Twenty years ago, documentary films were for nerds. Not cinema snobs, but even nerdier types — turtleneck-wearing, herb-tea drinking, no-fun folks. The cinematic equivalent of bran, documentaries were for people who lectured about the Oxford comma, watched PBS exclusively and started every sentence with the words, “Well, actually…”
I exaggerate, a little. But my point is that documentaries were viewed differently back then. Literally. Netflix and other streaming platforms hadn’t been invented yet, and one of the only places you could see non-fiction cinema was at a film festival.
That’s why Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival, turning 20 this year, was so vital. It started with little more than passion and the commitment of a hardcore group of organizers. Today, it’s an internationally respected and much-loved event.
Making it through 20 years has taken the combined efforts of many people: board members, staff, volunteers, designers, filmmakers and audience members. Countless hours of labour paid and unpaid.
For the better part of 10 years, DOXA was my life. After getting involved with the festival as a volunteer on the screening committee in 2008, I joined the board of directors, and in 2010 I became the director of programming.
The job was challenging, to put it mildly. Anyone who’s worked in a small arts organization knows the feeling — a knotted, twisty sensation that comes from feeding it your blood, sweat and tears. Work seeped into every waking hour, waking me up at 2 a.m. with crawling anxiety to obsess over whether I’d be able to get a certain film from a French distributor.
I’m glad that DOXA is still going strong, but it comes at a price. Running a festival in the historically underfunded cultural climate of B.C. means that staff, boards and volunteers often supplement organizations with human capital. Labour of love doesn’t quite sum it up. Maybe a gulag of love? You do it because you believe in it.
When asked to program some of my favourite films from years past as part of the 2021 DOXA “Triple Platinum” program, along with festival founder Kris Anderson and current programming director Selina Crammond, it took a while to decide on a selection.
In my tenure with the festival, many of the films and filmmakers became a fabric of my being, braided into heart and mind so deeply and inextricably that they became permanent. There are almost too many magnificent films to mention — Chris Marker’s erudite and often incredibly funny film essays, Orlando von Einsiedel’s Virunga, Virpi Suutari’s Garden Lovers, Narimane Mari Benamer’s Bloody Beans, Anna Odell’s The Reunion, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and John Bolton’s gonzo opus Aim for the Roses about famed stunt driver Ken Carter.
I could fill page after page with a running list of films. But ultimately, there were two filmmakers that stood out for me.
French auteurs Claire Simon and Alain Cavalier make films that are difficult to describe. On the surface, they’re films about people telling their stories, going about their lives, at work, at home. But there is a curious, almost alchemical magic at work that defies easy or even logical explanation.
Informed by a compassionate curiosity about other people, neither filmmaker is sentimental about the vagaries and complexities of other humans. Their approach is deeper than that. When I search for a word to best describe their work, the one that comes to mind is “civilized.” It’s about how humans behave with each other, in small ways and in bigger fashion.
In Simon's 2003 film Mimi, the director stars alongside her friend Mimi Chiola as they wander the seaside town of Nice on a sunny day. While Simon films, Mimi tells stories about her life: love affairs, passionate moments of longing, of self-discovery. As she spins tales, the camera moves, in almost languid fashion, capturing images of ordinary life going by — people playing tennis, a train headed down the tracks.
Then something else begins to happen. The film becomes participatory. You start to see in your mind’s eye images of Mimi’s stories, embroidered and embellished with details of your own life. The three different narratives begin to blend together until you can’t untangle your own memories from the film’s, all of it mixed gloriously together in warmth and laughter.
At age 87, Cavalier is still making films. He started at the beginning of the French New Wave with the likes of Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve, but at a certain point he stopped making glossy narratives and embarked on a different journey. Cavalier’s original Portraits series featured older women who worked with their hands — a florist, a mattress maker, a washroom attendant. He interviews them, asking questions about their lives, and what emerges are luminous moments of fragile, beautiful humanity.
A second series of portraits (the Six Portraits XL) featured friends of the filmmaker, people he’s known and filmed over many years. In addition to two of Cavalier’s Portraits, DOXA has also programmed his most recent work, Living and Knowing You Are Alive (Être vivant et le savoir). I visited Cavalier and his extraordinary wife Françoise Widhoff when I was in Paris a few years ago. Widhoff offered insanely funny imitations of Orson Welles and John Huston, both of whom who she had worked with on The Other Side of the Wind, while we ate green beans and salmon.
Coming to know these films and these filmmakers has been one of great pleasures of my life, and I am grateful to Thierry Garrel who originated DOXA’s French French program that brought their work to Vancouver. For me, it was an awakening that there are many different kinds of documentary films, idiosyncratic and as unique as a thumbprint.
These films are a reminder of what documentary cinema can do and be. This is especially important when it feels that the genre is sometimes in danger of falling into formulaic conventions: the celebrity-driven biography, the true crime saga, the issue-driven social impact doc. This isn’t to say that these types of films can’t be done well. But DOXA’s mandate to showcase the art of documentary shows there are other ways to capture the nature of reality in all its ineffable mystery.
Twenty years ago, there was something of the medicinal still stuck to documentaries. They didn’t offer the escapist bombastic fantasia of superhero movies, honing too close to boring old reality.
What changed? Access for one: the growth of streaming platforms swelled audiences exponentially. Suddenly films that might have screened in arthouse cinemas for the dedicated few were being viewed by audiences in the millions.
But I’d argue that reality also changed. The world got stranger and more complex, and suddenly documentaries were the only kind of films capable of capturing and sifting through the capering weirdness to make sense of the world. The shopworn statement that truth is stranger than fiction is kinda true. Sometimes painfully, tragically, horrifically so.
I’d also argue that documentary, perhaps more than other cinematic form, has evolved dramatically in the last few decades, helped in part by truly remarkable work. There have been crossover hits like March of the Penguins, The Thin Blue Line and Paris Is Burning that convinced audiences that documentary could be both entertaining and edifying.
Festivals like DOXA arguably played a critical role in this sea change by demonstrating that documentaries went far beyond the granola good-for-you stuff, or worse, reality TV’s neo-Darwinist bad behaviour.
Documentary cinema contains multitudes. Worlds within worlds. But even more importantly, a great documentary is a work of art that holds up a mirror to the world and offers a new perspective, a different way of seeing and understanding.
On the eve of DOXA’s two-decade celebration, it’s been a pleasure to revisit not only the films, but more importantly, the people. The films I chose to celebrate DOXA’s 20th anniversary take as their genesis the idea of friendship.
You can’t work in a place like DOXA and not feel bonded to people forevermore, not just for the struggles and the hard times, but for the silliness. The spilled wine, the karaoke party that ended with a call from the RCMP. The sandwiches, snacks and endless conversations about films, both good and bad.
Here’s to another 20 years of the art of documentary. And another 20 after that!
To access the online edition of the festival, taking place May 6 to 16, visit the DOXA website. Some screenings also include pre-recorded Q&As with the filmmakers and extended discussions.
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