Tag Archives: documentaries

TIFF20: 76 Days

An unidentified and unidentifiable young man is crying, begging to see his father one last time. The mourner is indistinguishable from his comforters as they all wear the same fully encapsulated protective garments. His father is already being wheeled toward a temporary morgue, his corpse zipped up in a special HAZMAT body bag, his remains a possibly infectious hazard that will be cremated unceremoniously in the nearest facility. There will be no last embrace.

We are in a hospital in Wuhan, China, the capital of Hubei Province and home to 11 million people. This is where COVID-19, first known simply as the coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was first identified as a cluster of viral pneumonia in late December 2019. Wuhan entered lockdown on January 23 2020, with WHO declaring it a public health emergency of international concern a week later, and a pandemic by March. Wuhan’s lockdown was an unprecedented bit of grace that would allow the rest of the world to prepare; it would be followed by lockdowns in many other countries the world over.

Wuhan stayed in lockdown for 76 days, and many hospitals, including this one, were simply overwhelmed by 50 000 cases of a disease they didn’t yet know how to treat. The need quickly outstrips the capacity. Doctors and nurses in thrown-together, inadequate PPE are shouting at panicked crowds of sick people, trying to get them to come in only a few at a time, hardly equipped to handle both the people and their ailments. A special ward for COVID patients was quickly separated from the rest, where fear bubbled, and impatience, loneliness, sorrow – not just the patients, but the doctors and nurses who are also locked down, isolated from their families, risking their lives to treat an unknown, highly infectious disease with a higher than average rate of death.

Directors Weixi Chen and Hao Wu try their best to tease out a few narratives from the chaos, but the film is actually at its best when the scenes are random, the pace urgent, its subjects on edge. Loud speakers throughout the city announce lockdown rules to empty streets; “Don’t create or spread rumours,” they say, with no one there to hear them. A bin full of cell phones belonging to the dead sits on a nurse’s desk, some of them still ringing.

It’s incredible that the film makers were able to piece something together so quickly, something that may one day serve as a primary document of this historical event, and even though we are still very much fighting this war and don’t yet know how or if it will end, I was on the edge of my seat watching it unfold at ground zero, where it all began. It is raw, emotional, desperate. It is a human and humane portrait of these troubling times.

TIFF20: The Way I See It

As the chief White House photographer for all 8 years of Obama’s presidency, taking intimate candid portraits of the president at work (and very, very occasionally at rest), Pete Souza has developed (photography pun!) some very solid ideas for how a president should behave.

Having also taken pictures of Reagan back in the day, Souza felt himself to be largely apolitical. He didn’t always agree with the decisions his subjects were making, but his job was to document their days, not comment on what he saw. And he never did. Top secret clearance and all that jazz.

As you can imagine, over the course of 8 years, with unprecedented access to the First Family, Souza has a bank of memories from his time with Barrack Obama, and he’s also got thousands upon thousands of photos. The two formed a friendship as close colleagues often will. Souza respected him as a man and admired him as a president.

But it wasn’t until Obama left office and you-know-who moved in that he truly started to consider how a president should behave. What a president should be seen doing. How the president’s image was a reflection of the country as a whole, and what damage it did not just to citizen morale but on the world stage as well, when a president continually insulted the very office they were elected to represent.

Pete Souza is not a politician. He’s not a public speaker or a talking head. He makes pictures, and those pictures quietly became his method of protest. Every time Trump would tweet something inane, and you know he’s spent nearly 4 years outdoing himself in the verbal diarrhea department, Souza would reply with a photograph of Obama looking dignified, personable, intelligent, presidential. He didn’t need to be any more pointed than that. The comparison was disheartening. And so over time, he has found a voice through his pictures, and a platform through Instagram. His followers call him the King of Shade, and after someone explained to him what throwing shade meant, he embraced the title and took the work even more seriously.

Dawn Porter’s documentary is a fun watch because of all the touching behind the scenes moments Souza shares with us. Obama’s absence has left a vacuum where gravitas and grace once belonged. Souza is filling that hole just a little bit. But more than that, his photos are a constant reminder of how a president can and should act.

The Social Dilemma

Should you delete all of your social medias right now? That’s the only relevant question here and YES is the only answer. For many people, though, that’s easier said than done, and most won’t even try, despite this film’s very credible, very convincing reasons. Namely that social media is having a measurably dangerous impact on our culture. It’s spying on you, it’s invading your privacy, it’s selling your soul to the highest bidder, and it’s turning the whole world into a machine meant to change your behaviours – obviously so that you spend money on products being pitched to you, but ultimately you yourself are the product, and the ability to change your real world behaviour (without even triggering your awareness, mind!) is being sold to whomever will pay – dirty politicians and their Russian counterparts, say. And fake news proliferates on a site like Facebook, and spreads 6x faster than the true stuff. Because truth is relatively boring, and lies are exciting, and can lead you down a rabbit hole, sucking more and more of your attention. So while you might give a true headline 3 seconds of your time as you scroll on by, fake news can mean you follow one link to another to another, which means that compared to 3 seconds, fake news just got 3 hours of your attention, which convinces the AI that you like this type of thing better, maybe even believe it, so it will recommend even more of them to you.

Cutting the cable isn’t so easy, though, when the software’s been designed specifically to addict you so that their algorithm can mine and extract your attention.

This film is teaching us to think critically about the apps we use and the content they contain. Capitalism is the real pandemic of our age, and if you’re not paying cash for the apps you’re using, you’re paying in some currency you don’t know about, without your consent. Social media sites use powerful AI to suggest the exact right material to you at the exact right time, presented in the way that’s most likely to catch your eye, keep your attention, and ultimately convert you. They’re implanting thoughts that will affect how you vote, what you support, how you interact with people. This is really scary stuff and the strongest vaccine is information, and a good dose of it can be found right now on Netflix.

TIFF20: The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

In the first 5 minutes of the film, I’ve already heard at least 3 words that made me seethe: marketized, economization, financialized. Directors Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan are clearly frantic to establish themselves as a credible source, editing in ten dollar words and professor speak to blunt us into submission. Considering you sufficiently dazed, they move on to the second step of their totally necessary sequel: patting themselves on the back.

In their first doc, The Corporation, they compared corporations to psychopaths and they cannot wait a second longer to tell you about it or to line up people desperate for screen time to testify in their favour – “watershed moment,” they might say, “cultural touchstone,” and all the bullshitty words that don’t mean much. Did they hurt corporations’ feelings? Not bloody likely.

Today many if not most corporations appeal to our social consciousness by claiming to do (some) good. Dove is pretending that it loves your body just as it is while selling you products to change and improve it. Hotels claim they’re saving the environment by not washing your sheets but what they’re actually saving is time and money. Apple is encouraging people to vote but they have more money than the US treasury and only pays 2% tax on its profits so to them, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for because they already own Washington either way.

“Corporate responsibility” is a marketing ploy to trick you into thinking it cares, and that your consumerism is somehow for a higher good, but the “cult of shareholder value” is only getting more real, and nothing else besides lining their pockets ever matters.

The New Corporation wants to hold your hand, look deep into your eyes, and tell you the following newflash: corporations secretly want to make money. They like tax cuts. They hide money in tax havens. Was the first film this smug? I don’t even think Michael Moore himself sounds this self-righteous. It’s actually giving me a sour stomach.

Many of my favourite films this TIFF have been documentaries, but not this one. I can spot companies acting out of self-interest just as easily as I can spot a cash-grab sequel that offers very little in the way of new information.

TIFF20: MLK/FBI

In the 1960s, Hoover and the FBI surveilled Martin Luther King Jr hoping to expose secrets to humiliate him publicly and weaken his authority.

That intelligence has just now been declassified, and Sam Pollard’s is the first film to confront their surveillance and harassment of the man they labelled “the most dangerous negro in America.”

With interviews from Andrew Yong, Clarence Jones, James Comey, and more, the documentary is more factual than entertaining but it does invite you to wonder about the surveillance tapes themselves, due to be unsealed in 2027, and how they may affect a great man’s legacy.

Nothing altogether shocking is revealed in the documentary, but we do get a fuller picture of the complexity of the emotional toll on King knowing the FBI was threatening to discredit him. We also get a staggering sense of just how many resources were devoted to suppressing a single dissent who advocated for nothing but peaceful protest. Not only that, Pollard navigates the government’s continued targeting of not just King but other Black activists as well. Their failure to provide King with adequate protection seems, in context, to not only be egregiously neglectful but a strategic and convenient choice.

Rising Phoenix

Dr. Ludwig Guttmann worked in a hospital with British WW2 veterans with spinal chord injuries. He quickly realized that some of the best physical therapy for their healing, both physically and mentally, was sport. In 1948 he organized the International Wheelchair Games. By 1960, no longer open solely to war veterans, the games were dubbed the Paralympics, held in Rome, with 400 athletes competing from 23 countries. Though the games were held for wheelchair-bound athletes, the “para” in Paralympics is not a references to paralysis, though that’s a common misconception. It was compound word formed to indicate that these games would run parallel to the Olympic games, and every year since 1960 they have taken place in the same year. In 1976, athletes with different disabilities were included for the first time. Able bodies all look the same, but disabled bodies can be disabled in so many different ways. The Paralympics can be broken down into 10 eligible impairment types: impaired muscle power (such as paraplegia), impaired passive range of movement (impairment of a joint), limb deficiency (amputation), leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia (reduced ability for a muscle to stretch), ataxia (lack of coordination), athetosis (involuntary movement), vision impairment, and intellectual impairment (the Special Olympics are also for children and adults with intellectual impairments, but it’s for building community and enriching people’s lives through sport no matter their skill level; the Paralympics are for world-class athletes). For many years now, the Paralympics have taken place in the same host city as the Olympics, almost immediately following them, and using the same facilities.

This documentary covers two major wings of the Paralympic experience:

  1. We hear from members of the International Paralympic Committee – Xavier Gonzalez, Philip Craven, Andrew Parsons talk about issues that have threatened the games such as subpar conditions in Atlanta, poor attendance and coverage in Athens, Russia’s refusal to host them at all in 1980 because they “had no disabled people” in Russia, and most recently, Rio’s Olympic committee running out of money before the games and stealing from the Paralympic pot to cover the Olympic expenses.
  2. We hear from the athletes themselves: Jonnie Peacock, the 100m runner who beat Oscar Pistorius; Bebe Vio, a beautiful young woman with no limbs whatsoever who still managed to win gold in wheelchair fencing; Jean-Baptiste Alaize, who survived a genocide to compete in the long jump despite losing a limb to a machete; Ryley Batt, who must be at least a little crazy to ram himself around the brutal court of wheel chair rugby; and many more besides. Everyone has an incredible story, but the athletes seem to appreciate that when they are competing, the sport becomes the story rather than the origins of their disability. The games are not about disability, but about people who have super abilities despite any impairments their bodies may have.

I was fascinated to hear more about the incredible people who work so hard to make these games happen and to learn not just how much they mean to the people who train so hard to compete into them, but to the rest of us, who have our notions of disability challenged when we see people competing at the top of their game. At the top of anyone’s game, frankly speaking.

Prince Harry, or the Duke of Sussex rather, at least at the time of filming, chimes in as the founder of the Invictus Games, which ironically have gone back to Dr. Guttmann’s original concept, giving wounded and sick veterans the opportunity to rehabilitate with the power of sport. We will likely be seeing more of him and wife Meghan since they’ve decamped from the palace to become Hollywood producers, signing an exclusive multi-year deal with Netflix to produce whatever kind of inspirational content they deem fit, be it documentaries, docu-series, feature films, scripted shows or children’s programming – and quite possibly all.

While Harry adds a little something, he’s probably the least compelling subject, despite his title or notoriety. These athletes are more than enough reason to tune into Rising Phoenix, which is inspiring without even trying to be.

Hope Frozen: A Quest To Live Twice

Matrix wanted a younger sibling and was thrilled when little sister Einz was born. Einz means love, and she certainly was. But brain cancer ravaged her little body, spreading faster than her father, Dr. Sahatorn Naovaratpong, a Buddhist scientist, could research the disease that was robbing him of his beloved toddler. That’s why he and wife Nareerat chose what they did: cryo-preservation. Moments after she died, before even her third birthday, a team was there in her home to start the freezing process, and her preserved brain was sent to America for as long as it might take to find both a cure for her cancer and a way to regenerate her body.

Let me be clear: this is a documentary. This is a real family from Bangkok. You may already be familiar with their story, because at the time little Einz was the youngest person in the world to undergo cryogenics. Their story made international headlines and scandal wasn’t far behind – some angered that they’d taken the place of god, others worried for her soul, worried she’d be unable to find peace, and others still wondering what her life would be like should she wake up some vague time in the future when everyone she once knew, even if she remembered them at all, would be dead.

Sahatorn knows that the science will not catch up to him in his lifetime, so he’s bequeathed this rather large burden to his son, Matrix, in the hopes that he will continue down the scientific rabbit hole of bringing his baby sister back to life.

I’m not going to judge these people because obviously the pain of losing a child is unbearable yet must, sometimes, be borne. And I do understand, all too well, the yearning, the need, to have someone back.

Director Pailin Wedel does a great job of rounding up experts, from those that believe death is merely a problem to be solved, to those who see it as an ascension to the afterlife, but the heart of the film is with the family as they grieve a little girl who, to them, is not quite dead.

Howard

You probably can’t even imagine a world in which Howard Ashman had never existed, and yet you probably don’t even know his name. He’s been dead nearly 30 years but you’re still singing his songs. Along with frequent collaborator Alan Menken, he wrote some of your favourite songs from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin – and those are just his Disney creds.

The night they won the Oscar for their work on The Little Mermaid, Howard whispered in Menken’s ear that they should sit down and talk once they were back in New York. He revealed that he’d been diagnosed with HIV a couple of years earlier, when they were deep into production on The Little Mermaid. His health was failing. He’d be dead just a year later. But he spent that year putting whatever energy and time he had left into making Beauty and the Beast into one of if not the most memorable and beloved Disney fairytales of all time. The studio flew Disney animators out to his home in upstate New York to suit his schedule but his illness was largely kept secret – many in the crew assumed they were dealing the diva temperament of someone with an Oscar-shaped hunk of gold on the mantle. They put up with it because he was a genius, because the team of Ashman & Menken were basically unbeatable.

In this documentary, lots of his close friends and colleagues reminisce about how easily story-telling came to him, especially in song form. Lyrics spilled out of him, getting the story to where it needed to be. We also see him in archival footage, at the Beauty & The Beast recording session, for an example, where an orchestra played along to Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach laying down the track to that most famous of songs. Meanwhile, a separate team of animators already hard at work on Aladdin were picking his brain. He died before Belle ever set foot in a theatre, let alone Jasmine, but producer Don Hahn visited him in hospital after a particularly glowing test screening. Menken was down to 80lbs, was blind, and could hardly speak. This the man whose voice first sang the songs that princesses would later make famous. He died 4 days later. When Beauty & The Beast hit theatres later that year, it was dedicated to “our dear friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” Posthumously he would earn another four Academy Award nominations and rack up another win, but his legacy is much more than mere accolades. He was the voice of a generation, and his contributions are so timeless that they are rediscovered by each subsequent generation.

Howard’s friend, colleague, and Beauty & the Beast producer Don Hahn directs this documentary to say thanks to a man who is gone but clearly not forgotten.

Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers

In 1989, a man named Dennis, his identity shrouded in shadows, his voice distorted, gave an explosive interview claiming he worked on UFOs in a government lab called s-4.

We have since come to know his true identity, Bob Lazar, and to refer to that particular place in northern Las Vegas as Area 51. Bob claims his work there involved the reverse-engineering an alien propulsion system, technology that even 30 years later still cannot be replicated by humans.

Do you believe Bob Lazar? Lazar doesn’t care. He came forward because he felt his fellow Americans deserved to know what the government was hiding from them, but he never wanted to be in the spotlight and he certainly didn’t expect to be the face of UFOlogy for the next three decades. His testimony is both the most controversial and also the most important contribution to the UFO narrative of all time. But life hasn’t exactly rewarded him for his whistleblowing, if you consider what he did to be whistleblowing. He’s either an American hero or a traitor or a nutbar.

The UFO that he claims to have seen supposedly ran on an antimatter reactor fueled by element 115, which generated a gravity wave which allowed for movement but also camouflage by bending light around it. At the time element 115 had not yet been artificially created (it was in 2003 and officially named moscovium, but no stable isotopes of moscovium have ever been synthesized, all of them radioactive and decaying in fractions of a second). Lazar claimed to have seen documents referring to little green aliens as having contacted humans on Earth for the past ten thousand years.

Is Lazar a total kook or just a lousy secret keeper? That’s what this documentary seems intent on establishing: not whether UFOs exist and have visited this planet, but whether Lazar is a nice, honest man. Very little new information is offered and Lazar basically gets the stage to himself. This film by Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell is unlikely to sway people’s opinion one way or another, but Corbell’s stance is pretty clear since he glosses over Lazar’s 1990 arrest for aiding and abetting a prostitution ring. This was reduced to felony pandering (the procuring of a person to be used for prostitution, including inducing, encouraging, or forcing someone to engage in prostitution), to which he pleaded guilty. He was also charged in 2006 for shipping restricted chemicals across state lines, pleading guilty to three criminal counts of aiding and abetting the introduction into interstate commerce banned hazardous substances. Possibly these charges are a result of the government keeping tabs on his whereabouts, and possibly Lazar’s just not as nice as he likes to pretend. Either way, even Lazar himself admits he has no way of proving that what he says is true. So it all comes down to you.

Do you believe in aliens?

In UFOs?

That the American government is hiding aliens or UFOs or both in Area 51?

That Bob Lazar was only helping hookers move?

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado

Why watch a documentary about a man you’ve never heard of? Do you really need to learn “more” when you know nothing?

To be fair: millions of people DO know his name. He was the world’s #1 astrologer for decades, but because he broadcasted mostly in Spanish, he never made it into my home or into my cultural lexicon (and to be super fair, I can’t name a single English or French speaking one either; astrology just isn’t my thing).

Whether you know his name or not, you should probably check out this documentary. He is indeed a curious character. Lin-Manuel Miranda describes him as dramatic and fabulous, and in Mercado’s case, those are vast understatements.

Androgynous? Asexual? Those are not words people used in Puerto Rico in 1969, when he got his start, nor are they words Walter Mercado uses even today. Labels? He’s not above them – he’s beyond them. Today Mercado resembles a cross between Julie Andrews, Joan Rivers, and Sean’s recently deceased Granny. His wardrobe isn’t so much a cross between Liberace and Elvis as a one-upmanship of both, with a touch of Siegfried & Roy, and a cape collection that would make Lando Calrissian cry. He admits to “a little arrangement” when it comes to plastic surgery, and some botox “like Nicole Kidman.”

Mercado has an origin story to rival a super hero’s, a primo sidekick in faithful assistant Willy (who warns us not to get too bitchy with him), a legendary catch phrase, and a super power. Unfortunately, he’s also got a nemesis because every story worth telling has a villain. And if Walter has a kryptonite, it would be trust.

Trusting his business manager Bill Bakula was his downfall. They battled in court rather than in Gotham, but there were hits, there were injuries, there was damage. Neither had a mother named Martha.

At times known as a miracle-worker, a magician, a psychic, and a sorcerer, most remember him simply as a source of inspiration. Mercado knew there was power in positivity and his horoscopes gave people a reason to believe in themselves. His fandom has keenly felt his absence and many in the community would champion a reboot of the Mercado franchise but not all super heroes are meant to rise again (especially not when their jewel-encrusted capes weigh more than 30lbs).

This is a fascinating documentary, well told, and well worth the time. Mercado is quite a character, and if he is a Hispanic hero, this movie is his legacy.