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Confession Obsession

Dear documentary makers: give us better stories.

By Dorothy Woodend 26 May 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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"Village Life," one of four docs reviewed.

DOXA, Vancouver's documentary film and video festival, is currently entering its fifth year. It appears to be doing quite well. But a close perusal of the titles on offer can make one wonder a little about the documentary form itself. It is a little too easy, perhaps, to pick up a camera, and think, "I'm gonna make me a film."

The personal impulse flavours a number of the DOXA films, for better, and occasionally, for worse.

Better is the festival's opening film Shameless: The ART of Disability, which might smack just a bit too much of NFB (Not For Boys) good-for-you medicinal taste, but despite its somewhat self-indulgent tone, Bonnie Sherr Klein's film about artists with disabilities is often remarkably funny and blunt about life, sex, and other bodily matters.

After suffering a stroke at age 46, Klein had to come back from total paralysis, a story documented in her book Slow Dance. This is her first film in eighteen years, and as such, it is a suitably triumphant return to the fray. Along with her own story, she tells that of four other people, including humorist David Roche, dancer/choreographer Geoff McMurchy, sculptor Persimmon Blackbridge and activist Catherine Frazee. It is Frazee who is perhaps the most mesmerizing character, a type of Canadian intellectual you immediately recognize for her compassion and spirit, but a woman who also appears to have a healthy appetite for life and sex. Frazee getting down and dirty in the tub with her girlfriend provides a most memorable sequence. Each of these individuals appears deeply charming, which made me wonder if all bad behaviour or petty grumbling had been too carefully edited out.

But of course all this niceness can too easily tip into sentiment. When Geoff McMurchy wins "The Courage to Come Back Award," we get a portrait of the cult of inspirational goo that this award is seemingly built upon. Fortunately, Frazee punctures the balloon of weepy sentiment, with clear-eyed, pragmatic words. It is this clarity and prosaic impulse that just saves the film from falling victim to the Oprah effect (telling a sad and terrible story for the vicarious delectation of others).

Bonnie Sherr Klein is mother to Naomi Klein (No Logo), mother-in-law to Avi Lewis, and in-law to Stephen Lewis. This is a Canadian arts-politics family of the first degree, so it's understandable that at the screening, some woman stood up and asked if they realized how insanely privileged they were. (Which was the only interesting question that anyone did ask, incidentally.) To her credit, the director answered that the issue was something they tried to pay careful attention to, and that in some ways, each individual in the film offers a portrait of what is possible.

Gay in Israel

The personal motivation behind documentaries is evident for the worse in director Lina Makboul's portrait of Palestinian terrorist/hijacker Leila Khaled. Leila Khaled, Hijacker is Makboul's first film, and it shows. The film is often embarrassingly adolescent both in tone and in its approach to the Israeli/Palestinian question, a subject that is so deeply fraught it is almost unendurable. The film offers no insight, nor anything that adds to or elucidates the complexity of the conflict.

In 1969, Khaled became the first woman to hijack an airplane, in order to bring to international attention the cause of the Palestinians. Her second hijacking resulted in the death of a comrade. Khaled was exiled to Jordan, where she currently lives with her family. Director Makboul, raised in Sweden by Palestinian parents, apparently idolizes Khaled because of her politics and her beauty. Like Che Guevara, she makes a fine t-shirt image, but the reality isn't nearly so glamorous nor picture perfect. Although this film is only 58 minutes long, it drags interminably. No one has much to say about the hijacking, other than vagaries like it was a shame. Khaled herself doesn't appear especially thoughtful about the conflict. Instead she comes across as an ordinary woman who once did something, and then went largely back to doing nothing.

A far better film is Zero Degrees of Separation, Elle Flanders's take on the Israel and Palestine question. This is an issue that is complicated enough all by itself, but Flanders adds the element of a same-sex relationship, to make life infinitely more fraught. Lordy, lordy...Flanders intercuts footage of her own grandparents, who helped to found the state of Israel, with scenes of the current conflict as experienced by two different couples -- Selim and Ezra, and Edit and Samira. Each has to navigate the intricate and potentially volatile territory of living together in a divided place. It is the sense of division, not merely in the physical sense, but in the emotional and colonized parts of the mind and body that are the most compelling.

Selim is a young Palestinian man living under house arrest with the older Ezra, an Israeli, who acts as his lover, mentor, and occasional saviour. Conversations between Ezra and groups of Israeli soldiers make for some of the most nerve-shredding footage; guns are everywhere and the threat of violence seems only a few seconds away. Edit, who moved to Israel from Argentina with her parents, works at the rape crisis centre; her Palistinian girlfriend, Samira, is an oncology nurse. All four are passionate, articulate and angry, but all are seemingly trapped by the unstoppable machine of history and politics. The only place where freedom can be acted out is in small subversions, in protests and in sexual choice.

Flanders's own interjection of her family's films seems at first an unwelcome distraction, unexplained and interrupting the more pressing contemporary experiences, a means again of asserting an individual take on an enormous experience. But eventually the relationships made evident in the old home movies become the genesis in some ways of the current situation. In these films, extremely well dressed groups of Israeli men and women, surveying the place, walk past groups of Arab people. The Israelis look like as if they have recently bought a new house, which in some ways they have.

Narcissism alert

One of the central problems with our current fascination with personal narrative and memoir, both literary and film, is the power of the narcissistic impulse and our tendency to want stories to fall into the frame of meta-narratives, such as the redemption story that shows like Oprah depend on. The ego is more insidious than almost any other human impulse and it wants to look good. Consequently, no one should be allowed to make a documentary until they're of a sufficient age to understand a few things about the world. Nor should they simply be allowed to turn a camera on and let it run until the batteries wear out or they fall asleep. A good story of any kind makes a statement, takes a position, or posits some kind of overriding argument. Mere documentation is not filmmaking, and it is most definitely not art. Unfortunately, many filmmakers are simply not up to the subject they train their lens on, whether it's polygamy, Hollywood legends, or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. After watching a slew of documentaries, I often had the impulse to jump into the frame, grab the director firmly by the scruff of the neck and say, "Now, listen, these are the questions you ought to be asking..." The world is a complex place, and needs a deeply considered and well thought out approach to many of its people, places and things.

Memoir has been a powerhouse in the literary world for quite a while, and its entrance into documentary is in some ways natural, and to be expected. There are any number of truly great films that make use of the deeply personal, such as those by Ross McElwee (Bright Leaves), or Caveh Zahedi (I Am A Sex Addict), but too often, the camera focuses on the filmmaker (or on their parents as in Doug Block's 51 Birch Street, Tara Wray's Manhattan, Kansas or Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation). Even something as seemingly innocuous as a collection of syllables in a name can become a film project: witness The Grace Lee Project, or Searching for Angela Shelton, in which the eponymous director undertook a 56-day road trip across the U.S. searching for women who shared her name, only to discover that many of these women also shared a similar history of sexual abuse.

Too many current personal documentary films lean heavily on a kind of tell-all subjectivity, but confession isn't art. Art requires structure, work, thought, careful placement of things, and a profound sense of story. It also requires ability, talent, a keen eye, a sharp mind, a quick tongue, possibly even a pleasant singing voice. Whether the current crop of memoir filmmakers, whose first target has been mommy and daddy and the terrible things they did or didn't do, will grow up and go on do other, better things remains to be seen. Self, self and more self. It gets pretty tiresome. After all, who hasn't at some point thought, "I'm so sick of myself I could scream!" But even the sound of my own voice screaming is tiresome to mine own ears listening. So enough about me; tell me about you, but for God's sake, make it a good story.

At some point, the older you get, the more you realize how entirely un-unique you are. Everyone is pretty much the same, when you get right down to the meat of the matter. It is interesting therefore, that one of the most personal films in the festival is the least self-conscious. Village Life tells the story of Botton, a tiny hamlet in Northern England that is home to 136 people with special needs, ranging from autism to mental illness. These people have lived, worked, and sometimes fought together, for decades. It is a fascinating portrait of people and place. It exemplifies the best thing about documentaries, that they give us a sense of the universal and individual in equal measure.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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