In Montreal’s crowded film-festival landscape, the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM) has carved out its own distinct space. The festival consistently showcases filmmakers who are striving to expand ideas around what documentaries can and should be.
This year marks the fest’s 25th anniversary, and its entries do not disappoint, highlighting films that are dramatic/documentary hybrids, focus on unusual ideas and subjects, and brazenly defy expectations. The festival offers a welcome respite from a film form that becomes increasingly commodified year after year.
Part of the quarter-century celebration will mean the return of a popular screening section: a focus on a national cinema. This year, programmers will include a roster of films from Brazil, by way of collaboration with the renowned Olhar de Cinema, Festival Internacional de Curitiba, a festival that just celebrated its 10th edition. Expect several films that shine a light on the brave resistance of those standing up to the insanity of Bolsonaro’s rule. The festival will also be featuring retrospectives and master classes.
What follows are some notable entries in this year’s RIDM.
Fanie Pelletier explores the complex lives of teen girls/young women in Jouvencelles (Bloom). Though it’s almost impossible to imagine a world without the Internet and social media, they are in fact recent phenomena, and Pelletier looks very specifically at the impact they are having on the identities and self-impressions of teen-aged girls. One girl says she doesn’t talk to anyone except her boyfriend, but wants to express this on social media. Two queer girls recount how they met on TikTok. Girls denounce the importance of identity while simultaneously striving to find it (one settles on being abrosexual, which means her sexuality is changing or fluid). Another girl imagines how to best represent bulimia in images, while another shows the damaging impact of apps that allow for users to alter their photos (in this case, to make their bodies slimmer in parts and curvier in others). In other words, online life for young girls is a hot mess.
We knew this going in, but Pelletier manages, through deliberate and careful pacing, to reflect much of the pain and anguish these young women are experiencing. Some of the girls express discomfort with online sharing and virtual life, but others see some value to it. Showing your insecurities online, one girl states, “is like shock therapy.” Pelletier also creates a vivid contrast between the online existence the girls inhabit by often setting her interviews in beautiful natural settings, off-setting images of online isolation with female bonding in parks or bodies of water. Bloom is a beautiful and intense film, and Pelletier sensibly resists judging or jumping in with her own opinions, rather letting these girls explain and convey their own lived realities.
Many filmmakers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, have struggled with the question of whether or not cinema can really capture the extremity and enormity of genocide. With Inner Lines, Pierre-Yves Wanderweerd expands ideas around this question, in a film that is poetic and deeply meditative. The filmmaker shows us fleeting images of faces that were lost to the Yazidi genocide of 2014, including sweeping, haunting shots of barren landscapes and whispers about missing people. Wanderweerd’s eclectic approach has a cumulative impact, conveying the collective trauma suffered after such devastation. It’s one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen this year, a film about memory that is a feat of cinematography and editing.
In an unexpected connection, filmmaker Leandro Listorti manages to link botanical and film preservation in Herbaria. Sounds like a long shot? Consider that archivists of both preserve samples in metal safe boxes. Both plant life and celluloid have been lost due to faulty (or non-existent) archive techniques, but preserving their history is crucial, given that both tell us key things about our history and evolution. It’s a fascinating thesis for a documentary, and I confess I was doubtful Listorti could pull it off, but this film got me. The filmmaker manages to pack in some fascinating factoids: Since 1750, over 500 plant species have gone extinct. Making the parallels clear, Listorti shows us through juxtaposed images how recreating those plants might have looked with shots of historians painstakingly restoring an old strip of celluloid. These moments seem almost discursive at first, then we see how they add up to the larger whole of the film’s thesis. Herbaria is both beautiful and thought provoking.
The fest will also screen the North American premiere of Chaylla, a feature about a woman struggling to escape an abusive relationship. Filmmakers Paul Pirritano and Clara Teper sustain a distinct intimacy with their unblinking camera, showing us the 23-year-old protagonist, a mother of two who fights to maintain custody of her children and rebuild her life in northern France. The doc emerges as a case study in the massive challenges that abused women face. Social workers are empathetic, but are also realistic as to what her possibilities are as she is harassed and stalked by her ex.
We feel these huge issues hanging over Chaylla as the film also shows us smaller passages, including birthday celebrations for her son. And we also see where Chaylla gains so much of her strength, from the friendship she has with a close friend who has also been through hell with abusive partners. Their bond helps to sustain them, and us, throughout Chaylla’s grueling ordeals. Pirratano and Teper create a sense of intimacy that is staggering. At times, Chaylla recalls Frederick Wiseman’s devastating 2001 dive into a Florida shelter for victims of domestic violence, fittingly (and typically for the director) titled simply Domestic Violence. But where that project showed us the connections between a number of different victims (and their partners), Chaylla is powerful in part because it remains centered on one woman and her distinct struggle, a battle made that much more shattering because the man she is trying to cut ties with also happens to be the father of her children. The film is at times sad and harrowing, but ultimately inspiring due to Chaylla’s resilience.
One of the strangest, and indeed most powerful, hybrid experiments this year is Way Out Ahead of Us. A mom and dad try to keep the fact that the father is dying of a terminal illness a secret from their daughter, as she is about to move away and they don’t want to worry her. The catch is that the father in the film is indeed a real person who is suffering from a terminal illness, and is married to the mom in the film. But the daughter is in fact the daughter these two always wanted but never had, a fictional figure who is played by a hired actress. In his filmmaking debut, Rob Rice manages an impressive high-wire act; even though we are aware this daughter is not “real” and is played by an actress, through this scenario, we are able to explore the pain and suffering this family is experiencing. It is also a welcome depiction of the American working class, all too often completely invisible and non-existent in cultural representations anywhere. There’s a real beauty to the performances of the three leads here. The sense of loss and emotional devastation is palpable.