FILMS

Grand traditions

A new breed rejuvenates the documentary

Brian D. Johnson September 9 1991
FILMS

Grand traditions

A new breed rejuvenates the documentary

Brian D. Johnson September 9 1991

Grand traditions

FILMS

A new breed rejuvenates the documentary

In the late 1980s, the future of the Canadian documentary was looking grim. Both the CBC and the National Film Board had cutback documentary production to focus

their dwindling resources on drama. And the death of legendary NFB director Donald Brittain in 1989 seemed to signal the end of an era—one launched 50 years earlier by NFB founder John Grierson, who coined the word “documentary.” More recently, however, a new generation of documentary-makers has emerged. Many work outside the NFB and the CBC. And their films tend

to be adventurous, entertaining—and aimed at a broad audience. The Montreal World Film Festival, which ends on Sept. 2, and Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, which starts on Sept. 5, have harvested an unusually healthy crop of Canadian documentaries. They include eight new features, half of which will be released this fall in Canadian theatres. Said Toronto festival programmer Cameron Bailey: “People are realizing that there is a market for feature documentaries—I was astounded by how many were out there.”

They range from Deadly Currents, a groundbreaking portrait of turbulence in the Middle East, to The Falls, a lyrical essay on the history and mystery of Niagara.

There are also several documentaries by and about women—including Talk 16, a funny and intimate portrait of teenage girls, and Wisecracks, an amusing, provoca-

tive excursion into the world of female stand-up comedy. Distributors have picked up all four films for theatrical release.

A passionate strain of conviction runs through many of the new nonfiction films. And that partly reflects the sheer tenacity required to make them in an industry that overwhelmingly favors drama. “There is so much more cachet around fiction,” Gail Singer, the Winnipeg-born director who made Wisecracks, told Maclean ’s. “People who have stayed with documentaries have an almost obsessive relationship with truth that is very different from the truth of drama.” Said Deadly Currents director Simcha Jacobovici: “Canadians are world lead-

ers in making documentaries, but we still don’t celebrate that. We buy this Hollywood ideology that there are real films, and then there are documentary films.”

In fact, Jacobovici’s film combines the rigor of a documentary with the techniques of drama. A stunning exploration of politics and emotions in the Middle East, Deadly Currents goes behind the lines on both sides of the ArabIsraeli conflict. Jacobovici, 38, an Israeli-born director based in Toronto, penetrated the top ranks of the intifadeh, the Palestinian rebel

movement. He also joined Israeli soldiers on patrol amid stone-throwing gangs in the West Bank and Gaza.

Intercutting conflicting viewpoints from soldiers, academics, artists, rebels and settlers, Jacobovici analyses a complex situation without a word of narration. Instead, he uses kinetic visuals to create a lucid, nonpartisan narrative. Combat footage shot with hand-held cameras is combined with elaborate overhead crane shots. Military manoeuvres on the West Bank are mixed with modem-dance performances in Tel Aviv. Jacobovici treads a delicate balance between the two sides of the conflict. But, by focusing on the tormented conscience of a

young soldier, he gives the Israeli side a human face; the Palestinians remain more faceless— literally so in the case of the hooded intifadeh rebels. Implicitly pacifist, Deadly Currents offers no easy answers. Still, with cunning editing and extraordinarily powerful images, the film illuminates complex issues—and brings fresh energy to investigative cinema.

Talk 16 is less innovative in style, but its subject is irresistible. The most brazenly commercial of the new documentaries, it is a timelapse portrait of a year in the life of five Toronto teenage girls. Its producer-directors, Janis Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell, interviewed more than 350 girls before selecting their five subjects. The winners are clear stereotypes: Astra, a drug-loving runaway who preaches casual sex and satanism; Erin, a demure private-school student training to be a model; Helen, an overachiever and born-again Christian of Korean descent; Rhonda, a black girl who cuts through peer pressures with brash ambition; and Lina, who simply wants a car and a boyfriend.

Talk 16 tends to patronize its ingenuous

subjects—especially Astra, a punk princess who goes through a string of disastrous boyfriends in the course of a year. From the hindsight of the cutting room, the film-makers play the girls off against one another—and themselves. Astra says that she had endured an engagement, an abortion and “a few miscarriages” before turning 16; Helen looks forward to “a husband picked out for me by God.” But despite the film-makers’ crude manipulations, the material is genuinely funny and poignant. Each of the subjects is fascinating and charming in her own right. All undergo dramatic changes to their personalities. And by the end of Talk 16 s exhaustive documentary year-

book—the movie could use some trimming— most of them succeed in transcending their allotted stereotypes.

In Wisecracks, meanwhile, the humor is created by its subjects rather than at their expense. Billed as the first feature ever made about female comics, it works as an engaging, jokefilled performance film. It also provides some sharp insights into the phenomenon of women trying to break into the aggressively male world of stand-up comedy. Director Singer filmed comics in Toronto, Los Angeles, London and Edinburgh. Her subjects include established stars, such as Phyllis Diller, who proves to be remarkably astute when analysing her craft offstage, and Whoopi Goldberg, who insists that her comedy has nothing to do with her gender or race. Singer portrays a variety of nightclub comics, including Canadians Jenny Jones and Sandra Shamas, whose jokes are based on gender—men and tampons are the most popular targets. For perspective, the director has interspersed vintage clips of performances by such stars as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.

One of the film’s more outrageous scenes features the Toronto-based trio The Clichettes, who mime the James Brown song It ’s a Man’s World in flesh-colored bodysuits that make them look like naked musclemen—with detachable penises. Even the much safer material in Wisecracks has a feminist edge—which seems an integral part of working the stand-up comedy circuit as a female. Amid the laughter, Singer’s film gives a serious voice to a group of witty, articulate women who are in the business of breaking taboos.

The theme of The Falls is more elusive— consciously so. Written and directed by Canadian Kevin McMahon, it examines Niagara as a place of mystery, metaphor, tourism and ecological horror. It amounts to a visual treatise on the conflict between nature and civilization. McMahon uses exquisite images to contrast the raw power of the falls with society’s efforts to contain, channel and exploit them. A deadpan engineer at a Niagara River control station explains how the flow is decreased at night, as more water is diverted though the power station to generate electricity, then increased during the day “so that the tourists will have an exciting sight to look at.”

McMahon cuts from scenes of tourist kitsch to graphic tales of birth defects caused by chemical pollution at the Niagara-area Love Canal in New York state. His camera, moving in agonizingly slow pans, makes a fetish of pipes, penstocks and conduits. Even the tubular maze of a water slide in a Niagara amusement park takes on sinister overtones. The film is a flood of hypnotic images, brave concepts and interesting facts. But it never quite comes together. How you see the falls is “all in the framing,” says the narrator. The movie itself lacks a frame—and, like the falls, remains unfathomable.

As a first feature, however, McMahon’s film reflects a spirit of innovation that is rejuvenating the documentary form. Toronto director Maya Gallus, an ex-journalist, makes a strong debut with her first film, Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels, a one-hour biography of the Ottawa-born novelist who is famous for one book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945). The film will air on the CBC’s Adrienne Clarkson Presents this fall. Smart, who died in 1986 at the age of 72, had an amazing life: she sacrificed a literary career for an unrequited obsession with a married poet and the burden of being a single mother to their four children. Gallus creates a skilful weave of interviews with the author’s friends, excerpts from her writing and subtle touches of dramatic re-enactment—with actress Jackie Burroughs portraying Smart. In a style reminiscent of Brittain’s Volcano.An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976), the film-maker evokes emotional ruin with desolate street scenes.

The documentary is a remarkably elastic form. A proving ground for young directors, it also attracts such veterans as Quebec’s Gilles Carle, whose Le Diable d’Amérique ( The Devil of America) traces the myth of the devil from voodoo to the sins of technology.

The current surge in documentary production is partly fuelled by rising interest from distributors abroad: The Falls was co-financed by British television’s Channel Four. And several of the new features have obvious international appeal. When the Fire Burns: The Life and Music of Manuel de Falla, directed by Larry Weinstein, combines a biography of the Spanish composer with performances of his music. And in Why Havel?, a co-production between Canada and Czechoslovakia, expatriate Czech film-maker Vojtech Jasny turns the camera on his homeland’s playwright president, Václav Havel—with a narration by expatriate director Milos Forman.

Despite the apparent vitality of their craft, most Canadian film-makers stress that financing documentaries remains extremely difficult. “Often, they get made in spite of the system, not because of it,” said Jacobovici, who recently had an odd exchange with the NFB bureaucracy. The director says that he extended an invitation to the NFB to the Sept. 12 opening of his film at the Toronto festival. An NFB official, mistaking the invitation for a funding request, sent him a letter of rejection. Jacobovici says that he intends to frame it.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON