With the real world being such an awful nightmare, you might ask yourself, what’s the point in watching a movie about real life? Well, first off, some documentaries can provide some much needed hope and joy, or some valuable context to the world around us. Whether they tackle history or the modern day, discuss animals or people, here are five of the best documentaries of this year:
Directed by Brett Morgan, this film tells the story Jane Goodall, her life and her work in the wild with chimpanzees, using interviews with her today and old footage taken in the earlier years of her work. In addition to being an empowering look at Goodall’s work and resilience, it also gives us a narrative of the chimp colony she studied.
2) I Am Not Your Negro
This incredible film, directed by Raoul Peck, mixes archival footage of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin LutherKing. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the words of James Baldwin, written so long ago but frighteningly relevant to today’s black experience, over footage of black America’s struggles and protests today.
For hundreds of years, thousands of stray cats have roamed the streets of Istanbul, playing, hunting, living, and interacting with the humans around them. Director Ceyda Torun follows around seven of these cats, each with their own names and personalities. This movie is so lovely and gentle, and, for once, shows us a positive, uplifting relationship between people and animals.
4) City of Ghosts
Directed by the award winner Matthew Heinema, this doc is about the citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RIBSS), who are attempting, in the most dangerous of conditions, to report on the brutality of ISIS in Syria and the lack of response from the international community. The film also addresses the necessity of journalism and reporting and the many dangers that come with them.
5) One of Us
This intense film on Netflix was co-directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who you may recognize as the team behind Jesus Camp. The two take on ultra-religious communities once again, telling the story of three former Hasidic Jews who choose to leave their communities as they attempt to find their way in the “real” world and weather the intense backlash from the Hasidic world.
There’s a reason we love documentaries: their beauty, power, influence and impact cannot be argued. They can cover any subject and be made by anyone, anywhere. There are no rules not really, except your movie needs to be true. Mostly true, anyway.
Documentaries can be transportive and awe-inducing, like the Planet Earth series or The Eagle Huntress. They can be unexpected and emotional like The Wolfpack. They can be terrifying, mystifying and ridiculous. They can also keep you up into the early hours of the morning, clicking next video after next video, winding up on conspiracy theory films about lizard people and the Illuminati.
I’m speaking from personal experience here.
It’s no wonder why we love watching documentaries and why events that honour them garner a fair bit of attention and excitement. I’m talking, of course, about the Canadian International Documentary Festival, which will take place at the Hot Docs theatre in Toronto from April 27th-May 7th.
This year’s festival packs a stellar line-up into its 11-day run. The documentaries being shown cover continents and topics. I can guarantee you’ll find at least one that interests you, but if you’re stuck, here’s our shortlist of some of the must-see documentaries playing during this year’s festival.
Becoming Who I Was
Directed by Jin Jeong, Becoming Who I Was tells the story of Padma Angdu, an impoverished boy who discovers he is the reincarnation of a prominent Tibetan monk. The movie covers eight years of Padma’s life, from when he is banished from the local monastery, to his powerful bond with his godfather and journey to return to his rightful place.
So, there’s a documentary about rats. Specifically, there’s a documentary about how the infestation of rats in Baltimore is a problem born from the segregation of ethnic minorities into impoverished neighbourhoods. Directed by Theo Anthony, this film uses a city’s rodent problem to demonstrate the ways a society has failed its people in the most basic ways. Rat Film is not one to be missed.
North Korea has become a modern boogeyman to the world, but Min Sook Lee’s 2007 documentary goes beyond the usual narrative of fear and dystopia to look at two nations struggling with closed-off borders and the after-effects of war. Lee also incorporates her own experience shooting the documentary while six months pregnant into the subject matter, asking the question of who is and isn’t allowed to report from unstable countries. In our current political climate, this documentary needs to be seen again.
In a society where youth and celebrity are vital, Tokyo Idols is a highly relevant look at a culture that makes an industry out of these phenomena. In Tokyo, teenage idols perform lip-synch dance shows for an audience filled with middle-aged men who drop vast amounts of cash to be able just to meet and see them. Competition between the idols is fierce and the criticism from their dedicated fan base is relentless. Kyoko Miyake’s documentary dives into this world of fantasy fulfillment through following a 19-year-old performer and her 43-year-old fan.
In a basement in Northern Philadelphia, Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his wife Christine’a “Ma’ Quest” create an artistic getaway for their community, allowing young people to express their feelings and frustrations through song on “Freestyle Fridays” and serving as role models to their own children and those that visit them. Director Jonathan Olshefski shot Quest over a 10-year period, following the family in their day-to-day lives. Itis an honest, hope-filled look at good people living in a country that is more uneasy than ever.
Are you brave enough to watch the films shown at TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival? The eight documentary feature films from Afghanistan, Canada, China, Egypt, France, the U.S., and more deal with human rights crisis across the world — they shed light on new issues and offer new perspectives on old. The lineup is the creative, evocative, and galvanizing call to social action that befits the current state of our cultural, socio-economic, and political systems. It takes courage to watch what you’d sleep better not knowing. Here are two you should definitely not miss.
Tickling Giants by Sara Taksler
There’s a poster on one of the walls of Bassem Youssef’sAl-Bernameg (the Show)office that reads, “Sarcasm: because beating the shit out of people is illegal.” Considering that the Al-Bernameg first aired shortly after the violence of the Egyptian Revolution and that it was shut down under government pressure during Si-si’s quasi-military regime, the poster goes beyond the realm of irony into comic tragedy. But as it were, Bassem Youssef, dubbed the John Stewart of Egypt, over his three seasons as the most popular late-night show host, told jokes that scratched the many itches of the disaffected and the discontent of a country rife with political detritus. Along the way, he made an enemy of many far-right politicians, religious groups, and military personnels, the obstacles to a burgeoning democracy.
As of late, the value of comedy, that of political satire fake-news shows in particular, have been questioned in the Western world due to the rise of the Donald. To what extent such platforms can affect the political consciousness of its viewers is difficult to measure. After all, the voter turnout for the 2016 election, not to mention previous mid-term elections, and local and municipal elections, was scant.
But as Sara Taksler’s Tickling Giants shows, it is easier to be discouraged by the less than far reaching effect of comedy than to be critical of various elements that drive political involvement down in a country where the freedom of speech is consecrated in the Constitution. To be able to joke, to be able to call the president names with impunity, and have a robust legal system that protects not only tv show hosts but journalists at large is a precious thing.
Not that the value of the film lies in making the viewers in North America feel better about ourselves. With various nonsensical “news media” outlets in the West Wing, the media at large is addressing an identity crisis like never before. Youssef has cited John Stewart as his inspiration for making fun of whoever he wants. What those of us whose cultural identities are shaped within the comforts of the hot house of the 1st amendment and the familiar face of John Stewart can learn from Youssef is his fearlessness and persistence.
Complicit by Heather White and Lynn Zhang
Heather White and Lynn Zhang’sComplicit opens with the funeral of Yi Long, a Chinese migrant worker who died of leukemia caused by benzene poisoning. He worked at one of Foxconn’s — the largest electronics manufacturing firm in the world — many assembly lines, in pursuit of the highly visible wealth of his country outside of his rural backgrounds. He is one of many who died without fully understanding why and how he became the victim of globalization.
Complicit follows Yi Yeting, who’s been diagnosed with leukemia due to benzene poisoning, as he organizes other migrant workers who suffer from benzene poisoning (a widely used known carcinogenic chemical compound), n-hexane poisoning (damage to the nervous system), and other occupational diseases. Because many of the 260 million migrant workers — of which 12 million are teenagers — lack legal knowledge and face corporate and bureaucratic obstacles, advocacy groups like Labor Action China, to which Yeting belongs, are key to establishing the victims’ legal status and getting rightful compensation.
Apple accounts for 50% of Foxconn’s sales. In 2014 Apple banned the use of benzene and n-hexane from final assembly of iPhones and iPads. Tim Cook got a whole lot of applause for it. Yet the PR move does little to alleviate the dangers migrant workers face everyday — little to nothing is done to enforce the ‘ban’ and offer an alternative.
The human cost of globalization is unfortunately dramatic: the shady corporations and government officials playing a dangerous hide-and-seek, and heroes in pursuit of villains, just an arm’s reach away from the grand revelation. And to the viewer — who is, often, on the other side of the world — the moral cost of globalization can often be lost in the cinematic narrative. However, as the title states, complicity is everywhere. Whatever degrees of separation distances the viewer from the deaths and suffering of those on film, the viewer has no choice not only to be in a particular damning system but also to participate in it. To live today in the industrialized west and to reap benefits of it is to be complicit — and to know of Yi Long’s death yet remain powerless is to commit a venial sin. The film is fortunately not as didactic as I am. Instead, by delving into the personal stories of each victim, the film organically generates empathy and compassion and an acknowledgement of complicity from the viewer.
Tickling Giants (Sara Taksler, 2016) has its Toronto premier on Saturday, April 1st at 6:30. Complicit’s (Heather White and Lynn Zhang, 2017) North American premiere is on Thursday, March 30th at 6:30. TIFF Human Rights Watch Film Festival also features A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister), the Canadian premiere of Nowhere to Hide (Zaradasht Ahmed) preceded by Fantassút/Rain on the Borders (Federica Foglia), We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice(Alanis Obomsawin), Girl Unbound: The War to be Her (Erin Heidenreich), the Canadian premiere of No Dress Code Required(Cristina Herrera Borquez), andBlack Code(Nick de Pencier). The Festival opens on March 29th and runs through April 6th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. You can get your tickets here.
A documentary is probably one of the most powerful and effective ways to get the truth out to the public. It creates a voice that is engaging, influential and has us question things we never considered questioning before. The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is North America’s largest documentary festival that takes place in Toronto starting April 23rd to May 3rd. The festival celebrates the art of documentary and gives recognition to these extremely talented filmmakers from Canada and all over the world.
I have highlighted 4 must-see documentaries at Hot Docs this year to help you narrow down your film choices.
This extremely moving documentary follows three gifted artists who have all experienced tragedies that have affected the way they create art. One is a photographer who is blind and questions the power of images in the image-saturated culture we have today. The next is a musician who was forced to leave his dream of playing music when he developed loss of his hearing. The documentary also looks at the life of a former boxer and painter, who inspired the award-winning film Million Dollar Baby, as she tries to navigate herself and find a place in this world she belongs. The cinematic approach to conveying the artists’ talents and passion is mesmerizingly unique and life changing.
The world of stand-up comedy was at its prime in San Francisco during the 1980s. This documentary follows three hilarious veterans Will Durst, Larry “Bubbles” Brown and Johnny Steele who are still trying to find their ‘big break’. This documentary shows old footage of some of the hilarious moments in stand-up comedy including works and an interview from Dana Carvey and the late Robin Williams. The moving documentary will not only make you laugh, but it’ll also open up the notion that comedy is also an art form. The passion these three men have for such a niche industry is so inspiring, it’ll have you re-watch stand-up footages over and over again.
Marlon Brando fans will want to watch this intimate documentary revealing over 200 hours of private audiotapes over the course of his lifetime. This documentary gives fans a rare look into his life, including his troubled youth, his advocacy supporting Native American rights and his thoughts and views on some of his most iconic roles that shaped his legacy in the film industry. Listen to Me Marlon finally gives us a chance to get to know the actor through a personal level.
This is a love story between two circus performers, Patrick and Merrylu. Coming from Europe’s notable circus families, the pair is destined for success, which is apparent whenever they share the stage and perform with great talent and beauty. However this young love relationship turns rocky, which could destroy the duo to becoming the stars they deserve to be. What’s better than the fusion of romance and the circus?
Get your tickets HERE and follow Hot Docs on twitter @hotdocs, instagram @hotdocsfest and hashtag #HotDocs15 #novellamag so we can follow your documentary picks.