Amid the holiday season’s flashier titles documentaries get little if any theatre time. So to start off the new year here are five that should not be overlooked. While these may not be easy to find, they are worth keeping in mind and searching out.
Who says people with disabilities can’t make a rip-roaring western? Premiering at the October 2014 Vancouver film festival, director Michael Barnett’s award-winning account of how they did it is a sheer delight. The non-profit organization behind this collaborative filmmaking project is called Zeno Mountain Farm, which operates programs nationwide. Each year it runs an “actors camp” in Los Angeles where over the course of several weeks disabled participants come together to produce an original short film.
Becoming Bulletproof chronicles the spirited efforts of the group that assembled to make a western “bulletproof” with the help of the Zeno Mountain team and using as sets a nearby Pioneertown theme park. Two of the gunslinging stars are A.J., 32, who has cerebral palsy, and Jeremy, 28, who suffers from Williams syndrome and is the hero of the piece. Another main cast member is Judi, 53, a camp veteran who has acted in previous films. Sure there are challenges (what film set is problem free?), but these actors are not only inspiring, they are really engaging and fun to watch. For more details including the potential for community-based screenings, check out: http://www.becomingbulletproofmovie.com/ .
Winner of the audience award at last spring’s Toronto HotDocs festival, director Phillip Baribeau recounts another kind of real-life western saga. It follows a 3,000-mile journey on horseback across the United States from the Mexican to the Canadian borders — the brainchild of Ben Masters, a recent graduate of Texas A&M University who recruited three other college buddies to saddle up alongside. We’re not talking ordinary horses but 16 wild mustangs more or less broken in for the purpose. The foursome want to make a point about the situation facing wild horses protected under federal law since 1971. Their numbers have become an increasing cause of concern. (Some 50,000 horses and burros are currently in holding facilities.)
The young cowboys get valuable advice from an old hand, Val, but mostly they are on their own encountering a host of obstacles and challenges (i.e., crossing the Grand Canyon and mountain ranges) that test their endurance and bonds of friendship. Every day is an adventure that includes the unexpected such as when a favourite horse is injured and has to be replaced. They also acquire a burro named Donquito that becomes a character in its own right. Over 500 hours of footage has been whittled down to 106 minutes that is both a candid story of four young guys on a mission and a visual tribute to the importance of nature’s remaining wide-open spaces and the unbranded wild creatures that inhabit them. The film is available for purchase. See: http://watch.unbrandedthefilm.com/
The Russian Woodpecker
Chad Gracia’s engrossing film has garnered a slew of awards since receiving the grand jury prize for world cinema documentary at Sundance and is currently available on some video-on-demand platforms (see: http://www.russianwoodpecker.com/). Chernobyl in northern Ukraine is infamous as the site of the world’s worst nuclear plant meltdown in 1986 — the surrounding area a highly toxic no-go zone — but was it an accident? That is the question posed by a most unusual interlocutor, Fedor Alexandrovich, a dishevelled Ukrainian artist cum investigator who was born and raised in Chernobyl and carries the effects of its radioactive cloud in his own body.
What provoked Alexandrovich’s suspicions was the proximity to Chernobyl of a more expensive if lesser-known ill-fated Cold War Soviet-era installation called the “Duga.” This was a giant radio-transmitter tower supposedly designed to interfere with the communications of western governments and which emitted a stream of rapid-fire noises (hence the “woodpecker” allusion in the title). Alexandrovich believes that the Duga was about to be exposed as a colossal failure, jeopardizing the careers of its high-ranking promoters in the Soviet hierarchy, and that the Chernobyl disaster conveniently led to its abandonment.
The thought that something so dangerously extreme might have happened on orders from higher ups in Moscow seems diabolically far-fetched. But Alexandrovich and cinematographer associate Artem Ryzhykov doggedly pursue the possibility, although they don’t get much satisfaction from some of the former Soviet officials they manage to interview. There’s no smoking gun of a monstrous coverup. What does seem plausible though is that a Kremlin elite cared more about its position than the health and safety of Ukrainians. Given the tensions between Ukraine and Russia these days there may be some justification for Alexandrovich’s worries about his politically charged accusations putting his family at risk.
Something Better to Come (Denmark/Poland 2014)
Also out of Russia, here is a story that is even more unbelievably true. A coproduction of the Danish and Polish film institutes, intrepid Polish writer-director Hanna Polak spent 14 years following the fate of Yula, beginning in 2000 as a 10-year-old eking out a precarious raw subsistence inside Moscow’s svalka, an enormous waste landfill — the largest in Europe — situated just 21 kilometres from the Kremlin. After Yula’s father died, she and her alcoholic mother became homeless so like others on society’s margins they moved to this harsh twilight zone, especially brutal in winter, where the only source of income is scavenging through trash for potential items of value. The dump has an informal sort of mafia running illegal recycling operations with cheap vodka as the currency of choice. It’s a Hobbesian world where life is nasty, brutish and usually short.
Given that the site is heavily guarded against trespassers Ms. Polak had to take repeated risks to try to chronicle Yula’s story, often filming secretly and illegally, coping with some very rough threatening circumstances. From childhood on, addictions and violence including rapes are prevalent. The security police sometimes set fire to the makeshift shelters of the dump’s unofficial residents. The years depicted coincide with those of Vladimir Putin (referred to as “Mr. KGB”) in power and show a bleak societal underside in striking contrast to his bellicose grand ambitions.
Yula is pregnant at 16, giving up the baby at birth, but she is not doomed. Indeed she and her mother finally succeed in getting a small apartment in a housing estate. At 18 she gets a job, telling Polak, “It wasn’t my fate to die in the dump.” By age 23 things are looking up. She has a partner and has given birth to a daughter as if to prove the words of Maxim Gorky that “everyone . . . lives for something better to come.” Still she knows that most of the people Polak filmed in the landfill never left and are probably dead.
If Linklater’s Boyhood was a unique fictional journey 12 years in the making, this 14-year documentary project starting in girlhood is an equally remarkable achievement. For more information and availability visit: http://hannapolakfilms.com/ .
The Tainted Veil (United Arab Emirates/Denmark/Egypt/France/Morocco/Syria/Turkey/UK 2015)
This film doesn’t deal with the niqab, the most restrictive form of headdress for Muslim women, controversy over the wearing of which marred the recent Canadian election campaign. But it is a thought-provoking exploration of the much more common female head covering, the hijab, its religious and cultural roots, and the range of perspectives held by Muslim women and girls regarding the reasons for their choices whether to wear it or not. Is this piece of cloth “tainted” because it has been associated with the oppressive pressures of male-dominated societies and patriarchal traditions? Or can it be a freely chosen expression of personal faith, a woman’s right to adopt?
Co-directors Nahla Al Fahad, Mazen al Khayrat and Ovidio Salazar include interviews with male religious authorities and scholars on the meaning of the veil past and present. However, it is the women who are being judged for their personal choices, and their divergent views on what the veil means to them, that are the most compelling. Viewers will come away with an appreciation of how Muslim women feel as well as a better understanding of the diversity of Muslim practice around the world.
The Tainted Veil was released in the U.S. in December. More information at: http://www.thetaintedveil.com/