The DOXA Documentary Film Festival starts next week in Vancouver. There are almost 90 films in the DOXA lineup this year, every one of them a feat of tenacity, courage, perseverance, imagination, and ingenuity. First, let me state clearly and emphatically: I am in no way objective or unbiased. In fact, I am completely biased. As Director of Programming for the festival, I think people should go and see every single film.
But since most folks don't have time to see 90 films, and simply want a few suggestions about what not to miss, I will try to be of service. Film being a wildly subjective thing, it's tricky business telling people what you think they may like. But you cannot go wrong with Jerry Rothwell's film How to Change the World, about the origins of Greenpeace. Anyone who came of age in Vancouver, and remembers that the place was once very different than it is now, should see it.
Working as a journalist for the Vancouver Sun, Bob Hunter once described the city thusly: ''In Vancouver in 1971, we have the biggest concentration of tree-huggers, draft-dodgers, shit-disturbing unionists, radical students, garbage dump stoppers, freeway fighters, pot smokers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, fish preservationists, and back-to-the-landers on the planet. And we are all haunted by the spectre of a dead world.''
I remember the nature of that time, but only vaguely. Through the magic of film, it all comes flooding back in archival images that remind of the innocence and sweetness of the place and its people. Long before glass towers crowded out the sky and money became the lingua franca in Vancouver, a raggedy bunch of bearded hippies and radicals were hanging out in Kitsilano, planning to change the world. Scenes of the city, the Vancouver Aquarium, and Kits Beach are interspersed with footage of the earliest Greenpeace campaigns when the organization had little more than gumption and Cowichan sweaters, and luckily a camera to document the action. The power of image to shape and change people's minds has been so overused that it has lost meaning, but it is newly minted in this film, and bright with promise. As Hunter understood, a single frame can change almost everything.
The ability of film to capture the atmosphere and quality of an era, and act as a bridge to the next generation to come, is also especially apparent in Kevin Nikkel's film On the Trail of the Far Fur Country. The genesis of the film is a story unto itself. Before Robert Flaherty made Nanook of the North in 1921, another film crew set forth in 1919 to document the Canadian landscape. Commissioned by the Hudson's Bay Company, Harold M. Wyckoff and crew traversed the country, from the West Coast to the far north, to make a film titled Romance of the Far Fur Country. The original film was broken up and housed in a British film archive, largely lost to history, until Nikkel undertook to remake the journey. Nikkel's film retraces the steps of the original film 1919 journey. Along the way, he discovers the great-great-grandchildren of the people captured in the original film and shows them footage of their ancestors. In one particularly remarkable scene, a young Kwakwaka'wakw girl sticks her tongue out at the camera as she walks by. When Nikkel shows her distant relatives the almost 100-year-old footage, the electric wire between the past and present lights up, glowing and alive.
Equally astounding is the ability of film to tell a wordless story with profound eloquence and enormous fury. Rithy Panh is most well known for his body of work about the genocide in Cambodia. The Missing Picture was nominated for an Academy Award. If his earlier films are the second half of the story of the Cambodian diaspora, France is Our Mother Country is the first half, setting the scene for what would come after. The film is a masterpiece of editing, weaving together some of the earliest archival footage of Cambodia under French occupation. It is a precise document of what colonialism looks like in the raw. Scenes of subjugated land, with massive trees felled and stripped, are set alongside images of young Cambodian girls filmed in their underpants for the delectation of French soldiers. In this interstitial place between the images, meaning arises -- clear, unmistakable and deeply angry.
The glory of this thing we call documentary is that it has the capacity to contain so many different types of story: idiosyncratic and often deeply individual, funny, terrible, and fundamentally human. Do you want to see the real face of war (Saeed Taji Farouky's Tell Spring Not to Come This Year), or sexy French women with whips (Lina Mannheimer's The Ceremony)? How about something that reaffirms your belief that humans, despite the best and continual efforts of corporations to turn us all into spending machines, are actually well-meaning and mostly good?
Le Paradis found
If I had to pick my favourite film in the entire festival, it is Le Paradis. To be honest, I didn't know much about the filmmaker before seeing this film. I am now in the grip of an obsession; a crush manifesting in desire to suddenly know all things, to see and understand. Alain Cavalier isn't that widely known, it seems, in North America. He started his career making fairly conventional films with the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Romy Schneider, and Alain Delon. But at a certain point he stopped working in narrative and began to make entirely personal, diary-like stories about things like bathrooms, people's hands and love affairs.
His most recent film premiered at the Cannes Festival in 2014. Le Paradis is a curious creature. I am hard-pressed to explain its magic, afraid to kill in the dissection. In essence, it is a journey through life and death, faith and myth, image and reality. The film inhabits the world of imagination, a place where toys, objects, and everyday stuff become suffused with meaning, thick and rich with it. Fragments of story, from the Odyssey to the Last Supper, are staged like an elaborate bit of child's play. As Cavalier explains, ''At the age of seven, they stick you in a boarding school to learn Latin, to read the gospels. Then you learn Greek, to read Homer's Odyssey. Then they let you go with your head stuffed full of crazy, crazy images.''
These images pop up throughout Cavalier's body of work -- in particular, human faces, winged with thick dark eyebrows, owls, photographs, books and toys. Underneath it all runs an electric current, some transcendent, crazy bliss that comes surging out at the oddest moments. It is an interesting thing to me that when you are in love with someone, even saying their name feels as though you are holding a pebble on your tongue -- the sound carries with it weight and meaning that you can't disguise. Everyone hears it. It's slightly embarrassing to be so affected by a film, but at the same time when you let it in, it is so good.
If the subject at the heart of Le Paradis is ultimately mortality and death, the film has a way of circling around, coming from odd and unexpected directions, like a cat twining around your legs and then slinking away. From the grave of a baby peacock to a celebration of the erotic -- played out with the most unlikely objects, a windup robot and a ceramic goose -- the film is serious and goofy, heartbreaking and playful, all at the same time. The richness of details is what most captures the imagination, from the insides of a papaya, goopy and glistening, to the filmmaker's first experience with taking communion.
There is something of the ecstatic in the film, religious in its flavour and its devotion to small, exquisite detail. The taste of things, the beauty of the world is everywhere. In the same way that the small is rendered large, the cornerstones of Western culture, from Homer to the Bible, are made human once more. As Cavalier narrates in his mother tongue, the stories of Odysseus and Athena, Isaac and Abraham, and poor old Job unfold in common language. Jesus talks like an ordinary person; so do God and the Devil. Language is of particular importance: the vernacular is simple, honest and intimate, but it has the effect of remaking these familiar narratives, of reinventing them, so that they seem weirdly personal once more. The quality of listening to someone tell you a story, fundamental to childhood, is as seductive now as it was then. You fall in love with the rise and fall of Cavalier's voice.
There is something else at work, too, the sense of coming full circle, from the beginning to the end of the story. But even the end isn't the end sometimes. There is life and death, and then there is resurrection. A tree cut down, re-sprouts and grows again, and in old age the electric feeling of youth endures.
This is especially evident in one particular scene, where Cavalier is filming outside his house at night. The camera catches the arc of the sky and backlit clouds, the vault of heaven, then turns to catch a glimpse of his home. The windows of his house are filled with yellow light. Inside, a woman is reading on the couch. Such an ordinary moment in many ways; you've probably experienced it at one time or another in your life, when the unbearable romance of the summer night beckons you to stay out a bit longer, to remain. Meanwhile, the warmth of domestic light calls you home, saying, ''That's enough now, you must come back to the comforts of food, shelter, and the ordinary world.'' One lingers in that space between the two worlds, wanting both things simultaneously -- to be free, a feral creature of night air and dark sky, and the humble comfort of domestication.
That is the miracle of Cavalier's film, that says these two things -- the humble and the profound -- are one and the same.
The DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs April 30 to May 10. Full program here.
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