SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
Giving Tribeca’s top
documentaries their due
Documentaries form an increasingly important part of many film festivals,
Cannes being the major exception, and they can almost always be relied
upon to deliver. At Tribeca this year, Canadian selections took the top
documentary as well as narrative feature jury prizes. Nisha Pahuja’s
winning The World Before Her examines social tensions in today’s
India through the contrasting lenses of young women competing in a beauty
pageant and the women’s wing of a Hindu fundamentalist movement.
It’s truly eye-opening and expertly composed. The film went on
to win the award for best Canadian feature at Toronto’s Hot Docs
festival in May. Given that momentum hopefully it will arrive in theatres
before too long.
Here are my choices of 11 other top docs from Tribeca’s 11th edition.
1. High Tech, Low Life (China/U.S.)
Director Stephen Maing offers an amazing portrait of intrepid young and
middle-aged Chinese bloggers who defy the authoritarian system’s
efforts to control the flow of information. These cyber-guerillas are
fascinating characters who go by code names such as “Zola” and “Tiger
Temple.” The rise of such citizen reporters taking risks to reach
a growing audience of “netizens” provides another perspective
on the transformations taking place in the world’s most populous
2. Searching for Sugar Man (U.K./Sweden)
Winner of the Sundance audience award, Malik Bendjelloul’s exploration
of the life of Mexican-American Motown singer Sixto “Jesus” Rodriguez
is stranger than fiction. After recording several albums in the early
1970s Rodriguez disappeared and was rumoured to be dead. However, unknown
to him, a bootleg copy made its way to South Africa where he became the
superstar of a restless anti-apartheid generation. Discovered living
in obscurity, his trip there in 1998 was as if Elvis had been resurrected.
The man and his music are astonishing.
Sixto Rodriguez performs at City Winery,
NYC Tribeca, April 27, 2012. It was a special performance in connection
with film screening of Searching for Sugar Man and the first time he
has performed in public in the U.S. in decades, though he is a superstar
in South Africa and fills stadiums there. (G. Schmitz photo)
3. Burn (U.S.)
A very different Detroit story from the above, this Tribeca audience
award winner records the frontline struggles of firefighters in an embattled
city that has more fires than any other in the nation. With a population
that has fallen by more than half since 1950, industrial decay that has
left 80,000 structures vacant, 95 per cent of these fires are the result
of arson. We see the challenges at gut level through the eyes of workers
injured on the job and hampered by inadequate equipment, as well as in
the determination of a new fire commissioner to cope with severe budgetary
pressures and other burning issues.
4. The List (U.S.)
The Iraq War is a chapter of American interventionism that most want
to forget. But not only did it leave huge numbers of displaced persons
and refugees, it endangered the lives of many thousands who collaborated
with the invaders. This is the remarkable story of how idealistic young
USAID worker Kirk Johnson, who strongly opposed the war, has nevertheless
become the principal advocate for those seeking sanctuary in the U.S. — his
list reached 3,500 in 2010 — in the face of shameful indifference
and administrative obstacles.
A Tribeca Talks panel discusses the
documentary The List April 24, 2012 at the Tribeca Film Festival in
New York. From left: moderator New York Times author George Packer,
director Beth Murphy, Anna, an Iraqi refugee on Kirk Johnson’s
list, Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of Iraq and Afghanistan
Veterans of America, and human rights lawyer Marcia Maack. (G. Schmitz
5. On the Mat (U.S.)
What could a story of competitive high school wrestling in Washington
state teach us about life? Quite a lot, actually. Fredric Golding’s
raw and poignant observation of a year in the life of these often troubled
boys and their devoted coach is a revelation. There’s a lot of
growing up in each moment of heartbreak and triumph, turmoil and tenacity.
Even more than Oscar winner Undefeated, this is a sports doc that will
not leave you unmoved.
6. Planet of Snail (South Korea)
Seung-Jun Yi’s profile of the remarkable relationship between a
deaf and blind man, Young-Chan, and his disabled petite partner Soon-Ho,
was awarded the top prize at last November’s Amsterdam international
documentary festival, the world’s largest, and it’s easy
to see why. The way the young couple communicate by touch on the hands
and the way they overcome each day’s challenges is a testament
to perseverance and to the power of their bonds of love to inspire the
joy of living.
7. The Flat (Israel/Germany)
When director Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother died at age 98, he
had to empty the Tel Aviv flat, stuffed with all manner of memorabilia,
that she had shared with her husband since their emigration from Nazi
Germany to what was then Palestine in 1936. Their ardent Zionism was
well-known. But what shocked Arnon in sifting through the piles was the
evidence of their close friendship with a senior Nazi SS officer — the
recruiter of Adolph Eichmann! — that continued even after the Holocaust.
That the goal of getting Jews out of Germany should have led to such
a collaboration is stunningly brought to light through this secret family
history of an unthinkable past that haunts us still.
8. Side by Side (U.S.)
A must for cinephiles that premiered in Berlin, director Chris Kenneally
provides an impressive exploration of the impact of the digital revolution
on all aspects of filmmaking and film distribution. Producer and narrator
Keanu Reeves interviews some of the most engaging talents behind the
camera on the pros and cons of a transformation that threatens to make
tradition photo-chemical film stocks obsolete. As much as fellow Canadian
James Cameron celebrates the marvels of digital effects, I admire holdout
Christopher Nolan’s insistence on shooting his upcoming July blockbuster
The Dark knight Rises on celluloid.
9. Queen: Days of Our Lives (U.K.)
It’s hard to imagine a better tribute to one of the globally dominant
bands of recent decades than this stirring BBC rockumentary that follows
its unusual rise during the 1970s through to the early 1990s. Inseparable
from that was the turbulent high-wire life of its flamboyant bisexual
lead singer Freddie Mercury (born Farrockh Bulsara in Zanzibar) who died
of AIDS in 1991. Footage from his iconic performances of anthemic hits
before massive crowds — such as We are the Champions at the 1985
Live Aid concert — will send chills down your spine.
10. Wagner’s Dream (U.S.)
If Queen was known for its operatic indulgences and excesses (remember
Bohemian Rhapsody?), Canada’s theatrical impresario, and sometime
filmmaker, Robert Lepage tackled the mother of all opera challenges in
a daring five-year quest to bring a new interpretation of Wagner’s
daunting 19th century Ring Cycle to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Susan Froemke’s probing camera follows the emotional rollercoaster
behind the scenes and divided reactions to the controversial stage design.
Select Cineplex theatres have been showing the film and parts of the
11. El Gusto (Ireland/Algeria/United Arab Emirates)
Music is also the subject of Safinez Bousbia’s uplifting project
for the restoration of “chaabi”-a popular hybrid of Arabic
and European sources that resounded through the casbah of Algiers during
a time of Jewish, Muslim and Christian harmony among its devotees. The
revolution and its aftermath shut down this thriving scene until its
remarkable revival bringing together in joyous concert the now elderly
practitioners of an almost forgotten tradition.
Let me add a few honourable mentions. Antonino D’Ambrosio’s
Let Fury Have the Hour is an incisive musical and cultural mash-up of
political protest and resistance from the Thatcher-Reagan era to the
present. Petter Ringbom’s The Russian Winter follows the unusual
concert journey through Russia of John Forté, a rising musical
talent who served 14 years for drug possession before being released.
The prolific Morgan Spurlock brought Mansome, a somewhat mischievous
look at male grooming fashions, beards and body hair obsessions. Ivana
Mladenovic’s Turn Off the Lights is a rough and raw portrait of
young Roma men in Romania as they leave prison and return to a violent
society. Last but not least, in Downeast the team of David Redmon and
Ashley Sabin expose the struggle of an economically depressed coastal
village in Maine to revive a seafood processing industry. Many of the
workers are women and senior citizens; the enterprise at constant risk
of political bickering and financial uncertainties. It’s an unsparing
look at a hard-up America that resonates in these recessionary times.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute.