We’ve searched far and wide to assemble this list, and in the process have drawn on the talents and experience of three international programmers and critics. Aside from picks from yours truly (EW), we have selections from Charlotte Selb (CS), Director of Programming for RIDM – Montreal’s International Documentary Film Festival, Jean-Pierre Rehm (JPR), Executive Director of the FID Marseille International Film Festival, and Matthew Hays (MH) film critic and writer for the Montreal Mirror, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, Cineaste Magazine and The Daily Beast. We’ll begin with Mr. Hays, who also teaches film studies and journalism at Concordia University:
There were some fantastic political films this year, and as usual I was struck by how fantastic a lot of the docs were. INSIDE JOB (Charles Ferguson, USA, 2010) and CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER (Alex Gibney, USA, 2010) both speak volumes about the current financial situation that some are suggesting signals the ultimate decline of the American empire. The Republican sleaze machine is in full swing here, and it would be almost funny if so many people weren’t hurting so badly as a result of this devastating economic downturn. A number of the characters in Client 9 resemble twisted figures out of an old film noir. (MH)
I’m now leaning towards calling BUDRUS (Julia Bacha, Palestine-USA, 2009) the best film of the year. It’s an astonishing story of a small Palestinian village, set to be economically devastated as Israeli military forces begin to chop down their olive trees (the Palestinians’ only way of making a living). The Palestinians opt for peaceful protest, and the women in the village insist upon a greater role in the protesting (there are shades of SALT OF THE EARTH). But the most powerful parts arrive when Israeli peace activists show up to link arms with the Palestinians in solidarity. A beautiful film that will restore your faith in humanity — and in hopes for a peaceful solution to the toxic Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (MH)
AISHEEN: STILL ALIVE IN GAZA (Nicolas Wadimoff, Switzerland-Qatar-France, 2010)
Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff films everyday life in Gaza – one month after the Cast Lead operation – without imposing any strong political stance on the images he witnesses; he lets them speak for themselves, with their poetry, surrealism, and a bitter sense of humour. He films hope and survival in the face of destruction. He shows images of Gaza we have never seen before: a ghostly attraction park, a zoo where animals are starving, clowns entertaining children to make them forget about bombing, a rap band embodying the incredible strength and will to survive their youth. This is a great political film (production still above), giving back the people of Gaza the humanity and dignity they’ve been denied. (CS)
WASTE LAND (Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and João Jardim, USA, 2010)
Lucy Walker’s best is a stunning documentary that follows Brazilian artist Vik Muniz as he mounts a large-scale art project aimed at supporting garbage-pickers (actually, recyclers) at the world’s largest dump – Rio’s Jardim Gramacho. Walker found a dynamic and moving story and turned it into a film that is beautiful to look at, flows seamlessly and intriguingly explores the complex and delicate intersection of creativity and social struggle. Muniz selects a half-dozen men and women who spend countless hours by day and night picking through the rancid, disgusting and yes juicy refuse from Rio’s suburbs. Once the team is assembled he photographs them in classical poses, blows the images up to swimming pool-sized dimensions in a nearby warehouse, then directs the crew in placing carefully selected refuse on the pattern the projection makes. Once completed, Muniz photographs (atop scaffolding) each garbage portrait then puts them up for auction at the world’s top art markets. The money is then redirected back into the community of intensely impoverished recyclers, who build a clinic, a centre and a library with the funds. Inspiring and poetic, it is a story that places art at the centre of the fight against oppression – in this case poverty – and reveals the very human moments that come alive when people are given the opportunity to do something creative, important and life-changing. (EW)
LES MAINS EN L’AIR / HANDS UP (Romain Goupil, France, 2010)
This inventive fiction film (production still at the top of this post) is surreptitious in its politics. The narrator tells the story from the year 2026 about one summer in their childhood when kids took a stand against regressive immigration policies in French. A nuanced critique of Sarkozy’s chauvinism, the film resonates by expanding the political imaginary. In an act of defiance and solidarity, a small group of children in Paris band together and go into hiding to protest police crackdowns on “illegals.” The film sneakily stays away from outright political language, save for one tepid debate between two adult characters, and instead focuses on the strange and wonderful world of kid-dom. By maintaining this focus on the little ones, Goupil hijacks childhood and suggests the fantastical: that children can be political agents of change. The actions of the small group of children has turned into an international movement of kids standing up for immigration rights – an absurd proposition on paper but one that comes beautifully and magically alive in this quiet gem. (EW)
12TH & DELAWARE (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, USA, 2010)
Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s latest film is an important one. It addresses the war that the pro-life movement is waging against abortion clinics in the United States. The subject is certainly not new; but the approach makes the film extremely disturbing. Rather than adopting a clear-cut speech on the issue, the two filmmakers chose to keep a neutral look on the work of pro-life militants, spending lots of time with them in one specific pro-life center and observing closely and patiently the kind of psychological manipulation they operate on pregnant women to convince them to keep their baby. The result is very strong because the spectator actually gets to understand the human dynamics at stake and the kind of suffering individuals go through because of the actions of the pro-life movement. (CS)
GASLAND (Josh Fox, USA, 2010)
Gasland gets under your skin. It’s a film that moves fast but retains its elegant poetics: It’s built on a foundation of shaky and out of focus camera work yet feels like one of the most polished documentaries to come out of America in years. Josh Fox has constructed an opus of a film – a political exposé of the seedy and duplicitous gas industry and its governmental alliance. Told as a personal narrative Fox zig zags across the US filming environmental devastation, burning tap water, sick people, and corporate and bureaucratic malfeasance and neglect. Words go by the screen to fast to read, but they are unpronounceable anyway – the taxonomy of toxicity that describes the deadly chemicals used in fracking, or gas fracturing. Companies have been quietly side-stepping environmental rules and helping rewrite legislation in order to extract gas from deep beneath the earth’s surface. The aftermath would make Rachel Carson turn over in her grave. Unfortunately for Fox he wound up living in one of the areas destined for fracking. Fortunate for us, he grabbed a camera and with creative genius and biting narration that reminded me of Woody Allen (if he became an environmentalist), constructed a masterpiece of political filmmaking. (EW)
ISRAEL VS. ISRAEL (Terje Carlsson, Sweden, 2010)
The last thing an American Jew expects to be called by another Jew is a “Nazi,” yet this is the reality progressive Jews fighting the illegal occupation inside Israel face from fanatic Israeli Jews. ISRAEL VS. ISRAEL is one of the most important documentaries I have seen in the growing arsenal of cinematic testimonies to the oppression of the Palestinian people. So many films have documented the devastation and despair of Palestinians yet few films highlight the lesser-known struggle of progressive Israeli and international Jews who risk their careers, reputations, and lives for the Palestinian cause.
Carlsson’s one hour exploration of these unsung heroes is a moving portrait of the fight from the inside – four men and women who stand up to both the Israeli state and to fanatic, violent and mentally unbalanced settlers. Disparate moments of bravery are woven together and make up a larger picture of solidarity and community – of a social, political and cultural movement that includes Israeli citizens, rabbis, former IDF soldiers, and Jews from the West. What they face is the overwhelming violence of the Israeli state as it continues its policy of occupation, oppression and expansion as well as fundamentalist militants whose children are encouraged to throw stones and sewage at elderly Palestinian women as they pass in the street. The images are shocking and terrifying. That such cruel manifestations of life on this planet exist is heartbreaking. Celebrating those that defy their own government, their own people, and who risk life and limb to fight with the Palestinians is one of the most important stories ever to be told from this ongoing conflict. (EW)
RUSSIAN LESSONS (Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov, Norway, 2009)
Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya’s film is an implacable demonstration of Russia’s nationalist project. The film starts as a journey by the two directors, one on each side of the frontline during the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Comparing their footage with media images of the conflict, they slowly come up with terrible conclusions on the campaign of ethnic cleansing and misinformation that Russia launched. Very well researched, the film also puts the recent war in the context of the post-Soviet era, which has managed to keep its darkest pages from the international public’s attention. Little by little, Russian Lessons builds a harsh argumentation that leaves the spectator absolutely overwhelmed by history’s cynicism. (CS)
REGRETTERS (Marcus Lindeen, Sweden, 2010)
A simple conception with a fascinating core: rent a studio, light it up nicely, set down two stools and invite two individuals with incredible stories to meet and share their experiences with each other. Such is the premise of REGRETTERS, a Swedish documentary (pictured above) that avoids bells and whistles in favour of bare-bones and elegant storytelling. Orlando Fagin and Mikael Johansson were both born male. Both decided in their youth to undergo sex-change operations and become female. Both have recently, now in their later years, decided to change back to male. Their reasons for the switching, the regretting, and the embracing of new identities each time are vastly different.
Their many stories, told as they are by two upbeat and philosophical survivors, fascinate and inform like few films ever have on the subject of sexual orientation, gender and identity. While one now insists on manhood, the other dresses ambiguously and embraces a third gender. “Why do I have to be a man or a woman for society? Why can’t I be who I am?” Indeed, this question is addressed in an informative and intriguing unfurling that only the intimacy of the conversation of these two individuals could provide. (EW)
Not a hit parade
We’ll end with Jean-Pierre Rhem as his three picks are prefaced with a caveat:
In answer to the proposal of mentioning three films, here is a possibility of choices. This is no way constitutes a hit parade or best-of of any kind. The times require more than simply falling in love with a movie at first sight or frivolous hierarchies on the part of rather indigent consumers. These times require intelligence against common places, diversity against well-thinking monotony; these times require invention and critical generosity. And when speaking of cinema, these times required films that dare to get lost in the places that they chose to explore (JPR).
THE DUBAI IN ME (Christian von Borries, Germany, 2010)
As indicated by its title, this film explores Dubai. But rather than boringly repeating analysis already read here and there, by Mike Davies for example, and the title indicates this too, this is an interiorized Dubai that we are speaking of. Dubai becomes the screen name of phantasms that are dictated by the capitalism of spirits. And to take this fact in seriously, that of our intimate infection, von Borries decides that no image is better than an other, that no image is safe from this modelization. Therein resides the great merit, the singularity and the pertinence of this surprisingly free film, the images no longer fit in a great ensemble lead by a commentary. They are joined together, they link up real estate clips, Second Life sights, without ever allowing one image to dominate the others. A game of massacre where it is up to the spectator to lead the fragile boat of his or her critical analysis (JPR).
MICHAEL BERGER – A HYSTERIA (Thomas Fürhapter, Austria, 2010)
To a certain extent a victim of his “Dubai in me,” Michael Berger is a young trader who recently becomes rich through various market scams before being arrested after a few years. A character too well known nowadays. But Thomas Fürhapter’s choice is to make of it the only possible portrait: in depth. It is therefore a sort of ghost that this film pursues, like Berger himself sold himself off to a fantom image, a mute cult object. Deserted landscapes, empty spaces, it is absence that inhabits this sinister dreamer, but that has the power to depopulate our own world (JPR).
MAY THEY REST IN REVOLT – FIGURES OF WAR (Sylvain George, France, 2010)
Immigration is without a doubt the big political issue of our recent era. Although these population movements are nothing new in History, it would seem that they have suddenly become unacceptable . As if migrants had become the image of all, intolerable reflection of a fearful dispossession, of a terrible exposition in front of laws and their borders. And yet, Sylvain George’s long film refuses to make heroes or victims of them. He wishes, to start off with, to give them an integral and full image, one that is beautifully complex. The revolt evoked by the title is first and foremost that: that of the one way looks, and is looked at (JPR).
Top marks go to a handful of films already discussed here on Art Threat: HOME OF THE BUFFALO, a short visual poem by Rémy Huberdeu that captures the tensions, beauty and intimacy of gender, history, identity and oppression; BOLD NATIVE, a feature fiction about radical animal rights activists in the US; YOU DON’T LIKE THE TRUTH: 4 DAYS INSIDE GUANTANAMO, an intensely moving look at the incarceration of Canadian Omar Khadr under the guise of “The War on Terror;” SWEET CRUDE, the best film on oil and a resistance movement to date (in this case looking at Shell in the Niger Delta); and DREAMLAND, a beautiful dreamscape of the resource-grab in Iceland comes as a call-to-arms that strikes a nerve, even thousands of miles away from that country.
A big thank-you to our guest programmers and critics and a special thank-you to Carmen Figuero Sotelo for translation work for this piece.