As I begin writing this post, we’re into the home stretch of HotDocs 2020 in the now all-so-familiar confines of our homes on screens a lot smaller than our usual cinemas. This brings some advantages including even more time to screen even more docs. But there’s the downside of missing the shared experience, the camaraderie of the line-ups, the quick snacks and occasional meals in favourite nearby restaurants that are as much a part of HotDocs as the movies.
A pair of films about good but flawed parents who, in some ways, are “raised” by their children.
Directed by Elena Kondrateva
In this half-hour film, Inna, a single mother, divorced with four kids, wrestles with loneliness. In her professional life, she is a caring midwife, and at home a good, loving mother, but she needs an escape, a relationship on her own level. She has a sometimes lover, but he is married. Her precocious eldest daughter, Varvara, browses through Tinder looking for potential matches, albeit with a jaundiced eye and attitude beyond her years. Her son, Plato, has a learning disability, and needs extra care.
Both mother and daughter are looking for partners at the same time, the the “puberty” of the title could equally apply to both of them.
A chance for a week’s vacation in Paris triggers a scramble to get a visa, and to book a flight and hotel. Here the plans run aground on a bureaucracy that simply does not move as fast as needed. This creates what felt to me like an artificial crisis as our heroine falls apart at both the emotional and financial loss of a much-wanted break from her regular life. All is resolved in the end, and she departs for who knows what fling.
I was a bit perplexed that film, a student work, is in a documentary festival. Although this may be a real person, the story feels like a mini-drama. There was no Q&A afterward in which the origin of Puberty and the filmmaker’s intimate access to the family might have been explained.
Directed by Lars Emil Leonhardt, Brendan Cooney
Voted 5th of Top 5 Mid Length Documentaries
In Daddy, Brendan Cooney documents his own mixed feelings about fatherhood as he raises a daughter Hannah, then a son, Luke, mostly on his own in Copenhagen. Cooney is an American, somethings of a wanderer, an anthropologist by trade who fell in love with a married a Danish woman, Ida. They’re an odd match and prefer living apart while Dad has the children most of the time.
We never really learn why the couple chose to have not one, but two, kids, but there they are, and Brendan will adapt as best he can. Although he is a tad scatterbrained, he tries very hard to be a good father, but cannot help seeing his life through the lens of his own childhood with only one parent. Brendan observes that it is an act of faith to believe that all of the things we had before will be improved with kids.
We watch Hannah grow from a infant to a young child who is clearly going to be an important big sister to Luke while Brendan gains a better understanding of his own role.
As his story in Daddy evolves, Brendan’s parental drive strengthens and this lead to a move that feels just a touch artificial, scripted rather than documentary. Can Brendan emulate his father and just leave? He packs a bag and makes for the railway station, stares at the destination board contemplating all the places he might go. But the sight of families reuniting reminds him that “home” is where his kids are.
Daddy was filmed over five years, and my real hat-tip goes to the editor, Leonhardt, who must have waded through hours of footage to assemble a coherent piece. It is a reminder that not all families are perfect, and yet they can work in spite of the oddities of the parents. I was left wondering how Brendan and the kids are doing now and how their lives will evolve, and the fact that I care says something about how Daddy pulled me into its story.
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillipe
Watching Leap of Faith I gained an appreciation of William Friedkin as both a person and as a filmmaker. There is a depth of interest in many aspects of humanity, especially of the arts, that I did not expect from his filmography. There may be some element of self-serving presentation here, but the extensive look into how The Exorcist came to be are worth the viewing. This is less a “making of” story than a look into how an iconic film came to be.
Friedkin speaks of special moments of faith and fate, of the loss that is at the heart of stories and the faith that it might be regained. He is a particular admirer of the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, especially Ordet and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, he is also the director of the notorious film Cruising and its sordid portrayal of life in the gay New York leather scene. I glad he knows of and likes Dreyer, but I think there is some halo polishing going on here.
Friedkin’s style as a director is intriguing. “I don’t believe in take 2” he says, and explains that his cinematographer, Owen Roizman, was used to working in documentaries and filming continuous takes letting scenes evolve.
We learn that Friedkin was not the studio’s first choice as director, and that author William Peter Blatty had written his own screenplay which Friedkin discarded. Casting was a challenge with a raft of little-known actors in place of the A-list names wanted by the studio, Warner Brothers. This and much else can be learned from Wikipedia, but it is interesting to hear Friedkin tell the story. This is illustrated by a great selection of stills and slips from both The Exorcist and other movies, not to mention the René Magritte painting which inspired the well-known scene with Max von Sydow arriving to perform an exorcism.
Potential scores from not one, but two major composers, Bernard Hermann and Lalo Schiffrin, were rejected by Friedkin who instead built a temporary score using fragments of existing music including Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells that he found almost by luck after searching through piles of albums. These placeholders became the basis of the final score.
What makes Leap of Faith interesting is the number of choices, decisions, lucky breaks that made The Exorcist we know, and the very strange alternatives that might have been.
Directed by Tomasz Knittel
The premise of Zlota Street is interesting enough. A pre-war apartment block in Warsaw sat right beside a gate to the Jewish ghetto. It was owned by a family to whom it has been restored in post-Nazi reparations, but the current landlord, Krzysztof, is uncertain of his role. His grandmother was the only one from the original owner’s family to survive the war, and she dealt with the memory by suppressing it. Parts of the family grew up not knowing they were Jews. Krzysztof found out in his early 20s when his mother sprang that surprise on him.
Ida, Krzysztof’s girlfriend, actually manages the building and has a good rapport with the tenants, mainly immigrants with varied backgrounds in a country where outsiders are not always welcomed. Krzysztof himself is uncomfortable in the neighbourhood, unhappy about Israeli tourists who come by as if checking off boxes on a tour list. He prefers the calm and history of the Jewish cemetery and the graves of those he now knows are his family. There he feels as if he belongs.
Krzysztof’s own attitude to Poland is not kind, and he describes the country as “an anti-Semitic cemetery”. Some of the tenants share his view, while others think Poland is a great place to live. He would like to leave Poland, but Ida does not although she herself is of mixed, but non-Jewish background.
Watching Zlota Street I had a hard time focusing and had to go back over a chunk on the off chance I missed something. There is far too much gazing down empty corridors, wandering through the city, and not enough sense of the people. The film could easily have been cut from feature length down to an hour.
That incompleteness came partly from events overtaking the filming. Seven weeks into the project, in April 2019, the government revoked the return of the building to its owners. There is no follow-up giving any sense of “where are they now” nor the fate of the occupants.
The Forbidden Reel
Directed by Ariel Nasr
Rated 3rd out of 5 top Canadian films, 10th out of 20 top films for the festival.
Afghanistan is a country that is too familiar to TV new viewers as a battleground, a place where fundamentalists battle the Americans for supremacy. But it was not always that way.
The Forbidden Reel tells the story of how the country’s film archives were saved from destruction by a key group of historians, filmmakers and a few sympathetic angels among the hard-liners. Films that show a very different view than we see on the daily news were walled up in an archive, hidden from raids that could have destroyed the country’s and people’s cinematic history.
Director Ariel Nasr is an Afghan Canadian, and he discovered his heritage first through his father’s photo collection. During the years of the war with Russia, the violence was elsewhere, but when the Russians left, the radicals – mujaheddin and then the Taliban – moved in. The civil war among factions destroyed much of Kabul. It is breathtaking and very sad to see archival footage of pre-war Afghanistan, including a vibrant, civilized Kabul before all of the bombing.
Two Afghan directors, Abdul Latif Ahmadi and Siddiq Barmakh, give different views within the story from the point of view of a local and an exile. “Engineer Latif”, as he is often called runs, the archives at Afghan Film, and these are now being preserved in part with help from Canada’s NFB. Barmakh lives in Paris, and watches his country in despair from afar.
This is very much a story for film lovers and those who fear the loss of cultural heritage anywhere. Despite a violent history, a country can try to rebuild.
All That I Am
Directed by Tone Grøttjord-Glenne
Trigger warning: This film deals with sexual abuse of minors.
The central character in All That I Am is Emilie who we meet as an 18 year old. She has been living apart from her family for years because, from the age of 6 to 12, she was abused by her stepfather and bullied at school. When she came out to a school counsellor about her experiences, her stepfather was arrested, and she was removed from her home. Now, after five years in the welfare system, Emilie returns. She faces both her own past and her role, her perceived guilt, in breaking up her family.
Now that she is an adult, there is to be a hearing for compensation, a process that retraumatizes Emilie, but her recovery will take a lot more. One challenge is to explain to her younger stepbrother and stepsister, children of her mother’s second husband, how both she and the first father came to be absent.
Emilie wants to be a writer, to be “a beacon” for others so that they will speak up about their experiences sooner than she did. Indeed, her appearance in All That I Am is driven by that goal. However, actually getting out into the world is a challenge with an apprehension that her abuser might just show up in the street even though he no longer lives nearby. She can only sleep with a police alarm on her bedside table.
Even in a society with substantial professional support for victims of abuse, Emilie encounters well-meaning people who do not fully appreciate her experience, or even downplay expert testimony on the effects of her trauma. She visibly drifts away from conversations, distancing herself from those who don’t really support her experience. Those who “care” might not be as productive as they believe they are.
Emilie moves into her own small apartment, and enrols in a school where the staff quite clearly understand her special social needs. Things are looking up, and that’s where the story ends.
In a Q&A, director Tone Grøttjord-Glenne explained that she had been interested in documenting the experience of an abuse victim, but of course she could not gain access to any children. When Emilie came of age, and because of her interest in telling that story, the police arranged for contact between Emilie and Tone. All That I Am is the result. It is a sensitive portrait, shot with intimate access to the principal characters, of a woman with very difficult past and a challenging but hopeful future.
The School of Housewives
Directed by Stefanía Thors
In Reykjavik, Iceland, there is a school which teaches young women, mainly, a brace of household skills like cooking, clothing repair and hosting a small dinner party. Few men have attended over the years, but those who did were amazed at what they learned.
Director Stefanía Thors is Czech, a film editor, and she happened upon the school in 2006. She was fascinated with the idea that people would need to learn how to cook, clean and sew, but in good documentary tradition, actual filming of the school did not launch until ten years later, mostly in 2017. A lucky find in the school’s basement, a product of housecleaning of course, was a trove of Super 8 films shot decades earlier. This material is woven into the documentary and we bounce between past and present noting what has changed and what is still the same.
An oddity in the present day footage is the rarity of digital devices. Early on, one woman remarks that if she needed to know how to darn a sock, she would look it up on the internet. Of course that is nowhere near the same as actually learning how to do this by hand. Equally so, cooking large meals takes planning and experience, not just a recipe gleaned from Google. One student comments happily about the change from classic studying with lectures and bookwork to hands-on learning and accomplishments.
Founded in 1942, the school and grew out of wartime necessity, but continued since through social and financial ups and downs. For reasons that were not fully explained, the school cannot grant students a diploma, and this deters would-be attendees. When times are good, enrollment drops, but when times are bad, everyone wants to learn how to make do for themselves.
Watching The School of Housewives gave me the sense of stepping back in time, in part because of the stereotype of being “a good homemaker”. I could not help thinking of the many useful skills taught and, by implication, the skills may people no longer possess. I realized that even this outlook has its limitations because the further one climbs up the social ladder, the more likely that one has “help” to look after these basics. Over time, the help disappeared or became unaffordable to the middle class, and cheaply buying new took precedence over fixing what one already had. There is a wealth of social history in this topic, but that was not the director’s focus.
Directed by Maija Blåfield
North Korea is a country we associate with a rigid, backward and very controlled society, but despite these limitations, its people seek to know about the outside world. Their information comes from the most unlikely of sources: garbage. Crossing into South Korea may be almost impossible, but north into China is relatively easy. Why cross that border? Smuggling.
China contracts with western nations to take our garbage and recycle, at least to some extent, materials that we just throw away. Among the mountain of junk are videotapes.
Imagine that your first impression of the west is to see Rambo or gangster movies or dance-filled musicals or romance in a French kitchen or James Bond’s attempt to destroy a nuclear plant in, wait for it, North Korea. Which of these images are real and which are fantasy? Do people really travel in space? Do cowboys make love? What if the first cell phone you actually see is in The Matrix?
One editing device I chortled at was the use of video snow and image breakup that those of us old enough to remember analog television and videotape know only too well. There is now at least one generation for whom this shorthand for old technology may well be an inexplicable relic replaced today by jittery, out of sync digital streaming.
I could not help thinking of science fiction in which visitors from another world have learned of our culture by monitoring broadcasts, except here we have people in a conservative, backward nation viewing the world through the strange lenses we turn on ourselves.
The Fantastic screened together with …
Directed by Ksenia Okhapkina
Northern Russia, Siberia, The Gulag, has a forbidding reputation as the place to dump your enemies. The process might have been at its height under Stalin, but the area is still populated. Immortal presents a bleak view in relentless grey even though the film is nominally in colour.
The boys are in cadets, and the girls dance. I could not help thinking of send-ups of earnest entertainments from the Soviet era with noble peasants and tractors. Except this is the real thing, and it could easily be 1950.
There may be a message here, that this type of blind loyalty in service of the state never really disappeared, but I was not convinced. This is a film of eternal winter, a condition that does not apply year-round, and especially not when record high arctic temperatures made the news the same week I saw Immortal.
Without broader context, we get a visual “appreciation” for winter in the north and a stultifying social order, but little else.
Directed by Jules Giraudat, Arthur Bouvart and Alexis Marant
Green Blood screened as part of HotDocs “Deep Dive” series with a four-part, 200+ minute series about the perils of journalism and the world of corruption and violence that is the international mining industry. Large scale investigations crossing national boundaries and involving multiple, usually competing, organizations are rare, but the problems of violence and death against journalists prompted a group of 40 from 151 countries to band together and dig into this epidemic. It did not take them long to find a common thread in mining, and this series documents their work of exposing three separate scandals.
Several factors were common to each investigation. Mining companies operate with impunity in third world countries far from prying eyes and with little attention from mainstream media. There is always a local kingpin, someone with the wealth and power to ensure they stay in business and crush any local opposition. First world companies, household names, are insulated by layers of the supply chain through refiners, consolidators, and a public relations machine that preaches environment sustainability and social responsibility. It is all a lie.
The investigations begin with finding local stories and the journalists who attempt to cover them. Some are already in hiding or have been cowed into silence, and one was murdered. The three stories are told in parallel so that we follow the arc through stages as the various players realize someone is digging into their activities and respond in various ways including direct government threats. The path from third world exploitation to first world manufacturing is challenging, and yet it is only the major players, the end consumers of “dirty” products who can bring change. The outlook is not hopeful, but that’s no spoiler. Business is business.
My one disappointment was that a series covering an investigation that published in mid-2019 did not have an epilog, a “where are they now” closer although some info did come out in the post-screening Q&A. The directors talked of making a follow-up piece, but that does not exist yet.
First up is the pillage of fine sand mining in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu by an organization one French journalist dubs “le mafia du sable” (the sand mafia). Local journalist Jagendra Singh was investigating the removal of huge volumes of sand by a company that had no actual license to do this, but operated with impunity thanks to political corruption. The working rules were “don’t pay the government, just pay me” for the strongman behind this scheme. Singh was beaten and burned alive by goons trying to silence him, but lived a week and left photographic proof of what had happened. The police autopsy ruled that this was a suicide. Witnesses and family members were intimidated and paid off to support this story. Meanwhile, beaches are destroyed, and rising water wreaks havoc for nearby towns.
European journalists travel to India to investigate with the help of a local journalist who carries on Singh’s investigations. They are warned travel during an election period when the politicians and security services will be distracted. That does them little good because, thanks to leaks about company business, they are accused by a government minister of stealing national secrets and are marked men wherever they go. They are, however, able to escape with their information.
Sand is a major component of the world mining, and the irony here is that for all the damage and extent of corruption involved here, this is only a small part of a world-wide industry because sand is such an important component of so many products.
The second story lies in Guatemala where a nickel mine is polluting a lake and groundwater destroying the livelihood and safety of farmers and fishermen who live nearby. A lake turns red from pollution, but the government claims this is just algae even though tests prove otherwise. The mine exhausts smoke and toxic dust settles over the area causing skin rashes and respiratory problems for people living around the mine. But during the day all seems well because there are filters on the smokestacks and production is at a lower level. When the sun goes down, production ramps up and with it the unfiltered emissions.
Carlos Choc, a local journalist, was covering a protest when riot police brought in by the government shot and killed a leader of the fishermen’s group. The police later claimed that none of the forces were armed. Choc is shot multiple times himself, and avoids death only because a sympathetic clinic operates on him, off the record, to remove bullets and repair the damage.
The government claims that the protesters were not fisherman, but “organized crime, troublemakers”. Charges are brought against Choc as if he were an instigator and participant in demonstrations against the mining company. Facing 20 years in prison, he spends much of the series in hiding only to emerge in the hope that his case will be tried and thrown out. However, the local judge is corrupt (and, it would appear, he is not alone) and keeps Choc in limbo by simply postponing the trial over and over again.
When the investigating journalists from Europe come to visit the mine, they are met by a friendly, ever-so-helpful PR flak who tours them through a nature reserve that clearly exists for show, a place to demonstrate the company’s commitment to the environment. This takes long enough that a visit to the mine itself would be impractical. Later in the series, it will be obvious that foreign buyers of the product have been treated to the same show. The same PR flak is much less co-operative as the journalists continue to dig into the mine’s operation.
In a part of rural northern Tanzania, the locals dig for bits of gold they can find in rocks, and that provides an income. Enter Acacia Mining with a government concession. Walls go up around the ore, and the locals are cut out of the trade. Guess what well known company is at the top of a long chain above this operation? Canada’s Barrick Gold, the largest player in the international gold business.
Journalist Jabir Idrissa was covering this story including the effect on people living around the mine, the shootings and rapes that the mine’s security forces used to keep people in line. For his troubles, two newspapers were shut down by the government.
Some people attempt to scale the fence into the mine to get a bit of gold as they once did. One is shot dead and left for two days before his family can claim the body. The post mortem, despite a bullet hole through his brain, ruled that the man was killed by some sharp object like a spear. This was a total fiction because the doctor who did the autopsy was under threats not to report it as a gun killing.
An interview with an ingratiating Minister reeks of fabrication, and the Minister claims that there have been no complains about conditions at the mine for 12 years. With a willful blindness like his, with government claims that opposition in time of war is sedition and the probability of extreme violence in reprisal, who would complain? The moment the visiting journalists get near the details, the interview ends.
Following the gold to its eventual buyers in the first world is a challenge, but the story is ferreted out by a combination of helpful leaks and confirmations by PR representatives who, prodded by just the right questions, give away more than they intended. At every level, the PR flaks divert all attemps at questions to senior execs, and only Hewlett Packard goes on record, and even that tentatively, about ensuring that they will clean up their supply chain. The problem is that the markets are so large with so many players, and no huge consumer of raw materials will make the effort to track its procurement all the way to the source.
Overall, Green Blood is a good story of large scale investigation and the powers arrayed against the media. Heroic efforts were needed, and the journalists on the front lines risked much just to bring their stories to the world. The series felt just a tad long, as if the four episodes were filled out broadcast length (52 minutes each for a one hour slot), but the story is worth hearing. Whether anything concrete will improve, and how many more abuses are waiting to be found all over the world, those are quite another matter.
Directed by Mira Jargil
A family of refugees flees from war in Aleppo, Syria. The father, Mukhles, is the first out and he winds up in Canada. The mother, Rana, and her two sons leave later and are plucked from an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean. Rana ends up in Denmark, but her sons are in Turkey. Reunification should be easy and obvious, yes, but in practice this requires navigation through less-than-helpful bureaucracies of three countries.
Both parents are doctors, but they are unable to practice. Mukhles works as a cook in a restaurant and sends money to support his family. Rana eventually gets a short term position as an intern in a hospital.
The family stays in touch through video chats. Rana is determined and hopeful, but the others grow frustrated with their lives. As Syrian refugees in Turkey, the boys are resented by the locals. One son, Nidal, tells his mother “maybe you can keep going for a couple of years, but we can’t”. His frustration is complicated by an impending 18th birthday when the rules for family unification as an adult would make his case more difficult. Meanwhile in Ottawa, Mukhles is ashamed to be working in such a simple job.
After much legal wrangling, Rana’s Danish passport arrives. She is ecstatic because finally she can visit her sons. But no. The Turkish government will not give her a visa. The boys are really getting sullen asking “why didn’t you take us with you, why did you leave us in Turkey”.
In time, Denmark gives permission for the boys to join their mother, but even this is caught up in the constant need for more documentation. Their first attempt to leave Turkey fails, but eventually they reach Denmark and start learning how to be a family again. Sadly, their father is still in Canada preferring to look at old photos and videos from the days when they were all together in Aleppo before it was destroyed by war.
Reunited shows us the strain of refugees just beginning to make a new start. They did not just sail off one day from home expecting to be cared for along the way, but their day-to-day life is spread over three continents linked by phone calls and the constant frustration of trying to get “normal” status.
I could not help thinking that this was a well-educated, professional family with some resources, and yet they fought through a maze of rules, a constant need for more documentation, just to be reunited. Hundreds, thousands of refugees do not operate from this comparatively privileged position, nor are they in countries with the supports and welcome they received.
Lessons of Love
Directed by Malgorzata Goliszewska and Kasia Mateja
Characters: Jola, her husband Bogdan, her friend Wojtek
In Lessons of Love, we meet a woman who, after decades in a bad, abusive marriage, finally decides that she deserves a better life. Jola is 69, and has been married to Bogdan for 45 years. He is a slob. He drinks and spends his money on other women. By contrast, Jola is very stylish, in a faded, slightly over-the-top way always dressed in fashion and made up to look her best.
Bogdan assaults his wife and has no qualms about threatening to kill her on camera. They are Polish, but have a flat in Italy where they live with a daughter who very much takes after her father.
Returning to Poland, Jola commiserates with friends who are astounded she is still with her husband, but Jola has a strong Catholic streak and worries about her marriage vows. “Why can’t I have two husbands” she wonders, with one who would treat her well even if she were not divorced. She asks a priest if it would be a sin to leave Bogdan. He replies, with a pause, “no, but” there are her vows. What about the violence? Do the vows cover that? The priest is silent.
Taking dance lessons, Jola meets Wojtek, a man who is more timid than she about moving on the dance floor, but they warm to each other. As their friendship deepens, Jola resists moving in with Wojtek saying “you would own me”, and yet that is clearly where their relationship should go.
They are both seniors with health issues. Wojtek’s left arm is partly paralyzed, and Jola has an ovarian tumour for which an operation is unavoidable. She is resigned to this, and worries that she will not come through, but Wojtek is there waiting for her as she recovers. It is probably the only time we see her completely without makeup, and it is refreshing to see that she is attractive in her own right even in recovery.
Eventually, the two new loves move in together, and in the epilogue poor Wojtek complains about having to carry all of Jola’s dresses upstairs to his flat. They’re so heavy! Jola replies that “you only have to do this once, and you will have all of me”.
If I had seen this in a theatre, I suspect the audience would all have walked out after the credits grinning quietly at each other.
Directed by Asia Dér and Sári Haragonics
Nóru and Virág are a lesbian couple, one a bass guitarist and videographer, the other a former member of the Hungarian parliament for the Green Party. They talk of adopting a child although this will be difficult in an increasingly conservative country where the government takes the mantle “Christian” values to justify homophobia. The couple’s dedication and certainty about becoming a family can be shaky at times even without the political complications.
After a long wait for approval, the child Melissza arrives.
There is a break in the story here because the period of adjustment between the two mothers and their new daughter needed to happen without a camera’s presence. This is a blip where an intertitle or two might have helped, but that’s a minor quibble on my part.
The adoption took advantage of a loophole that a single mother could adopt, but not a couple. This happened only because the Orban government had not yet totally clamped down on same-sex parenting. Not long afterward we hear a radio report of the Parliamentary Speaker describing same-sex adoptions as “vile luxury goods” for their parents’ gratification.
The new family is living in the country away from city pressures and the potential from harrassment, but staying in Hungary will be a poor option, especially as Marissza grows older and faces the dual challenges of having two mothers and being, herself, of Roma descent. Fortunately, Virág works for Greenpeace and can get work abroad.
The family relationship is difficult, and Marissza clearly prefers her “mother” Virág to her “father” Nóru (labels that the couple adopted for clarity, not for social roles). Nóru wants a child too, waiting to get one in Hungary would delay the move abroad, and further complicate the family dynamic.
Eventually they will all move to Vienna. The ending is optimistic, but getting there was a challenge as mothers and daughter adapt to a new country and language.
Her Mothers was shot over three years, and started out with the directors wanting to document a couple wishing to adopt. They met, befriended and followed the lives of two women with intimate access to their relationship, and in the process tell a story of the challenges of parenthood and families that transcend the sex of the participants.
Une femme, ma mère (A Woman, My Mother)
Directed by Claude Demers
Claude Demers is an adopted child, and Une femme, ma mère explores both his early life and later search for his biological mother. However, this is not a documentary in the traditional sense. Indeed it would be almost impossible to have footage from his early years and that could have turned into a series of stills with a voice over, and all about him. Instead, Demers used a large amount of archival National Film Board footage from dozens of films mixed with newly-shot material to provide a continuous sequence of images illustrating his story.
About 70 per cent of the result is archival, but everything is rendered into a 4-by-3 black and white format and looks completely seamless with pristine images taken from decades-old works. I was enchanted both by the format and the storytelling, and rewatched a large chunk of the film just to pick up favourite spots.
This is a story about Demers mother who didn’t want him to make a film about her, but Demers reminds her (and us) that this is his story too, and storytelling is what he does. As the tale goes on, we will learn that she was secretive about her past and evaded discovery. There are interwoven memories – Demers own, his mother’s to the extent she shared episode of her life, and those of friends and family – and they give the film an episodic, almost dreamlike character in places. Are all of the memories true? How can different versions of events be reconciled?
As a young woman, Marie (as we will some to know her) had a husband who lasted four years, but he was “un mauvais rève” (a bad dream) best forgotten. Demers himself was the product of a brief fling, born in a Sisters of Mercy orphanage in Montréal, and abandoned by his mother there. The pregnancy and birth took place out of sight, typical for the time, and none in Marie’s circle knew about this.
Demers’ adoptive family did not want him to search for his parents, but in time with the help of usually private Church archives, he began to track down his past. At the age of 35, he discovers that his birth name was Paul Jarry, but even that does not provide the link because children born in the Church’s care were all given different names from their parents. Everyone born in the same week got the same surname. Eventually, his sleuthing leads him to his mother, but that part of the story is not told as a mystery tale, rather as a series of lucky discoveries.
Marie now lives in Ontario, and Claude tracks her down, even visiting the neighbourhood where she lives without knocking on the door. A few letters bring only icy replies because Marie does not want her husband to find about her past. Only after his death do mother and child finally meet with a tentative rapport, but there are many unanswered questions by the time of her death. She never meets Demers daughter, Alma, her granddaughter, to whom the film is dedicated.
This was the last film I screened at the very end of the online Hotdocs, and it was a beautiful note to go out on.
POV Magazine Interview: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/claude-demers-a-woman-my-mother-interview
Short comments about short films.
Día de la Madre
Directed by Ashley Brandon and Dennis Höhne
For Mother’s Day, a school band and singer go house to house serenading mothers who have no idea what is about to happen.
Once The Dust Has Settled
Directed by Hervé Demers
The town of Asbestos, Québec, was known for one thing, its namesake product mined from a huge open pit. Some days, in mid summer, there would be “snow” falling, but it was asbestos. Health problems were, to no surprise, quite common.
The mine is closed, but the town still exists and hopes for rebirth with some new purpose.
Directed by Charlie Tyrell
A school in Philadelphia has a storeroom full of broken instruments, 1500 of them, but they have no music program because they cannot afford repairs. After fundraising, the Symphony for Broken Instruments is born.
This story is told intriguingly by a camera wandering through empty halls and classrooms. The typical school video carts with monitors are all running playbacks of interviews about the instruments, and the story is told for the most part without our actually seeing the participants. A sad but hopeful commentary on the state of arts education and school funding.
Directed by Noemie Nakai
A counsellor who pitch could almost be mistaken for a classic late night TV scam runs a program teaching people how to display public emotion, how to cry as a means of stress relief.
Oil and Water
Directed by Anjali Nayar
In 2012, Tullow Oil in northern Kenya began drilling for oil, and this work was significantly increased in 2018. 60,000 acres that had formerly been open were fenced off blocking migration patterns. Consultation was minimal and the land was acquired by compulsory purchase. Initially, Tullow brought in water to compensate for lost community access, but when drought hits, the water stops.
Within the community there is a split between the men, for whom the mine is a source of jobs, and the women who see what is happening to their land.
Oil and Water is interesting not just for its link to other films in this year’s festival, but also because the political story is told from the women’s point of view.
The Chimney Swift
Directed by Frédéric Schuld
Until 1875, it was legal to employ children from the ages of 4 to 14 as chimney sweeps. This was a dangerous job with injury and death common. This short animated piece gives a brief look at that history.
Egg Cup Requiem
Directed by Nick Mayow and Prisca Bouchet
Johnny Green was born in north London in 1930. Before she died in 1941, his mother gave him a decorated egg cup, his only childhood memento that he was able to keep during his years in an orphanage. After the war, he emigrated to New Zealand with his new wife, but lost her on the voyage to an affair with another man. Since then he has lived alone, but with a growing collection of egg cups numbering over 9,000. Their small decorated scenes form much of the visual story of Egg Cup Requiem with Green’s voice over.
That original egg cup from Johnny’s mum? It was stolen from a display in a shopping mall. He got another of the same design, but it will never be his mother’s gift.
Directed by Dia Sokol Savage
With all the bad press about the US immigration service, not to mention the sanctimonious prattle of American Christians, Welcome Strangers brings us a different view, almost certainly one that predates the worst of Trump’s war on foreigners.
Every day, the ICE detention centre in Aurora, Colorado releases people whose status as refugees has been approved. They come out onto the streets of an industrial area not knowing where to go, but with luck they meet Sarah and her friends from the Casa de Paz, a half-way house for immigrants. She is very bright and bubbly, but it is her Christian faith and its precept to “love thy neighbour” that inspires her work.
The Lost Astronaut
Directed by Ben Proudfoot
USA / Canada
Ed Dwight Jr. might have been the first black astronaut if history had turned out differently. He grew up near an air field and was fascinated with flying. One day, he read of a black man who was a fighter pilot in the USAF and that decided his career. He would enlist.
Dwight did well, but his real dream job came with his selection for training as a possible astronaut. President Eisenhower had started the program, but the pilots were all white and the man in charge, Chuck Yaeger, was no lover of blacks. After Kennedy’s election, he wondered why are there no black astronauts, and Dwight became one of “Kennedy’s boys”. Out of a group of 30, Dwight was not selected as one of the first eight, but still had his hopes. One month later Kennedy was shot, and that ended Dwight’s hopes.
He left the Air Force and took up a new pursuit making memorial statues and has built thousands over his life, all of blacks.
This moving, well-told story was produced as part of the New York Times “Op Docs” program, and it is available on YouTube.
Directed by Julia Pelka
“Fat Kathy” is a pumping station that supplies water to the city of Warsaw. It is tended by a man whose nightmare is that some day the river will be polluted either through disaster or attack, and the entire city will be poisoned. He has an unlikely crew of assistants: eight clams fitted out with sensors to ensure that they are still alive and breathing in the water stream. If it is unsafe, they will close and stop breathing in an attempt to save themselves, or pop open dead. Every three months, the clams are taken back to their home in the river and a new batch are “recruited” for the monitoring station.
In The Shadow of the Pines
Directed by Anne Koizumi
A Japanese-Canadian girl, Mayu, is embarrassed both by her name, and by her father who works as a janitor in her school. She has a fantasy father, a “salary man” who goes to an office each day, and she tries to be the kind of daughter he would have had.
Her dad had a difficult youth in post-war Japan growing up in an orphanage, but he came to Canada and raised a family there in happier times. Mayu remembers mushroom hunts in a pine forest, but her father too is now only a memory.
In the Shadow of the Pines, a mixture of stop action animation, archival photos and film, is available on YouTube.
The following film was screened by CBC during the festival and I PVRed it for later viewing.
The Walrus and the Whistleblower
Directed by Nathalie Bibeau
Winner of the Audience Choice Award
Available for viewing on CBC Gem
The day after HotDocs online ended, I screened this film from my PVR anticipating something really special from the Audience Choice Award winner. That was not my experience for a few reasons.
First, as with another film I watched on “regular TV”, even with a PVR to skip over the commercials, it seemed unduly long. I checked the running time later, and at 89 minutes this meant that there was 1 minute (real time) of commercials for every 3 minutes of documentary. Yes, CBC has to pay its bills somehow, but even fast-forwarded commercial breaks interrupted the flow. That brings me to the second problem. This documentary did not “grab hold” of me either for its content or its method of presentation. There was no sense of wondering “now what happens” or marvelling at an innovative story-telling technique.
The basic situation is well known to anyone who lives in southern Ontario. Marineland in Niagara Falls was one of the two sites in Canada that kept and presented for entertainment marine mammals. Several years ago, complaints began to surface about mistreatment of the animals, and public opinion began to turn against having them in captivity. The documentary follows three threads. The first from its title is the story of Philip Demers, a trainer who came to be known as a “walrus whisperer” because of his close rapport with those animals, especially the first walrus Marineland acquired, “Smooshi”. The second is the rising whistleblower campaign by Demers and other former employees, his public support, and the move to ban captivity of cetaceans in Canada. The third is the legal battle waged by Marineland to silence its critics with defamation and other lawsuits.
Demers really, really cares about the walrus at Marineland even though he has not seen them for many years. Toward the end of the story, they begin to die off, and at the end only Smooshi remains alive. We don’t know what condition she is in because Marineland was not allowing any filming. His is the only lawsuit still outstanding because he refuses to settle although he faces a huge legal bill unless Marineland buys him off, something he refuses to accept.
A bill to ban captivity of cetaceans makes its way ever so slowly through hearings in the Senate where it is sandbagged routinely by Conservative members who are clearly spouting Marineland’s public story. Very late in the day, the bill passes, but walrus are not cetaceans, and even then existing captive animals are grandfathered by the bill. The marine park in Vancouver has closed, but Marineland in Niagara Falls remains open.
The real story here is the ability of a company to snare its opponents in an unending legal battle wearing them down psychologically and financially. A common settlement involves non-disclosure language that prevents advocates from pursuing their cause. A related issue that is touched on, but not fully explored, is the political and economic clout of a major tourist attraction in a city like Niagara Falls that is really a one-horse town dependent on tourism. The falls are not the biggest draw, but Marineland is (or was) and it is also a major employer. If there was any political support for Demers in the Falls, it certainly was not evident beyond the crowds who came out to protest for animal welfare.
The story is worth telling, but The Walrus and the Whistleblower wears out its welcome by stretching to a 90 minute format. The time could have been better filled with context about the status of other animal parks in Canada and the shifting mood against zoos generally. This was completely ignored.
The film may tell a sad tale of the fate of animals at Marineland and one man’s fight to improve their lot, but it won the audience award, I suspect, because everyone loves animal videos. There were much better documentaries in this year’s festival.