Dawson city: Frozen time

Dawson city, Yukon. 1978. A construction excavation uncovers more than 500 lost silent films. That’s where archivists Michael Gates and Kathy Jones-Gates were brought in to start the restoration process and uncover the truth about the films. Dawson city: Frozen time manages to be about the films but also about the city itself. The history of Dawson city is told through old films and photographs. With a population of 500 people, mostly from First nations, Dawson city grew to 30,000 people by summer 1898 because of the Gold rush. We see incredible footage of the harsh conditions the men have to endure to find some gold. At some point movie houses were built to show the film sent from the US. The films were made with the highly flammable nitrate. The reels could burst into flame at any moment, which would account for the multiple fires that happened wherever the nitrate films were stored. It is a small miracle that those films were found in Dawson city. Martin Scorsese’s Film foundation claims that “half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever.” The uncovered films shown in this film have suffered terrible damage. But Dawson city: Frozen time is a moving tribute to our past, and a powerful reminder of the importance of history, big or small, and how we must do anything to protect it.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Dawson city: Frozen time

 

Directed by:
Bill Morrison

120 min.

Mermaids

Ali Weinstein’s documentary explores the unusual, almost cult appeals of mermaids for the women featured in the film. Mermaids are a myth that has been with us for at least three-thousand years, and its popularity has been renewed with the Disney animation film The little mermaid. Whatever it is that the women in the film have found in the mermaids community is helping them grow as human beings. For some, they feel accepted no matter who they are. That’s the case with Julz, a trans-woman living with her girlfriend and a young daughter. She tells us some of her hardships, when as a boy she realise there was something different about her. We meet elderly retired mermaids from Florida’s Weeki Wachee resort. They have remained friends since the 1950s, where they worked at the resort (film archives is proof). They go back again and swim together. They are mer-sisters. Still today, there are bars where professional mermaids swim for the patrons. We get to know a daughter who has brought her mother to become a mermaid. She’s a mer-mom. Then there is Cookie and her supporting husband. Cookie is able to manage her mental illness much better since she started putting on the fins. During the course of the film, Cookie marries her long time companion. The mer-wedding (?) takes place in a pool, with many of the participants, women as well as men, dressed as mermaids. But not the groom. It’s a surreal image, but there are many of them in Mermaids. As one with many passions, I can understand and appreciate passionate people. Whatever gets you through the day is fine by me.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Mermaids

 

Directed by:
Ali Weinstein

Screenplay by:
Ali Weinstein

76 min.

Parental Guidance

The gardener (Le jardinier)

The last thing you want to see is another documentary about trees or flowers, or gardening, with people going gaga and hugging trees. Well, I did not want to see it. It’s not my thing. And then you see the images that Sébastien Chabot shot at Les jardins des Quatres-Vents in La Malbaie, Quebec. Jaw droppingly beautiful. The 20-acre garden is the work of Frank Cabot. Inherited in 1965, the property was given to Cabot’s grandmother as a wedding gift. And what a gift! Frank Cabot is an American whose ancestors arrived in Salem in 1700. Chabot interviewed Cabot before his death in 2011. British floral expert Penelope Hobhouse, writer Tim Richardson and former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson are among those who are also being interviewed. But the star is the marvellous Jardins des Quatres-Vents. One part of the garden has a Chinese bridge. In the Japanese section, Cabot built two Japanese houses. Some oddities include a sculpture of a frog orchestra and two rope bridges suspended over a ravine. In the attic of a beautiful tower-like pavilion there is a small love alcove with a small bed and a window overlooking the garden. Somewhere else a stone is coming out the grass, water is streaming out of the stone. Throughout there are arches and windows opening the views to the surrounding fields outside the estate where you can see cows or other animals. And, of course, flowers, lots of flowers. An orgy of color. The garden remained private until a visit was arranged as a fundraiser. It was so popular that it was decided to do more. It is now opened for guided visits only four days in the summertime. The visits are already booked for this summer. But after you see this film, I think you’ll want to visit Les jardins des Quatres-Vents. In December you will be able buy tickets for the 2018 visits. Here is the site http://cepas.qc.ca/jardins-de-quatre-vents

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The gardener (Le jardinier)

 

Directed by:
Sébastien Chabot

Screenplay by:
Sébastien Chabot

88 min.

Rated General.

In English and French with English subtitles

Obit.

The art of writing obituaries comes to the forefront in Obit., a new documentary about death that celebrates lives. The writers/journalists from The New York times obituary department are dedicated to accomplish what looks like a very hard task. Most impressive of all is that every morning, every day it all start again. There are always new personalities to write about, to research. There is a printing deadline to respect and, depending on what time of day or night the person has died, a lot of pressure rests on the writers shoulders. It is also important that they get it right. That means a minimum of errors. It is fascinating to watch Bruce Weber, for instance, call the wife of man he’s writing about and ask her questions about her husband as she mourning. This is necessary in order to have more accurate informations, and not some unverified versions of the truth. We are told that sometime a family will have entertained some myths about the deceased (a kind of wishful thinking). The New York times obituary archives (appropriately called “the morgue”) is the place where they store some of the photos and articles that are used to compose the obituaries. Archivist Jeff Roth is keeper of the gate. Although it may differ for some people, I did not find Obit. to be morbid at all. It is conventional, yes, but well made. And a very interesting topic.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Obit.

 

Directed by:
Vanessa Gould

93 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Strangers on the earth

Ever since The way directed by Emilio Esteves, the number of Americans pilgrims travelling to Spain and walk the road to the Cathedral to Santiago de Compostela has grown dramatically. In other words: It has become trendy. Films and documentaries on that subject have also been quite popular among certain crowds. Beside The way, there is a Quebec film, Les doigts croches by Ken Scott, Walking the Camino, a first film by Tristan Cook made in 2013. And now Cook in back with Strangers on the earth. The central figure is cellist Dane Johansen, who travels with his cello on his back. His plan is to record Bach’s Cello suites in 36 churches on the Camino. But Johansen was not planning to give concerts to other pilgrims. Johansen is interviewed about having to perform in cold churches after spending all day walking in the cold rain. He’s not the only one being asked to comment. Thankfully Strangers on the earth is not a talking head documentary. We never see the interviewees, they are heard in voice over as we see them walking down the road and interacting with each other, their commentaries serving to narrate the images we see. A series of photos are used to tell the story of a man meeting and falling in love with a woman on the road to the Cathedral. Soon though, the man tells us, the relationship goes sour. Another man angrily decries the false pilgrims who take a bus or a taxi to do part of the pilgrimage. One man (or maybe it‘s the same?) has a long tirade where he pompously theorizes about the meaning and importance of it all. If I would choose a film about Santiago de Compostela, it would be Strangers on the earth. Cinematographer Iskra Valtcheva’s images too are beautiful to ignore. Beside her contribution, there was little that could stir me. This is topic that I find tiresome and has a limited appeal.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Strangers on the earth

 

Directed by:
Tristan Cook

96 min.

Rated General.

In English, Spanish and German with English subtitles.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the city

One of the great things about documentaries is that they present worlds and places you never imagined and extraordinary people doing the unimaginable. Citizen Jane: Battle for the city is about urban journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Her 1960 book The death and life of great American cities is considered one of the most influential essay about urban planning. Additionally, Jacobs was an earlier example of what you would today call “an activist”. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jacobs’ neighbourhood, Greenwich village, New York, and others were constantly threatened by destruction by urban developers. One of those was Robert Moses, a greedy and power-hungry man who had all the politicians in his pockets. His goal to practise “slum clearance” -expropriate whole neighbourhoods to build mega highways and move the population (mostly black) to public housing projects was thwarted by Jane Jacobs and other activists. When Moses planned to build a road through Washington Square Park, the reaction was immediate and the project was successfully aborted. Manhattan and Greenwich village would have been destroyed and replaced by the Lower Manhattan Expressway or the Mid-Manhattan Expressway were it not for people like Jane Jacobs. She was arrested in 1968. That same year she moved to Toronto, caused by her opposition to the Vietnam war, where she quickly got involved and arrested again. Almost sixty years after it was written, The death and life of great American cities is still pertinent today. In her writing, read in the film by Marisa Tomei, Jane effectively exults her dedication and love of the city.

Quote… “Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en massa, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

Jane Jacobs, The death and life of great American cities, 1961

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Citizen Jane: Battle for the city

Directed by:
Matt Tyrnauer

With Marisa Tomei reading Jane Jacobs

93 min.

Rated General

My Scientology movie

John Dower and Louis Theroux’s in-your-face documentary about the Church of Scientology is intriguing, strange, funny, scary and revealing. Wanting to make a documentary on the church proved difficult when British journalist Theroux was, unsurprisingly, denied access to the church and its leader David Miscavige. They decided to find another approach. They contacted Marty Rathbun. Marty was at one point one of the highest senior member of the church, before he cracked and left everything behind. Rathbun alleges that there is violence within the church, and that Miscavige himself often beats his staff. After Rathbun divulged these affirmation to newspapers, he has been harassed by the church. Rathbun has a temper and sometimes gets frustrated by Theroux’s inquisitive questions. Dower and Theroux’s plan is to audition actors to stand in for Miscavige and actor Tom Cruise, who is the most famous Scientologist. They are going to re-enact some of the speeches and interviews. At audition Andrew Perez impresses everyone and is chosen to read for David Miscavige. And actor Rob Alter looks very much like Tom Cruise. During the filming there are some weird moments. As Theroux and the crew tries to visit some Scientology estates with other former Scientologists, they get a visit from a woman and a cameraman. The lady order them to leave while the cameraman films them, with Theroux’s crew filming the Scientologist’s cameraman, then someone gets out a cell phone and films the whole thing. This is a totally absurd scene. One day Theroux notices that a car is following them. Then, outside of the studio they spot another camera filming them. They refuse to answer why they are filming. If Theroux wanted a reaction from the Church of Scientology, he certainly got it. And trouble maker Theroux is not afraid to be confrontational. Another interesting but nerve-racking look at Scientology. Highly recommended.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

My Scientology movie

Directed by:
John Dower

99 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Call of the forest: The forgotten wisdom of trees

We’ve seen this type of documentaries before. It seems that Call of the forest: The forgotten wisdom of trees has taken the same approach than National geographic, PBS TV show Nova and David Suzuki’s The nature of things. As narrator, Gordon Pinsent puts an over the top dramatic emphasis on everything he reads, and when the animated title of the film appears, the words are made of tree branches with leaves growing on them and moving in the wind. The film central figure is Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a British-born Ottawa botanist, biochemist and writer. Like Call of the forest, Diana is a bit wholesome and corny but likable. I could go on making jokes about tree huggers, but, truth is, I agree with Diana. Here in Canada almost a billion trees are cut every year. Ms Beresford-Kroeger’s affirmation that the trees and forests are crucial to air and water quality. She travels around the world. We see a sacred forest in Japan where trees are revered and thought to have healing and cleansing powers. In Japan, big cities that are overpopulated don’t have enough green spaces for trees to grow, but some people still find a way and spaces for trees. In every countries Beresford-Kroeger speaks with others scholars and experts that also share her passion and love of trees. Along the way we have seen how beautiful those trees are and the devastating effects that men’s commercialisation has had on the trees and our forests. We must thank and support people like Diana Beresford-Kroeger and Canada’s First Nations for the work they have been doing. It’s now time to start planting trees!.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Call of the forest: The forgotten wisdom of trees

Directed by:
Jeffrey McKay

Screenplay by:
Jeffrey McKay

Narrated by Gordon Pinsent

82 min.

I am not your negro

James Baldwin’s Remember this house was his remembrances of Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Within five years all three were assassinated. The documentary I am not your negro uses the words from the unfinished manuscript (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) as narration, film archives, photos and Baldwin being interviewed on TV to document the history of the American Civil Rights movement. On The Dick Cavett show, Cavett seems caught off guards by Baldwin’s serious tone. It’s as if he expected Baldwin to start joking. But for James Baldwin racial segregation was no laughing matter. Tired of American prejudice against blacks, Baldwin left the US in 1948 to go live in France to continue his writing career in freedom. He came back in 1957, after seeing a photo of a black teenage girl entering a desegregated school. She is surrounded be white teens who are spitting on her. That and other images are powerfully inserted in this film. The violent and racist images of the 50s and 60s (photos of white men and boys holding signs with racist slurs and swastika on them) are sometimes mixed with more recent events: the Rodney King beating (I had no idea that his beating had been so violent and intense) and more recent killings of black people by police officers and the Ferguson, Missouri protest. Once he came back in America, Baldwin started to work alongside Evers, Macolm X and MLK. We see him during the 1963 March on Washington with Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr and white actors Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston. He talked and wrote at length about anything relevant to the African-American experience. This included commenting about groundbreaking films like Guess who’s coming to dinner? and In the heat of the night, both films made in 1967 and starred Sidney Poitier. The most powerful moment in the film comes with a clip of a Technicolor Doris Day film. Whiter than white Day, all teeth glaring, is shown in all her glory while we hear her singing a syrupy song. It is juxtaposed with black-and-white photos of black people hanging from trees. Chilling effect! The fact that James Baldwin was gay is only mentioned in a FBI report, proof that Edgar J Hoover was investigating all Civil Rights activists as possible threats for the nation. This documentary is crucial and might be an eye opener for certain people who think that racism does not exist anymore or, worse still, never existed. It has to be seen.

And the Oscar went to… I am not your negro was nominated for Best documentary feature. It lost to O.J.: Made in America who is more than 7 hours long.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

I am not your negro

Directed by:
Raoul Peck

Screenplay by:
James Baldwin
Raoul Peck
from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember this house

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson as James Baldwin

95 min.

Kedi

A Turkish documentary about cats? I had no interest in that topic, at all, zero, nada! But once you understand the importance of cats for the Turkish, and you see those beautiful animals, you can’t resist. Director Ceyda Torun filmed in Istanbul with the help of camera rigs to shoot the cats at street level. The effect is simply astounding. As one of the resident says, every cat has his own personality. We have a variety of stories either from the cats or the cat lovers. There is a cat that hunts for food all over the neighbourhood to feed her babies. Two women live with a multitude of cats. After cooking special food and feeding their cats, they go out and feed stray cats. A man who suffered a severe depression says feeding cats helped him. A restaurant owner keeps a cat to get rid of mice. A haute cuisine restaurateur has the most polite and most pampered cat. The cat only eats the finest food. One cat is called “the neighbourhood‘s psychopath” by her owner. We are told that dogs are afraid. And so jealous. We get the proof when another female cat gets close to a male cat she fancies. And that cat has such a scary, evil stare. We also witness cats fighting. But those cats are all magnificent animal. I particularly enjoyed some extreme close-ups that let us see into the souls of the cats. Cinematographers Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann have to be mentioned. A beauty, for cat lovers and others as well.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Kedi

Directed by:
Ceyda Torun

80 min.

Rated General.

In Turkish with English subtitles.