Last night I cooked dinner for the first time in ten days. For more than a week I hadn’t been at home, other than to crash into bed. Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival festival had taken over my life. In this, its thirteenth year, there were some 90 films playing across a total of 78 screenings. And my short film was one of them.
Image thanks to DOXA Documentary Film Festival: "Three, happy My Little Ponies
accompany Ashleigh Ball (the voice of Applejack and Rainbow Dash),
filmmaker Brent Hodge (holding microphone) and Dustykatt
(the Manliest Brony in the World) onstage following the
closing night film, A Brony Tale, at the
2014 DOXA Documentary Festival."
I was delighted to get my first film into such a well-regarded festival. And equally thrilled to learn that getting my film into the festival meant that I was entitled to a pass to attend any screening. Now whilst I didn’t get to see all 90 films, I did make a pretty heavy dent in the programme, and here’s an inventory of my highlights.
DOXA began with the much lauded Virunga, named after the national park in Eastern Congo which is home to the last of the world’s mountain gorillas. This is an astonishing film, where layers of superhuman bravery, caring and concern collide with greed, corruption and violence. It plays like an investigative thriller, and twice I caught myself thinking I was watching a drama. Only I wasn’t. This isn’t a narrative feature. It’s a life and death documentary.
Virunga additionally acted as the opener to one of the festival’s themed strands, “Secrets & Lies”, which was to also feature the superb Big Charity. The Charity here is the eponymous hospital in New Orleans, which until 2005 was the oldest continuously operating hospital in the USA. However, despite surviving Hurricane Katrina and the storm’s watery aftermath, the enormous hospital was summarily declared unfit for operation and closed, to the shock and surprise of the incumbent staff who had worked tirelessly to return the hospital to a antiseptic and spotless state. The filmmaker, Alexander John Glustrom, goes on to explore the real reasons behind the institution’s closure, and finds that the hurricane’s timing could not have been more fortuitious for those in the shadows already planning the hospital’s demise.
More great films came together under another of the festival’s strands, “Rated Y for Youth,” designed to give high school students a chance to get their minds into gear. DamNation examines the impact of the historic building of dams on waterways throughout the USA, and argues, ultimately, for the reclaiming of rivers as dams themselves are environmentally destructive and now economically unviable. Invigorating stuff, it contained plenty of tales of adventure, and when those dams come tumbling down on screen…
Fly Colt Fly: Legend of the Barefoot Bandit appears perhaps a more stereotypically youth-engaging film, but really this is a film for all ages, despite the fact that its subject is a nineteen-year-old. On the run from legions of police, FBI agents, and even bounty hunters, the story of this young man’s years evading the law, barefoot, is thrillingly told through the use of animation and dramatic reconstruction, alongside the more conventional use of interviews and old news footage. A stunning soundrack which wouldn’t be out of place on a Marvel blockbuster gets the heart pumping.
One short also really stood out in the same “Rated Y for Youth” strand, Little Miss Piggy. Eleven-year-old Brechtje, raised on a pig farm in the Netherlands, is getting tired of the farm and of eating pork. She daydreams about moving to the big city.
My own short, Hives for Humanity: The Power of Bees, played later the same day, and I was thrilled to get a decent turn out in the theatre and a positive response from the audience. It played before The Sower, the subject of which was an avant-garde artist turned heritage seed dealer in southern Quebec. I could see why the films had been paired together – similar agrarian themes and strong, individual-thinking protagonists. After the screening some people said that they wish my film had been longer, which I’m going to take as a compliment.
Once my short had screened I was able to relax into the festival, and the whilst the following days were something of a blur, I am duty-bound to call out some more of my festival highlights:
· Charlie Victor Romeo – This is one of the simplest, yet most intense films I’ve ever seen. Adapted from a stage play, the 3D film recreates the cockpit activity of six different flights as each of them heads towards catastrophe. The dialogue is taken verbatim from transcript recordings of the real flights’ final moments. I’ll be the first to admit this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it fascinating and tragic. Absolutely clinical and raw.
· In Real Life – An exploration by acclaimed filmmaker Beeban Kidron into the virtual lives and online activities of youngsters approaching adulthood. Despite the fact that the film isn’t altogether sure of the story it is telling, nor of the point it is making, many of the sequences are potent and concerning.
· Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment – This is a classic of Canadian cinema and a film that every aspiring documentary filmmaker must see. Produced in 1999, the film examines the history of the documentary genre, and was shown at this year’s DOXA festival in tribute to its director, Peter Wintonick, who recently died.
· Crazywater – Filmmaker Dennis Allen takes his own alcoholism as a starting point for this film on the exploration of substance abuse by First Nations people. The film interweaves a number of heart-breaking personal histories across various generations from Native communities. Following the screening I attended, I was pleased to meet a number of the participants in the film who are now successfully confronting their addictions.
· Pipeline – A two hour long movie of epic proportions, this award-winning film takes its name and its scope from the pipeline that delivers gas from the northern wildernesses of Russia to the homes and businesses of Western Europe. All those along the path of the pipe feature, whether indigenous peoples, pipeline workers, itinerant preachers, politicians, reindeer herders or ordinary Joes.
The festival closed with the delicious A Brony Tale, an in-depth look at the community of male fans of the animated TV series, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Directed by Vancouver filmmaker Brent Hodge, this lovely film is full of light and love and friendship and frivolity. Any cynicism I may have had towards the subject was comprehensively erased in a rainbow of delight, when, following the film, a trio of fully costumed My Little Ponies took to the stage, flanking one of film’s most engaging subjects, the self-proclaimed “World’s Toughest Brony” who had ridden to Vancouver from San Jose on his motorbike.
DOXA is an amazing festival, and I am grateful to have been able to participate in it so fully this year. The programming, organisation and hospitality were all faultless, Vancouver’s famous rain held off for the most part, and there was a genuine buzz in the city due to the combined arrival of the festival and spring. I met so many wonderful documentary filmmakers from near and far, and made a number of friends with whom I can hopefully connect, collaborate and share. Maybe I can even make them dinner sometime, if I can still remember how to cook.
Mathew Iestyn Parry