Message in the Music

Three new Canadian films use tuneful means to tell complex and compelling tales

17 mins read

“Music is an incredible conduit for telling complex stories,” says Catherine Bainbridge. “It just opens us up as humans to listen.”

The Rezolution Pictures co-founder has seen that to be true ever since her latest film earned a storytelling prize and rapturous reception at Sundance in January. An epic journey through the centurieslong history of Indigenous musicians’ unheralded contributions to American music, co-directed by Bainbridge and cinematographer Alfonso Maiorana, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World relates a compelling saga of suffering, persistence and resistance. Yet thanks to the songs used to relate the story, this history lesson never feels didactic. Instead, it’s as exhilarating as you’d expect for a movie whose soundtrack is packed with Charley Patton’s blues stomp, Link Wray’s distorted riffage, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s fiery folk, Canadian Robbie Robertson’s classic rock and many more examples of the innovations of Indigenous musicians. [Read the POV review for Rumble here.]

Rumble isn’t the only new Canadian film at Hot Docs that uses music to connect audiences with the themes and subjects at hand. In Resurrecting Hassan, a powerful verité-style work by Carlo Guillermo Proto that won the grand prize in the national competition at the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), music proves to be one of many fascinating aspects of the world inhabited by a unique Montreal family. Meanwhile, Tokyo Idols, a co-production that teams the U.K.-based Japanes filmmaker Kyoko Miyake with EyeSteelFilm, compels viewers to consider the disturbing implications of a J-pop phenomenon that serves up images of cheerful, submissive young women to an older male audience.

Even though none of this trio bears much resemblance to recent music-doc hits like 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) or Searching for Sugar Man (2012), their makers understand the visceral effect of the right combination of sound and vision. And as different as these new films may be from each other, they all demonstrate music’s ever-shifting social and cultural contexts and its ability to encapsulate a broad array of meanings, emotions and issues.

For Bainbridge and Maiorana, music became a means to address a huge range of sociopolitical and historical matters related to the often painful experience of North America’s Indigenous peoples. As Bainbridge says, “It’s a music film as much as it’s a history film.”

The project began when Bainbridge and the Rezolution team, who’d previously considered Hollywood’s treatment of Indigenous peoples in 2009’s Reel Injun, were asked to make a film about an exhibition on Indigenous musicians organised by the Smithsonian Institute’s Tim Johnson and Stevie Salas, a guitarist of Apache heritage with funk and hard rock fortes. (Both men later served as exec-producers for Rumble.)

The Smithsonian show became the basis of a more ambitious survey that demonstrates just how vital those players’ contributions were to the development of American music. It also became clear how intertwined the musical story is with the historical and political ones, with the film demonstrating how the Indigenous musical traditions survived American colonialists’ efforts to suppress and destroy them. As Maiorana says, “The music reconnects us with the real history of Indigenous people and of North America as well.” Perhaps the most startling thing about Rumble is how it fosters new ways of hearing music that may be intimately familiar, like the part-Cherokee Jimi Hendrix blazing through “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. By making vivid use of the research and archival material gathered by the many scholars and musicians interviewed for the film, Rumble reveals a history that was hiding in plain view, as well as one that’s deeply relevant to present-day struggles.

“The reason the film’s struck such a chord is because it’s needed at this time,” says Bainbridge. “We’re all grappling with those issues now, which are the origin stories of our own countries and our relationships with Indigenous peoples.”

Adds Maiorana, “To have people in those communities tell us the movie made them feel proud and happy and energised by this kind of subject matter—that’s the big achievement.”

Music also became a fundamental aspect of the story that Carlo Guillermo Proto tells in Resurrecting Hassan. In fact, it was how he discovered his subjects in the first place. When Proto was studying film at Concordia, he’d often encounter the Harting family singing for change in Montreal’s metro stations. Since the Hartings—father Denis, mother Peggy and daughter Lauviah—have all been sightless since birth, Proto felt “strangely voyeuristic” as he stopped to observe and listen to them for as much as an hour at a time.

“It took me a year to make the excuse to go up to talk to them,” he admits. “I knew there was something behind those voices, in the way they sang and how they sang, but I didn’t know what it was.”

That encounter led to the making of a short film as well as the beginning of a long relationship. Proto was struck not only with their unique ways of dealing with the world but the depth of their grief for the loss of Hassan, a son who had drowned many years before.

When Proto’s plans to make a feature-length documentary about them initially fell through, he explored a different family story—specifically, his own relationship with his ailing father—in his first film, 2011’s El Huaso. By then, the Hartings’ predilection for various new-age movements had led to a fixation on a group whose guru’s purported ability to regenerate human organs raised hopes that Hassan could be resurrected. Unsurprisingly, Proto was thrown when Denis told him about the new scheme and implored him to start filming them again. Says Proto, “Denis explained it to me as emphatically and enthusiastically as he is about all the things going on in his life. I said, ‘OK, well, there’s something here so let’s start.’ The story evolved from there.”

Though Proto initially thought he was making a film about the grieving process, his film soon went in directions no one could have predicted due to strange turns in the family’s present and painful revelations about its past. What he most wanted to capture was his subjects’ extraordinary tenacity. “I think they’re remarkable human beings,” says Proto. “And I’ve never heard of or met anybody who’s faced so much adversity and been knocked down so many times and then picked themselves up because they had no one else to pick them up… Most people would be drug addicts or alcoholics or dead. Just for them to exist is a feat in and of itself.”

In the process, Resurrecting Hassan ventures far beyond conventional screen representations of the disabled. “A lot of people have these preconceptions about what films on disabilities are like,” says Proto. “Some people who’ve watched my film have said, ‘Oh, he didn’t show a scene where they’re lost or going through all these problems because they’re living in the sighted world.’

“My objective is to create a level of empathy with a group of people you would have sympathy [for] at best—and, for sure, you’d have pity. [But] I wanted people to have a wholehearted empathy for them and look at the film and be like, ‘I’ve had that argument’ or ‘I am mourning somebody.’ It was a slow build to get to that point where people could start seeing themselves in the family and almost forget they’re blind.”

That empathy lends yet more power to the film’s most wrenching scenes, including an on-camera fight between Denis and Peggy that was so heated, it left Proto shaken for weeks. (The event was apparently less exceptional for the Hartings.) It was all part of the process of uncovering what he first discerned in their singing. As Proto says, “They have these beautiful voices yet there’s this darker side.”

While it may be harder to hear the darker side to the relentlessly cheery music in Tokyo Idols, it’s certainly there. Director Kyoko Miyake’s new film peers into a strange niche in Japanese culture that’s overtaken the mainstream in the last decade. This is the realm of the “idol bands,” the teen (and sometimes pre-teen) women who perform insipid, upbeat pop for principally male, often middle-aged fans. Known as otaku, the fans forge a close bond with the idols via their social-media interactions and the “handshake events” where the performer and spectator can have some genuine physical contact (albeit a rigorously policed kind).

Having emigrated from Japan at the age of 26, Miyake wasn’t aware just how huge the idols had become until she was visiting her mother and an urgent news break interrupted the TV show they were watching. It wasn’t about Syria or North Korea, Miyake noted with surprise—it was about a girl leaving the idol band AKB48. “This was the week’s biggest breaking news,” the filmmaker says. “That’s when I thought to myself, ‘I have to do this film.’”

Miyake also felt a personal stake in the discomfiting questions about gender roles, sexuality and culture that surround the idol bands. “It reminded me how confusing it was for me to grow up as a girl in Japan,” she says. “I felt like every time I wasn’t acting ‘cute,’ people thought I was defiant. So when I saw the idol-girls phenomenon, it felt like it represented everything that made me feel uncomfortable about being a woman in Japan.”

Having developed more of an outsider perspective from living abroad, she could see how the idol bands and the familiar rituals of pop concerts and fandom somehow normalised aspects that were hugely disturbing, like the transformation of girls as young as nine into fantasy objects. Yet even she was struck by how wholesome it could all seem.

“The first time I went to an idol concert, I went in with all these preconceived ideas,” says Miyake. “I have lived in Britain for more than a decade and I thought this phenomenon was creepy. But when I went, I was really impressed by how orderly the whole thing was. It was so much more civilised than a rock concert in London or New York.”

Working with a largely Canadian team and coming in and out of Japan to shoot helped her to maintain fresh eyes. As a result, Tokyo Idols presents often surprising views of both the performers—the most prominent being Rio Hiiragi, an engagingly forthright singer who, at 19, is already getting too old for the industry—and the otakus we see in the stores and theatres of Akihabara, Tokyo’s hotspot for idol culture.

“When I walk around that district, I just feel this deep sense of failure,” says Miyake. “If there’s a reason why this became such a phenomenon, it has to do with the prolonged recession and the growing gap between the ideal and the hard economic reality for so many men. They cannot fulfill the traditional roles and be the strong breadwinners and the masters of the household because they don’t have the job security or wealth. And there are more and more women who don’t want to be confined within the traditional roles so there’s that growing disconnection. Idol fans are those who escape into the fantasy land.”

Lest all this seem like yet more proof of Japan’s intrinsic weirdness, Miyake also hopes that viewers realise that so much of what they witness here—e.g., the objectification of young women, male fantasies of mastery writ large—happens everywhere else.

“It’s just magnified in Japan,” says Miyake. “Everything you see in the film hopefully resonates wherever you’re based.”

And while the idol bands’ music may be not as thrilling as the tunes in Rumble or as beautiful as the Hartings’ performances in Resurrecting Hassan, it’s not entirely without a certain appeal. “It can be very embarrassing and not cool,” says Miyake with a laugh. “But the sound designer and composer, who are both Canadians, had fun working with the music even if they felt it was too sugary.

“I think we came to appreciate it,” she adds.

Raised in Calgary and based in Toronto, Jason Anderson writes regularly for such publications as Uncut, Cinema Scope, and POV, and is a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, Aspen Shortsfest, and the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

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