Letter from Masanjia

It all started in 2012 when a woman, Julie Keith from Oregon, unwrapped the Halloween decorations she had purchased from Kmart (the styrofoam black tombstone), and found a letter hidden inside. The letter writer was describing the human rights abuse and torture he had endured at the Chinese Masanjia labor camp. After some calls to officials that heeded nothing, Julie turned to a Oregon newspaper. Cable news picked it up and it became a big news around the world. In China, as a direct result of Julie’s actions, the prisoners are released from Masanjia and there are calls to reform the forced labor system. The author of the letter, Sun Yi, is finally free after years at Masanjia. Yi is a Falun Gong follower and activist who was persecuted, like many other Falun Gong followers, by the Chinese government for years. Upon his released, Yi reconnects with his wife, Fu Ning. Because of the dangers involved, their relationship is tenuous and it’s heartbreaking. But Sun Yi goes back to his activism, planning to do a documentary denouncing the Falun Gong persecution. Director Leon Lee shows us part of what Yi has filmed. When Lee interviews Yi about his ordeal at the camp, Lee has chosen animation to illustrate it. It’s a great choice. I would have hated to see some corny reconstitution with actor. But Sun Yi’s problems are not over. He has to go underground, and may have to escape the country leaving his wife in China. Letter from Masanjia is such a moving and compelling documentary. People like Julie Keith, Sun Yi and his wife Fu Ning make this one of the year’s best tear-jerker.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Letter from Masanjia

 

Directed by:
Leon Lee

Screenplay by:
Caylan Ford
Leon Lee

75 min.

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McQueen

Most of us know next to nothing about British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. But after seeing Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary we now perceive McQueen as a brilliant conceptual artist, and not simply as a fashion icon. His runway shows were so dark and controversial. He titled his graduation collection Jack the ripper stalks his victims. The clothes had been sewn with bright red threads, lines of blood was running through the fabric. A later collection called Highland rape had models wearing ripped clothes, their hairs dishevelled. In the film we discover that as a child, Lee (as family and close friend called him. His full name was Lee Alexander McQueen.) was sexually abused by his brother-in-law, his sister Janet’s husband. Janet, who is interviewed in the film, confirms that. Other family members, close friends, lovers, boyfriends and collaborators talk about the darkness he carried with him throughout his life. Later, when he went to Paris to work for Givenchy, he was a bit more conventional. A bit! If you can call a double amputee model walking down the catwalk on carved wooden legs “conventional”. In one spectacular moment a model wearing a strapless white dress is standing on a rotating section of the catwalk and, while she is rotating, the dress is being sprayed by two robotic paint guns. VOSS, his 2001 catwalk, was insane. It was set in a padded room with mirrors, the models were acting as if they were crazy, pieces from the clothes were falling on the floor. A glass room was in the middle of the runway. Inside, it was revealed later, (when the glass walls came crashing down and breaking on the floor) there was a naked obese woman on a chaise longue wearing only a gas mask. One reviewer called it “the best pieces of fashion theatre I have ever witnessed.” “Fashion theatre” is I think a fitting description for what McQueen was doing. But McQueen was a troubled man. Troubled by too much drugs, the failure of his love life and the suicide of his mentor, Isabella Blow. What is clear in McQueen is that he was a genius and that, at 40 in 2010, he died too soon. We are grateful, through this documentary, to get a peek into his artistry and his brilliant mind.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

McQueen

 

Directed by:
Ian Bonhôte
Peter Ettedgui

Screenplay by:
Peter Ettedgui

111 min.

Rated 14A

Boom for real: The late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1976 Jean-Michel Basquiat was a homeless 16 years old. With his friend Al Diaz he started to spray paint graffiti on New York’s Lower East Side buildings, They called themselves SAMO (short for “same old”). Their designs included inscribed messages. But Basquiat’s street art was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. His reputation started to build and soon he would become one of the most important American artist. Driver interviews friends, lovers and fans of his work. The film is often more about them and their impression of Basquiat than it is about Basquiat himself. He is seen in film archives and photos as an enigmatic, evasive presence. In some weird photos he has shaved the front half his head. Sarah Driver’s documentary is a glimpse into his surroundings and the New York underground art scene (including early Hip Hop) in the late 70s. Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988 at 27. The film is a fitting tribute.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Boom for real: The late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

 

Directed by:
Sarah Driver

79 min.

Rated 14A

Three identical strangers

Three identical strangers tells a weird story of a “separated at birth” type. It all started in 1980 when 19-year-old Bobby Shafran discovered he had a twin brother. You could not get more “indentical” than Bobby and his brother Eddy Galland. An article is published in a newspaper and David Kellman sees the photos of his two twins. Of course the three boys became media sensations. We see clips from The Phil Donahue show where they list their similarities. Even though they were adopted by couples of different economic classes (a blue collar, a middle class, and an upper class), they practiced the same sports when they were younger, smoked the same brand of cigarette, dated the same type of girls. The triplets and their parents had a lot of questions. When they compared notes they realized that the boys had been placed by the same adoption agency. Louise Wise services placed children with Jewish families. When pressed for answers the directors responded that it was too hard to place triplets or twins, so they had to be separated. It was later revealled that their separation, along with the separations of thousands of twins, had been deliberate in order to conduct a study about twins. Why? That’s the mystery at the heart of this film. The study was never published and the results are locked until 2066. Many of twins suffured from depression or some form of mental illness, leading some to suicide. Although Three identical strangers is interesting mostly because the story is so gripping, it is very well made. We feel for Bobby and David, the two surviving twins, who are at the centre of the film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Three identical strangers

 

Directed by:
Tim Wardle

96 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

The gospel according to André

André Leon Talley (AKA as ALT) is the in-your-face, larger-than-life gay African-American fashion journalist and former editor-at-large of Vogue. Kate Novack’s camera follows Talley for several months. He’s a big man who now mostly wears classy and colorful capes and caftans. Although he was born in Washington, D. C., Talley was raised by his grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, in North Carolina in the Jim Crow South during the segregation era. After working at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York in 1974, André started volunteering at Metropolitan museum of art for Diana Vreeland, than worked at Vogue in various functions from 1983 to 2013. With photos, film archives and interviews from his collaborators (among them Anna Wintour from Vogue) The gospel according to André gives us a mildly interesting portrait of what made André a fashion icon. But there’s another dramatic arch that takes over the film. The gospel according to André was shot during the 2016 American election. All I will tell you is that there is devastation the morning after the election. For that and for André Leon Talley, some may want to see it.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The gospel according to André

 

Directed by:
Kate Novack

94 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Kusama: Infinity

Japanese visual artist Yayoi Kusama started having visions at ten years old. There was dots or flowers engulfing everything, even herself. She called it “self-obliteration”. Already Kusama started painting dots or the “infinity nets” that would become her trademark. In her twenties, when Japanese conventions made it impossible for her to have a career, she moved to New York, where it was hard for any woman to get an exhibition in an important gallery. According to Heather Lenz, this amounted to sexism, and I agree. Every time that Kusama would do something innovative and totally original, although the avant-garde reviews were positive, it did not advance her career. But when, a few months later, male artists (among them Andy Warhol) would copy or imitate what Kusama was the first to do, their careers would blossom. In the film we see a couch with white phallic protrusions (Kusama calls them “soft puppets”). That was copied by a male artists who got all of the credits. Same thing happened with her Infinity mirrors installation. It was a room with mirrored walls with lights (like dots). To get more attention, Kusama started doing street performance art. There were naked people in the street with her, and she may also be naked, and she would paint dots on them. She also staged protests to the Vietnam War. All that fight to be recognized, to be seen was started to weigh in on her. Kusama became more depressive, was hospitalized regularly and even attempted to commit suicide. In 1973 she returned to Japan. Then a series of retrospectives in late 1980s revived her career. Yayoi Kusama is today considered the most important Japanese artist. Since 1977 Kusama took up permanent residence into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill. It is a short distance from her studios and she walks there every day to produce more infinity paintings. Yayoi Kusama is 89 years old.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Kusama: Infinity

 

Directed by:
Heather Lenz

Screenplay by:
Heather Lenz

77 min.

Rated Parental Guidance.

In English and Japanese with English subtitles

Leaning into the wind – Andy Goldsworthy

Documentary filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer was so fascinated with Andy Goldsworthy that 16 years after making a first film about the British sculptor (Rivers and tides – Andy Goldsworthy), he made another film about him. And I agree with Riedelsheimer, Goldsworthy is worth the four years it took to finish this film. The director followed his subject all over the world. Goldsworthy is what you would call an environmentalist and landscape sculptor and photographer. Among other things, Andy Goldsworthy goes into forests to find dead trees that have fallen to the ground, and with leaves (lots of yellow leaves) he underlines the cracks that have formed them. It’s all natural. The leaves have not been tampered or colored, and he wets the leaves with water to fix them on the trees. He knows that soon rain will fall or a wind will remove the leaves. So he takes photos. He does the same on rocks. In the city, with the help of his daughter, he puts some leaves (green, red, yellow) on concrete staircases. His more elaborate works includes stones arranged to make outdoor open caskets, in the form of elongated eggs. They are large enough that a person can lie in them. But Goldsworthy also uses himself, his body to make art. Whenever it is raining, he lies down on the rocks/concrete/sidewalks. After he gets up the dry spot shows his silhouette for a short time since the rain continues. But the strongest moment happens near the start, when Andy Goldsworthy crawls atop prickly barren hedges. It looks painful and cold, and we think “Why in the world would anyone do that?”. Documentaries makes you meet crazy people you would not meet in real life. The score by Fred Frith is well suited. Although it at times very weird, it is also organic, like Andy Goldsworthy and this film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Leaning into the wind – Andy Goldsworthy

 

Directed by:
Thomas Riedelsheimer

93 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

A fan: Would you ever do another movie?
Grace Jones: My own!

Well, this as close as you can get. Sophie Fiennes’s documentary is a small glare into the personality of the legendary singer. Do we really know who is Grace Jones after this film? I don’t think so. But we can see that she can’t be easily defined. She’s strong-willed when we see her on the phone trying to reach an agreement to get the musicians she hired to the recording studio. She’s producing her own album with her own money, there is no time waiting around the studio while the musicians are waking up from an all-night party. She travels back to her native Jamaica with her son to be with her mother and her family. There she is laughing as they reminisce about the past and attends church where her mother is singing a gospel song. In Paris, she sings (or rather lip sync) her famous La vie en rose for French TV. This is France, so of course the choreography (?) shows sexy young girls in pink baby dolls while Jones sits on a stool. She does not like it, she tells the producer it’s tacky and corny and she wants it scrapped. But it’s when Jones is on-stage that the film comes alive. The pulsating beats of the music, her incredible stage presence wearing the weirdest hats, masks and costume. On the stage Grace Jones is a giant. Fiennes was allowed to follow Jones in most aspect of her life. We even see Jones naked several times. At 70, Jones doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything.

You should know… The “bami” in the title is a traditional Jamaican flatbread very popular in rural communities.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

 

Directed by:
Sophie Fiennes

115 min.

In English and French with English subtitles.

RBG

What I knew about Ruth Bader Ginsburg came mostly from Kate McKinnon’s impersonations on Saturday night live. RBG is a new documentary about the Supreme court justice, her life, her work on behalf of gender equality and exploring just how much of a bad ass she is still today at 85. She was born in 1933 and Celia, her mom, taught her to “Be a lady” and “Be independent”. At Harvard law school, where she enrolled in 1956, there were only 9 women among five hundred men. Later, even though she had graduated first of her class, it proved difficult for Ginsburg to find employment as no one would hire a woman. One thing is sure: she could not have asked for a more supportive husband. Tax lawyer Martin D. Ginsburg (deceased in 2010) was her biggest champion. In the 70s working with the American civil liberties union (ACLU), Ginsbur argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. She was nominated to the Supreme court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, where Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions called on Congress to successfully amend unjust laws. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a hero to many young woman. She has been nicknamed “The notorious RBG”, pictured as a super hero on magazine covers, tattoos, coloring book and t-shirts. She knows that the name comes from rapper “The notorious BIG”, she gloats. When she watches Kate McKinnon’s impersonation, although she does not think it looks like her, she finds it funny. She laughs and we laugh. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is fun, and so is this film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

RBG

 

Directed by:
Julie Cohen
Betsy West

97 min.

Itzhak

When you look at Itzhak Perlman as he plays the violin, of course you notice how agile his fingers are, how fast they can move. But you can also see how happy Perlman seems to be. In this new documentary by Alison Chernick, we visit Perlman, his wife Toby and their two dogs in their house in New York. We follow them at different concert venues, at the Juilliard school where he teaches violin and on trips to Israel. As some of you will know, Perlman contracted Polio as a child and there are many TV appearances where he was walking on stage with crutches. Now he uses an electric scooter. During a winter trip outside in the street of New York his entourage has brought a shovel to clear the sidewalks. Through conversations he has with Toby, family and friends we learn about his life. Itzhak Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. The family emigrated to the USA when he was 10 years old. Because of his disability, many people doubted he could have a career despite the incredible quality of the boy’s playing, so he was mostly ignored. Then in 1958, when he was 13, he made a memorable appearance on The Ed Sullivan show that changed everything. During the course of the film we see Perlman dinning and having fun with his friend actor Alan Alda. He receives the Medal of freedom from Barack Obama and while in Israel he dines with Benjamin Netanyahu. He also plays at a concert with Billy Joel where they are rehearsing We didn’t start the fire. And then there is the beautiful and joyful music that Itzhak Perlman plays. The highlight is Perlman playing John Williams’ Schindler’s list. It confirms the great quality of the film composer’s masterpiece. The meeting of two brilliant artists. Itzhak is a celebration of life. Bravo!

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Itzhak

 

Directed by:
Alison Chernick

83 min.

Rated General.