RIDM, Nov. 8: Private Universe & Grandma Lo-Fi

Our look at some of the documentary festival’s offerings for the evening, a decades-in-the-making document of a Czech family and the touching tale of an Icelandic late-blooming outsider musician.

Private Universe

Helena Trestiková’s film is a bittersweet portrait of a Czech family. She began filming a young couple, Samuel Jisásek and Jan Kettner, in 1974, recording their lives on and off from the birth of their first child through his growing up, the arrival of two more kids and plenty of small-scale domestic drama — while in their country, decades of communist rule gave way to a democratic society with the election of Vaclav Havel and the subsequent dissolution of the Czech Republic.

The couple’s son, Holza, is a difficult kid who grows up to become a pothead slacker with half-baked anti-authoritarian politics and zero ambition. All the same, the family remains close and continues to let Trestiková (later helped out by her own son) catch up with them through the years.

The parents’ difficulty raising their son and their disappointment with how he turns out are all the more poignant for how commonplace they are. In that sense, the film’s weakness — the lack of any kind of shocking twist or narrative resolution — is also a strength, in that you feel the universal nature of the family’s everyday story.

Of course, the doc’s biggest asset is the sheer wealth of footage and the sensation it provides of watching the family age before your eyes. Coupled with the historical context (Trestiková uses the Soviet space program and a popular kitschy Czech crooner as cute markers of the passing of time), it makes for a film that’s fun and touching even with its undertones of Eastern melancholia. Cinémathèque Québécoise (335 Maisonneuve E.), 8:15 p.m.


Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdottir

This Icelandic doc portrays a minor star in the country’s musical universe, a Danish-born emigrée who, at the age of 70, began a seven-year marathon of musical creativity during which she recorded and self-released a staggering 59 albums. Played on her consumer-level keyboard, with vocals and percussion (largely featuring kitchen appliances) overdubbed on a double-cassette stereo, her sweetly naïve pop songs made her a cult figure among Iceland’s indie-pop community, many of whose members offer musical testimony of their fandom.

The film depicts her creative process and tells her life story, often illustrated with animated bits that might have been insufferably twee in another context, but seem entirely appropriate here. Warbled off-key and seemingly composed automatically, her songs are “outsider music” in the purest sense (at one point, Níelsdottir even abandons language and starts composing her lyrics in outright gibberish), and the doc strives to delve into her inspiration or motivation, but it comes across as purely the hobby of a sweetly eccentric old lady who seems to regard her own work with a mixture of naïveté and self-awareness (“Sometimes it’s art and sometimes it isn’t,” she shrugs at one point.)

As someone with a personal interest in these topics, I may be biased in finding Níelsdottir’s story fascinating, but if nothing else it’s a heartwarming illustration of the way creativity can bring meaning to a person’s life. And it clocks in at just over an hour, which is the perfect leave-’em-wanting-more length for this kind of small-scale character study. Grande Bibliothèque (475 Maisonneuve E.), 8:15 p.m. ■

Check the RIDM site for the full program and schedule, and stay tuned here for more festival coverage.

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