Documentaries

We’re enormous fans of documentary film here at Toronto Screen Shots. In fact, this very blog grew out of the many reviews we were writing for the annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Our coverage now extends well beyond Hot Docs to include documentaries in other festivals, on DVD, on television and even films in development.

True/False Film Festival 2014

I’ve just returned from Columbia, Missouri, the home of one of the most unique film fest­ivals in the world. The 11th edi­tion of the True/False Film Festival took place from Thursday February 27th through Sunday March 2nd. Though the fest is ded­ic­ated to “non­fic­tion” cinema, its selec­tions have often been at the van­guard of new move­ments in doc­u­mentary and so attract a lot of atten­tion from audi­ences and critics who may not con­sider them­selves fans of what’s tra­di­tion­ally been con­sidered doc­u­mentary film. That’s just a long and awk­ward way of saying that True/False picks really great films that break out of con­fining cat­egories and con­nect with audiences.

Columbia is a col­lege town, the home of the University of Missouri (affec­tion­ately referred to as “Mizzou”). It has around 100,000 inhab­it­ants and could be con­sidered an artistic and intel­lec­tual hub of the region. Nevertheless, I still found it mighty impressive the amount of local sup­port the fest­ival has attained in just a decade. More than sup­port; out­right love. The fest­ival suc­ceeds not just with its film pro­gram­ming, but by involving every artistic com­munity in the region (and beyond!). Gorgeously designed posters, pro­gram guide, and fest­ival badges, one-of-a-kind sculp­tures and exhibits cre­ated just for the fest­ival, an actual parade (the clev­erly named “March March”), buskers per­forming before every screening, and much, much more. True/False is a cel­eb­ra­tion of cre­ativity and its sense of whimsy draws a lot of people into its orbit who pre­vi­ously might have been unin­ter­ested in any­thing as stuffy as “doc­u­mentary film.” It does a great job of “evan­gel­izing” for a cer­tain kind of film­making and exhib­i­tion and com­munity engage­ment that is close to my own heart. I loved the films I saw, but more than that, I found inspir­a­tion in the way that they were cur­ated and presented to the com­munity. I learned a lot.

Here is Les Trois Coups, a group of musi­cians that T/F “co-conspirator” Paul Sturtz dis­covered playing on the streets of Paris and determ­ined to bring to Columbia. They were a hit every­where they went.

Les Trois Coups

And here are a few notes on the films I saw. I’ll rank them in order of most-enjoyed to least, although everything I saw was thought-provoking in some way. The “secret screening” cannot be named but I’ll link to the text the fest­ival used to describe it without giving the title away:

  • Actress (Dir: Robert Greene) — What hap­pens when you put an actor into a doc­u­mentary about her own life? Magic, that’s what. Layered and compassionate.
  • Rich Hill (Dir: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos) — This por­trait of three teen boys from a small Missouri town achieves some­thing uni­versal even while telling the kind of story that doesn’t make it to the big screen often, at least without preachi­ness or pity. Humanist storytelling meets per­ceptive cine­ma­to­graphy, finding thou­sands of moments of beauty in a dif­fi­cult landscape.
  • Secret Screening Amber (Dir: ?) — this por­trait of two alco­holic friends is tough, intimate and doesn’t pass judge­ment. It is patient and open-hearted, showing the audi­ence that even the most ordinary lives con­tain drama, comedy, pain and love. Fantastic storytelling.
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (Dir: Frank Pavich) — Alejandro Jodorowsky is a force of nature, and his immense cha­risma puts this film on its back and car­ries it through a pretty heart­breaking tale of artistic failure. You’ll laugh a lot, though, and wonder “what if?”
  • Tim’s Vermeer (Dir: Teller) — Another crowd-pleaser car­ried by its eccentric sub­ject, soft­ware mil­lion­aire Tim Jenison, who has enough free time and money to try fig­uring out the secret behind the paint­ings of Vermeer, and, you know, paint one himself.
  • Killing Time (Dir: Jaap van Hoewijk) — Formally inter­esting, this film observes an exe­cu­tion by spending the last day of an inmates’s life with his family mem­bers. You’ll (per­haps) be hor­ri­fied at the banality of death’s admin­is­tra­tion. I cer­tainly was.
  • Ukraine is Not a Brothel (Dir: Kitty Green) — What’s behind Ukrainian group FEMEN’s top­less protests? This film bares all. (Sorry). Though this film has lots of sur­prises (and plenty of boobs, too), it left so many essen­tial (to me) ques­tions unanswered. Still worth­while and in places deli­ciously ironic.
  • The Notorious Mr. Bout (Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Tony Gerber) — Using con­victed “arms dealer” Viktor Bout’s home movies human­izes him while at the same time mud­dying the case against him. Successfully por­trays him as much a pawn as a true player, but leaves a lot unexamined.
  • Boyhood (Dir: Richard Linklater) — Included for its quasi-documentary method of using the same cast over 12 years, it sorely dis­ap­pointed me with its rather banal storytelling and con­stant use of pop cul­ture ref­er­ences and musical cues to mark time.

I’ll also men­tion that I attended a really inter­esting panel (“The Critical Takedown”) dis­cussing issues of doc­u­mentary film cri­ti­cism that included local hero Adam Nayman, as well as Nick Pinkerton, Sam Adams, and Ela Bittencourt. If I can get the right per­mis­sions, I can post the audio here for any interested.

I’d dearly love to return next year, and will make a real attempt to stay closer to the centre of things. We stayed at a very nice Hampton Inn that was a 30 minute walk from the venues. Not hor­rible, but between the really cold weather and my advan­cing age, it would be nice to be closer in.

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TINY: A Story About Living Small

TINY: A Story About Living Small (Directors: Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith): Tiny home: a living struc­ture that can range any­where from 60 to 500 square feet and is typ­ic­ally in the 120 to 200 square foot range. Tiny homes are usu­ally built on flatbed trailers, which make them both easily mobile and qual­i­fies them as “tem­porary struc­tures”, allowing for com­pli­ance with zoning laws and building codes.

Tiny home living is a growing move­ment embraced by people wishing to make a smaller envir­on­mental impact, for fin­an­cial reasons, and because they gen­er­ally just want to sim­plify their lives. Christopher Smith aspired to such a life­style, so shortly before his 30th birthday, he pur­chased a five acre plot of land in Colorado and sub­sequently set about building his own tiny home, with the assist­ance of his girl­friend, Merete Mueller. The pair decided to doc­u­ment their exper­i­ence for a short film, but fur­ther explor­a­tions into the tiny home move­ment saw the pro­ject, aided by a suc­cessful Kickstarter cam­paign, expand to TINY: A Story About Living Small’s now 62 minute run­ning time.

The co-directors, neither of whom had any building exper­i­ence, soon come to find that even extra small-scale house con­struc­tion is more chal­len­ging and time-consuming than they expected. Most of the con­struc­tion work is actu­ally done by Smith, who fre­quently relies on instruc­tional YouTube videos to guide him and doesn’t come close to com­pleting the pro­ject in the four month period ori­gin­ally estim­ated. Very few of the construction-related obstacles encountered are shown, to the film’s slight det­ri­ment (Smith admitted in the post-screening Q&A that they were mostly edited out). There’s a lot of people out there who, like me, pos­sess less-than-stellar handyman skills and showing more of those trials and tribu­la­tions would have made Smith’s building exper­i­ence a little more relat­able, as well as added an extra level of small intrigue to the pro­ceed­ings. Even still, by the time the pro­ject is com­pleted, the tre­mendous sense of accom­plish­ment felt by the ami­able Smith and Mueller makes for a sat­is­fying payoff for the viewer as well. An inter­esting side story also develops as the home takes shape involving the couple’s ques­tion­able future together, due to Mueller’s desire to pursue her writing career in New York City.

Interspersed with the scenes showing the couple’s building pro­ject are inter­views with other tiny home dwellers and tours (very short tours, nat­ur­ally) of their dimin­utive abodes. There are repeated testi­mo­nials about how much hap­pier they all are with their downs­ized manner of living and the freedom it allows them, fin­an­cially and in other ways (such as main­taining a clutter-free exist­ence that relies just on essen­tials). A couple of dif­ferent tiny home res­id­ents talk about working for years at white collar jobs that took up most of their lives and left them unful­filled, leading them to reex­amine their pri­or­ities and make the big change to living small.

Smith and Mueller’s delightful doc­u­mentary provides an insightful look into the fas­cin­ating tiny home move­ment, with thought-provoking dis­cus­sions on the meaning of “home” and how that concept fits into the con­text of the ever-changing American Dream.

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Maidentrip

Maidentrip (Director: Jillian Schlesinger): The idea of a 13 year old girl naut­ic­ally cir­cum­nav­ig­ating the globe alone would sound nutty and ill-advised to nearly anyone. Those were the cir­cum­stances that garnered world­wide media atten­tion and touched off a con­ten­tious debate and court battle in 2009 when Dutch teen Laura Dekker announced her inten­tion to carry out the plan, and which set the stage for dir­ector Jillian Schlesinger’s Maidentrip. After 10 months of legal pro­ceed­ings, which included Dutch author­ities veri­fying the sound­ness of both her sailing skills and mental capa­city, Dekker even­tu­ally unof­fi­cially began her epic exped­i­tion by set­ting sail alone (which also means without a sup­port team on a follow boat) from Gibraltar in August 2010, a month before her 15th birthday. Successful com­ple­tion of the 27,000 naut­ical mile journey would make Dekker the youngest person to sail around the globe solo. The record attempt offi­cially began in January 2011, as Dekker departed St. Martin on her 38 foot sail­boat named Guppy. 366 days later, Dekker arrived back in St. Martin.

After spending a short amount of time onscreen with the sailor, it’s clear that Dekker is mature far beyond her age and instilled with an unflag­ging drive to chal­lenge her­self, a fear­less tem­pera­ment, and little patience for those who ques­tion her abil­ities and decisions. The teen­ager was born on a boat and has spent much of her life on the water, even choosing to live with her father when her par­ents split up because it would mean more oppor­tun­ities to sail. Because her dad had to work so much, Dekker was often left to look after her­self and that inde­pend­ence serves her quite well during the solo excursion.

Armed with a video camera, Dekker con­trib­utes video diaries that detail various aspects of her exper­i­ence like cooking dis­asters, the wel­come com­pan­ion­ship of a roosting bird or a pod of dol­phins swim­ming along­side her ship, and some of the trip’s weather-related chal­lenges (at one point, there’s been vir­tu­ally no wind for a stretch of sev­eral days). Much of that might sound rather dull — it’s any­thing but, how­ever. Dekker’s funny and thoughtful obser­va­tions make for highly enjoy­able viewing and the absence of very many dra­matic moments in the film (largely because Dekker was unable to film them) isn’t a major neg­ative. The adven­ture, in and of itself, is drama enough. The hair­iest thing in Maidentrip occurs during some dreadful weather off the coast of South Africa that res­ults in waves as high as 60 feet. The weather is so severe that a South African news­paper referred to the con­di­tions as some that “even the bravest skipper wouldn’t attempt” to nav­igate, but Dekker makes her way through the storm safely, offering little indic­a­tion of fear in her nar­ra­tion as her camera cap­tures the raging sea sur­rounding Guppy. She dis­plays the same poise at another moment in the doc­u­mentary as she cas­u­ally men­tions that her route had to be planned to avoid pir­ates on the Indian Ocean. Dekker’s video diaries also fas­cin­at­ingly chron­icle the teen­ager coming of age on the water and increas­ingly feeling more con­nected to the sea than to people, even saying at one point that she no longer feels reliant on any­body. One of my biggest shocks with Maidentrip came at the post-screening Q&A when it was revealed that Dekker only shot a total of 10 hours of video for the pro­ject. Kudos to the film­makers (not­ably editor Penelope Falk) for making the most of the rel­at­ively little on-ship footage that was avail­able to them. The pleasing score from Ben Sollee also merits a mention.

Throughout Dekker’s trip, help­fully tracked with effective use of some amusing graphics, Schlesinger meets up with her seven times to film at the many exotic ports the sailor stopped in, such as in the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, and Panama. We see Dekker soaking in the local cul­tures, par­ti­cip­ating in activ­ities like bike rides and scuba diving, dealing with a cus­toms offi­cial who struggles to grasp the spon­tan­eous nature of her travels, and also bonding closely with a nice American couple who are on their own world­wide sailing exped­i­tion. There’s also a scene where Dekker’s war­i­ness of the press is illus­trated, as she snaps at ques­tions from a journ­alist who has covered the teenager’s story for a number of years.

I’m someone who couldn’t have cared less about the activity of sailing prior to watching the charming Maidentrip, but it was impossible not be deeply drawn in by the film’s improb­able scen­ario and, mostly, its enga­ging sub­ject and her amaz­ingly pure love for the water and adven­turous spirit. Laura Dekker’s story prac­tic­ally demands a dra­matic fea­ture ver­sion from Hollywood.

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Fatal Assistance

Fatal Assistance (Director: Raoul Peck): Haitian film­maker Raoul Peck spends two years doc­u­menting the inef­fec­tual inter­na­tional relief efforts that fol­lowed the January 2010 earth­quake that dev­ast­ated the country with an estim­ated 250,000 deaths and approx­im­ately 1.2 mil­lion people left home­less. It’s a thor­oughly dis­cour­aging exam­in­a­tion of wide-scale polit­ical bur­eau­cracy and self-interest, masked as phil­an­thropy, by many of the more than 4,000 aid organ­iz­a­tions that became involved.

Peck’s decon­struc­tion of the boon­doggle casts most of the blame on the fact that the for­eign human­it­arian agen­cies weren’t inclusive enough with Haitian offi­cials in determ­ining where both fin­an­cial and man­power resources should have been alloc­ated, res­ulting in dis­trust and massive dis­or­gan­iz­a­tion from both sides. It should be noted that the biggest reason for the lack of trust from out­side agen­cies is Haiti’s long his­tory of polit­ical cor­rup­tion, an angle that Peck’s oth­er­wise com­pre­hensive film doesn’t seem to probe deeply enough. There are stories about most of the rebuilding work going to for­eign con­tractors and com­panies at the expense of much-needed employ­ment oppor­tun­ities for Haitians, the unwill­ing­ness of relief organ­iz­a­tions to allot enough atten­tion to the dire require­ment of debris removal because it wasn’t a “sexy” enough area of the relief effort (building housing and schools car­ries a lot more cachet), and sup­plies such as water and food being shipped in from donor coun­tries at a much higher cost than if the same resources from Haiti had been used. Other exas­per­ating examples of waste include details of some rebuilding jobs unne­ces­sarily being worked on by mul­tiple agen­cies, large amounts of relief funds mys­ter­i­ously van­ishing, and small wooden housing units being poorly con­structed and lacking elec­tri­city, kit­chens, or bathrooms.

Highly vis­ible fig­ures from the relief effort seen (but not inter­viewed) include Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Sean Penn, while former President Bill Clinton really draws Peck’s dis­dain as the co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). The dir­ector frames Clinton’s involve­ment as rather disin­genuous, as the former leader takes on numerous lofty titles and is sur­rounded by a young and inex­per­i­enced sup­port staff. Peck, Haiti’s former Minister of Culture, also gets inter­view access to top tier Haitian gov­ern­ment offi­cials, such as former Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Usage throughout the film of poetic cor­res­pond­ence between a male and female relief worker effect­ively adds a more intimate per­spective to the frus­tra­tions over the incom­petent hand­ling of the relief effort, acting as a sorely needed per­sonal touch to offset the extensive number of stat­istics and many acronymed organ­iz­a­tions to keep track of.

Although it can move quite slowly at times, Fatal Assistance will def­in­itely fuel your cyn­icism for the effect­ive­ness of the inter­na­tional community’s emer­gency aid process.

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Muscle Shoals

Muscle Shoals (Director: Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier): In the 1960s, Muscle Shoals, Alabama became a hotbed for some of the greatest R&B and rock music ever recorded. How did a small town on the banks of the Tennessee River become a des­tin­a­tion for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and The Rolling Stones? Director Greg Camalier has crafted a toe-tapping music doc­u­mentary that explains the magic and music of this legendary place.

Muscle Shoals has some sim­il­ar­ities to Dave Grohl’s film, Sound City. The famous Neve sound­board and the acous­tics of the recording stu­dios at Sound City provided the magical sound that attracted so many famous musi­cians. In Muscle Shoals, Camalier sug­gests that the phys­ical envir­on­ment has some­thing to do with the magic of the place. The singing Tennessee River, the mud, the wind in the cotton fields, the southern life­style and the local musi­cians provide the “Muscle Shoals sound” that has inspired the famous musi­cians who have recorded there.

At the centre of the film is Rick Hall who founded FAME Studios and put Muscle Shoals on the map. His story is fraught with tragedy but his drive and determ­in­a­tion to suc­ceed cre­ated an envir­on­ment that was unique. At the height of the civil rights move­ment he brought black and white musi­cians together. In one of sev­eral inter­views he recalls that in the studio, the colour of your skin didn’t matter. Everyone was treated equally and col­lab­or­ated to make music.

Hall brought together local ses­sion musi­cians who became the in-house rhythm sec­tion known as The Swampers. They had a dis­tinctive, funky sound because they “didn’t know how to make it smooth” as one of the musi­cians recalls in the film. They won the respect of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and after a few records, everyone wanted the “Muscle Shoals sound.” Paul Simon called the studio and wanted to work with the incred­ible black musi­cians who played on “Mustang Sally” and “Respect.” Little did he know that they were a bunch of nerdy looking white guys.

The Swampers decided to leave Rick Hall at FAME Studios to form their own studio called Muscle Shoals Sound. Surprisingly, both stu­dios sur­vived and a steady stream of musi­cians made the pil­grimage to Alabama, including more and more rock musi­cians like The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Both bands recorded music here at the begin­ning of their careers and the Swampers argue that Southern Rock was born in their studio.

The film includes some fant­astic inter­views with the likes of a very enter­taining Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who describes Muscle Shoals less as a magical place and more as a place that inspired the Stones to play dif­fer­ently, more soul­fully. Richards men­tioned that the band man­aged to record four tracks in two days (including “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar”) which he joked as being pretty good for the Stones.

The film has a number of fas­cin­ating stories explaining how sev­eral famous songs came to be. I didn’t want it to end and thor­oughly enjoyed the steady stream of inter­views, music and the treasure trove of archival footage that is blended beau­ti­fully with modern day footage at FAME Studios.

It sounds cliché to say that the film has “beau­tiful cine­ma­to­graphy” but it really does. The high pro­duc­tion value adds to the ter­rific storytelling. If I had to com­plain about one thing, it would be the inter­view with Bono. It feels out of place and com­pletely unne­ces­sary when com­pared to the inter­views with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and other musi­cians that actu­ally recorded hit records at Muscle Shoals.

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