The 23rd annual Montreal documentary film festival RIDM (Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal) runs through Dec. 4. Here are reviews of five films screening this week.
The Forbidden Reel
In Ariel Nasr’s The Forbidden Reel, viewers are guided through the halls of Afghan film, the state’s film production company. In a small, poorly lit corner, they point to a door. Behind it lies the history of Afghanistan’s cinema. Up until recently, the room existed behind a false wall, hastily put up to protect it. When the Taliban came to destroy their legacy, they risked their lives to save their cultural heritage.
Using the previously hidden and almost forgotten footage of Afghanistan’s cinematic past, along with archival footage and talking-head interviews, Nasr paints a portrait of Afghan cinema. By telling the nation’s cinematic history, we also tell a story of the nation’s embattled soul. The images are rich and occasionally daring. Sequences unfold in ruby-red poppy fields and also ravaged Kabul. The diversity of voices and experiences emerge quite early in the filmmaking; it showcases how Afghani filmmakers saw themselves; starkly different than the reductive outsider perspectives.
The Forbidden Reel offers not just a look into the changing lives and mores of Afghanistan over the last fifty years, but the rich artistic community within it. While the industry never had a lot of money, this fact did little to discourage ambitious filmmakers and stars. The film effectively argues the importance of national cinemas as ways of capturing lived experiences and empowering its citizens to imagine a better future. It’s a compelling portrait of discovery and sacrifice, that offers an invaluable perspective on a film history nearly lost to violence. (Justine Smith)
In Roberval, in the Lac-Saint-Jean area of northern Quebec, ex-convicts are offered a chance to get back on their feet by taking jobs in a sawmill that is almost exclusively staffed with ex-cons. (The rest of the staff seems to be people with long periods of unemployment on their resumés.) The fairly simple manual jobs offer the ex-convicts a chance to get back on their feet, but also for the sawmill’s staff to keep a close eye on their rehabilitation. Nicolas Lévesque’s Les libres is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that observes the daily goings-on at the mill without really positioning any of the staff as the central figure. We watch as the ex-convicts report to their superior and are given rather blunt assessments of their behaviour and attitude; we also watch as some of them butt heads with the managers, vestiges of their troubled pasts bubbling up to the surface.
Les libres is a sensitive look at rehabilitation that sometimes suffers from keeping its subjects at arm’s-length (it’s sometimes difficult to get a grasp on who these people are, since nearly everything we learn about them comes in the form of performance reports that are fairly limited in their scope) throughout but also benefits tremendously from not getting overly bogged down in the sometimes complex nature of the subjects’ crimes. We also follows the ex-convicts in therapy sessions — usually for substance abuse, but sometimes for their anger issues — and watching these men (and a few women) put words on emotions and reactions they never questioned before is immensely moving. A more traditional documentary would bring us through the entire path of rehabilitation, but Lévesque makes the choice of only staying with his subjects for the duration of their employment, providing a glimpse into a process that’ll essentially take a lifetime. (Alex Rose)
Throughout the four and a half hour running time of Wiseman’s latest opus, City Hall, one word keeps coming up again and again; resilience. It’s uttered primarily by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who acts as the film’s driving force. It’s a word he repeats in speeches, in meetings and conversation. It’s a word that sums up local government work fighting against a hostile federal government while also trying to right the wrongs of decades of centuries of inequalities and abuses.
While the running time alone will likely turn people off, what Wiseman accomplishes with City Hall is nothing short of incredible. He offers a remarkable cross-section of the Boston municipal government’s wide-ranging impact as well as the people they serve. It’s a film wrought with tensions; personal and social. It is at once a fantastic tribute to the government employees fighting and thinking their way to a better world and the tragedy that their actions are never quite enough.
For those familiar with Wiseman’s style, City Hall falls into familiar territory. It’s observational filmmaking that seeks to understand a variety of institutions at their most human level. Despite taking place in City Hall, and primarily government offices, it’s incredible that the film achieves a deep sense of intimacy. As impersonal and unsentimental as the film is, allowing characters and situations to unfold in some semblance of real-time, we get a greater sense of how people work and imagine a better world through this almost distant technique. It showcases a realistic cross-section of the American experience, reflecting the city’s real demographics that enrich and populated by immigrants. The film is unmistakably a product of the Trump era, particularly its destructive and dehumanizing policies. Still, almost unbelievably, City Hall manages to be warm and hopeful about American resilience and grit. (JS)
A visually astonishing documentary that often blurs the line between hypnotic and tedious, Alejandro Telémarco Tarraf’s Piedra sola is precisely the kind of artful documentary that could easily have been a short film without losing any of its impact. Tarraf follows an Argentinian llama shepherd living in the isolated highlands who has to come to terms with the fact that a puma seems to be killing the llamas in his flock. Unable to sell the meat in town and faced with important losses if the killings continue, he turns to ancient mystical beliefs about the shapeshifting, highly-adaptive form of the puma and what it means in his culture.
Languid doesn’t begin to describe it; Tarraf holds shots for minutes on end, deliberately building a slow and methodical mystical mind-trip that has little use for traditional narrative expectations. (In the first few minutes, we’re even treated to an entirely black screen – which a lightning strike eventually reveals to be the night sky.) If Piedra Sola were solely an abstract collection of stunning landscapes and woozy psychedelia, it would probably still be overlong; even though it’s barely 70 minutes long, the contrast between the beauty of its images and the semblance of narrative makes it sort of a slog. A beautiful slog, to be sure, but a slog nonetheless. (AR)
In adapting Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, Michelle Latimer takes on a multitextual approach. Weaving in stories, interviews and profiles, we are plunged into a tapestry of ideas and experiences about Indigenous life. The film begins by establishing a prevalent pop-cultural image of native life, and one firmly rooted a long time ago. Cinematic images suggest that Indigenous people exist in the past but are fundamentally incompatible with the present. As the film progresses, the picture of the titular Inconvenient Indian emerges; the Inconvenient Indian is loud, diverse, and they certainly aren’t dead.
Thomas King himself plays a central role within the film, first as a passenger in a coyote-helmed taxi cab and then as a viewer in a red-velvet screening room. His voice serves as narrator, tying together the film’s different threads. The film’s scope and structure are ambitious, but it still feels balanced and patient. It doesn’t guide the audience by the hand, instead allowing the viewer space to make their own connections between stories and events. Latimer allows large swaths to unfold in liminal spaces between discomfort and transformation, relying on both tension and grace to express complex ideas in straightforward and open-ended ways. It’s remarkably assured filmmaking for a director still at the early stage of her career. That said, even Latimer’s early work (especially her incredible short film, Nuuca) already pointed towards her assured and unique voice. Inconvenient Indian is thoughtful, formally provocative and without question one of the year’s must-see documentaries. ■
For the complete program and to stream films, please visit the RIDM website.
For more film coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.