Documentaries at the VIFF
It’s been a strange few years since September 11th. Things are reminding me more and more of the gloom and doom days of the 1980s, when everyone was bracing themselves for nuclear disaster (fans of The Day After and Threads should definitely check out Peter Watkins’ The War Game, by the way, just released on DVD). End of the world scenarios seem to be regaining their currency, from popular films like The Day after Tomorrow to Cormac McCarthy’s excellent but grim new novel, The Road. (It would be instructive to compare this dark, sad, painful book with the secret-fantasy elements of the post-apocalyptic fiction of yore, which seemed mostly to focus on romantic heroes or, at best, antiheroes battling giant cockroaches and the like, imagining a post-nuclear holocaust world as being something akin to the Old West). Even moreso than in the realm of fiction, lately, documentary after documentary seems to end on chilling notes: “things are more fucked up than anyone realizes and something needs to be done, but no one knows what or how.” The calmest chicken little out there is indisputably Al Gore, but this particular genre of documentary (made up of equal parts talking head and quaint archival footage) seems to thrive on an eerily sedate quality; someone somewhere has figured out that there is nothing quite so terrifying as a recipe for disaster stated in cool and rational terms. Often there’s a fair bit of information provided alongside the reasons to be afraid – and fear is a great motivator towards becoming informed – but there’s also something of the horror movie thrill to it: these films are only really satisfying if they convince you that the world may end tomorrow.
Tho’ that may seem a cynical thing to say, I am a sucker for this particular genre of documentary. Can’t say why, exactly. Perhaps it vindicates my sense of unreality at how insane the current world is, and reassures me that things are not, in fact, all right? (That it’s NOT JUST ME who has a problem?). I’ll be seeing a lot of documentaries at the VIFF, but especially anything that seems singularly doom-and-gloom. Yesterday’s top contender for that spot was Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash. Cut from the template of films like The Corporation and The Future of Food, it delivers no formal surprises, but is packed with interesting and insightful expert commentary. It traces the extent to which western economies – and increasingly the rest of the world – are based on the consumption of fossil fuels, and that it is conceivable that we are now experiencing what is known as peak oil. The film follows the theories of M. King Hubbert, who, we are told, was once considered a laughingstock in predicting that we would run out of oil at some point in the foreseeable future. Completely in keeping with Hubbert’s predictions, the film shows how oilfields once thought inexhaustible, in the USA and in Baku (formerly part of the USSR, now part of Azerbaijan) are depleted. There have been no major new fields discovered in the last 30 years, and the figures for the amount of oil that is claimed to exist in countries like Saudi Arabia may well be inflated. One of the commentators sited says that he thinks it very unlikely that our grandchildren will be able to afford to fly in an airplane, and there is much worry as to what a post-oil economy will look like; it certainly won’t support the world’s grotesquely exaggerated population in anythin’ like the style to which we are accustomed. The film is not entirely optimistic about the alternative energy sources it discusses, but forcefully outlines the need to explore them. There aren’t many surprises here, but it feels good to have some background under one’s belt; these sorts of documentaries end up feeling like Coles’ Notes on the state of the planet. More on the concept of peak oil can be read here.
Less grim, but more formally exciting, is a striking document of the production of food in the age of agribusiness: Our Daily Bread -- see also here -- filmed in Europe, neither moralizes nor even overtly comments, but depicts – without music, without even much in the way of spoken language – various facets of food production today. It is often very strange, reminding me of the scene in Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga where we see plastic food being factory produced and painted for display in restaurant windows – except the food being produced here is real food, of many different varieties. It could just as well be car parts. Dead hogs, hung by their hind legs on a conveyer of sorts, are slit open and gutted entirely by robotics, with a woman in a blue plastic smock shearing off their hooves at the end of the line; later, salmon get much the same treatment. Piglets are mechanically herded in so impersonal (?) a way as to suggest THX 1138. Men in lab coats with computers oversee through a window the harvesting of bull semen. Salt miners, after an apparently endless descent in an industrial elevator, sit aboard their heavy equipment and eat sandwiches on their break; they could be mining for coal, tho’ they aren’t as dirty. Vegetables and fruits are grown and harvested mechanically with a minimum of human participation. Apples are sorted in vast pools and mechanically placed into foam trays for display, with a woman in a facemask facing them red-end-up. In one scene, a tree-shaking machine causes unnamed fruit in an orchard to fall, which is then scooped up by a specially designed fruitsucking bulldozer of sorts. It all makes for a very odd experience; something as intimate as food should never be grown, harvested, or prepared in so alienated a way, but at the same time, one dazzles at the antlike efficiency of it all. It’s stuff we so seldom see, are so in denial about, that really observing how our food gets to us leaves you in a state of wonder and shock: this is what you always imagined was going on behind the scenes, but never saw. The film requires – and amply rewards – effort on the part of the viewer; anyone who really got excited about James Benning’s 13 Lakes last year (or can’t wait for Into Great Silence, later in the festival) is highly advised to check this one out.
More inspiring – it moved me to quiet tears at times, in fact – is Encounter Point, a film about Israelis and Palestinians working together for peace. I have little to say about it. I have personal experience of just how deep prejudices run in regard this conflict – it appears that a friendship I value has ended because I dared to criticize Israel’s recent invasion of Lebanon – so it is very touching indeed to see Israelis and Arabs who have both lost family (and who both previously considered the other an inhumane enemy incapable of seriously discussing peace) coming together and exploring non-violent ways of ending their ongoing conflict. It’s a great experience and I highly recommend it.
There are other films I’ve seen, either at media screenings or yesterday, that I have less commentary to offer on, tho’ that doesn’t mean they’re bad films. The Jonestown documentary is exactly what you’d expect it to be – featuring interviews with various People’s Temple members and survivors. The story is told almost entirely through their testimony, or the testimony of those who were present in Guyana in 1978 on the Day They Drank the Kool Aid; I’m not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to limit themselves this way – a bit of outsider analysis by those familiar with charismatic religions, cult leaders, paranoia, and the like might have been interesting and useful – but the film is powerful and scary as it is, so I suppose it will suffice... Alanis Obomsawin’s Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises deals with issues of preserving Native culture – specifically that of the Abenaki community of Odanak, in eastern Canada. The film is most interesting in detailing Abenaki women’s resistance to the effects of the Indian Act, which, rooted in a policy of forced assimilation, legislates many women and their children into non-status positions. The stories told of the effects this has had and of the fight to undo the damages are worth hearing recounted. I must admit, tho’, that I find it difficult to get excited or inspired – as the filmmakers appear to be -- about the cultural significance of the fact that some Abenaki still make birchbark canoes and weave baskets. In the age of mass production and globalized sweatshop labour, if cultural survival and cultural identity is contingent on Arts and Crafts, it seems a far more grim prognosis than the filmmakers intend; it fails to inspire, in any case. There is something very gentle about Obomsawin’s film, though, that may please some viewers; it tries to find cause for hope for the endurance, against great odds, of one small community with a long history and its own traditions. Perhaps it’s my fault for not finding the film grim enough; I'm a bit of a cynic, after all, and this IS Doom and Gloom week.
Anyhow, folks, that’s IT for me for film festival writing; I’m actually missing films to write, and that Just Doesn’t Make Sense at All. I'll check in with next month's Discorder, I figure, with a "best of the fest" thing. Maybe; dunno. In any case, I have other writing projects to work on, so... see y’all! Oh: if you are bereft of a program guide, complete listings of all films and dates can be found here -- I really recommend Our Daily Bread, in particular; it's the most memorable and unique of the 15 or so films I've seen in the run up to the fest, and the one, so far, that is by no means to be missed.