FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead
• The annual documentary festival DOXA is on this month. The Vancouver fest is hosting 72 screenings across five different venues from May 4 to 13. DOXA opens with the NFB Digital Studio’s interactive documentary Bear 71, which makes extensive use of surveillance footage of an electronically tagged grizzly in Banff National Park. The film also challenges conventions about documentary presentation itself. You can find it at nfb.ca.
Photos: Christened “Bear 71” at age three, a mother grizzly was under lifelong surveilance by motion detection cameras
While technology is a recurring theme of DOXA this year, Vinylmania: When Life Runs at 33 Revolutions Per Minute is an enjoyable delve into the retro world of record collecting in the digital age. A snappily edited and tuneful ode to platters, it joins vinyl obsessives from Prague, Tokyo, San Francisco and London. Of course, the analogue versus vinyl argument crops up, but this is not just about records ‘sounding better.’ Vinyl has a look, feel and a smell. Character. Vinylmania reveals some extreme cases of collecting, but musical montages and entertaining interviews help one appreciate why vinyl warms the parts that digital can’t reach.
Austrian cinema has a reputation for relentless, but resonant bleakness. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 88-minute documentary Abendland, filmed only at night, fits that bill. In a series of long takes, Geyrhalter’s unobtrusive camera builds a vision of a modern dystopia, from babies born into hospital incubators, to a crematorium worker operating a coffin conveyor and a crane. As countryman Erwin Wagenhofer did so well in his critique of the food industry We Feed the World, Abendland provides a stark, but salutary, warning about the de-humanizing aspects of our mechanized, always-on society. Watching airport toilet cleaners, CCTV operators, online sex workers or a night patrol officer at work, I found myself wanting more narrative infill than the disciplined, observational style allowed. But the patiently framed scenes and juxtapositions – such as rowdy bonhomie in a huge beer hall followed by a drunken reveller passed out on a hospital trolley – convey a deep sense of malaise about this brilliantly lit world.
After that, Tahrir-Liberation Square is like a step back in time. Since the Arab Spring started in January 2011, Tahrir Square has become a symbol of revolution, inspiring similar events across the world, including the Occupy movement. The spirit of the Egyptian spring is vividly captured in Tahrir-Liberation Square, a street level account of the days that led to the overthrow of Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak. Shot handheld, the film sets you down so deeply in the thick of revolutionary Tahrir Square, you can almost smell the sweat, tobacco and fire smoke. Chants provide an ongoing soundtrack to the uprising with many intimate shots of jubilant protestors bouncing up and down calling, “The Egyptians are here! The Egyptians are here!” and similar slogans.
The absence of a narrative lends a certain fluidity to the action and like any participant, you sometimes must piece together unfolding events through fragments of information. You also get a sense of the motivations and tensions among participants – liberals fearing Islamists’ motives, women seeking more rights. With tensions rising in Egypt again, this is a timely piece.
The festival closes with Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a portrait of the Chinese subversive artist. In particular, it follows Weiwei’s battle with government censorship when documenting the deaths of 5,000 schoolchildren, killed in the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake. With talk of a Chinese spring, this will be one to watch. (www.doxafestival.ca)
Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.