The Canadian Spectrum
Hot Docs’ exemplary Canuck picks
By Marc Glassman
Being a history and documentary aficionado, my appreciation of The Canadian Spectrum at Hot Docs runs deep. As many Canadians know—and if they don’t, I’m happy to tell them-this country has a grand tradition in documentary filmmaking going back to the first classic non-fiction feature in 1922, Nanook of the North. For those who cry foul—the director Robert Flaherty was an American even though the film certainly was made in Canada—we can still go back to 1939 and the creation of the National Film Board, proudly still in existence, which has produced over 13,000 productions and won over 5000 awards including 12 Oscars since its inception.
Ok, that’s history. What about now? Every year, Hot Docs’ Canadian programming team of Alex Rogalski, Aisha Jamal and Mariam Zaidi surveys the nation’s documentary output and comes up with a selection that always entertains, excites and is endorsed by audiences at the festival. This year is no exception, with a wide range of films including a psychological mystery set in Maritimes (Bernie Langille wants to know what happened to Bernie Langille), a yearning for home while effectively depicting a rural Ontario place (Shelter), an essay about the two pandemics, AIDS and COVID (Freedom from Everything), a bio-portrait of a great Hungarian-Canadian photographer (Gabor), a look at one of the most unusual islands in the world and the woman who lives there (Geographies of Solitude) and a deeply troubling depiction of life in a Syrian refugee camp as seen through the eyes of an indomitable survivor (Batata). There are more, which just shows the diversity of voices in Canada and the doc world.
Let’s zero in on three of them.
(Canada, Lebanon, Qatar; 127 min)
Dir. Noura Kevorkian
Kevorkian, a talented and underrated Armenian-Canadian filmmaker, who is a brilliant cinematographer and editor, spent a decade with Maria, a solid and resourceful middle-aged woman, who keeps her Syrian family together emotionally and physically while they work daily in the verdant fields of Lebanon. When Kevorkian began the project in 2009, it’s likely that the focus was on Maria’s father Abu Jamil, who had forged a remarkable friendship with the Armenian-Lebanese farmer Mousa (Movses Doudaklian) over many years of working together. The mutual respect and admiration between Mousa, an Armenian Christian, and Abu Jamil, a Syrian Muslim, is a wonder to behold. That’s especially so given the cantankerous relationship between the countries fostered by Syria’s domination in Lebanese politics during and after their devastating civil war between 1975 and 1990.
Kevorkian depicts what happens on Mousa’s farm wonderfully well, balancing the hard work of harvesting potatoes and lettuce with a robust life of family events—childrearing, cooking, spending time together.
Then, the world stage changes. Suddenly it’s 2011, the Arab Spring, which proved to be so disastrous for Syria. As we know, an idealistic attempt at democratizing the country soon plunged Syria into a devastating war between Assad followers, his supporters including Putin, their enemies and ISIS. Maria’s family were among the hundreds of thousands who left Syria, some immediately and others, over time. Pretty quickly, the work huts built for Mousa’s farming camps weren’t enough for the refugees who had to locate further from the Syrian/Lebanese border in what was called Camp Jabal.
The life that Kevorkian initially depicts in the film has shifted considerably at this point and then it moves into a new direction when an earth-shattering event occurs: Mousa dies. Suddenly, the charismatic Armenian-Lebanese-Christian is gone and so is the main story of his decades’ long friendship with Abu Jamil. Batata moves into more hard-hitting terrain as Maria emerges as the main character, keeping her family together, as the crisis in Syria reaches epic proportions.
Kevorkian’s eye for human interaction, and particularly between children, is remarkable. The sense of life in the camps is vivid—startlingly real and evocative. While everyone survives, the men have little work to do, and the children aren’t getting proper education.
Batata is an extraordinary film because Kevorkian stuck with it, even as the human drama changed, and the politics of the situation became more dire and complex. Part of the appreciation one has for the film is an admiration for Kevorkian’s doggedness in telling the story of Marian and her family. The rest is one’s appreciation of a film that records “normal” events—weddings, funerals, dinners—even during immense civil strife. Somehow, that makes one feel a bit more optimistic for the future.
(Canada, 75 minutes)
Dir: Tess Girard
For many of us, the cliché “there’s no place like home” feels especially cruel because we know that such sentiments aren’t real. The family is gone, the home is sold, the friends have moved, and your memory will have to suffice to evoke your youth. In this beautifully shot film, Tess Girard returns to Horning’s Mills, the small town in Ontario where she spent so much of her time while growing up. It is, as one would expect, a problematic journey, one with high expectations and very little chance to end up well.
Girard imbues the film with a low-key anxiety from its opening scene, where the crossroads of the town is shown. Through her judicious use of her own voice as a disembodied narrator, we feel and hear her presence without reducing the force of her presence as we encounter individuals and situations in the town. She’s simultaneously mysterious—a voice, not a body—and someone who is wise, guiding us through the intricacies of the town and its inhabitants.
Horning’s Mills has one contemporary claim to fame. Bruce Beach and his wife Jean, a hometown ‘girl’, have lived there for decades. Bruce Beach has acquired a good deal of fame in Canada and internationally through making Ark Two, one of the world’s most elaborate nuclear fallout shelters. Acting on the fear that so many had during the height of the Cold War, he made a huge space, big enough to fit a community, 14 feet underground made up of 42 school buses encased in concrete and various other structural amenities such as bunk beds, stoves, refrigerators and couches and chairs. Alternately endorsed and fought against by civic authorities, Beach’s Ark Two exists as an aging man’s dream and a relic of the past.
Girard spends time with the Beaches and some friends from high school days, Jocelyn and Jim. Jocelyn has spent a lot of time and money reconstructing her family home, which, in turn, had been a general store in the village’s past. Girard generously allows her old friend the opportunity to talk about her family and then to evoke the past by reminiscing about the old store and its meaning to the community. Her husband Jimmy is a seventh-generation settler to the area and is brilliantly placed in the graveyard talking about his own and the small town’s history.
In an important section, Girard acknowledges Ontario’s Indigenous roots and recognizes that her journey into the past only goes so far, that the true history of the area is far older and more complex than what we see in the film.
Ultimately, Shelter is about finding our roots in order to move forward in our lives. Is that always possible? Girard has made a film of depth and emotion without embracing the idea that home is the right place for everyone. I think she’s right: some people need it while others have the fortitude to move on.
Geographies of Solitude
(Canada, 103 minutes)
Dir: Jacquelyn Mills
Beautifully shot and constructed, Geographies of Solitude is a truly unique film. Inspired by Sable Island and its one constant human inhabitant Zoe Lucas, filmmaker Jacquelyn Mills has constructed a work of art—a claim rarely made about a feature film shown at a documentary festival.
How do you approach documenting something truly different? Mills has immersed herself into a project, to properly reveal an island and a person. Instead of examining the human first, let’s do what the scientist Zoe Lucas would likely prefer and consider the land.
Sable Island, which is about 300 kilometres off Nova Scotia’s coastline, is an ecological marvel. As seen in the film, it’s a land of rare beauty and mystery, marked by rolling hills, sand dunes and verdant plant life. What makes it even more interesting is its population, which consists mainly of birds, seals and horses.
Mills spends a good deal of time with each, understandably so. Horses are cinematic—tall athletic creatures that gambol and sprint through nature as their natural desires carry them. Mills’ camera captures them, nature’s aristocrats, in their splendour but she doesn’t neglect the grey seals, who can be easily consigned to the role of clowns. She allows you to gawk in amusement as they wriggle forward, bellies rolling, from the shore to a sandy bar, where they can hang about, making dorky sounds.
Nature may be the main attraction of Geographies of Solitude, but Mills doesn’t ignore its narrator, Zoe Lucas. Sable Island’s main resident for the past forty years, Lucas has deliberately forsaken a “normal” life to be the scientist and archivist of this extraordinary island.
An admirer of Lucas and in her own way, a researcher and technician, Mills has made an art film that uses natural techniques to degrade and transform the footage shot to make this unique documentary. Like her, she believes in the scientific method, understanding that what she creates is extraordinary because it is so precise.
We only see Zoe Lucas in archival footage and in bits and pieces shot by Mills. Both women aren’t interested in such issues as ecology and sustainability. Neither is concerned with celebrityhood, and Mills has made a profile of Zoe Lucas without including photographic shots of her. Lucas’ narration is there but Mills has avoided any attempt at making her a star even in the doc world. She is a displaced narrator, happily so.
Batata, Shelter and Geographies of Solitude are just three of the fine films selected for The Canadian Spectrum at Hot Docs. Check out the website https://hotdocs.ca/festivals/hot-docs-festival
Find out more about this terrific assembling of documentary films.