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Documentary

My wife’s workplace has decided to show some documentaries over lunch breaks sometimes.  She asked me to suggest some favourites from my collection, because documentary is one of my several obsessions.  It was an interesting exercise for me, not least because most of my favourite docs are much longer than an hour, but also because I wanted to include a variety of time periods and directorial styles.  In the end, I settled on these, in order of release:

1) Song of Ceylon, directed by Basil Wright (1934)

2) The Plow that Broke the Plains, directed by Pare Lorentz (1936)

3) Night and Fog, directed by Alain Resnais (1955)

4) Vernon, Florida, directed by Errol Morris (1981)

5) Lessons of Darkness, directed by Werner Herzog (1992)

Feel free to let me know of others that you might include.

The Guelph Festival of Moving Media is coming up soon, running from November 7 to 10. Since I was privileged enough to have some input into the titles that were selected, I have something extra invested in the festival this year, and I hope to attend several of the films that I have not yet seen, particularly Hole Story and Chasing Ice, which is supposed to have some absolutely stunning cinematography.  The schedule also includes some great films that I have already seen, of which I would especially recommend Smoke Traders and Meet the Fokkens.  There should be something for everyone, so check out the schedule, and go see something.

The Guelph Festival of Moving Media has sent me to the Hot Docs Festival for four days this year to identify some films that we might want to screen at our own festival, and though I am only two days into my trip, I have seen some really wonderful films.

Most of my viewing has been in the Doc Shop, where industry representatives can access most of the films on demand through computer terminals.  The viewing experience is not quite the same as the theatre, of course, but it is much more convenient that running around Toronto from theatre to theatre , and it enables me to see films that are not actually playing while I am here.  Of those that I have been able to see in theatre, I particularly enjoyed the festival’s opening night doc, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.  Weiwei’s story alone would probably carry the film, because of the issues it involves, particularly those of censorship and activism in modern China, but Weiwei’s art and personality add a depth and a humour and an intimacy that make the film stand apart from the others that I have seen so far.  Though the choice of which films come to GFOMM is certainly not mine, I will recommend this one very highly to those who are making the selections.

There are several other films that I will recommend also: Smoke Traders, which explores the role of cigarette trade in Canadian native communities; Crayons of Askalan, a partly acted, partly animated, partly documented look at an imprisoned Palestinian artist, though this one may be a bit  experimental for our audience; One Day After Peace, the story of an Israeli woman pursuing reconciliation in the wake of her son’s death by a Palestinian sniper, which includes some absolutely astonishing scenes, like a former South African minister coming to wash the feet of a woman whose son his orders had killed; Planet of Snail, a really lovely portrayal of the relationship between a deaf/blind poet and his physically disabled wife, which includes a great scene of him changing a complicated lightbulb that she cannot reach and he cannot see;  Breath, the life of a female chimney sweep in Estonia; Mom and Me, a partly animated look at the Hell’s Angels turf wars in Quebec; Canned Dreams, an almost surreal portrayal of how a can of ravioli is made; and Brooker’s Place, in which a filmmaker returns to a documentary that his father made during the civil rights movement that may have resulted in a man’s death.  I think any and all of these would make great editions to our festival, and hopefully we will be able to bring at least some of them in this year.

The 2010 edition of the Guelph Festival of Moving Media opens today and runs through the weekend.  It is my favourite local festival because it focuses mainly on documentary film, so it always has something that appeals to me.  This year I will to try to see Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun on Friday night, Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife on Saturday afternoon, Michael Madson’s Into Eternity on Saturday night, and Jacob Andrén and Helena Nygren’s I Bought a Rainforest on Sunday afternoon.  I will not likely make all four shows, not considering everything else that needs to get done this weekend, but I will see as many of them as I can, and I would encourage you to do the same.  You will not have many other chances to see screenings of these films, and many of them are well worth seeing.  So check out the festival’s full schedule, find something that piques your interest, and join us for some worthwhile screen time this weekend.

My friend Dawn Matheson has just sent me a link to the newly launched HotDocs Doc Library, which contains hundreds of documentaries by Canadian filmmakers that users can stream free of charge.  Along with many films that I have not seen, the site has several of my favourites, including How to Eat a Cat by Michael Connolly, The Take by Avi Lewis, and Thai Girls by John Haslett Cuff.  There are many films here worth seeing, and when they are combined with those that are available through The National Film Board of Canada, all free and legal, you are now officially without excuse to do away with cable forever.

I posted a few weeks ago about the letter I received from the firm of Patton Boggs in regard to my screening of Bill Haney’s The Price of Sugar documentary.  At that time I also contacted the film’s production company about providing a statement to balance the one from Patton Boggs.  They put their lawyer in contact with me, so I have exchanged a few emails with Thomas Curley from the firm of Levin Sullivan Koch & Schulz, and he has just sent me this letter that outlines the position of Bill Haney and Uncommon Productions.  It is three pages rather than forty-five, and it addresses the claims of the Vicini family rather succinctly, so it is worth having a read.

I very seldom write only to link to something else, but this particular something else relates to one of my favourite directors, Errol Morris, and to one of my favourite documentaries, The Thin Blue Line, so I am making an exception.   It is a letter posted on the Letters of Note blog, originally written to Morris in 1988 by Harvey Weinstein, the head of the studio that produced The Thin Blue Line, and it illustrates both why the film industry so often produces junk and why interesting directors like Morris tend to find themselves on the fringes of that industry, no matter how good their films might be.

On January 2nd, I wrote my usual preliminary post for the Dinner and a Doc that was upcoming on the 9th of the month.  I indicated that we would be watching The Price of Sugar by Bill Haney, a film that explores the working conditions of Haitians who have illegally immigrated to cut sugar cane on plantations in the Dominican Republic.  It focuses specifically on the work of Father Christopher Hartley to improve the conditions on the plantations in what is now his former parish, plantations that are largely owned by the Vicini family.

On January 4th, several days before the screening, I received an email from the Washington legal firm of Patton Boggs, which is representing the Vicini family.  The email expressed dismay at my decision to show the film and included a forty-five page copy of the legal injunction that the firm has submitted to the courts, outlining the various respects in which the Vicini family feels that the film has misrepresented them and their interests.

On January 9th, I showed the film anyway.

Today, on January 14th, I am now posting the email that was sent to me by Patton Boggs along with the message that I do not intend to be bullied, now or ever, about the films that I decide to screen in the privacy of my own home, and let us be clear: the act of sending forty-odd pages of legal injunction is nothing more than mere bullying.

It has no legal function, since a defamation suit against the filmmaker has no bearing whatsoever on my right to watch the film in my own home.

Neither does it serve to correct misinformation.  Forty-odd pages of legal injunction will never be read by anyone, and any real intent to be corrective would have been much better served by a two or three page summary of the Vicinis’ objections.

It certainly does not provide proof of anything.  That the Vicinis object to their portrayal in the film and have filed a defamation suit proves absolutely nothing, in either direction, and even should the judge rule in their favour, I would still have some reservations about the ability of The District Court of Massachusetts to arrive at an informed judgment on a case whose material evidence lies mostly in a foreign state under the control of one of the interested parties.

The only thing that sending this legal document does  is attempt to intimidate people out of watching and showing and addressing the film for themselves.  The only thing it does is try to convince people that they should censure themselves at the discretion of those with the money to retain large legal firms that will send impressive looking swathes of legal material to anyone who shows up on a google alert.

I will not be so intimidated, and neither should you.  Inform yourself of both perspectives on the question, by all means.  Just do not let yourself be intimidated into letting the question drop.  In fact, I suggest that you go and rent the film this weekend, or even better, you can always borrow it from me.

For those who are interested in further persepctives on this dispute, there have been some interesting articles posted by  The World Socialist Web Site, by The Boston Globe, and by the National Catholic Reporter.

This Saturday, January the 9th, our Dinner and a Doc screening will be of Bill Haney’s The Price of Sugar.  The film explores the ways that sugar production effects the people who grow it in the Domincan Republic, following the work of a priest who is trying to organize the workers to achieve some basic human rights.

More information can be found at the film’s official website, in the official trailer, and in this interview with the director.

The soup that night will be this Roasted Sweet Garlic, Bread, and Almond Soup.  I am looking forward to giving it a try.

As usual, the event will be at my place, 130 Dublin Street, Guelph, and all are welcome, though please email or leave a comment to let me know that you will be coming. We will eat at about 5:30 and begin the film at about 6:00.

Also, here are some of the upcoming films we will be showing:
February 13th – Lost in La Mancha by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
March 13th – Man or Aran by Robert Flaherty
April 10th – Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov

I have always regarded it as positive that the internet as a medium permits its users a greater degree of active participation than most other media, but during the discussion at this past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc, I found myself questioning this assumption.  We had just finished watching The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and we were asking why the war in Vietnam had produced such a strong and sustained opposition while the war in Iraq has not generated a similar level of response.  After all, the activists of today have technological advantages that those opposing the Vietnam War did not, and these technologies should theoretically enable them to network and to share information far more easily and far more effectively.  Perhaps, I suggested to the group, the more active experience of using a computer actually dissuades people from becoming active in more practical ways, so that they respond to an issue by signing an online petition, or by writing a blog post, or by sending a mass email, or by contributing to some relief fund, but they never make the transition from internet activism to physical activism.  Their drive to engage in issues becomes satisfied through the monitor and never finds expression beyond it.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that real activism cannot be accomplished online.  I am merely suggesting that the internet often allows people to engage with issues in ways that provide only the illusion of activism and that it frequently functions to satisfy the need for active involvement in political issues without really addressing these issues beyond the level of the monitor.  Rather than enabling activism, the internet comes to replace it, limiting the ways in which people are willing to be politically active.

The answer to this problem is obviously not to abandon the internet as a tool for activism, because it is simply too effective a means for communicating and networking and organizing and raising awareness.  The answer may, however, involve reimagining how we use the internet and how we promote activism through it, so that we do not content ourselves with online petitions that nobody sees at the expense of actually feeding the hungry, defending the oppressed, and protesting injustice.  I am not sure that I have any specific suggestions as to how this might be accomplished, but I would encourage you, the next time you are confronted by a cause in your online wanderings, to see what it is exactly that you are being asked to do.  Is it the kind of activism that stops at the monitor, or is it the kind that only begins there in order to go much further?