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.
Japanese documentarian Kazuhiro Soda was honoured a couple of years ago at RIDM. His newest film, Zero, follows up with the subject of his previous movie Mental (2008). Now in his 80s, doctor Masatomo Yamamoto, a prominent psychiatrist, is retiring. During the film’s first half, we watch as he closes his affairs and says goodbye to his patients. The film is patient and detached, and much of the emotional resonance goes unsaid, though we understand the bittersweet nature of Yamamoto’s retreat from professional life. He seems willing to move on, but unseen pressures are pushing his hand. As the film retreats from his professional offices, we understand that in recent years Dr. Yamamoto has been caring for his wife, Yoshiko, who has been deteriorating due to Alzheimer’s.
Soda’s film flashes back to black and white segments from Mental to emphasize its toll on the couple. We watch a much-younger seeming Yoshiko as bright and engaged, quickly transformed into a diminutive and dependent woman, with a single cut. Between the lines, though, the film’s real tragedy comes with the doctor’s apparent decline as well. The house is messy, and in a long sequence prepping for a takeout sushi dinner, we watch as he struggles to find his wallet, cannot open a bottle and loses his direction again and again. His struggles in this scene could result from over-exertion or foretell a more profound sense of loss on the horizon.
Soda’s filmmaking is deeply caring and gentle. Without question, Dr. Yamamoto is a great man with a deep love and respect for his wife. He’s attentive and caring to her needs, just as he was to his patients. The film is ruthlessly heartbreaking without being sentimental — a compassionate portrait of ageing and loss. (Justine Smith)
Sous un même soleil
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is so complex and fraught that I find it difficult to even write about from an entirely removed perspective. Even though I’ve never been remotely close to there and want to remain entirely objective about a conflict that spans complexities far beyond my reach, the fact is that I’m still afraid to make accidental sweeping generalizations or misunderstand fundamental positions in the conflict. (Even by calling it a conflict, I’m afraid I might be miscategorizing it.) In that sense, François Jacob’s Sous un même soleil is ambitious to the point of feeling a little risky: Jacob seeks to understand the conflict by focusing on the people on either side of it (and some who fall outside of that binary) and not the governmental and political forces who are presumably really at play in the conflict.
It’s somewhat unfortunate timing considering that tensions have resumed in the region since the film was shot, though Jacob resists any pat resolutions or corny aphorisms. It’s an excessively complex subject that the film understands cannot be summed up (much less resolved), and so Jacob focuses on the specific stories of a handful of people with the goal of focusing on the human and personal stories that have grown out of the conflict. By choosing to keep the political context to a minimum, Jacob knowingly leaves some important info out, but the film is rather obviously not meant to be a thorough portrait.
Even in its most genial and human moments, Sous un même soleil can be dense and conflicted, but I will say this: it contains one of the most indelible images I’ve seen in a movie all year. Early on, we’re treated to footage of a serious, solemn gathering in a public square punctuated by ominous choral singing and inspirational military videos. Though the gathering is undoubtedly a social affair, it’s a muted one — and then, in one long shot of a crowd, you can spot one of the attendees holding a lonely Minions balloon. (Alex Rose)
Purple Sea ranks as among the most challenging documentaries of recent years. In a single uninterrupted shot, in footage shot off the coast of Lesbos, Syrian artist Amel Alzakout captures the experience of being stranded at sea. They’re on a migrant boat, escaping Syria, en route to Europe. The footage is choppy and claustrophobic. Most of it takes place underwater, where we most often see a wrinkled hand and other bodies fighting to stay above the surface. That awful treble of sounds echoing through and underwater dominate the soundtrack. We hear voices, occasionally screams. Alzakout’s voice-over offers poetry and context. Purple Sea is a film without an establishing shot of any kind; we sometimes get a glimpse of the sky but never the horizon.
The immediate danger we sense is real. The film captures the horror of the experience wholly, only further emphasizing the risk migrants are taking or have taken to escape their homelands. If Amel Alzakout were not also one of the travellers, it would be almost unpalatable. As the ship capsized in the Mediterranean sea, 11 died (mostly children), and many others went missing. At the time, it was called the “day of death” by those who witnessed it. Accounts vary, but since 2015 at least 16,000 people have died or went missing while crossing the Mediterranean. The film brushes up against ethical questions, though the images and approach are so un-aestheticized that the film subverts exploitation and becomes a portrait of resilience, as much as it is a portrait of struggle and tragedy. (JS)
In the west, our vision of the Philippines in recent years has been almost single-handedly defined by the barbaric “war on drugs” that its president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been waging. A populist blowhard who frequently out-Trumps Trump with his insane proclamations, Duterte has identified drugs as the moral rot of the country, with many drug offences punishable by death through legal or illegal means. Aswang (the title refers to a monster of Filipino folklore) focuses on the war on drugs at the street level, where young men are routinely gunned down by what most assume to be covert government operatives, and children are often left to their own devices when their parents are jailed.
Director Alyx Ayn Arumpac chooses not to focus their film on authorities on any level. Though we sometimes glimpse EMTs and police officers on crime scenes, the focus of every scene is on the families of people killed for drug offences and the various workers involved in the aftermath of the killings. Death permeates Aswang from every conceivable direction. As viewers, we become so used to seeing corpses sprawled across the sidewalk that we barely register them anymore, a sobering example of the kind of damage that Duterte’s extrajudicial practices can do.
Maddening without being a film expressly designed to rile you up, Aswang is a hard watch. Seeing children (most of them under 10) whose parents are in jail for drug offences insist that they can take care of themselves is intensely depressing; seeing them ask the filmmaker for money to buy a pair of shoes is doubly so. People whose families were torn apart by Duterte’s extrajudicial killings continue to vocalize their support for him, which gives Aswang a particularly bleak and nihilistic perspective that’s hard to shake. (AR)
Over 10 years ago, director David Teboul lost his partner and long-term collaborator Frédéric. In home-video footage and stirring poetic voice-over, Teboul recreates those final days together. These moments come and go in the film’s nearly three-hour running time, as most of the focus lies beyond the relationship. Teboul, lost and heartbroken, runs off to the furthest corners of the Earth. In a small village in Siberia, he interviews (mostly) elderly couples about their lives and their love. This essay-esque film contrasts Teboul’s loss with a greater sense of longing. The interplay between presence and absence becomes a dominant aesthetic and thematic line in the movie.
The complexity of Teboul’s film lies in his interest in the physicality of life. He longs for Frédéric’s physical presence as much as his spiritual one. The film’s central thesis might as well be, “What happens to love without a body?” His interviews with older people often turn to questions of bodies and mortality. One man hasn’t even seen his wife since the 1990s, and Teboul asks if he loves her. Of course, he says, “I’m a one-woman man.” The interviews with younger men take on renewed interest; their bodies are adored for their vitality and mourned for what they will become. There is a courageousness to Teboul’s approach that doesn’t feel invasive as much as it feels natural, if not generally unspoken. The entire documentary builds momentum to the final interview, an incredibly stirring and plainspoken confession of love and devotion. The way it works within a film mourning a life cut short hits especially hard. (JS) ■
For the complete program and to stream films, please visit the RIDM website.
For more film coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.