, won the Best Canadian documentary award at Hot Docs 2019 and the Colin Low prize for Canadian documentary at the Vancouver’s prestigious DOXA festival. Hubbard’s feature doc is a sobering account of the shooting of a young Cree man, Colten Boushie, because he and his friends had trespassed on a white farmer’s land. Despite the incontestable fact that Boushie was shot “accidentally” in the back of the head Mafia-style, the farmer was not even convicted of manslaughter, receiving an acquittal from an all-white Saskatchewan jury. The Boushie case may be the closest equivalent of the notorious Trayvon Martin shooting in the U.S.: a racially motivated murder with no consequences.
Tasha Hubbard has made a powerful documentary feature while dealing with a dearth of material: there is no footage of Colten Boushie’s shooting; the trial couldn’t be shot for legal reasons and there isn’t a true climax to the film. It’s a tribute to her filmmaking skills that nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up was made at all, let alone become a multi-award winner. This is a film that should be seen by every thoughtful Canadian.
Dir. Fred Peabody; Peter Raymont, prod.
Fred Peabody’s second hard hitting feature film — the other was All Governments Lie — captures the most dispiriting aspect of the Trump era, that corporations have already taken over the vast majority of the world. Peabody was inspired to make The Corporate Coup d’État by the thinking and writing of three people: the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul, who coined the phrase in his 1995 Massey Lectures; Chris Hedges, the Camden, New Jersey writer whose Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (with illustrations by Joe Sacco) is a tough, compassionate account of poverty in America; and the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill, who told Amy Goodman, on her influential show Democracy Now!, “There already has been a coup in this country, but it’s been a silent coup.” Scahill was referring to the link between corporate interests, the obscenely high-priced financing of political campaigns and the outlandish costs of funding the U.S. military. When I asked Peabody what motivated him to make the film, he replied, “Somebody had to connect the dots and give an overview that explains why we have this bizarre dystopia in Washington D.C. and the White House.”
Employing an approach that marries cinema verité with a politically engaged essay film, his doc moves from interviews with disgruntled citizens in the Rust Belt town of Youngstown, Ohio, which used to be home to major steel production, to Hedges’ Camden, where RCA Victor and Campbell Soup formerly had huge factories, to Washington, D.C., where lawmakers and corporate lobbyists refuse to talk to reporters, including Lee Fang, whose non-encounters have a Roger and Me feel to them.
Peabody found out that many people in the Rust Belt said, “If Bernie [Sanders] had been running, I might have voted for him.” Peabody found that understandable. “They wanted to throw a brick through the window of the establishment, so to speak, because they’d been screwed by the corporate Democrat and Republican politicians who would promise anything and then, as soon as they got into power, would be just listening to what corporate lobbyists were saying.”
The Corporate Coup d’État catches the harsh reality of a world where so many people feel disenfranchised. Since the film came out, Boris Johnson won a huge majority and is making Brexit happen. Trump’s supposed maverick status as an independent politician has been exposed as a lie for years. Fred Peabody’s film is a tough cri de coeur for democracy, which has been twisted totally out of shape due to corporate power and governments of every political stripe who kowtow to them.
Dir. Yung Chang
The latest film from award-winning documentarian Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) is a skillfully rendered profile of the celebrated journalist Robert Fisk. Now in his seventies, Fisk has been a tough-minded radical newspaperman for decades, having established his singular voice while reporting on Northern Ireland during the immense conflicts that took place during the “time of the troubles” five decades ago. Yung follows him for years—this is a careful NFB cinema verité—as Fisk covers one of the world’s most hotly contested areas, the Middle East.
Perhaps Yung’s finest accomplishment in this film is to take a measured perspective on Fisk. The British journalist is in many ways a figure from the past when foreign correspondents were admired. Fearless, a fine writer and the kind of guy who delivers his press copy on time, Fisk has been in war zones all of his working life. He’s never been afraid of taking on his own newspaper when called upon; famously, he reported that British troops were firing on Irish civilians during the IRA period, putting his London Times squarely in the way of trouble with the British establishment. Now with the Independent, he still calls them as he sees them, reporting on gas attacks in Syria that were not fully substantiated.
Yung seems to have taken a page from Fisk. Never resorting to hagiography, he simply shows Fisk as he is: a war reporter who can still predict where bombs will fall and how close the battle is from where he is standing. The director catches him in repose—or something close to it—talking about his past or working on a piece of newsworthy prose. In an early of false news, Yung is careful to show the truth of Fisk as he sees the man and never tries to construct an idol out of a controversial but well-liked figure. In an era when honesty is the media is constantly in dispute, Yung Chang has created a documentary with integrity—not a Hollywood movie.
Dir. Larry Weinstein
You know the world is in bad shape when Canada’s premier art doc director, Larry Weinstein, feels compelled to make a political film. Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a deep dive into our contemporary world, filled with venality, corruption and violence, where notions of civility, and honesty are so old-fashioned that they provoke laughter or worse, indifference.
Weinstein targets the media as the place to interrogate since it’s the contested site where governments attempt to influence us and artists strike back. The director takes us to the origins of representation and propaganda, which are not surprisingly created by artists either in service of their community or their reigning heads of state. While he does touch on cave paintings, Weinstein’s film moves in a more ideological direction with the painting of the Sistine Chapel and the prominence of the Catholic Church and the aristocracy as the economic driver for classic European art. By the 20th century, the idea of using artists as skilled practitioners for every ideology from Communism to Fascism was part of the tool kit for every tinpot dictator on the globe. Weinstein’s historic account of propagandistic art shows that even many of the greats—from Beethoven to Shostakovich to Riefenstahl— have extolled the virtues of the Pope or the Emperor or the Fuhrer if they’re pressed to do so.
Of course, there are artists who have used art as a propagandistic tool against their rulers. It’s revealing what Weinstein makes of the iconic revolutionary artist Ai Weiwei, who continues to take on the Communist rulers of China. For Weinstein, the Chinese artist is a hero, an individual who opposes the government’s propaganda about the progress of their society under a ruling ideology that refuses freedom of speech, the choice to practice religions they oppose (whether Tibetan Buddhist or Uighur Muslim) and even the right to assemble to protest what is happening in the country (Hong Kong).
On the other hand, Weinstein delights in revealing the story of Jim Fitzpatrick, the radical Irish former bartender and artist who created the creator of the iconic Che Guevara image, which has been appropriated free of charge by its maker for everything from T shirts to posters to wallpaper. As always, the director is on the side of the artist, especially if they retain their individuality.
What he’s concerned about is something more basic. He told POV: “We’re lacking verité in our lives. There is no truth.” In Trump’s America, propaganda doesn’t have to work on the level of a Rodchenko or a Brecht. Fox News can do it and so can parts of the Twitterverse. Even artful propaganda has been debased.
The originality of Propaganda is that it never gets away from Weinstein’s cultural roots. This may be the most beautiful denunciation of the Trump era yet. Working with his regular collaborators, cinematographer John M. Tran and editor David New, Weinstein has created an intense visual display of propagandistic art through the ages.
Dirs. Sébastien Rist and Aude Leroux-Lévesque
This beautifully made film is set in one of the most obscure areas in Quebec, on the eastern edge on the Gulf of the St-Lawrence, where scattered Anglo communities have made their livelihood out of fishing. Then, as it did in Newfoundland, disaster struck when the moratorium on fishing cod was instituted in 1992. It’s now nearly thirty years later and the village of St. Paul’s River is barely surviving as are the other out ports in the region.
In the grand tradition of documentary, filmmakers Rist and Leroux-Lévesque spend time with the residents, finding out about their lives and dreams, in an area of great natural beauty. Much like Newfoundland, the rocky shores, hills and woods are not for everyone but those who appreciate the land do so fervently. The filmmakers follow two groups, the older generation who have spent much of their lives surviving the straitened economic circumstances since 1992 and high schoolers who have grown up here and are faced with the likelihood of moving away as soon as they graduate.
Although hardly naïve about cameras and what a film can mean to them and their community, the residents of St. Paul’s River that the filmmakers highlight couldn’t be more amenable to being placed in a documentary. Garland, the most upbeat of the older generation, has his plans for the turning the village into a tourist spot dealt a blow when the Quebec government refuses funding for the project. Still, like most of his friends and neighbours, he’s committed to staying in his hometown.
The fates of the younger generation are clearly more painful for the village elders to bear. Though the high school students love their homes, the economy is never likely to recover and their only choice is to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. It’s poignant to watch Brittney and Ethan, two likable teens hang out together and finally go to the prom, which will be probably signal the end of their relationship.
A Place of Time and Tide is a lovely film, filled with character, and honest sentiment for a lifestyle that is ending in Canada’s east coast, from Quebec to Labrador to Nova Scotia to Newfoundland.
Dir. Jamie Kastner
What Canadian wouldn’t be interested in a film that entwines the iconic rock band Barenaked Ladies and the legendary Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau? Bringing them together is an art forgery and a massive trial, two elements that should seal the deal for any doc lover looking for something exciting to view.
Jamie Kastner’s There Are No Fakes features some lovely archival footage of Morrisseau, the first Indigenous artist to make a huge impact on Canada’s art scene back in the 1960s. His paintings boldly used imagery that hearkened back to his Anishinaabe roots while employing a more modernist style in the use of colour and composition. He was a true pioneer: an individual artist—of his culture but also that of Western society, which could appreciate—and buy—his work. But there was a shadow around his later work as Morrisseau suffered from problems with abuse and it was thought that perhaps he’d let the quality drop on some of his final paintings.
It’s clear that Barenaked Ladies star musician Kevin Hearn wasn’t aware of any problems regarding Morrisseau; he was simply an admirer of the man and his work. He paid $20,000 for a Morrisseau from a Yorkville art gallery and several years later proudly loaned it to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a show. While hanging at the AGO, the painting was accused of being a fake, and when that judgement was confirmed by experts, Hearn went back to the gallery that sold him the work, demanding his money be returned. That’s when he heard “There are no fakes” and, soon, a lawsuit was filed.
Jamie Kastner’s doc delves into a complex world, where art forgers and gallerists are in cahoots to sell 3000 Morrisseau paintings worth some $30,000,000. It’s a true crime thriller filled with shadowy characters, sexual abuse, and, sadly, the diminishment of value of a great artist’s true works. It’s compulsive viewing.
Dir. John Walker
Legendary doc director Les Blank used to claim that if you had a great title for your film, you were more than halfway to a success. The auteur of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers would surely have enjoyed John Walker’s cheeky name for his current feature doc, Assholes: A Theory.
After all, we know what assholes are, so who needs a theory?
It turns out we didn’t know the half of it. How do you define an asshole? “It’s in their way of seeing the world: an entrenched sense of entitlement and an unwillingness to listen to complaints of others,” Walker told POV. Although they may not all be sociopaths, assholes are clearly narcissists, who somehow get away with it. Worse, as Walker demonstrates throughout the film, most are big successes. Walker is quite aware that the vast majority of corporations and many governments are run by assholes. But he’s interested in the culture that’s allowed such characters to rise to the top so frequently. And he’s just as concerned when gauging what assholes are doing to societies around the globe.
Certainly a major area of concern is what is happening in the digital realm. It’s only been in the last couple of years that Facebook and other social media giants have been interrogated for their impact on the world. Although not all of the Silicon Valley “geniuses” are assholes, most are socially awkward with little sense of how the rest of the world lives. Their sense of aesthetics is neatly summed up in a sequence of drone shots created by Walker of the three headquarters for Facebook, Google and Apple. One looks exactly like the Pentagon. From above, they all resemble the sort of imposing fascist architecture that Albert Speer created for Hitler. The royalty of the Valley manifest a monumental sense of entitlement even in their buildings.
Walker includes in the film a Canadian example of toxic assholery, the nearly tragic case of Sherry Lee Benson-Podolchuk, a member of the RCMP, who got into trouble with her fellow officers after she refused to play ball and lie for a fellow officer who had been drunk on the job. To Walker, Benson-Podolchuk is a hero for taking on the RCMP and winning. Her story is a terrifying example of what asshole behavior in a group can hurt individuals to the depths of their souls.
Walker’s thoughtful film may have had its hoped-for impact affected by the director’s decision to concentrate on Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi as the prime example of how a nation’s leader can affect its culture. His choice is excellent—after all, Berlusconi isn’t just a politician; his pernicious presence has affected the media and Italian society’s perception of women as well. But to many North Americans, the politician du jour is Trump and the potential audience for Assholes may have missed seeing the film because Walker chose the wrong target for his main villain. At least, that’s my theory—and that may be why I am putting the film in the “must see” category.
Three choices I endorse, with reviews from POV writers:
Dir. Phyllis Ellis; Barri Cohen, producer
The horror we learn about in Toxic Beauty is that the most apparently benign of all bathroom products – “baby powder” – has been identified as a cause of ovarian cancer. As she looked for ways to overcome doubt and scepticism in audiences, Director Phyllis Ellis followed the research where it led her: to experts, to the women who appear in the film.
The story of talc, its effects and the advocates who are fighting for warning labels, is interspersed with the fascinating experience of Mymy Nguyen, the young researcher who decided to find out what her own beauty regime was doing to her body.
Toxic Beauty includes a judicious mix of archival materials, including the type of ads that persuaded women to doubt themselves and buy reassuring products, along with two distinct types of interviews—one with experts, the other with people affected by talcum powder—and some perspective shifting abstract shots. The exceptional cinematography by Iris Ng contributes to the power of Toxic Beauty. Viewing Toxic Beauty will scare you and make you angry. And it may just be the spur that’s needed to make change.—Judy Wolfe
Dir. Brett Story
In her 2019 feature, Story sticks to New York City, making our looming environmental catastrophe (the first of many hot summers) and a constrained timeline (the month of August) the background to a cross-section of society, much as Chris Marker used the Algerian War and the month of May in Le joli mai.
Story’s go-to question for all her interviewees—always interrogated on-site around New York, whether it be on the beach, in an art studio or office, outside a garage, or in a swamp on the outskirts of the city—is about the future. Responses are suitably varied and touch on a range of personal, social and political anxieties. Two ex-cops in a Staten Island bar recall their days on the Bed-Stuy beat, pre-gentrification, remarking that someone like Story, a Brooklyn resident at the time, would never have lived there back then. A couple in the Bronx worry about the rise in crime—real or perceived—in the neighbourhood they’ve lived in for decades. A woman describes putting herself through college while working full-time at a call centre. Two old union men bemoan the undercutting of unions by undocumented immigrants, who are exploited by employers and then send much of their earnings back home. And so on.
These interviews, which organically draw attention to all sorts of hidden structures and fissures in society, are interspersed with two other threads: first, an enigmatic voiceover narration, largely drawn from texts by Marx, Zadie Smith and Annie Dillard and voiced by Canadian theatre actress Clare Coulter in the mannered tones of a Laurie Anderson or Alexandra Stewart; second, occasional observational interludes, often accompanied by a droning soundtrack, that recall the classic silent-era city symphonies of Vertov and Ruttmann. These offer wry reflections on the contemporary situation. For example, from Zadie Smith: “People in mourning tend to use euphemism. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: the new normal.”—Daniel Glassman
Dir. Phillip Pike
At last, there is a documentary that does justice to the influential LGBTQ+ activists of colour who helped shape Toronto’s political landscape.
Phillip Pike has gathered archival footage and some of the community’s best minds and most passionate advocates to tell the stories of how black activists lived, partied and most important, organized. The film opens with Black Lives Matter (BLM), led by Black queer women, disrupting the Pride Parade in 2016 via a 30-minute sit-in. Pike’s premise is that BLM did not come out of nowhere but stands on the shoulders of black activism that has been a vital force in Toronto for over 40 years.
His first focus is on a collective household that, in the early 80s, nurtured several influential activists, including Makeda Silvera, co-founder of Sister Vision Press, Debbie Douglas, Rinaldo Walcott and Douglas Stewart, all of whom appear in the film. The film covers Black Cap, the organization committed to reducing the spread of HIV infection in Black communities. Founded in 1989, its original motto, “Because all black lives are important,” presages Black Lives Matter.
Then the doc goes on to touch on everything from Zami, considered Toronto’s first black lesbian group, to Black DJs like DJ Black Cat and Niki Redman’s struggles with Pride and its disrespectful treatment of the popular dance event Blockarama that they made so successful, to Rev. David Peart’s inspirationally empowering Sunset Service.
Pike’s genius directorial move is to choose the brilliant Angela Robertson and Douglas Stewart as commentators who give context to all of these political events. They are clear, perceptive and effective. This is an important, groundbreaking movie. See it with an audience that’s bound to be passionate and proud.—Susan G. Cole
Honourable mentions: Once Were Brothers, Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power, The World or Nothing, Prey, Killing Patient Zero, Willie, Coppers, Conviction, Because We Are Girls, Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger.