Montreal Doc Festival Multiplies Loaves

20 mins read

High drama has dominated the upper tier of the Montreal film festival scene for some time now. Last year, the pretentious newcomer Spectra, producer of many festivals but with no experience in film, managed to put paid to the saying that you should aim for the moon in order to reach the treetops. Its brand new Festival international de films de Montreal bit the dust in a most inglorious fashion, luxurious red carpets rolled out for practically no stars and equally unimpressive audiences. Agency bureaucrats who had supported it ended up with egg on their faces, returning to the drawing boards to develop new festival policies.

Meanwhile this year, Serge Losique managed to pull off a 30th edition of his Festival des Films du Monde without government funding, reaping some very reluctant admiration for his sheer stubbornness—a quality not out of line with his reputation as an arrogant operator whose event lacks accountability and transparency. Among the supposed biggies who are Montreal’s stand-ins for a truly major festival, that left only Claude Chamberland and his audacious Festival du Nouveau Cinema with an entirely respectable reputation. There are, however, other levels of festival activity, involving mid-sized and smaller, more specialized festivals. In fact there are so many of them that the provincial arts funding agency SODEC (La Société de développement des entreprises culturelles) has had to make scheduling collisions an absolute obstacle to government funding. Beginning in early February with the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois, a selection of the year’s best in Quebec, there are about a dozen niche events with barely a breathing space between. Art, African, Asian, Fantasy, Native, Jewish, children’s, and gay and lesbian films, to name but a few, follow in quick order.

The festival year ends in November with a relative newcomer, the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), which is about to inaugurate its 9th edition. With a budget of $500,000, donated services included, it is very much in the business of performing miracles: showing some 110 films and organizing a multitude of workshops and panels. While the budget has stayed practically the same for several years, the number of films and the scope of the RIDM’s activities are constantly on the increase. That’s made possible by all manner of volunteer contributions and something its dynamic Director Marie-Anne Raulet refers to as “multiplying loaves.”

If the Rencontres doesn’t have a sexier name, that has something to do with the fact that it didn’t initially want to be a festival. Its founders, the late Yvan Patry and now-viceroy Jean-Daniel Lafond, wanted to stay away from the corrupting, or at least distracting, influences of competitive hype and commercial wheeling-and-dealing. The way they saw it, the RIDM was more about screening films and having discussions—ethical, political and practical—among doc professionals and aficionados. But now, approaching adolescence, the RIDM has made a definite choice to give up its innocence and make a jump towards full festivalhood. Last year, for the first time, the event included a market place, “Doc Circuit,” which turned out to be a huge success and will be repeated. And this year, there will be awards for the first time, five of them. For Raulet, this is a logical progression. “Once we decided not to stay small and pure but to try to diversify and reach new audiences, with a greater variety of films and activities, it seemed quite natural to become more like a festival and to have some awards.”

That transformation also has more than a little to do with the way the RIDM is positioned vis-à-vis the two aforementioned senior festivals in Montreal. Serge Losique’s and Claude Chamberland’s events take place respectively three months and a few weeks before the RIDM. Programming more fiction than docs and receiving more media attention, they are often considered more prestigious by filmmakers and distributors. Even the former president and founder of the Rencontres Jean-Daniel Lafond—or his producer—saw fit to give Chamberland’s festival the French-language premiere of his new film American Fugitive: the Truth about Hassan (Le fugitif ou la vérité d’Hassan).

What can the RIDM do to attract films in this competitive environment? Some documentarians realize that they won’t always get the attention they deserve at a “mixed” festival, where they have to compete with fiction. There are also filmmakers who prefer the RIDM in any case, because of an affinity with its objectives and philosophy. But beyond that, says Raulet, “There is definitely a sense that the filmmakers are looking for proper recognition for their work, and awards are one form of such recognition. So when filmmakers are considering whether to submit a film to the Rencontres or to one of the other festivals, that’s one factor that can come into play.”

Notwithstanding pressures from the larger festivals, the RIDM attracts a growing number of submissions and this year, a five-member pre-selection committee and another five-person programming committee (both volunteer) helped programming director André Pâquet sift through about 550 titles. Low budget means a small travel allowance, so Pâquet called on his many contacts, filmmakers going to other festivals and the documentary grapevine, to assemble a list of “solicited” films, which make up about 60% of the final program. The remaining works are submitted and often prove to be a source of discoveries and surprising debuts, including the Rencontres’ closing film this year, Le Paradis d’Arthur, an operatic ode to pig farming. It’s an editing tour de force, which can only loosely be referred to as a doc.

75 films ultimately found themselves in “official competition” in four separate categories: Caméra stylo, Caméra au poing, Première camera and Éco-caméra. Caméra stylo might be loosely translated as “auteur films.” Inspired by Chris Marker’s opening salvo in Letter from Siberia, “I write to you from a distant country,” this section features works which stretch the formal constraints of documentary cinema: essays, journals, road movies, poetic, contemplative films often with a first-person perspective. Diario argentino offers a sometimes-bewildering quest for meaning in contemporary Argentina. Renowned Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann’s Forever is a rather static look at Paris’ famous Père Lachaise cemetery, the final resting place of such luminaries as Jim Morrison, Balzac and Maria Callas and frequented by a gallery of characters today. Wide Awake, by American filmmaker Alan Berliner, is a hilarious examination of the trials and tribulations of the sleepless—himself first among them.

Caméra au poing (literally “camera in fist,” double meaning intended) offers a range of committed, point of view films, shot in the heat of the action. Though stylistically closer to current affairs docs, films like 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep and Songbirds aren’t without unusual formal and substantive twists. Cosa Nostra, a more traditional investigative piece, documents Italian efforts to put a lid on Mafia activities, and the murders and social mayhem that have plagued Sicilian society for some 20 years.

Première camera, or First Films, allows us to discover new talents and often, fresh ways of seeing. Focusing on emerging filmmakers from around the world, and given Montreal’s very active community of young filmmakers, this section will undoubtedly also be among the best attended. Glauber Rocha’s son Eryk returns with a new feature doc, Intervalo clandestino, in which Brazilian citizens voice their political views just prior to the recent elections. Montrealer Frédéric Bohbot’s Once A Nazi, unevenly shot but offering solid storytelling, was well received at an avant-premiere in his hometown and got a last-minute boost by the revelation that Nobel-prize-winning author Gunter Grass, like the doc’s main character, had served in the SS.

Éco-caméra is a first-time initiative organized in conjunction with l’Université du Québec, featuring a dozen films of environmental concern. Among them are Big Bucks, Big Pharma (US) about our propensity to let pharmaceutical companies define health; L’Europe et Chernobyl, a disturbing look at the health and environmental impacts of the nuclear accident on the European continent; Les réfugiés de la planète bleue , about environmental refugees in far-flung regions of the planet; and Our Daily Bread, a visually stunning film whose long takes and careful framing belie its urgent message about the dehumanized, toxic and ruthlessly efficient nature of modern food production.

Another 45 films constitute special thematic sections and filmmaker retrospectives. This year a series of docs by world-renowned fiction filmmakers, among them Alain Resnais, Jean Renoir and Jacques Demy, along with a special focus on Krystof Kieslowski, should guarantee some sold-out screenings. Three additional series will focus on national cinemas: Viva Italia, with recent documentaries from Italy; 20 years of the Cine Ojo movement in Argentina and documentaries from the Kurdish diaspora. Paquet notes a thread running through the Argentinian and Kurdish films: an awakening consciousness among young filmmakers who document the difficulties of rural survival in these contexts. Viva Italia testifies to the Italian documentary as a threatened species under Berlusconi.

One of Hungary’s most innovative documentary filmmakers is featured in a 7-work retrospective and master class. Peter Forgacs has been an active participant in experimental theatre, art, music and film movements in Hungary since the early ’70s. In 1983, he established the Private Film & Photo Archive Foundation for culture and art studies in Budapest. His films are re- toolings of home movies that he has collected for the foundation over 20 years, material he sees as providing “psychohistorical imprints.” Brilliantly edited, Forgacs’ films provide an unofficial visual imprint of a culture and of a past he feels was destroyed and rewritten in an Orwellian manner.

Three notable Quebec filmmakers with films in this year’s edition—Serge Giguère, Catherine Martin and Sylvain l’Espérance—will be the subject of mini- retrospectives and also give workshops and master classes. Giguère’s À force de rêves (Through our Dreams), opens the festival, a beautifully shot and edited, poignant and profoundly optimistic portrayal of old age. The film’s sound track, a particular triumph, seamlessly weaves together the four separate character strands of the film. It’s a testament to the pivotal role of sound in shaping and anchoring a film’s meaning.

Catherine Martin’s beautiful L’Esprit des lieux, filmed in the spectacular Charlevoix region of Quebec, considers the complex emotions elicited by time’s inevitable march forward, in this case, as it irrevocably transforms a bucolic (and photographically frozen-in-time) rural past. Le fleuve humain is Sylvain l’Espérance’s poetic homage to the river Niger and the people who live and work on its shores and in its barges and pirogues. Like the river, the film unfolds slowly, majestically, the quality of its gaze a rare mix of intimacy, respect and beauty. These three films, all from stubbornly independent directors, all feature-length, slow-paced, with “unsexy” subject matter, fly in the face of broadcaster edicts, offering up the best of what Pâquet affectionately calls documentaires de création.

This is André Pâquet’s first year as programming director for the Rencontres, but he comes with over 30 years experience as an independent film critic, curator and author. He has watched and experienced each succeeding film generation and movement since the New Wave and so brings a huge breadth of experience and knowledge to this position. The hard political edge notable in his predecessor Bernard Boulad’s programming choices has softened somewhat, revealing André’s penchant, and prioritizing of films that captivate through their unique cinematographic qualities, forms of storytelling and serendipitous subject matter.

Offbeat characters living mundane existences in exotic (to us) locations and facing dramatic challenges are the stuff of many of Pâquet’s personal choices. Characters like Mr. Liang, a 60-something, chain-smoking recluse and misanthrope, heir to an albatross of a family mansion slated for demolition in Shanghai (The Home of Mr. Liang). Or Yuri and Natasha (The Fisherman and the Dancer) who live with their two children on the shores of Lake Baikal, where the winds are constant and have names and personalities. Scenes of forbidding beauty, roiling seas and raging snowstorms interrupt painterly interior tableaux, shot in bleak winter light, illuminating lives alternately tinged with simple joy and the sadness of dashed dreams.

Not that politics have been evacuated in favor of formal concerns. Rather, political issues permeate films that do not wave militant banners, percolate up through the actions and lives of ordinary people, often caught up in extraordinary circumstances. To wit, La couleur des oliviers, which witnesses a Palestinian family living in a No-Man’s Land created by the Israeli wall, their experience of isolation, of imprisonment, caught in still shots and a slow pace. Or Men on the Edge—Fisherman’s Diary, another view of the conflict told from the perspective of Palestinian and Israeli fishermen who have always lived and worked harmoniously together on the Gaza-Israel border. While not untouched by the larger context, the film offers a message of hope and a vision of politics in daily action as does Encounter Point, a film by two young Jewish women about bereaved families on both sides of the conflict working for peace.

Finally, a word about a special event now in its third year at the Rencontres; a benefit-screening co-sponsored by the Rencontres and the Alter-Cine Foundation, established in the memory of filmmaker (and RIDM co-founder) Yvan Patry who passed away in 1999. Every year, the Foundation gives a $10,000 grant to assist in the production of documentaries by young filmmakers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Two films by the recipient of the 2004 award will be screened at the event, Mon premier contact and Les enfants Ikpeng s’adressent au monde directed by Brazilian indigenous filmmaker Kumare Ikpeng.

Workshops, panels and debates, along with the day-long documentary forum, round out a very promising and impressive event. The RIDM not only survives, it flourishes, supporting an argument made by Marie-Anne Raulet and other festival directors in Montreal: that perhaps the creative strength of a city, and the quality of its audiences, can be seen as much and as well in a series of worthy festivals as in one big red-carpet event.


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