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How Two Montreal Fests Sparked Debate about the Doc Form

By Ron Deutsch

Autumn in Montreal invites cool, crisp evenings and a stunning rainbow of leaves on view in daylight. The season also offers two documentary-rich film festivals: the Festival du Nouveau Cinema (FNC) and the Montreal International Documentary Festival (Recontres Internationales du Documentarie de Montréal).

The Festival du Nouveau Cinema, held this year between October 8 and 19, offered over 150 films, including over 40 documentaries. It also featured retrospectives of several documentarians this year, including the late Montreal-based Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Shirvani (Iranian Cookbook) and Portuguese director Pedro Costa (Ne Change Rien). Some of the higher profile titles that screened included Darius Clark Monroe's autobiographical Evolution of a Criminal; Harold Crook's exposé on multinational corporate tax evasion, The Price We Pay; and this year's closing film, The Salt of the Earth, by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, about Salgado's father, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. The festival also screened the feature-length film adaptation by David Dufresne of his innovative interactive documentary “game” Fort McMoney, which explores the politics and social changes wrought by the exploitation of the world's largest oil sands reserves, Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.

But there were some exceptional standouts among the rest that deserve to be noted.

Spartacus & Cassandra, a French documentary directed by newcomer Ioanis Nuguet, profiles two Roma children who inspired the film’s title. Spartacus, 13, explains in the film, “When I was one year old, I was already walking. At two, I was eating dirt. At three, my father was in prison. At four, I begged with my sister. At seven, I came to France.” While their itinerant alcoholic father and mentally ill mother continue to beg on the streets, Spartacus and his 10-year-old sister Cassandra are taken in by Camille, a 21-year-old trapeze artist who lives in a squat she's transformed into a circus tent. As this location no longer becomes an option, children's welfare officials step in, and Spartacus and Cassandra must choose whether to stay with Camille, who will give them a home in the country and get them into school, or stay on the streets with their parents. Nuguet beautifully captures both the children's struggle, and those moments where they can just be kids.

Another French film that delves into the world of young people is Les Regles du Jeu (Rules of the Game). In this case, Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard spent eight months tracking a group of young unemployed people who have signed up with a government contractor to help them learn the “rules of the game” to find jobs. These kids are struggling emotionally, psychologically, socially and financially, and though the filmmakers aren't looking to give us answers as to why they are the way they are, it’s clear that the system has failed these kids. The well-crafted film gets you in their corner.

The Cambodian/American co-production Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock 'n' Roll, directed by John Pirozzi, does a marvelous job of retelling the history of the country through its popular music—from France’s departure in the late 1950s through the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. While the rule of King Sihanouk in the 1960s was filled with political repression, artistic expression thrived. And with American troops flooding into Vietnam, Cambodians adapted American rock music into their own musical tradition. But with the 1975 takeover by the Khmer Rouge, who were bent on wiping out all Western influence, so many performers either were killed or went into hiding. Records had to be hidden; merely possessing them could result in execution. Today, young Cambodians are rediscovering this lost history, and surviving recordings are being re-released. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten blends interviews with surviving singers and musicians, with musical segments that, without a doubt, rock.

A documentary about the making of a feature film starring Marlon Brando, being shot in a remote part of the world, its budget spiraling out of control, sets destroyed by freak storms, its young visionary director losing control and his mind…No, it's not Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 documentary about the making of Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Rather, it's that film's twisted funhouse mirror cousin— Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, directed by David Gregory (Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth). Poor Stanley got in over his psychedelic-infused head in his attempt to adapt The Island of Dr. Moreau when its budget went from $8 million to over $35 million as both Brando and Val Kilmer signed on to star. The production devolved into chaos, and Stanley was kicked off the project, which gained notoriety as one of the worst pictures ever made. Lost Soul captures a circus of insanity, with Brando as ringmaster. Stanley does get some revenge when he sneaks back on the set, disguised as one of the animal-people, for the scene where they mutiny against Brando and destroy the island.

And finally, a personal favorite was Quand je serai dictateur (When I Will Be A Dictator) from Moroccan-Belgian filmmaker Yaël André. She has described the film as “a science fiction documentary” and “a non-autobiography,” but that doesn't tell us much. Editing together scores of amateur 8mm footage she's collected at flea markets, along with 10 years of her own 8mm footage, André has pieced together a way to process the suicide of her friend George. The narration, recited with Amélie-esque whimsy by Belgian actress Laurence Vielle, imagines parallel universes where George is still alive. “And if we were living other lives in other universes?” André has explained. “Rather than being an immensity of wasted space, the universe would suddenly be peopled with possibilities. There, I would be an adventurer, a psychopath, a perfect mother, an accountant or an invisible man.” Or a dictator. And from there comes the film's title. It's a film to experience and be delighted by.

In recent years, films that stretch the definition of documentary films have found their way into festivals, and that has made for some engaging but also sometimes enraged discussion. A film like Quand je serai dictateur, for instance, offers elements of both narrative fiction and documentary, but should it categorized as a documentary or something else? Henrik Juel, a Danish film critic and professor, wrote a 2006 essay on defining documentaries in the Danish film journal POV. “Documentaries” at their most basic core, he wrote, “seem to have a certain obligation towards 'truth.' This may be understood, however, in different ways.”

This “certain obligation” leads us to another film, this one shown at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (Recontres Internationales du Documentarie de Montréal, or RIDM). RIDM was held November 12-23 this year, and featured 142 films from 44 nations. The film in question, Memphis by Tim Sutton, takes us on a moody, atmospheric journey into the American South following a struggling blues musician. While described in the festival catalog as a film “that blurs the lines between documentary, fiction and dreams,” it was not made clear how fictional it really is. Shooting in “documentary style,” Sutton worked from a detailed outline, and cast non-actors whom he allowed to improvise, but were admittedly directed. The film might best be categorized as coming from the Italian Neo-Realist tradition. The problem arose during the Q&A after the screening, as it was clear the audience didn't realize they had been watching something other than a documentary. Sutton quickly responded to the first question of how he managed to capture his subject so well by stating, “This is not a documentary.” When asked why such a film is playing at a documentary festival, Sutton tried to explain there are still “truths” being depicted. One of the festival programmers came running up, grabbed the microphone, and quickly explained that their intent in programming the film was to try to stretch the definition of documentary. But if there hadn't been a Q&A, people would have left believing they had seen something that this film was not. Perhaps there would have been no issue as long as the RIDM programmers made clear what Memphis is beforehand, but as it was presented, the festival’s intent ended up calling to question the trust audiences give to both film festivals and filmmakers.

RIDM did offer a wonderful range of films, including retrospectives of the work of both James Benning (Natural History) and Kozuo Hara (The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On). Some of the better known films screened included Hubert Sauper's We Come As Friends, Laura Poitras' CitizenFour, which took the People's Choice Award, Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence, Jesse Moss' The Overnighters, Ron Mann's Altman, Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi's The 50-Year Argument, and Fredrick Wiseman's National Gallery. There were also several stand-out documentaries from local filmmakers, such as Paul Cowan and Amer Shomali's The Wanted 18, about the 1987 Palestinian intifada.

Continuing a look at some of the Canadian entries, Le Nez (The Empire of the Scents), the festival's opening night film, is the new feature from Montrealer Kim Nguyen (Rebelle/War Witch). Nguyen was inspired by the book Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food and Wine, by Quebec sommelier François Chartier, and is an exploration of our sense of smell. The film travels the world, introducing us to Chartier himself, as well as an Italian truffle hunter, a French chef, Moroccan saffron growers, New York writer Molly Birmbaum, who lost her sense of smell in an accident, and even a German perfumer who is marketing a scent named “Vulva.” Humorous, informative and fascinating; Le Nez will subvert your olfactory senses.

Juanicas is the first feature-length documentary by Montreal-based Karina Garcia Casanova. Filmed over a 10-year span, the director invites us behind the closed doors of her deeply troubled family. Her mother, Victoria, is bipolar, as is her brother Juan. Born in Mexico, but raised in Montreal, Karina's mother has managed to keep her life going despite her illness. But both mother and daughter were not just challenged by, but physically and emotionally traumatized much of their lives by young Juan. The film begins as 26-year-old Juan returns to Canada to live in his mother's home after an extended stay in Mexico. His goal, he tells Karina, is to stay on his meds and get a driver's license. Neither of those happens. Eventually, Juan winds up spending three years in his room. As his emotional state continues to deteriorate, he becomes violent, attacking his mother and tearing up their home; he is eventually committed. As Karina says near the end of the film, her struggle was while she felt love for her brother, it was also always about trying to find where he “ended and the illness began.” Deeply engaging, yet terribly tragic, the film received Special Mention in both the Best New Talent from Quebec/Canada Award and Student Award categories.

An old neighborhood in and pop stores shutting their rising up around them along with hipster bars and yuppie restaurants: This could describe many neighborhoods in many cities today. In Everything Will Be, her first documentary, British Columbia director Julia Kwan takes us into the neighborhood where she grew up: Vancouver's Chinatown. Kwan and cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin wander around the neighborhood, where we get to know store owners, artists and craftspeople, residents and transients. The film is also a meditation on aging, as many of the Chinese residents are well into their senior years and they share their thoughts and insights about it. The film takes its title from a large, controversial neon installation that towers over the neighborhood that reads, “Everything is Going to be Alright.” Kwan has said she chose the title for its “Zen-like nature”—which could also describe her film; it doesn't pass judgments, but it does raise questions. The film took the Best New Talent from Quebec/Canada Prize.

Finally we come to The Secret Trial 5, by Toronto-based newcomer Amar Wala, a shocking Kafka-esque tale about the plight of five Muslim men who were arrested by the Canadian government as a “threat to national security” and spent up to seven years in jail, then more years under strict house arrest (with high-tech monitoring devices and video cameras in their homes), without ever being charged with a crime. And they have never been allowed to see the evidence against them. This was all due to an obscure law that permitted non-citizen immigrants to be detained indefinitely in this manner. Eventually, the men were permitted lawyers who were given access to see the files and evidence, but it was against the law for them to discuss any of that with their clients. No member nor department of the government accepted Wala's offer to speak about the case. But it should also be said, as Wala stated in an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, “I think our film is a testament to why arts funding is so important in Canada. We’ve got government sources giving us funds for a film that is directly critical of the Canadian government. I think that’s a really healthy practice for Canada.” The film received the Magnus Isacsson Award, created to honor the late Montreal documentary filmmaker, for “socially-conscious works of cinema by an emerging director.”

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.