Documentary Film

RIDM 2017 Review: Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjærerne)

 

Ylwa and Tobias, charismatic stars of the Norwegian documentary Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjaererne).

“Small children, big knives.” That’s one of the tag lines for the Norwegian documentary Tongue Cutters. There are some scary spikes, too. And forklifts zipping back and forth.

Ylwa, 9, leaves Oslo for two weeks to stay with her grandparents in Myre, northern Norway. At a fish processing plant there she will learn to cut cod tongues just as her mother and her aunt (the film’s director, Solveig Melkeraaen) used to do. Tobias,10, is already an old hand at it, and he shows Ylwa how it’s done. The first day, she can’t even bring herself to try it, but as the end of her stay nears, she’s ready to enter the “world cod-tongue cutting competition.” Is that “world” as in “World Series?” Does anyone from outside Norway enter?

When Ylwa and Tobias aren’t cutting cod tongues, they take his cute dog Alvin for walks or hang out at his spacious home, which has wall-to-wall windows with a view of the mountains and the sea. (I couldn’t help wondering – what does it cost to heat that place? Are those triple-paned windows?)

Ylwa and Tobias are such likeable characters I enjoyed watching and listening to them, whatever they were doing. They goof around with his hover board, talk about pets and the hassles of having parents who are divorced or separated. They act like the camera isn’t even there.

Tobias Evensen and Ylva Melkeraaen Lundell in Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjaererne).

Ylwa is a big sushi fan and she’s disappointed that Myre doesn’t have any sushi restaurants. When she was still in Oslo, she was astounded to learn that sushi was not available when her mother was her age. “How did you survive, and not die?” she asked theatrically.

Nowadays, boys and girls cut cod tongues to earn some spending money, but many years ago, when times were harder, a young boy might have to leave school to do it full-time to help support his family. Archival photos from that era show us what life was like back then.

Tongue Cutters (Tungeskjærerne)
Directed by: Solveig Melkeraaen
Country: Norway
Year: 2017
V.O: Norwegian
Subtitles: English
Duration: 79 minutes
Cinematography : Håvard Fossum
Editing: Mina Nybakke, Elise Solberg, Erland Edenholm, Solveig Melkeraaen
Production: Ingvil Giske
Music: Håkon Gebhardt
Sound Design: Niels Arild

Tongue Cutters will be shown Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, 6:30 p.m., at Cinéma du Parc 3, 3575 Ave du Parc

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) ends on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. Visit the RIDM web site at ridm.ca for more information.

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RIDM 2017 Review: Do Donkeys Act?

The documentary film Do Donkeys Act? was shot at four donkey sanctuaries, including one in Guelph, Ontario.

Do Donkeys Act is a charming, calm, contemplative film that just shows donkeys doing what donkeys do when left to their own devices. There are no experts explaining the evolution of donkeys, their place in history, or whatever.

So what do donkeys do? They gallop, they eat, they sleep, sometimes they just stand around, occasionally they’ll kick. Now and then one will decide he isn’t going anywhere and stubbornly dig in his hooves. (“Who enjoys going to the dentist?” asks narrator Willem Dafoe.)

I had a moment of dread when I saw a sign on a wall that said “knock down box.” I thought it was another way of indicating euthanasia, but no, the donkey was being given an injection to knock him out in preparation for surgery, surgery that looked like it was done on an inflatable mattress.

The most surprising thing for me was the great variety of sounds that a donkey can make. Braying, sure, I’d heard that before, but a donkey can also sound like a barking dog, a purring cat, a squeaky door, a foghorn, a whistle, a trumpet, or a wheezing asthmatic.

Donkeys enjoy a spirited run in the documentary film Do Donkeys Act?

Do Donkeys Act was filmed at four donkey sanctuaries in Guelph, Ontario, the U.S., Ireland, and the U.K., and it moves seamlessly between them. Sometimes an an Irish accent led me to assume that a scene was in Ireland, otherwise it’s anyone’s guess. (Please excuse me if those places were identified in the first few minutes of the film; I arrived a bit late because the film I saw before Do Donkeys Act did not start on time.)

Most of the talking in this film is done by Willem Dafoe, and I have very mixed feelings about that. He does a fine job and seems to be enjoying himself at times, but I’m not sure that the words he was given to say contribute that much to the film. Sometimes they interrupt the mood. Google tells me there is another version of the film, called Sanctuary, that does not include Dafoe.

Do Donkeys Act?
Directed by: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 2017
V.O: English
Duration: 72 minutes
Cinematography: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Editing: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Production: Deborah Smith, Dale Smith
Sound Design: Tom Hammond

Do Donkeys Act? will be shown Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 at 4 p.m. in Salle Fernand-Seguin of the Cinémathèque Québécoise, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) ends on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at ridm.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017 Review: Don’t Miss Dragonfly Eyes!

In the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes, Qing Ting, a woman who has spent several years living in a Buddhist monastery decides that she must leave.

Dragonfly Eyes is one of my favourite films of RIDM 2017. It’s inventive, fascinating and more than a little disturbing.

While the dialogue in Dragonfly Eyes is read by actors, the video portion of the film is made entirely from snippets of surveillance video found on the Internet. This gives new meaning to “found footage” and it’s more entertaining to me than those films about people who get lost in the woods or the jungle and then spend an hour shrieking at each other until someone drops the camera. (Rant over!)

Qing Ting (Dragonfly) has spent the last few years living in a monastery. She was sent there for its calming effects, and considered becoming a nun, but changes are n the offing and she does not feel comfortable there anymore.

She goes to the city and takes a job at a dairy farm. (Sounds weird when you think about it, that’s not a calm place either and are there dairy farms in cities? It seems so!) The work is hard, doesn’t pay much,the bosses are disrespectful and cows and workers are under constant camera surveillance. The people who watch the screens are watched as well.

Everyone and everything seems to be under surveillance in the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes.

At the farm, Qing Ting is noticed by the technician Ke Fan, and they start spending time together, visiting restaurants, and driving out into the countryside. Soon he is calling himself her boyfriend, even though she doesn’t seem to want one. Ke Fan does things that he thinks will please her, again without asking if that’s what she really wants. He’s quite violent, though not towards her. After assorted incidents that I won’t spoil here, Qing Ting loses her job at the dairy. She is insulted in her search for a new job and insulted some more once she gets one.

Ke Fan is sent to jail for several years, and starts looking for Qing Ting as soon as he gets out. It’s not easy, because she does not want to be found.

What do I mean by disturbing? Ke Fan’s violence, other violent instances we see, celebrity culture, an obsession with money and appearances, and all that surveillance video. In many places I couldn’t help thing, why would anyone need to watch or tape this places, or this activity?

I have more to say about this film and I will, but I have to post this now, so some people might be able to see it TODAY!

 

Dragonfly Eyes

Country : China
Year : 2017
V.O : Mandarin, English
Subtitles : English and French (depending on the screening date)
Duration : 81 Min
Editing : Matthieu Laclau, Zhang Wenchao
Production : Matthieu Laclau, Zhai Yongming, Xu Bing
Writer : Zhai Yongming, Zhang Hanyi
Music : Yoshihiro Hanno
Sound Design : Li Danfeng

Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017
Dragonfly Eyes, 81 minutes long, in Mandarin with French subtitles, at Cinémathèque Québécoise, Salle Principale, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017: Review of documentary film Taste of Cement

In the documentary film Taste of Cement, Syrian construction workers build a highrise in Beirut, Lebanon.

Taste of Cement is a melancholy, sympathetic, and arty documentary about Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon.

They are building a high-rise apartment building near the Mediterranean shore. When their working day is over, they retreat to bare-bones lodgings in the building’s basement. No commute time! But it’s a dark place, divided into haphazard units, with little privacy, and no security for valuables that I could see. Water dripping from above leaves puddles here and there. The living quarters are quite far from the entrance, which must contribute to a sense of claustrophobia. What’s the air like down there?

Some men have makeshift beds, while others sleep on thin mattresses or pieces of cardboard placed on the floor (ouch).

When they aren’t on the job, Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon, stay in this dark basement full of puddles.

They wash their clothes in buckets and hang them on the wall. There was at least one TV down there. Many men use their phones to look at photos or news reports on the devastation back home.

Meagre evening meals include oily sardines plonked onto pita directly from the tin, and something that looked like ratatouille, eaten out of a pot. In the morning, a man used a Barbie Pink mirror while shaving. A dollar store find? A gift from a daughter?

This living arrangement is not voluntary – a sign says that there is a 7 p.m. curfew for Syrians and that violators will be prosecuted. Essentially, they are a captive workforce, even if they do get paid. I was hoping they weren’t paying anything to live in that basement.

Syrian workers in Beirut, Lebanon, must obey a curfew.

Nothing could make that basement look welcoming or arty, but the outdoor scenes are another matter. The framing is masterful and many images could be mistaken for still photos if not for waves, or changing images on far-away video billboards. Colours are beautiful – the blue sky, the blue water, orange safety vests, red poles, yellow bulldozers.

The views from the building are stunning, but the men are probably too busy with work, and trying to stay alive, to notice. Many work without hard hats, or gloves, or harnesses; they are welding and running big saws without safety glasses. Just watching is scary.

 

The film has a narrator – I was not sure if he was supposed to be a specific person, or more of an Everyman. He tells of his father who also did construction work abroad, and whose hands always smelled of cement. He and his father are part of a cycle of destruction and construction. Buildings and cities are destroyed by war and then repaired. Certainly Lebanon has seen its share of destruction. I wonder, the workers must wonder. . .when or if Syria will be repaired? After all, the destruction is still taking place.

Many business owners are eager to do it, not for any humanitarian reasons, but to earn a profit. Even back in 2016 Robert Fisk wrote about that in The Independent. In August of 2017, the Associated Press said that ”markets across the Middle East are anticipating a mammoth reconstruction boom that could stimulate billions of dollars in economic activity.”

Taste of Cement
Country : Germany, Lebanon, Syria, United Arab Emirates
Year : 2017
V.O : Arabic
Subtitles : English
Duration : 85 Min
Cinematography : Talal Khoury
Editing : Alex Bakri, Frank Brummundt
Production : Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert, Mohammad Ali Atassi
Writer : Ziad Kalthoum, Talal Khoury, Ansgar Frerich
Music : Sebastian Tesch
Sound Design : Ansgar Frerich, Sebastian Tesch

Presented in Collaboration with CSN, Goethe-Institut Montréal, Institute of International Education, Cinema Politica, La Maison de la Syrie, Kazamaza Restaurant and Bell Media

 

Taste of Cement will be shown Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:00 p.m. at Concordia University,
1455 de Maisonneuve W., Room H-110, Montreal, as part of the RIDM film festival, which runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017 Review of documentary film Cielo

The documentary film Cielo takes us to Chile’s Atacama Desert where the stars shine bright and clear.

The documentary film Cielo is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. I put Cielo on my “must-see list” after seeing extracts from the film at the press conference for Montreal’s RIDM film festival.

The film is full of absolutely stunning images of the desert, and night skies full of more stars than you could imagine. And the Milky Way! Just stunning! In time-lapse sequences, the heavens seem to be rotating. The occasional shooting star zips by.

The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. That dryness, the desert’s high altitude, and the lack of air pollution and light pollution make it an excellent spot for scientific star gazing and there are several observatories there. There are traditional ones, with big domes and huge telescopes, along with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). That is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau, 5,000 meters altitude in northern Chile.” Those antennas look a lot like satellite dishes. When they swivel in time-lapse photography they also look like a field full of disembodied ears. Very weird!

Canadian director Alison McAlpine takes us inside a traditional observatory as the dome opes and the telescope is moved into position (cue metallic noises); she talks to astronomers and to people who live in ramshackle dwellings in the desert. They share some local lore, banter about gravity, etc. Because the desert is so inhospitable, I wondered how they managed to survive there. How far do they have to travel for food, etc? One man is a miner, others are described as algae gatherers in the credits and press kit, while others are described as cowboys. I saw their animals so briefly I could not tell if they were goats, llamas or vicuña. From previous films and reading I did not think there would be anything for those animals to eat, but apparently there are some very scrubby grasses. And maybe these animals live in the edge of the desert?

There is additional astounding imagery of stars and galaxies that I thought was shot through telescopes, but the press kit revealed that most of that footage is really “organic effects” of the kind seen in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Now for some gentle criticism. Cielo is well worth seeing for the images, but I feel that director McAlpine’s narration does not do it any favours. It might be intrusive no matter what, but because  she is addressing the stars, rather than simply sharing them with us, I felt further removed from the film. Hearing her say “Now I can’t stop watching you, I’m trying to understand your crazy beauty,” felt weird, like eavesdropping, maybe.

Atacama Desert, astronomy, voice overs – those ingredients might remind you of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia For the Light.) While Cielo is worth watching, it does not approach the level of that masterpiece. Guzman’s narration sounded like poetry, in Spanish and in translation, even when he was talking about the atrocities of the Pinochet era. His film juxtaposed the beauty of the stars, the mysteries of the universe with the evil of the dictatorship and the grief of the bereaved who were still searching the desert for the bodies of their murdered loved ones. You can buy or rent Nostalgia for the Light on iTunes (and elsewhere, I imagine). And you really should! Here is a link to the review of Nostalgia for the Light I wrote for the Montreal Gazette in 2011.

CIELO, directed by Alison McAlpine
Country : Quebec, Chile
Year : 2017
V.O : Spanish, English, French
Subtitles : English And French
Duration : 78 min
Cinematography : Benjamín Echazarreta
Editing : Andrea Chignoli
Production : Carmen Garcia, Paola Castillo, Alison McAlpine
Music : Philippe Lauzier

Cielo will be shown on Monday, Nov. 13 at 5:45 pm at
Cinéma du Parc 3 (the printed schedule says 6 p.m.)

Cielo is part of RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

(I found some interesting web sites while doing research for this review. I’ll add them later. Please come back to see them!

RIDM 2017: Review of Zaatari Djinn

 

Syrian refugee Fatma plays with her pet rooster in the documentary film Zaatari Djinn. The film is being shown at the documentary film festival RIDM in Montreal.

The documentary film Zaatari Djinn shows us what life is like for two girls and two boys in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari camp, which is home for 80,000 to 100,000 Syrian refugees.

In the camp, Fatma, Maryam, Ferras and Hammoudi are at the mercy of their parents, circumstances, and the weather. The place is sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy, often windy and dusty. The future is uncertain. But despite the many hardships, Zaatari Djinn is frequently lyrical and captivating. So far, it is one of my two favourite films on the RIDM schedule.

More than once, we hear a mother telling her children a story, beginning with the familiar: “Once upon a time…”

One tale involves a wicked stepmother – it sounds much like Hansel and Gretel, except that the evil woman plans to abandon the children in the searing desert, not in the deep, dark forest. One boy who has a real-life stepmother declares that she is evil. (After reading the press notes, I realized something I had not grasped while watching the film. The father married again after his wife died, then took yet another wife after moving to the camp. The two women don’t get along.)

Thanks to a drama class, Maryam has discovered the joys of acting, but her father does not approve, he says it is against their culture. Interestingly, the play she was rehearsing is Shakespeare’s King Lear, which has its share of father-daughter discord. The film show her happily playing soccer with other girsl, but the press notes say her father made her stop that, too.

Like girls in many countries, 13-year old Fatma argues with her mother about how old a girl must be before she can wear makeup and how much is too much. Like Maryam, Fatma clashes with her father. Unlike any girls I know, Fatma has a rooster for a pet and confidant. (When the rooster can’t be found, someone says many animals have been poisoned and maybe he was, too. Another indication the place is not warm and fuzzy. Who poisons animals?)

Ferras walks the streets of the camp, selling the sweets that his father makes. It’s the stuff often called Turkish Delight in the West; they call it raha in Syria. Making it requires lots of stirring with a big wooden stick. Ferras also buys the supplies, mostly sugar and cornstarch, which aren’t always available in sufficient quantities. Ferras doesn’t seem to have much choice about doing this work. While reading about the camp, I found an article online about Ferras and his father. The family had a candy factory in Dara’a, Syria, before the war. Most of the people in the camp are from Dara’a, though Fatma is from Damascus.

Syrian refugee Hammoudi chooses a bicycle in the documentary film Zaatari Djinn. The film is being shown at the documentary film festival RIDM in Montreal.

Hammoudi is happy when his mother offers to buy him a bicycle, and lets him choose it. He clearly knows so much about them I was surprised that the bicycle seller didn’t offer him a job. When Hammoudi accompanies his mother to the camp hospital, we see a place with modern equipment and doctors who are gentle and friendly with the children. There are many aid-group logos on the walls, and US and EU flag decals.

Hammoudi learns that he has a little brother on the way; the doctors ask him if he goes to school and if he is doing well there. (The answer to both questions is yes. Though school is mentioned several times we don’t see the inside any classrooms. Maybe the filmmakers could not get permission, maybe they did not have time for that.)

After his little brother is born, Hammoudi’s vows to protect him are so fierce they’re almost frightening. A paraphrase from memory: “I’ll kill anyone who so much as harms one hair on your head.”

Similarly, I felt distressed and uneasy watching some boys playing what might have been their version of “war“- they pointed toy guns at a playmate, and grabbed him shouting “Lock him up!” I don’t know, seeing children displaced by war playing with (toy) guns, doesn’t seem to bode well for the future.

Zaatari DjinnDirector: Catherine van Campen
Cinematographer: Jean Counet & Jefrim Rothuizen
Sound: Mark Wessner
Editor: Albert Markus
Sounddesign: Marc Lizier
Music: Alex Simu
Producers: Iris Lammertsma & Boudewijn Koole | Witfilm
Distributor: Cinema Delicatessen i.c.w. Herrie Film & TV
Contact: Nazima Mintjes (Production)
Witfilm nazima@witfilm.nl

With: Hammoudi Al-Mansour
Maryam Al-Hariri
Ferras Adnan
Fatma Al-Badawy

Duration: 90 minutes, in Arabic with English subtitles.

Zaatari Djinn will be shown on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at 5 p.m. in Salle 10 of Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, 350 rue Émery.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

Kedi Review: A warm, lyrical documentary about the street cats of Istanbul

A cat from the documentary film Kedi looks wise and regal.

Kedi is a delightful documentary film about the street cats of Istanbul, Turkey, and their human friends. It’s just lovely. The cats are elegant and endearing, the humans are eloquent and kind. (As you might guess, Kedi is the Turkish word for cat.)

Turkish-American filmmaker Ceyda Torun lived in Istanbul until she was 11 years old. Her fond memories of the city’s cats led her to make Kedi. She shows cats strolling, snoozing, and snacking, cajoing, climbing, and cuddling, playful, preening, and pouncing, watching, waiting and leaping. There are males and females; some with kittens, some are long-haired, others short-haired; they are tabby, calico, marmalade, or black-and-white. The cats make themselves at home on sidewalks, in doorways, at outdoor cafés and markets and down at the wharf. They seem to be everywhere, like the little dishes of food and water that people leave out for them.

Some Istanbul cats hang out at cafes, where the owners and the customers are happy to see them and feed them.

Cats have lived in Istanbul for thousands of years. The theory is that the population was regularly augmented by cats arriving on trading ships; they would leap out for a little rest and relaxation and not did not always find their way back to their home ship before it left the port. Cats lived on ships to keep rats and mice out of the cargo and the food supply; no doubt the sailors appreciated their company, too.

Torun introduces us to seven cats, revealing their personalities, special quirks and exploring their day-to-day routine. We also meet the people who help them and love them. In many cases, this help goes beyond just providing food – one man says that everyone in his neighbourhood has running tabs with at least one veterinarian, often several. Another man regularly carries antibiotic drops for cats with infected eyes. Among those who feed them is a woman who goes above and beyond by cooking 20 pounds of chicken every day!

Sari walks purposefully through the streets of Istanbul, in the documentary film Kedi.

 

Sari’s kittens are waiting for her. They’re hungry!

People provide shelters for the cats, too. Some are just cardboard boxes, but one impressive structure looked like a townhouse for multiple cats.

Because of silly stereotypes about women and cats, it’s refreshing that so many of the “cat people” in Kedi are men. In particular, a fisherman shares stories about the low points in his life and how a cat helped him to recover.

Cat-loving cartoonist Bulent Ustun makes a brief appearance, though his name only appears on the credits, not onscreen next to his face. The animated film Bad Cat (also known as Bad Cat Serafettin) is based on his graphic novel Kotu Kedi Sarafettin. Bad Cat was shown at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2016. Kedi and Bad Cat might make a great double bill, something to think about when Kedi is available for purchase. Bad Cat is definitely not family friendly the way Kedi is, though. You couldn’t call Serafettin a model citizen.

Cinematographers Alp Korfali and Charlie Wupperman do a fine job of keeping up with the cats, whether they’re scampering over rooftops, climbing trees or barrelling down the street. (I read somewhere that some footage was shot with miniature cameras mounted on remote-controlled toy cars.)

Kedi is a bit of a travelogue too, with images of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Galata Tower, sunshine on sparkling waves and soaring seagulls worthy of a tourism brochure. Neighbourhoods visited include Cihangir, Kandilli, Karakoy, Nisantasi, and Samatya, since that’s where the profiled cats live.

Kedi will probably boost tourist visits to Istanbul.

In addition to music that Kira Fontana composed for the film, there are tunes from assorted Turkish artists including Mavi Isiklar who were sometimes called the Turkish Beatles. Here’s a link to the film’s tunes at imdb. While I didn’t look for all of them yet, I found some videos on YouTube.

I’d read many positive reviews before seeing Kedi and it totally lived up to expectations. I felt calm, happy and light-hearted after seeing it. You might find it as beneficial as yoga or meditation. I’m tempted to say, you’d have to be a curmudgeon not to like it, but maybe that would be going too far.

If you don’t live with a cat already, Kedi might put you in the mood to get one, or more. You might want to visit Istanbul as well, but consider checking government travel advisories before doing that.

In Montreal, Kedi is playing at Cinéma du Parc with English subtitles and at Cinema Beaubien (2396 Beaubien E. H2G 1N2) with French subtitles. It is 79 minutes long.

 

Review of La sociologue et l’ourson: Puppets, politicians and same-sex marriage

French sociologist Irène Théry appears in the form of a stuffed bear in the documentary film La sociologue et l’ourson (The Sociologist and the Bear Cub).

It’s not every day that we can learn about the evolution of the family and changing social mores from a witty, articulate, stuffed bear. So why not take advantage of the opportunity and watch La sociologue et l’ourson?

In the fall of 2012, the video and filmmaking duo Étienne Chaillou et Mathias Théry set out to make a film about the debate over a proposed law that would allow same-sex marriage in France. The law, which had been one the campaign promises of recently elected President François Hollande, would also allow same-sex couples to adopt children. As part of their research for the film, Mathias Théry recorded many phone chats with his mother, Irène Théry, the sociologist of the title. She’s an academic who studies the family and human rights. She was also one of many experts who had advised the French government on the proposed law.

President François Hollande in the French documentary film La sociologue et l’ourson (The Sociologist and the Bear Cub).

Chaillou et Théry wanted to use those chats in the film, but they had no video footage to go with it. What to do? I don’t imagine they wanted to use “Ken Burns technique” of panning over photos. They decided to use stuffed animals to represent Irène Théry and other participants. Irène Théry becomes a Mama Bear with swinging hair, (and Mathias Théry is her  “ourson” – the bear cub, of the title.) President François Hollande looks like some kind of Lego figurine, while newscasters are depicted as birds of various kinds – some halfway realistic ones, along with others that are clearly made from grey socks. This introduces some humour into a situation that became more heated than the filmmakers had expected. Though Chaillou et Théry are on record as saying there is no particular meaning to the animals they chose viewers might wonder about that when they see that some lawyers are depicted as pigs.

In the French animated documentary La sociologue et l’ourson, reporters and newscasters appear as birds.

While there is some footage of the real life Irène Théry on public transit, appearing on TV, at demonstrations, etc., we mostly see her animal avatar in her office, her kitchen, riding taxis, etc., as she explains how much families have changed over the centuries, and how cruel French society once was toward unmarried mothers and their children. There are also some funny bits of a more personal nature, connected with her marriage, her husband, his fish stick errand, etc. I wonder if Chaillou et Théry are fans of the Muppets, because the puppet version of Irène sometimes tosses her hair in a way that makes me think of Miss Piggy.  (Irène Théry is better looking, of course.)

Many people were against the proposed legislation, including religious leaders. Close to 2,000 mayors said they were unwilling to marry gay couples. Between October 2012 and May 2013 thousands of people attended demonstrations for and against same-ex marriage and adoption. Many of the “anti” demonstrations were led by a right-wing satirist and activist known as “Frigide Barjot.” (Her real name is Virginie Tellenne; Barjot means daffy, crazy, nuts, bonkers.) When Irène Théry attends those  demonstrations, her gregarious nature and her network of connections become obvious. Many people come to greet her and more than once she is introduced to “my future husband.”

NOT A SPOILER! Anyone with an Internet connection and an interest in the news will likely know that the legislation did pass. There were 7,000 same sex marriages in 2013, 10,000 in 2014, 7,751 in 2015 and 7,000 in 2016. However, Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing Front national, has said that she would rescind the law if she is elected president this year.

Mathias Théry and Étienne Chaillou, directors of La sociologue et l’ourson, will present their film in Montreal on Friday, April 7, 2017. Irène Théry will be there, too.

La sociologue et l’ourson begins its run at Cinéma Beaubien on Friday, April 7, 2017. Étienne Chaillou, Mathias Théry and Irène Théry will be there to introduce the 7 p.m. screening of the film and answer questions afterward. Will they bring some of their puppets with them? I hope so! When the film was shown by RIDM + at Cinéma du Parc last week, Chaillou and Théry talked to the audience via a glitchy Skype connection. It was the middle of the night for them, as they sat in their respective kitchens. They said they were looking forward to a “real discussion” when they arrived in Montreal.

Cinéma Beaubien is at 2396 Beaubien St E. Visit the Cinéma Beaubien web site for more information about the film and the screening.

Movie review: Le dernier souffle is a love letter to Hôtel-Dieu Hospital

Common Room of Hotel Dieu Hospital in 1911. (Wm. Notman photo)

The documentary film Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu) is a powerful love letter to Hôtel-Dieu. You might just want to run over to the hospital to give the staff a collective hug. And if you watch it at Cinéma du Parc, you won’t have to run far, either!

Don’t wait too long, though. Director Annabel Loyola was prompted to begin the film after reading a distressing newspaper headline “Hôtel-Dieu to be sold” in March 2013. She wanted to “recreate. . .the distinctive universe of the Hôtel-Dieu,” and she has done so magnificently.

She introduces us to the hospital’s patients, doctors, nurses, volunteers, painters, carpenters, electricians, gardeners and cleaners. And the musical therapist, with her beautiful white harp! The staff members all seem like lovely, friendly people who enjoy their work and appreciate their co-workers. One woman has been a volunteer there for more 40 years. Two heart surgeons worked together so often, that they were listed on the operating room schedule as one person, with a hyphenated name. And then there are the “two Sylvains” in building services, who also worked together for decades. Patients share their joys, pain and fears.

Then and now: Cardiac surgeons Ignacio Prieto and Fadi Basile have worked together at Hotel Dieu for 30 years. They would be listed on the operating room schedule under one hyphenated name – Dr. Basile-Prieto.

We even meet some non-human “employees” – the bees who pollinate the hospital’s apple orchard and garden. (I used to walk by the hospital almost every day and had no idea that there were beehives in there.)

Loyola returns to those bees many times. Maybe she just likes them and the surrounding garden, but I assume that she is telling us, in a subtle way, that the hospital and the beehive are both complex social organisms where individuals work hard for the good of the whole. Sometimes beehives and hospitals fall victim to things beyond their control, like pesticides, parasites, etc., in the case of the bees, and government decisions in the case of hospitals.

Loyola spent two years shooting the film, so we see the hospital in all seasons, from the lush greenery of summer to the depths of winter, when the beehives are buried under mounds of snow. She takes us to hospital areas, utilitarian or beautiful, calm and peaceful, that we might not otherwise notice or have access to. Images are carefully framed and the editing is impressive, too. Archival maps, engravings, paintings and photos complete the picture. (Like Jeanne Mance herself, Loyola was born in Langres, France. In 2010 she made La folle entreprise, sur les pas de Jeanne Mance / A Mad Venture, in the Footsteps of Jeanne Mance. Canal Savoir will show it five times in May. The station’s web site has more details.)

Fort Ville Marie, as it was in 1645.

As an organization, Hotel Dieu Hospital is as old as Montreal itself. On May 17, 1642, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, and Jeanne Mance, accompanied by about 50 settlers from France, founded Fort Ville-Marie, where the St. Laurent and St. Pierre rivers meet. At first Jeanne Mance treated the sick from her own home; a separate building was built in 1645. It would be replaced many times in the years to come. In 1659 Jeanne Mance recruited three sisters from the Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph. These sisters ran the hospital after she died and members of their order continued to do so until the early 1960s. The hospital left St Paul St. in Old Montreal for its present location, on St. Urbain, in 1861. That area was then regarded as “the countryside” and blessed with fresher air to benefit the patients.

(BTW: Jeanne Mance lived until the age of 66 – that seems like a long life, considering the difficult conditions in the colony.)

Hôtel-Dieu was the city’s only hospital until the Montreal General Hospital opened, in 1821.

Religieuses de l Hotel-Dieu de Montreal, James Duncan, 1853.

The history of the hospital reflects that of Quebec in so many ways. The hospital was run by nuns until the early 1960s when the Quebec government took over. (Nursing sisters continued to work there, though.) In the 1960s, when female participation in the workforce was not as widespread as it is now, the stay-at-home wives of male doctors were encouraged to become hospital volunteers.

Le dernier souffle is interesting enough purely as a moving portrait of the hospital, as it was and as it is now, but it has extra poignancy because of the uncertain future of the buildings and grounds.

Since 1996, Hôtel-Dieu has been part of the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM). By the end of 2017, the hospital’s staff and functions are supposed to move into the “superhospital” on St. Denis. Years ago, when this move was announced, there were fears (and anger) that the hospital grounds might be sold for luxury condos. Neighbours and fans of the hospital held rallies and created petitions advocating for community clinics and social housing instead. To this day, no concrete plans have been announced.

As a final indignity, the Hôtel-Dieu has been left out of all the brouhaha surrounding Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

In Brief: Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu) is warm, loving, respectful, a marvel of editing and filmmaking.
Who is it for?: Anyone interested in other human beings, documentary film fans, history buffs, Montrealers, Québécois, Canadians.
I see what you did there: Right after a scene where a priest lights an incense censer, we see a beekeeper with his smoker, a device used to calm the bees so they won’t sting.

Filmmaker Annabel Loyola in the garden of Hotel Dieu Hospital. (Photo: Julie D’Amour)

Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu)
72 minutes long; researched, written and directed by Annabel Loyola;
Camera: Tomi Grgicevic, Annabel Loyola; Editing: Emma Bertin; Original Music: Fabienne Lucet

Montreal screenings will take place Friday, April 7 to Thursday, April 13.

Cinémathèque québécoise
Everyday 6:15pm | Sunday April 9, 4:00pm

Screening and Q&A hosted by film crew, April 7 at 6:15pm
Screenings and Q&As hosted by filmmaker Annabel Loyola, April 7, 8, 9, 11 at 6:15pm
Debate with Christine Gosselin, conseillère d’arrondissement Jeanne-Mance district, Dinu Bumbaru, Héritage Montréal and Amir Khadir, Québec Solidaire, Sunday April 9, 4:00pm.

Cinéma du Parc (original French version with English subtitles)
Everyday 2:45pm, 7:10pm | Saturday April 8, 10:00am, 7:10pm | Sunday April 9, 10:50am, 2:45pm, 7:10pm

Screening and Q&A hosted by film crew, April 7, 7:10pm
Screenings and Q&As hosted by filmmaker Annabel Loyola, April 7, 8, 9, 11, 7:10pm
Debate with Dominique Daigneault, Coalition Sauvons l’Hôtel-Dieu, and Ron Rayside, architect, Hôtel-Dieu social and community project, April 11, 7:10pm

Visit the film’s web site for information about screenings in Coteau du Lac, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Rimouski.

Movie Review Gulistan: Land of Roses

 

Rojen Beritan in the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses. Much of the film was shot in the mountains of Iraq.

Rojen Beritan in the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses. Much of the film was shot in the mountains of Iraq.

 

In the documentary Gulistan Land of Roses, Montreal filmmaker Zaynê Akyol puts puts names and faces on a struggle taking place far away from us – the fight against Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIS or Daesh. Specifically, she introduces us to some of the Kurdish women who are taking part in that fight.

We see them, among the trees of their mountain training camp, doing calesthenics, cleaning their weapons, attending open air political-education classes, sharing meals together in the grass. They look very serious, yet also elegant in their drapey shalwar. Some express their camaraderie in hair-braiding sessions.

They discuss the different attributes of U.S., Russian, and Iraqi bombs. They tell us about their weapons – where they’re from and the names they have given them. It doesn’t seem strange that such an important item be given a name.

We learn that equality for women is one of the tenets espoused in the writings and communiqués of their leader, Apo. Certainly, while they might miss their parents and siblings, none of these women are dreaming of wedded bliss or motherhood. In fact, one says that she has never met a happy housewife. “Every married woman leads a life of slavery.” “From what I’ve seen, married women are never happy.”

Rojen Beritan, centre, is one of many Kurdish women who are fighting against the Islamic State.

Rojen Beritan, centre, is one of many Kurdish women who are fighting against the Islamic State.

The foul-mouthed, sadistic drill sergeant is a staple of U.S. soldiers-in-training films, but the female drill sergeant in this film, who trains men, too, is a different kind of soldier. She doesn’t call anyone a maggot or make then do extra pushups. She does tell those who are impatient to start fighting right away that it would be unwise, and wasteful, to go into battle before one is fully prepared.

While the training area looks relatively bucolic, it is still a dangerous place. When that terrain was held by Saddam Hussein’s men they filled it with land mines, and many still remain. Furthermore, we learn that “if Iran attacks, this is their first target.” Same thing with Turkey. And then there’s Daesh, too. “We can be attacked from all sides.” On the other hand, even though we don’t see them, we’re told that every mountain and valley is guarded by “comrades” with heavy weapons.

Later, we also see the women on patrol and observation duty in a desert area near the town of Makhmur, 95 km southeast of Mosul. While plumes of smoke rise from the town, they watch the comings and goings of Daesh, through binoculars. Is Daesh watching them, too? Probably. Despite the relative quiet, there is a sense of constant danger. Akyol and her cameraperson are told they really ought to leave, but the film continues.

The philosophical Sozdar Cudi shares her thoughts in Gulistan Land of Roses.

The philosophical Sozdar Cudi shares her thoughts in Gulistan Land of Roses.

A soldier named Sozdar Cudi gets much of the screen time Gulistan: Land of Roses, she is very thoughtful, philosophical even. If not for this war, what kind of life might she be leading? Would she be a politician, working for women’s rights? Maybe a poet?

The footage was shot in August 2014, but it remains 100% relevant because ISIS has not gone away.

After watching Gulistan: Land of Roses, I wanted to know more about these women and their fight.

My first question was: Are they still alive? I fear that some are not, but the PR people for the film could not say.

I wanted to know more about the Kurds, Kurdish woman, the Peshmerga, the towns of Makhmur and Sinjar. It seems that even as long ago as the early 1990s, 30 per-cent of the 17,000 armed Kurdish militants were women. Not surprisingly, Makhmur and Sinjar, like many others, have changed hands several times since 2014. You can read about the Kurdish women fighting ISIS in these articles from VICE, Reuters and the Independent.

And what of their often-quoted leader, Apo? He is Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurd from Turkey, and the co-founder of the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎, known as the Kurdistan Workers Party in English). He has been in prison since 1999. Many countries and organizations classify the PKK as a terrorist group, though the UN does not. Wikipedia has an entry on Öcalan. He has said “A country can’t be free unless the women are free.” Some of his writings about women in society can be read at the International Initiative website.

On a less serious note, I also bought some nettle tea. In the film, we see the women rinsing their hair with water containing nettle leaves. The Internet says that people of many cultures believe that it it is good for promoting hair growth, whether you drink it or apply it. Who knows? It can’t hurt, right?

Gulistan: Land of Roses was enjoyed by audiences at the HotDocs Festival in Toronto 2016, and at festivals in the U.S, France, Argentina and Switzerland. It won the Best Feature Film Award (International Competition) at the Milan Film Festival, the 2016 Doc Alliance Selection Award, which was presented at 2016 Locarno Film Festival, the Meilleur Espoir Québec / Canada Award 2016 at Montreal’s documentary film festival, RIDM.

Gulistan: Land of Roses (with English subtitles) is playing at Cinema du Parc until Feb 9.
Under the title Gulîstan, terre de roses it is playing at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, with French subtitles, until Feb. 16, 2017. The dialogue in the film is in Kurmanji and Turkish.

The film is a co-production of Mitosfilm, Peripheria Productions, and Canada’s National Film Board (NFB/ONF). If you can’t see it in a cinema, perhaps it will show up on TV or on the NFB web site some day. But I suggest you try to see it before then!