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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Looking back at another great year of documentaries


Gerald Schmitz

More documentaries are being made than ever before. Today I’m headed to the Sundance festival which is a major global showcase for some of the best. Last year I saw well over a hundred docs and keep finding out about others. I’ve yet to see Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro or Ava DuVernay’s 13th, both multiple award winners that speak powerfully to a racially charged atmosphere that seems more relevant than ever.

Non-fiction films are making waves and what they reveal serves a critical purpose in what’s been called a dangerously “post-truth” historical moment. Even if few get a significant theatrical release, the good news is that more are receiving television or online broadcast through various networks (including the CBC and its dedicated documentary channel) and via streaming services like Netflix. You can also check out the films’ websites for information on video releases and other screening possibilities.

From 2016 viewings here are 10 that most impressed along with some honourable mentions.

O.J. Made in America (U.S.

Much has been written about the story of former football star O.J. Simpson, his sensational 1994-95 murder trial, shocking acquittal and sorrowful aftermath The year 2016 saw two excellent productions recounting the events that created a media firestorm, both made for television. The FX channel presented a dramatization, “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” as part of its American Crime Story series. Even better and more complete was this definitive nearly eight-hour documentary treatment directed by Ezra Edelman. Beyond a masterful exploration of the many details in question, it speaks to the continuing issues of race and class in a divided America.

Fire at Sea (Italy/France

Gianfranco Rosi’s striking observation of the impact of the refugee crisis on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, awarded the top “golden bear” prize at the Berlin film festival, provides a window into these urgent and compelling events that is less about dire statistics than the intimate human stories behind the headlines. Rosi spent many months on the Mediterranean island including among the families of longtime residents. We see the reality being experienced through their eyes as well as in the challenges faced by the flood of desperate migrants who survive the perilous crossing by sea.

Tower (U.S.

Keith Maitland’s extraordinary account of the seminal 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin has received much deserved praise since claiming major awards at the South by Southwest festival last March. Seamlessly blending archival footage and interviews with striking animated recreations using the technique of digital rotoscoping, the film makes a powerful statement about the phenomenon of gun violence that, a half-century later, haunts America more than ever.

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (France/Germany/U.S. )

Reclusive Texas director Terrence Malick is legendary as a cinematic poet whose luminous screen meditations accompanied by brooding voiceovers will try the patience of some viewers. Here he tackles nothing less than the mother of all subjects: the origins and meaning of the universe, of earth’s existence, of the appearance and evolution of life and the human prospect. That may be a mission impossible that invites skeptical reactions. But I was moved by the deep spiritual yearning that underlies an epic flow of awe-inspiring and challenging images. Cate Blanchett narrates the 90-minute feature; Brad Pitt the 40-minute IMAX version.

After Spring (U.S.

Co-directors Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez present an eye-opening perspective of life inside Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the world’s largest concentration of Syrian refugees with a population of over 80,000. We get to put names and faces to the daily struggles of refugee families and to the efforts of international aid officials, local workers, and volunteer benefactors responding to the daunting circumstances created by Syria’s long-running civil war. It should be required viewing for those spreading anti-refugee fears.

Before the Flood (U.S.

Directed by Fisher Stevens and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, this globe-spanning exploration of the effects of anthropogenic climate change and the ecological threats from environmental pollution doesn’t hesitate to call out the skeptics and deniers including incoming U.S. president Donald Trump. It may not sway ears that are deaf to such warnings but, as the overwhelming evidence accumulates, the case against taking action grows weaker by the day.

Into the Inferno (U.K./Austria

Available on Netflix, master filmmaker Werner Herzog teams up with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer for a fascinating examination of volcanic activity on our largely molten planet and the mythologies and bizarre beliefs which have arisen from such eruptions. Among the strangest is the role of a revered volcano in the foundational propaganda of North Korea’s totalitarian hereditary Communist hermit kingdom. Herzog’s trademark probing narration muses about the sublime indifference of these remarkable geophysical processes to the designs and conceits of the humans scurrying over the planetary surface.

Sonita (Germany/Switzerland/Iran

Winner of the Sundance jury and audience awards for world cinema documentary, director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami draws an engaging profile of a spirited young woman, Sonita Alizadeh, growing up as an Afghan refugee in Iran. An aspiring rap musician, she fends off traditional family pressures for an arranged marriage in order to pursue her dreams. Given the opportunity to pursue studies in America, her refugee story stands as a positive example of female empowerment overcoming societal obstacles.

Weiner (U.S.)

Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, this penetrating look at the rise and mostly falls of disgraced former New York City Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner took the Sundance U.S. documentary jury prize. The rather aptly named Weiner brought himself down by inviting a notorious “sexting” scandal — repeatedly, including during a mayoral bid after resigning his congressional seat. In granting the filmmakers unprecedented behind-the-scenes access, he also can’t seem to control his urges, to the exasperation of his wife Huma Abedin who also happens to be a longtime top aide to Hillary Clinton. The damaging political postscript to this documentary exposé is that during the 2016 presidential election campaign, when Abedin finally separated from him, the FBI’s investigation into hers and Weiner’s emails became linked to Clinton’s email woes. How ironic for this minor and much-ridiculed serial sexual impropriety to have become one of The Donald’s trump cards!

Koneline: Our Land Beautiful (Canada)

Awarded best Canadian feature at Toronto’s HotDocs festival, director Nettie Wild captures the intense feeling of contrasting ways of life affecting the Tahltan First Nation in their traditional territory of northwestern British Columbia that is also host to major and sometimes controversial resource extraction enterprises. Wild is wise to let the native people, hunters, miners, loggers and construction workers speak for themselves instead of falling into a predictable polemic. And the stunning landscapes play a captivating role in their own right.

Honourable mentions:

Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of debates over environmental protection and resource development in many parts of the world. When Two Worlds Collide received a Sundance special jury award for its dramatic story of what has been unfolding in the Peruvian Amazon.

The worst refugee and migrant situation since the Second World War will continue to be a major documentary subject. Especially informative is the two-hour examination “Exodus” produced for the PBS program Frontline ( which first aired in December.

Violence in the form of guns, police and prisons was a hot topic for American filmmakers in 2016 — among the titles: Under the Gun, Newtown, Midsummer in Newtown, Do Not Resist, Solitary, The Return. Expect more in 2017.

Gleason is a deeply moving account of a former American football star and his family coping with the ravages of ALS and turning their ordeal into something positive for others. Life, Animated is a remarkable family story of the ingenious way that a severely autistic son learns to communicate through the years and in the transition to adulthood.

On a bright note, kids and adults will marvel at Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress, which follows the exploits of 13-year-old Mongolian girl Aisholpan Nurgaiv who, under her father’s guidance, becomes the first female to master the traditional skill of hunting with golden eagles in rugged mountainous terrain. This one really soars.