Here’s what on at the RIDM festival

Our critics review films about whistleblowing, the dark side of small-town USA, prison life and local music screening at the documentary festival this week.

Edward Snowden, subject of Citizenfour
The Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal festival (RIDM) is on now. Here are some of the films screening today and tomorrow.


When Edward Snowden revealed himself as the NSA whistleblower, airing the dirty laundry of the USA’s nasty surveillance habit, he chose to do so to two journalists: rabble-rouser Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, chronicler of the War on Terror’s abuses and now director of this doc. After a brief overview of the issues involving the surveillance state, Poitras spends a good hour of the film in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden revealed his identity to her and Greenwald and discussed his motivations, before pulling back to explore the revelations’ aftermath.

There’s a certain class of “issue doc” that functions as an easy primer for anyone who doesn’t understand the issue at hand—Food, Inc. comes to mind. I’d hate to suggest that Poitras should have undertaken such a dumbed-down document, but she kind of errs in the other direction; this film won’t win over anyone who doesn’t already agree with the point of view that Snowden is a hero exposing the evils of an out-of-control state.

The long hotel sequence has some genuine drama, and the weight of its historical importance, but to anyone who’s not already geeking out on the topic, it might just be boring or confusing; it doesn’t explain why the viewer should care about this extensive portrait of a rebel IT nerd. The film is named after Snowden’s online handle when he first contacted Poitras, and it’s symbolic of the content — insiderish and not that catchy.

As a sworn opponent of documentary clichés, I hate to seem like I’m advocating for them. But whether she was too close to the subject to see the bigger picture, or whether she just had too much journalistic or artistic integrity to dress up her story in any usual trappings of conventional documentary style, Poitras has created a film that’s absolutely essential as a historical document, but feels frustratingly incomplete from the perspective of engaging an audience. (Malcolm Fraser)

Citizenfour screens tonight, Nov. 13, at Concordia (1455 de Maisonneuve W., H-110), 8:30 p.m. and goes on general release Friday, Nov. 14

The Overnighters

Jesse Moss, who began his career as an apprentice to legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple, directs this poignant portrait of 21st-century America. The film takes place in Williston, North Dakota, a small town that becomes transformed when an oil boom attracts thousands of new residents from all corners of the recession-ravaged USA. Many of these newcomers, mostly working-class middle-aged men, are unable to afford housing and end up having to crash at the local Lutheran church, where they’re taken in by kind-hearted pastor Jay Reinke.

But the church’s neighbours don’t all share the same welcoming spirit. The resulting drama uncovers one of the outstanding hypocrisies of contemporary American society: the country’s nominally Christian values of charity and love running up against the actual prevailing social ethic of mercenary capitalism, Darwinian libertarianism and unvarnished NIMBYism.

Reinke tries to hold his own against the town’s unwelcoming ways, but some of his rough-hewn clientele don’t make his job any easier. Then the film starts to take darker and more personal twists. Moss gets an incredible level of access to painfully intimate moments, to a point that almost seems unbelievable — until I remembered my ex-journalist dad’s wise words, “all Americans are camera-ready.” Running the tonal gamut from melancholy to bleak, it’s not at all a feel-good film, but it is one of the most powerful docs in recent memory. (Malcolm Fraser)

The Overnighters screens tonight, Nov. 13, at Pavillion Judith-Jasmin (Annexe) (1564 St-Denis), 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 16, at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc), 4:15 p.m.
PRISONS 02-credit  Steve Patry

From Prisons to Prisons

Steve Patry’s debut film follows three ex-convicts and drug addicts as they struggle to reintegrate into society after stints in prison. One is a crack-addicted mother of two who keeps getting kicked out of inpatient programs for behavioral issues and relapsing; another is an affable low-level drug dealer who keeps going inside because selling weed is easier than finding a job with a criminal record, and the last is a deeply troubled middle-aged drug addict whose stint in the Waseskun Healing Center initially seems to be taking. The systematic way in which the subjects are doomed to continually pay for their mistakes highlights the way criminalizing drug offences (though a couple of the subjects are jailed for crimes they committed in order to get money to keep getting high) only breeds more despair.

Patry shows the tragedy at the heart of these people’s lives with remarkable skill and nuance, but the film suffers in a very distinct and unfortunately inevitable way. It’s clear that Patry only had periodic access to his subjects (due in part to all of them relapsing and essentially falling off the map or back into jail); long stretches of time elapse between each instance we spend with each subject, and the timeline becomes increasingly vague and confusing. Patry favours a no-frills approach without narration and very few title cards that only further muddles context — it’s impossible to get a grip on a timeframe or even to properly understand the subject’s suffering. It’s a fairly minor gripe in the scope of things, but it prevents From Prisons to Prisons from truly getting under your skin. (Alex Rose)

From Prisons to Prisons screens tonight, Nov. 13, at Excentris (3536 St-Laurent), 6 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 14, at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc), 2 p.m.

A City Is an Island

Four years since its inception, former Montreal resident/ man-about-town Timothy George Kelly finally premieres his first feature-length documentary about the city’s music scene. (Read our interview with him here.) Most specifically, the anglo “Mile End” music scene that spawned such indie darlings as Grimes, Wolf Parade and, dare I mention the obvious, Arcade Fire.

The film adopts the same DIY etiquette its subjects promote: Mac DeMarco strums his guitar while on the toilet, Roland Pemberton (Cadence Weapon) raps next to an underpass, Phoebé Guillemot (RAMZI) plays weird electronic music in the woods and Sean Nicholas Savage sings a cappella on a rooftop.  Through countless interviews, from the aforementioned artists to Beaver Sheppard, Colin Stetson, Spencer Krug and many more, Kelly paints a portrait of a scene mainly built by anglo musicians who moved to Montreal for a variety of reasons, addressing glaring issues on the way, such as language and perpetual poverty.

If you’re not already a fan of any of the music spawned from this specific scene (although this includes a variety of genres), this is probably not the film that will win you over; there’s a bit of a “for us, by us” vibe. Also, the issue of language is obviously always a touchy one, with many of these musicians not speaking any French at all, and this is best confronted by the film’s two seemingly only francophones: Guillemot and Xarah Dion. Oh, and Patrick Watson. Aside from this, it’s an ambitious film that colourfully portrays the freaks and forever-kids who have chosen this city as a base to create their weird music. Hate ’em, or love ’em, it’d be an awfully quiet place without them. (Roxane Hudon)

A City Is an Island screens at Amphithéâtre du Coeur des Sciences de l’UQAM (200 Sherbrooke W.) on Nov. 13, 8 p.m., and on Nov. 15, 2 p.m.
The Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal festival (RIDM) runs through Nov. 23. See the complete program here.