The 23rd annual Montreal documentary film festival RIDM (Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal) runs through Dec. 4. Here are reviews of six films screening this week.
No Ordinary Man
Billy Tipton’s legacy as a jazz musician is negligible: a couple of independently released collections of swing standards published in the 1950s, neither of which are particularly collectable or notable to jazz enthusiasts. Most people who’ve heard of Billy Tipton learned of his existence when he died, a retired Midwestern man in his 70s who, it turned out, was born a woman, which was only found out after his death. The news story was a big “get a load of this”-type ordeal in the late ’80s, with his ex-wife and children doing the daytime talk show circuit to argue that, as far as they’re concerned, Billy Tipton was a man through-and-through in spite of how the media was treating his death. For transmasculine men, however, Billy Tipton became an early icon — for some, the very first inkling of what was possible.
I was sort of afraid that Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s No Ordinary Man would be one of those “forgotten music legend” type documentaries and that it would spend much of its running time hyping the pianist’s minimal output. It is, after all, a popular genre of documentary these days. But Tipton’s career takes a backseat to Tipton’s importance in the media landscape, particularly when it comes to issues of trans representation. Chin-Yee and Joynt frame the film around a series of auditions for a purported biopic of Tipton. Discussions around the motivations and inflections of a particular scene lead to deeper conversations about the importance of representation, and the actors auditioning are shot in talking-head format alongside various trans activists and scholars discussing Tipton’s legacy.
The audition gimmick is perhaps a little overused — especially considering that those same people are eventually presented in talking-head format — but it serves to break up the traditional documentary structure and open up the discussion to some extent. That discussion is by far the most interesting and illuminating part of No Ordinary Man, as the men interviewed use Tipton as a springboard for broader and often more personal conversations about their transidentity. Without really coming across as an activist documentary, No Ordinary Man makes its points clearly enough for any cis-het jabroni such as myself to leave the film fired up for change. (Alex Rose)
Me and the Cult Leader
In 1995, a sarin gas attack was perpetrated on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. The attack killed 12 people, and thousands, many of whom still suffer consequences today, were injured. Film director Atsushi Sakahara was among them. With his latest film, Me and the Cult Leader, he takes a cross-country trip with one of Aum’s current executive leaders, Hiroshi Araki. A quiet and unexpected film, Me and the Cult Leader is mostly built around conversations between them. Araki, far from a confident and charismatic man, feels demure and injured. Since his guru never justified the attacks, he feels gripped by this great uncertainty, though he insists Shinrikyo has his reasons that he will unveil one day.
The film has unpredictable tensions. The interactions between Araki and Sakahara are usually unfailingly polite, though occasionally the director will push or insist on the violence and consequences put on by the Aum cult. The tension emerges through more significant social anxiety. Current members of the Aum cult are social pariahs. As they pass through towns, buildings are adorned with signage begging them to leave or forbidding them to settle down. The Aums believe in an extreme version of Buddhism that deprives them of all life’s pleasures through renunciation, strengthening that social divide. Araki might as well be a non-person, even as he tries to recall inciting or essential incidents of his youth. The uphill struggle of breaking through to Araki can be frustrating, but his committed resolve, though under the cloak of pitiable sadness, might be the film’s greatest revelation. A strangely intimate film, Me and the Cult Leader takes a genuinely unexpected root in exploring an act of resounding violence that still weighs heavily on the Japanese psyche. (Justine Smith)
About halfway through her debut documentary, Mira Burt-Wintonick asks herself a difficult question: will she be able to “finish” her father’s magnum opus, a documentary about the concept of utopia, in a world that has grown significantly more dystopic since his death? When Wintonick died in 2013, he left hundreds of tapes for this unfinished project that his daughter (now best known as a radio producer at the CBC) has used as the basis for Wintopia, a film that functions both as a facsimile of what Wintonick might have had in mind and as a deeply personal and revelatory biography of both the larger-than-life filmmaker and his daughter’s own vision of who he was.
Wintopia is, simply put, one of the best and most moving of these types of documentaries I’ve ever seen. The posthumous collage documentary often functions as fertile ground for navel-gazing and pithy observations, and yet Burt-Wintonick manages to spin a film that is both deeply moving and startlingly honest. Like a lot of impassioned creative people, Peter Wintonick was something of a workaholic and mysterious figure to his family, and yet Wintopia never moves into the realm of straight biography that seeks to understand someone now that they’re gone. It’s a complex tapestry under its deceptively simple surface (which often consists of footage either taken by Wintonick or of Wintonick in various locales that seems more exploratory than set-in-stone documentary ideas), encompassing notions of grief, of fatherhood, of idealism, of art, of creation, of family and of the very nature of humankind.
As pretentious as I’m making all of this sound, Wintopia is refreshingly straightforward and open with its emotions; an openly biased, in-no-way-objective portrait. It’s a film that is absolutely comfortable with the idea that it might not come to any clean conclusions, and its overarching philosophies on art, family and life are profoundly moving. (AR)
The Foundation Pit
Director Andrey Gryazev goes to YouTube to build his mosaic address to Russia’s leadership in The Foundation Pit. In a cursory introduction to the concept, The Foundation Pit emerges as a fantastic and haunting image for the contemporary Russian condition. The pits, dug before a building can be erected, are robbed of their context. Many stand empty, giant holes in the middle of neighbourhoods and towns. They fill with water where people drown; some become makeshift ice rinks (where, inevitably, someone will fall through). While the film begins with a kind of sly, ironic sense of humour, the citizenry’s rage and frustration assure us this is no joke.
With the idea of the meaningless foundation pits in our mind, the film expands into a cacophony of first-person camera addresses. From all over Russia, from various walks of life, different Russians log on to YouTube to have their voice heard. Most address Putin directly, asking for help or cursing his existence. In some cases, entire groups come together to record a chorus of voices aimed at the need for social change, or at least guidance. YouTube emerges as a portrait of the disenfranchised, a barometer for hopelessness.
Interestingly, many of the video-makers seem frustrated to rely on the “American” site. However, the bitterness seems cloaked in their own nation’s failures rather than any perceived rivals abroad. The Foundation Pit marries found footage with a fantastic premise, articulating, among other things, a country gripped with the consequences of misinformation and uncertainty. They’re men and women who have long forgotten why they’re digging the hole, but they’re still struggling to do it because it was what they were ordered to do. (JS)
En route vers le milliard
Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi has become a regular at RIDM. His films, often rough-hewn and always centering around social and political turmoil in his native Congo, have been eye-openers in terms of their content, if somewhat unmemorable from a filmmaking perspective. En route vers le milliard is by far his most accomplished film, though by expanding his stylistic palette, Hamadi also manages to pick up a few documentary bad habits along the way.
En route vers le milliard focuses on a group of survivors of the Six Day War, an armed conflict between Ugandan and Rwandan forces that left roughly 1,000 people dead and several thousand wounded. These survivors have banded together to travel to the capital of Kinshasa and demand reparations. Many of them have been severely injured or lost limbs in the conflict, which has subsequently left them unable to work and treated as pariahs by their peers. Reparations were promised but never delivered, and so the group decides to take a boat up the Congo River to the capital in order to demand what they are due.
As is typical of Hamadi’s cinema, the film takes a fly-on-the-wall approach with little context or introductions, which puts the onus of characterization on the viewer. The survivors’ voyage is compelling and their anger infectious, though I’d say the film stumbles a little by focusing part of the narrative on filmed segments of a play put on by the survivors that recreates their experience during the Six-Day War. There’s nothing wrong with these segments, per se. They’re quite powerful, in fact, but they contrast oddly with the immediacy of the rest of the film. To be perfectly honest, it’s not even necessarily Hamadi’s fault. It’s an overexposed gimmick in western documentary filmmaking, and En route vers le milliard is just a casualty of its overexposure. Nevertheless, Hamadi captures some truly outstanding footage in here (a storm on the boat is particularly riveting) and the film, improbably, is his most hopeful yet. (AR)
Prière pour une mitaine perdue
Jean-François Lesage’s cinema often feels out of step with most contemporary filmmakers. With movies like Un amour d’été and La Rivière Cachée, he uses documentary to question participants on a variety of questions and topics. The films are structured similarly to fiction, the voice of the filmmaker is erased, and the conversations flow with a similar intensity and insight as Eric Rohmer. If his films feel different, they are unusually sentimental — leaning on grand topics such as love and loss. He’s somehow avoided all the pitfalls of irony and pessimism in his work, which leads his films to feel like relics, for better and worse, of a more optimistic era. With his latest film, Prière pour une mitaine perdue, his subjects reflect on things they’ve lost from mittens to soulmates, structured around the lost and found at the STM.
Shot in the heart of winter in stark black and white, Prière pour une mitaine perdue begins as something light and silly. Subjects talk about lost mittens and hats. They’re sometimes seriously peeved, though often resigned to the idea that anything lost on the Montreal metro may as well be a lost cause. Perhaps that is why anything found feels like a small miracle; these moments of joy and surprise are touching and vibrant. It’s a reminder of how rarely we see people in our day-to-day life-celebrating small victories and revelations. For that alone, the film feels worthwhile and precious. As the filmmaking expands to take on more significant loss ideas, it remains interesting though perhaps it loses some of its focus. The rhythms that were so strong in the beginning lose steam. Yet it’s hard to walk away from the film feeling too disappointed. It’s a movie filled with immense love for people and also, quite unpredictably, makes you yearn for winter. It’s a film that crystalizes the magic of Montreal during a snowstorm, a feat few filmmakers could ever hope of achieving. (JS) ■
For the complete program and to stream films, please visit the RIDM website.
For more film coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.