Audiences across Canada can stream the top social justice documentaries from the festival circuit this week as Peterborough’s ReFrame Film Festival returns January 26. The festival kicks off with an in-person only screening of Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, fresh off its Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Following the screening, doc fans can stream the best of the fest with over 60 films available online. The selections include favourites from TIFF, Cannes, Sundance, and Hot Docs, along with a mix of under-the-radar Canadian and international flicks that might have passed readers by on the circuit.
Here are 10 POV picks for this year’s ReFrame Film Festival—and a chance to win tickets to attend the virtual festival!
For Opening Night: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
If you haven’t been reading the raves for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, you haven’t been reading POV. ReFrame kicks off its 2023 festival with an in-person screening of Laura Poitras’ Academy Award nominee. Besides being the Oscar frontrunner, this artfully incendiary portrait of photographer Nan Goldin and her activism to hold the Sackler family accountable for profiteering amid the opioid crisis was 2022’s best film according to POV’s top critics. “As Poitras culminates the story of Goldin’s family with PAIN’s pursuit of justice in the Sackler case, the film makes clear that this tale extends beyond one greedy family,” I wrote while reviewing the film. “It’s a history of America’s legacy for letting wealthy and powerful people shirk their responsibility. It’s about an artist’s responsibility to hold the establishment to power and use art to challenge the status quo, rather than be bolstered by it. Rejecting the currency of the Sackler family name poses a serious risk for Goldin, but it pays huge dividends in a campaign that just might be her most masterful stroke yet.” Read more about the film in our interview with Poitras.
Picks for the Online Slate at ReFrame Film Festival
For the Shorts Seekers: Haulout and Will You Look at Me?
There are shorts of every colour streaming at ReFrame, but two are particularly notable. For one, Oscar completists will want to catch Haulout at ReFrame. This nominee for Best Documentary Short is a brilliant slice of observational cinema. The film joins a researcher at a remote location in the Russian Arctic. There, tens of thousands of walruses converge on the small shores of his hideout in an annual migration steered by climate change. Similarly, ReFrame audiences can be among the first Canadian viewers to catch the winner of the Queer Palm at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Will You Look at Me?, fresh off its Sundance screenings. Will You Look at Me? is a poetic and personal exploration of family ties as filmmaker Shuli Huang examines his relationship with his mother and the burden that queer people face while confronting the expectations of their parents. Read our review from Sundance here.
For Stories of Disability Rights: Unloved
Here’s one close to home for the POV family. Director Barri Cohen, our regular Policy Matters columnist, delivers a personal interrogation of systemic failures in Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children. The film uses Cohen’s discovery of two brothers she never knew to trace a journey through an Ontario institution with a history of gross negligence towards the children entrusted in its care. Cohen interviews survivors as they seek justice amid a class action suit and a fight to honour the names of lost children. “The living memory and testimony of survivors informs us all of us about what it was like there,” Cohen told POV in an interview. It’s through the survivors we can experience where they lived, and how they coped with being separated from their own families and what they could never speak about until the class action and now.” Read more about Unloved in Cohen’s filmmaker essay.
For Stories on the Power of Harm Reduction: Love in the Time of Fentanyl
This sobering slice of cinema verité takes audiences inside the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver’s East Side where devoted citizens endeavour to save lives amid the rampant opioid crisis. The film, which plays in the American competition, observes the role of harm reduction and safe injection sites as it invites audiences to consider addiction and mental health through an empathetic lens. “A lot of people want to show the money shot of someone injecting and just that, which I think is wrong,” director Colin Askey told POV in an interview. “But when you actually show the person and who they are and then that, it can be important. I think if we’re asking the audience to question their misconceptions and the stigma they may have towards drug use, we also have to be honest and say ‘hey, you may not be comfortable with all this.’ But what I hope is that people will question those reactions.”
For the Deep Thinker: Make People Better
Audiences eager to spark a debate between science and philosophy might want to corral their gang for Make People Better. This documentary by Cody Sheehy unpacks the story of a controversial scientist in China who made a breakthrough by producing genome edited twins. The practice opened a door to a debate about scientists playing god, which Sheehy invites audiences to consider. “What will be the implications on society from these rapid advancements?” asked Courtney Small while reviewing the film. “Will it cause further class imbalance with the wealthy being the only ones to afford the best babies? Sheehy’s documentary raises questions that cannot be fully answered. A necessary conversation starter, Make People Better is an intriguing examination of a scientist who was hung out to dry by a community who helped elevate him in the fist place.”
For the Trans Advocates and Allies: Framing Agnes
Director Chase Joynt’s genre-bending and gender-bending hybrid documentary Framing Agnes radically rewrites transgender history through a transgender lens. The film reopens the case files of Harold Garfinkel’s gender health research at UCLA circa 1960 and invites a chorus of trans actors to give voice to the research subjects whose stories were straightened out by Garfinkel’s obvious bias. “One of the glorious and irresolvable unknowns of our project is that we only encounter these people on the page,” said Joynt in an interview with POV. “The performative, the vocal, and the affective are all things that arrive and exist in this slippery space between fiction and nonfiction. Early on in research and development, I went to Angelica Ross’s house and was explaining my attachment to and my understanding of Georgia as encountered on the page. Angelica stopped me mid-sentence and said, ‘I don’t need this. I know her. I feel her in my body; I feel her in my skin.’”
For the Foodie: Foragers
Cooking documentaries often explore the cultural significance of food, but too few docs unpack the stories behind key ingredients themselves. Foragers, directed by Jumana Manna, explores the relationship between the herb thyme, which is used to make the Palestinian spice mix za’atar, and the Israeli Occupation. The film takes a hybrid approach to learn about the lives and practices of farmers who harvest the herbs. “The occupation is not the main event for Manna, but a backdrop in which she explores familial and cultural traditions, and culinary practices that have been pitted against scientific methods of conservation; or, as the film gently implies, colonial methods of conservation,” wrote Allegra Moyle while reviewing the film. “Although it is true that za’atar and akkoub have become increasingly scarce, Foragers examines how living under occupation complicates the politics of extinction.”
For the Collector: For Your Own Piece of Mind, Make Your Own Museum
The story of a late packrat in Panama named Senobia fuels this story of cultural preservation. Directors Pilar Moreno and Ana Endara Mislov invite audiences to enter Senobia’s personal museum devoted to human history, told through novel objects one doesn’t find in institutional collections. “Beyond this chronicle of her creations, For Your Peace of Mind takes things one step further,” wrote Barbara Goslawski while reviewing the film. “Enlisting the help of some of the local women who knew her, the filmmakers strive to provide a deeper insight into Senobia. The poetic and sometimes playful observational style of the film becomes infused with a more conceptual approach, albeit one that comments on the talking heads practice in documentary.”
For the Artisan: The Colour of Ink
Film critic and filmmaker Brian D. Johnson salutes the craft of artisanal ink making in The Colour of Ink. The film follows Toronto-based ink-maker Jason Logan and tours the globe as he searches for the right ingredients to perfect the shades and hues of his ink and as fellow artists worldwide enjoy his creations in the pursuit of their own inspiration. The film has a richly cinematic eye for the ink itself and looks gorgeous as the ink blots soak up their canvas. ““The lens has a sort of metaphysical power to transform things,” Johnson told Liam Lacey in an interview for POV. “This comes back to Nick [de Pencier], who is so good at finding abstraction in images. It’s a question of seeing structures and images that emerge when you’re taking a deep look at things. That’s why the word “poetic” is used: not to describe poetry, but whenever we superimpose, or pull something out of, what’s in front of us.”
For the Music Lover: And Still I Sing
Competition docs can easily lapse into formula, but director Fazila Amiri breaks the mould with And Still I Sing. The film follows three women involved with the hit series Afghan Star, which is basically Afghanistan’s American Idol, and observes in their desire to pursue their dreams the larger fight for women in Afghanistan to have a voice in their nation’s history. “And Still I Sing harnesses the courageousness of these women’s voices,” I wrote while reviewing the film. “The notes they hit soar higher than any threatening words they face. Amiri offers a refreshing counter-portrait to stories of the Middle East by focusing on both the hope and hardship that women like Zahra, Sadiqa, and Aryana face daily. The music is indeed joyous even if the images are tough.”