The best of Hot Docs

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Getting her life together: Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Compliments of Mongrel Media.

• Rather than viewing films from in front of the screen, I spent last month mostly behind the camera. I was shooting climate scientist Andrew Weaver’s successful bid to become Canada’s first Green elected to a provincial legislature for my documentary Running on Climate. However, while I haven’t been able to preview films coming out, I’m happy to report there’s some good stuff lined up for June.

Perhaps most in keeping with the summery mood is Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s dark romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing (opens June 21). The director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and recent blockbuster The Avengers shot the modernized version of the drama over 12 days at his Santa Monica mansion with a cast that will be familiar to Whedon fans from his previous projects. While the setting is a contemporary one and the accents are North American, Whedon keeps to the original Elizabethan text while adding many of his own flourishes, including shooting the whole thing in stylish black-and-white.

Black-and-white films appear to be hip now as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (out 21st) also shows. The NYC-set film borrows stylistically from the French “New Wave” as it follows Greta Gerwig as the gawky, but disarmingly charming, twenty-something struggling to move beyond her youth and get her life together.

A selection of seven Hot Docs documentaries is coming to Vancity Theatre in mid-June. “The Best of Hot Docs” (runs June 21-23) includes Blackfish, which looks at the killer whale entertainment industry and, in particular, a BC orca involved in a number of human deaths. I Am Breathing is a tender story of a dying father leaving a time capsule for his baby son. Terms and Conditions May Apply exposes what it calls “the greatest heist in history” and examines how big tech is exploiting online tools for mega-profits and deep surveillance. In Anita, Anita Hill revisits her landmark sexual harassment trial of 20 years ago. The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne profiles the notorious and unrepentant jewel thief. The Continental is a portrait of New York City’s gay hotspot of the seventies – the Continental Baths. And Finding the Funk is an exploration of funk music genre. (More details at www.viff.org)

Judging by the trailer and early reviews, Richard Rowley’s hard-hitting Dirty Wars looks like a thoroughly compelling investigation into the US government’s growing use of covert warfare. The documentary begins with war journalist Jeremy Scahill, who, frustrated with the embedded media reports, begins probing a night raid on a family celebrating the birth of a child in a remote corner of Afghanistan in 2010. US officials called the incident, which included two pregnant women among the fatalities, a “Taliban honour killing.” However, eyewitnesses claim to have seen US soldiers cutting bullets from the bodies. But why? As Scahill investigates further, he finds himself on the trail of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), a shadowy outfit made up of foot soldiers, designated to hunt down, capture or kill individuals considered to be enemies. And that list seems an ever-growing one that reaches from Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia.

Other films to look out for: Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third in a trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (out on the 7th) and Fill the Void, a drama about an orthodox, Jewish-arranged marriage set in Tel Aviv (out on 21st).

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (www.runningonclimate.com).

DOXA occupy world brain

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Occupy-The Movie
Occupy-The Movie: the emotional roller coaster of being an occupier

• This year’s DOXA Festival (doxafestival.ca), our version of Hot Docs, bristles with ideas and provocations over its 10 days in May. If the five films I’ve seen are representative of the whole program, expect some intelligent and well-crafted documentaries coming your way, along with lively Q&As and discussions with filmmakers and other audience members.

The festival opens with Corey Ogilvie’s Occupy: The Movie, a thorough and at times poetic look at the US “spring” in the fall of 2011. Ogilvie primarily focuses on Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, looking at how casino banking and bailouts created conditions for the popular upsurge. As well as a host of occupiers talking about the emotional roller-coaster of the Occupation as it swelled and then dispersed, there are some astute observations from the likes of Aaron Black, Chris Hedges and Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn on tactics (“reformers” vs. “revolutionaries”) and how such a popular, social movement can sustain itself.

Another DOXA highlight is Mike Freedman’s ambitious, future-looking Critical Mass, which extrapolates theories about human over-population and resource depletion based on renowned ethologist John Calhoun’s ‘60s and ‘70s mice colony experiments. In a documentary brimming with sustainability thinkers such as ecological footprint inventors professor Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel (and others from the Ecological Footprint Network), Freedman paints a dystopian trajectory for the human species as it explodes by the billions. I found it difficult to accept some of the conclusions, but with its nifty info-graphics, it makes for stimulating viewing. One to watch with a crowd.

Where did our urban rivers go? Many of them are beneath you, under the concrete, as Lost Rivers reveals as it follows “drainers” down the manhole to re-discover ancient rivers and tributaries around the world, from Brescia in Italy to London in the UK. Caroline Bâcle’s visually attractive film illustrates the revitalizing qualities of daylighting covered-over rivers and plots a culture shift in urban design toward working with, rather than fighting, nature – although apparently too late to prevent old-style industrial storm water solutions for Garrison Creek in Toronto.

The globe-trotting Google and the World Brain platforms the debate around the Big G’s practices, in particular its opaque dealings with libraries and authors over its giant global library, apparently part of a plan to create an all-encompassing artificial intelligence. High-tech evangelicalism crashes against digital-age angst as the doc explores issues around copyright (“archaic and unproductive” or a way of remembering the efforts of authors?), privacy, commercialization of knowledge and quality control (Google Book Search is likened to a “meat grinder”).

Political junkies will relish Our Nixon, a sympathetic and intimate behind-the-scenes look at the staff close to the former president, caught on scratchy newsreel footage and the warm glow of Super-8 home movies. Mashed together with famously redacted secret audio tapes from the White House and a swinging soundtrack, it’s a unique and fascinating – if somewhat elliptical – insider account of the ill-fated presidency.

Aside from DOXA, there’s Michael McGowan’s tender and gently humorous romance Still Mine, set in a bucolic-like New Brunswick. Great performances by James Cromwell as a cantankerous old man whose projects are beset by red tape and Geneviève Bujold as the love of his life bring a rare dignity and spiritedness to the ageing process.

DOXA runs May 3-12 in Vancouver.

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (www.runningonclimate.com).

Time to revolt

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Revolution Documentary
Revolution: direct action to save us, and the planet, from ourselves..

• Rob Stewart is the underwater filmmaker who, with Sharkwater, showed everyone it’s safe to go back in the water; what’s more, he opened our eyes to the barbaric practice of shark-finning. The film’s impact came from gorgeous, up-close footage of different species of sharks combined with hard-hitting sequences of finned sharks being tossed back into the ocean still alive and writhing. The film was an urgent message to take action. Revolution, Stewart’s latest documentary, is similar in its approach, but raises the stakes. This time, he’s out to “save the human.”

The doc is narrated as a personal journey with Stewart very much in the frame, as he learns about the critical state of many ecosystems around the world (including the tar sands) and gets involved with activists on the frontlines. He’s particularly interested in how the youth of today are campaigning for action on climate change, joining articulate youth delegates at UN climate talks in Cancun in 2010 and leading activists on 350.org campaigns.

Stewart’s prime focus is how climate change is taking its toll on the creatures that inhabit Earth’s largest carbon sink: the ocean. Ocean acidification, caused by humans pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is making it more difficult for marine creatures to form their protective shells. Coral reefs that once teemed with life are bleaching and dying off. Stewart’s mentor, professor J.E.N. “Charlie” Veron, “the godfather of coral,” tells us that such is the damage that no other human being will ever see the coral reefs as he has over his four-decade career. “The oceans have the potential to go belly up in the next 20 years,” one of Stewart’s diving buddies tells us, before diving into the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which has lost half its coral cover.

Stewart’s urgent call for a “revolution” – direct action, civil disobedience and applying pressure on politicians to act – will be a resonant one for many viewers. Time is running out. As University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver says, scientists have done their job; now it’s up to the politicians to do theirs.

The annual Reel 2 Real film festival returns this month (12-19), with around 80 films from 21 countries aimed at youth: from international dramas to films tackling issues like bullying. The festival opens with animation Moon Man, followed by a party and a 3D shadow puppet installation. The fest includes filmmaker Q&As, workshops, get-togethers and audience voting. Find out more at www.r2rfestival.org

Emperor (29th) is a creaky retelling of how the Americans “won” the peace in Japan after going nuclear, through understanding the psychology of the Japanese people and their emperor worship. The plodding storyline is hampered by constant melodramatic romantic flashbacks involving Matthew Fox as lead negotiator General Bonner Fellers. While intermittent scenes sparkle, usually involving Tommy Lee Jones playing to type as the gruff, no-nonsense General Douglas MacArthur, they quickly fizzle out.

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (www.runningonclimate.com).

The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

The Gatekeepers
From The Gatekeepers. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

• “When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist,” says one of the interviewees in Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, a statement that helps explain why six retired heads of Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) agreed to share candid insights into their shadowy and frequently lethal profession. While I’ve only seen clips from the Oscar-nominated documentary at time of writing, it’s easy to see why it’s been hailed for its revelatory and gripping take on Israel’s rocky history in the 45 years since the Six-Day War in 1967.

Much like Errol Morris’s excellent portrait of US Cold War warrior Robert S. McNamara did in The Fog of War, The Gatekeepers examines how behind-the-scenes hard men rationalize the violence of their profession and the moral and legal grey areas surrounding their work. The film, in Hebrew with English subtitles, offers detailed insights into the world of past Israeli covert ops, with its vast network of Palestinian informers and where a target can be neatly “neutralized” with a booby-trapped cell phone with no “collateral damage.” As well as archive footage, it uses reenactments and computer generated animation for added immediacy.

While revealing a certain amount of professional pride in their achievements, the interviewees share a deep-rooted distrust of their political masters, as well as regret over the failures of the secret service; in particular, not foreseeing the mass uprising of ultra-right Jews in the Occupied Territories known as the Intifada and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a Jewish terrorist.

Why are these secretive individuals choosing to step into the limelight now? Probably because it provides an opportunity to set records straight and perhaps even to assuage one’s conscience. But it also seems to sound the alarm about the direction Israel is taking. “A brutal occupation force that is similar to the Germans in World War Two” is how the grandpop-looking Avraham Shalom (1980-1986) describes the current regime. Like all the former Shin Bet heads interviewed, he advocates negotiating with the terrorists over Israel’s big issues such as the two- state solution and the settlements. The suggestion is that, without a more progressive approach, in the words of war hero Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), “We win every battle, but we lose the war.”

The 8th annual Women in Film Festival (www.womeninfilm.ca) runs at Vancity Theatre March 7-10. A great networking event and a chance to meet local and international women filmmakers, the festival includes award ceremonies, industry panels, a party on International Women’s Day (8th), post screening discussions and a free shorts screening. A real mix of films will be screened and what they all have in common is that all the films were chosen based on women filling at least three of the key creative roles: writer, producer, director, cinematographer, editor, composer or lead performer. Among the films are the US redemption drama Rumblestrips about a mum and two girls on a road trip from the Pacific Northwest to the Rio Grande and the Belgian drama Little Black Spiders, focussing on the relationships between a group of pregnant girls waiting to have their babies in a secret refuge run by nuns.

Robert Alstead is making the documentary Running on Climate (www.runningonclimate.com).

West of Memphis

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

West of Memphis
From West of Memphis. Photo of Damien Echols by Lisa Waddell © The Commercial Appeal Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

• When the hog-tied, naked bodies of three eight-year-old boy scouts were discovered at the bottom of a ditch in 1993 it didn’t take long for local authorities in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, to find their men. Three working class teenage boys – one whose diary revealed a lurid interest in Satanism – became the chief suspects in the crime. A full confession was extracted from one of the boys. Witnesses and a medical officer corroborated evidence that the victims were killed as part of a bloodthirsty, satanic ritual and the prosecutor had little problem convincing the jury of the boys’ guilt. Two of the boys, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, got life sentences while Damien Echols was sentenced to death.

I had but vague recollections, snatched from headlines, of the case of the “West Memphis Three,” but after watching Amy Berg’s simultaneously gripping and appalling documentary West of Memphis, I’m sure it will be etched in my mind for years to come. A humongous miscarriage of justice, it became something of a cause célèbre after rock stars Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Henry Rollins, along with actor Johnny Depp, got behind the campaign for the boys’ release. And Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson anonymously began funding the defence investigation in 2006 with partner Fran Walsh. He also helped produce this riveting film with Echols and wife Lorri Davis, who campaigned on the outside for years for her husband’s release. (Out February 8.)

Berg’s account follows a chronological sequence of events, opening with the official version of the crime and gradually picks away at flaws in the prosecution’s case. It is long at 146 minutes and procedural, but the methodical approach is the film’s strength. Berg had excellent access to the key characters in the case and her compilation of news, police and court archive material, and interviews with key witnesses, make the story feel immediate and powerful.

As the defence team exposes incompetence, coercion, political opportunism and fabrication of evidence, what began as a campaign to exonerate the WM3, becomes a searing indictment of the judicial system. What’s more, the documentary goes on to “solve” the case with key DNA evidence and very plausible witness information. While it’s reassuring that the defence team ultimately wins a victory of sorts, with the release of the wrongfully imprisoned trio after 18 years, there are several stings in the tail. Not least, the case had tragic repercussions for relatives of the victims. And the real killer is still at large.

This month sees the return of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (February 8-17). As well as adrenalin-charged thrills of extreme sports films with names like Ready To Fly, River of No Return or Tempting Fear, there’s an array of mountain-inspired shorts and films that delve into outdoors issues. In the opening film All.I.Can, the challenges of big mountain skiing are compared to the challenges of global climate change (7.30PM, 11th, Rio). You can also catch global warming doc Chasing Ice, with its stunning time-lapse footage of polar and glacier ice in rapid retreat (Rio, 16th, 3PM). The festival takes place at several venues including Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver and Pacific Cinematheque. More details at www.vimff.org

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Climate change on-screen

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Greenland Ice
From Chasing Ice: Greenland Ice Sheet, July 2009. Photo by James Balog, © 2009.

• Recently, I’ve been filming University of Victoria climate scientist Dr. Andrew Weaver, who is campaigning as the BC Green Party candidate for the Oak Bay Gordon Head riding in Victoria in the May provincial elections. As I research the project, I’ve been looking back at how climate change has been covered on-screen in the past.

Moving chronologically, first is Soylent Green (1973). It would be another 15 years before NASA climate scientist James Hansen would give his seminal testimony to Congress, but there was that icon of greenie leftism, Charlton Heston, sweating on a bike-powered generator to keep the apartment lights on as he cursed the “Greenhouse Effect.” As detective Heston tracks down the source of a miracle “green” food, we see a futuristic urban dystopia teeming with street people and littered with seventies gas-guzzlers. It’s a wonderfully dated sci-fi.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is the climate change movie the deniers love to hate. Yet for all the (mostly unfounded) criticisms of selective use of data, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary remains a historical landmark, a film whose message we should all be conversant with. With glaciers and ice caps receding at an accelerating rate, the film’s prediction for an ice free Arctic by 2050 looks positively conservative. Extreme weather events are more common. The documentary gave us 10 years before we reached the tipping point. It’s looking a mite close for comfort.

Picking up from An Inconvenient Truth, Everything’s Cool (2007) looks at how climate deniers, with fossil fuel lobby funding, have suppressed scientific evidence and created confusion among the public. It uses humour and poppy editing style to illustrate the difficulties faced by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and climatologist for the Weather Channel, among others, in getting the message out. Considering the recent US presidential election campaign passed with a deafening silence surrounding climate change, the issues vexing campaigners almost a decade ago (the storyline turns on Hurricane Katrina in 2005) are still sadly relevant.

Released before the climate summit in Copenhagen, Home (2009) is a beautifully shot and quietly moving poem on humanity’s impact on the planet. Glenn Close’s narrative takes a little time to work its spell, particularly given its sombre, elegiac tone, but with its swooping helicopter footage, it provides a much more evocative explanation of our place in the carbon cycle than any PowerPoint presentation could. The film is free on YouTube. Go to the 59:14 for the section linking the tarsands with climate and melting of the polar ice caps.

No round-up of climate change films would be complete without mention of James Hansen’s recent Ted talk from earlier this year “Why I Must Speak out About Climate Change.” In the 20-minute talk (free online), the former NASA scientist explains why he is being carted off by the police at climate protests when he should be enjoying his sunset years in quiet retirement, and how we can avoid a 5-metre sea level rise this century.

Also look out for screenings this year of Chasing Ice (2012), portraying photographer James Balog’s heroic endeavours to capture the rapid retreat of glaciers and polar ice caps on film; Revolution (2012), Sharkwater director Rob Stewart’s rallying call to tackle climate change and the catastrophic consequences of ocean acidification caused by increased CO2; and The Message (2013) Naomi Klein’s post-Sandy documentary, which will apparently feature the “Do The Math” campaign headed by 350.org’s Bill McGibben.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Silver Linings Playbook

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

A Scene from Silver Lining Playbook
Staying positive in Silver Linings Playbook

• There’s a point early on in off-beat romcom Silver Linings Playbook where the protagonist, Pat, who has been feverishly reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms through the night, picks up the book in a fit of rage and hurls it straight through the top floor window of his parents’ house. It lands with a slap and the tinkling of broken glass on the darkened sidewalk below. He really didn’t like that story’s ending.

As the title of the film suggests, unhappy endings, as exemplified by Hemingway’s classic World War Two love story, get short shrift here. For Pat (Bradley Cooper), who we first meet in a mental health institution, finding the silver lining in everyday situations has become his way of managing his explosive mental condition. He tells himself to stay positive and maintain his equilibrium, believing that eventually he’ll become the kind of man that his estranged wife Nikki will take back – even if she has put a restraining order on him.

The course of true love never runs smooth and as Pat returns to his parents’ house his ethos is challenged not the least by people’s ongoing wariness about whether or not he has recovered since “the incident.” We spend the early part of the film trying to gauge Pat’s psychological state and figure out his obsessions. You know it’s ok to laugh because there’s comedian Chris Tucker playing his fellow inmate, obsessing about his hairstyle and breaking out of the asylum (a habit of his, it turns out). But writer-director David O. Russell deliberately maintains a darkness surrounding his protagonist’s illness, which adds to the edginess of the comedy.

Bradley Cooper shows his acting dexterity, ably bridging the gap between Pat the manic stalker and Pat the romantic idealist. It also helps there is such a strong ensemble cast, in particular his main sparring partner Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, a quick-witted, sharp-tongued, but psychologically troubled, widow who strikes a deal with Pat to get his wife back. The pair’s natural tendency to short-circuit social decorum with frank speech leads to some hilarious non-sequiturs and situations, like an ice-breaker exchange at a dinner party about the effect of all the drugs prescribed to them.

As more light is shed on the backstory and the film loosens up, O. Russell milks the mental health comedy and nicely flips the tables on characters, revealing foibles and issues among other members of the cast, including Pat’s dad (Robert De Niro in good form), an obsessive-compulsive with various gambling charms and Pat’s friend Ronnie, who can’t hold an adult conversation with his wife.

However, comedy and a desire for a grand climax get the upper hand. By the last stretch of the film it loses its ability to surprise with any kind of authenticity or say anything of note. In what feels like a total cop-out, the plot heads off to a formulaic and overly neat resolution where characters, incidents and universe align in true Hollywood fashion. You can see why Silver Linings Playbook won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is by and large an enjoyable play on the screwball comedy. However, it has the kind of ending that makes me want to throw it out of the nearest window.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

Post VIFF, more festivals

A scene from the movie Midnight Children

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

 

• There’s a school of thought that says authors should never be allowed to adapt their own books for the big screen. They are just too close to the source material to make the necessary cuts and re-mixing to make a book come alive on the big screen. In Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children (opening November 2), Salman Rushdie’s adaptation of his own book may be loyal, but, as a film, it is overly long at 148 minutes and covers so much ground that character development and one’s interest flags.

The ambitious project features five key time periods (1917 to 1977), with 127 speaking parts in 64 locations. The main story is of two boys – one rich, one poor – who are switched in a Bombay hospital on August 15, 1947, as India declares independence from Great Britain. Their lives are intertwined with the tumultuous history of India, much of it told through scenes of magical realism that can be both effective and slightly irritating as a tool for historical exposition. Director Deepa Mehta’s lush visual style indulges the romanticism and glosses the violence, but, in its favour, the film tugs effectively at the heartstrings at times.

The documentary How to Survive A Plague, focusing on the LGBT response to AIDS in the eighties and nineties, has been getting positive reviews. Using archival home video and broadcast footage, it provides a gritty and emotional account of how a group of activists managed to successfully pressure government and big pharma to come up with a treatment for the “gay plague,” bringing hope to those with HIV (due out November 9).

For those experiencing festival withdrawal now that VIFF is behind us, there is a run of small film festivals this month in Vancouver: the annual Amnesty International Film Festival (www.amnesty.ca/vff) brings together nine films at the Pacific Cinematheque, including popular documentaries Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry and overfishing doc On the Line (the latter two previously reviewed in this space). The festival runs November 2-4.

The 16th annual Vancouver Asian International Film Festival (www.vaff.org), the “oldest Asian film festival in Canada,” is also on at Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas (November 1-4). Among this year’s films by North American Asian filmmakers is Dave Boyle’s quirky, romantic drama Daylight Savings, opening the festival, and Quentin Lee’s White Frog, a coming-of-age drama about a teen with Asperger’s trying to live up to his parents’ high expectations.

Following that, we have the 24th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival (7-15), opening with Mediterranean drama A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, in which a long-distance relationship between a couple in Gaza and Jerusalem offers a glint of hope amidst the long-running conflict and closing with a musical biopic about a paraplegic bluesman A.K.A. Doc Pomus. Films range from Nazi-hunting docudrama Eichmann’s Fate (Eichmann’s Ende) to the James Bond spoof OSS 117: Lost in Rio (OSS 117: Rio Ne Répond Plus) by director Michel Hazanavicius and actor Jean Dujardin; both won Oscars for The Artist. (www.vjff.org)

The Artist is coincidentally the French entry in the annual European Film Festival (November 25-December 8) at the Cinémathèque, featuring lesser-known recent films from 24 of the 27 member states of the EU.

Further afield, the Whistler Film Festival runs from November 28 to December 2. One highlight is the Borsos Competition for Best Canadian Feature Film, which sees eight homegrown films competing for $15,000, the second largest cash prize in Canada.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com

VIFF: Discoveries in Nature-ville

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Carbon for Water
From Carbon for Water: Thanks to carbon credits, 900,000 homes in the western province of Kenya had free water filters installed.

• New York is not a place that springs to mind when you think about bird watching. All that concrete and human bustle. But smack in the middle of Manhattan you’ll find one of the most famous urban parks in the world and as Birders: the Central Park Effectreveals, it’s a magnet for hundreds of different species of native and migrating birds.

The documentary, showing at VIFF on October 8 and 10, pools the wisdom and musings of some of New York’s keenest ornithologists, from a precocious high school student who rarely leaves home without her binocs, to the frail matriarch who leads bird watching tours through the park. Over a period of a year, we follow the changing complexion of the park and the birdlife therein.

Ironically, the greying of the city means that existing greenspaces are even more densely populated with these feathered visitors. On a spring day, up to a hundred species can apparently be spotted in Central Park. The doc also raises the interesting question of how natural a totally man-made park, where a stream is turned off with a twist of a tap, can be. As one birder puts it, if a herd of buffalo were migrating through New York, he’d go and see that. But they aren’t. This is the last thing keeping people in touch with wilderness.

You’ve probably heard of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the Pacific gyre. You may also have read recent reports that the North Atlantic gyre is comparable in the scale of plastics pollution. Into the Gyre (October 9, 11) follows a crew of scientists as they heave-ho aboard a tall ship from Bermuda to gather the data that brought about this recent revelation. Watching these meticulous, driven scientists at work brings home the seriousness of a problem that we are only beginning to fathom. Piscivores might want to look away when they open up a fish to reveal a gut-full of plastic bits.

The 44-minute doc is paired with 22-minute Carbon for Water, an encouraging eco-doc that illustrates how putting a price on carbon can reap far-reaching humanitarian and environmental benefits. Thanks to carbon credits, 900,000 homes in the western province of Kenya had free water filters installed over a period of 25 days, reducing the need for women to gather firewood to boil their water. A win-win all round, it would seem.

Annie Eastman’s documentary Bay of All Saints (October 8, 9) does a great job of capturing the struggle over a period of several years of Brazil’s poorest, as they face relocation from their stilted ocean slums or “palafitas” in Bahia. In spite of the shocking piles of floating garbage, rats and rickety dwellings, this sympathetic portrait of three single palafita mothers reveals a spirited and proud community. The choice of the easy-going, refrigerator repairman Norato, a life-long resident of the palafitas, to tell the main story, was inspired.

Also at VIFF, Sharkwater director Rob Stewart returns with a call to save not just the sharks, but the world and humanity itself as he travels across 15 countries in Revolution (October 6,7,10) showing the dire condition of the planet’s ecosystems.

VIFF runs to October 12 (www.viff.org). Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

VIFF docs expose the dark side of corporate America

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

Bitter Seeds documentary
From Bitter Seeds, Teddy Bear Films, www.teddybearfilms.com

In Bitter Seeds, Micha X. Peled reveals an appalling statistic: a farmer in India commits suicide every half-hour. The documentary, showing at the Vancouver International Film Festival (September 27-October 12), puts a human face on this ongoing tragedy with its intimate portrait of a poor farming community in India’s interior. Most of India’s cotton farmers now use seeds manufactured with Monsanto’s proprietary Bollgard technology. “BT means big buds,” say the sales people, waving their pamphlets. But, for farmers, it also means the risk of a large financial outlay, punitive interest rates on loans, low yields and dependence on Monsanto seeds, which are genetically modified to terminate at the end of each year.

The film follows a young female student journalist from the village, whose father killed himself, as she seeks answers to this epidemic of suicides. We also meet a father of three, with desperation in his eyes, who mortgages his three acres to take the GMO cotton gambit. Crisp visuals evoke the day-to-day rigours of impoverished, but peaceful, village life, as well as the underlying strain today’s global agro-economy is placing on small farmers.

With similar themes, Swiss documentary Bottled Life focuses on Nestlé’s water business. A multi-national corporation profiting from commodification of a free resource levers the law to push aside local resistance to its projects while currying favour with lawmakers through a PR blitz. The globetrotting doc offers fascinating insights into Nestlé’s modus operandi, from its unquenchable thirst for water rights to the launch of “fashionable,” bottled water brands into markets in Pakistan, Nigeria and North America. Director Urs Schnell, who can be heard occasionally, should have narrated himself instead of using an English-speaking actor for voice-over and he talks too much about he was stonewalled requesting an interview. Stylistic quibbles aside, this has some strong material and it is a good news story about how one community successfully stood up to Nestlé when its aquifer was threatened.

Corporate America is again under fire in We’re Not Broke, one of a clutch of films at VIFF capturing recent citizen unrest in the US. Corporate America, from Apple to Pfizer, is a big tax dodger, siphoning profits offshore and often paying zero or negative US tax. Snappy editing of media images, activist actions and expert commentary shows how the richest multinationals have moved the goal posts. Highly watchable, with memorable lines like “If you take Bermuda out of the equation, $100 gets knocked off Google’s share price.”

In Krisis, 14 photojournalists offer visually rich perspectives from different ends of the political spectrum on the current socio-economic breakdown in Greece. While illuminating, with so many voices, the story lacks an anchor and it’s difficult to appreciate where the talked of “renaissance” will come from. Maybe that’s where Velcrow Ripper’s Occupy Love (previewed in March) comes in?

The Invisible War is a searing indictment of the US military’s stance on the systemic problem of rape, which has been ignored and suppressed by the top brass. Worse than that, serial rapists have been allowed to strike repeatedly within the closed system of the military, while victims who have stepped up have felt the full force of institutionalized indifference and prejudice bear down on them. An incredible exposé.

Very different is Survival Prayer, a meditative piece with extreme close-ups and lingering shots that records the characters, native rituals and myths on Haida Gwaii. Foodies will appreciate the focus on foraging and watching salmon being caught, gutted, hung, dried and smoked the traditional Haida way.

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.