Monthly Archives: February 2009

Biodad – A Brave New World

CBC’s Doc Zone episode “Biodad” is airing tonight on Main Network at 9pmET/PT (if you miss it, it’s always available online.) I’m interested to see how it will be received by our viewers. It’s shocking how complicated sperm doner logistics are – but it’s ASTOUNDING how complicated assisted reproductive technology has become since the first sperm doner babies like Barry Stevens, the filmmaker, pictured here.

It will change forever our notion of “family.”

biodad_title(I wrote more about this doc in an earlier post called “The Personal Side of Biotechnology.” Image via CBC Documentaries

April 9, 2012 UPDATE: Fascinating article in Toronto Star by Stevens “Toronto Man Claims to Have Up To 1,000 Siblings Through Single Sperm Doner.” To read, click here.


Oscar for Best Documentary Feature – Man on Wire


Petit continues to hijack us with his capers! For my review of “Man on Wire,” see previous post. (Photo via Times Online, Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

June 9, 2009 UPDATE: the “Man on Wire” trailer won a Golden Trailer Award:

Best Documentary
Man on Wire, The Editpool, Icon Film Distribution

The trailer successfully captures the caper nature of Petit’s feats, and the clips, images and music used are choreographed in such a way that this 2 minute inspiration piece leaves me wanting to watch the movie a second time.

Oscar’s Short Documentary Category

The first short documentary to ever win an Academy Award was in 1941 and it was a Canadian film produced by the NFB on WWII called “Churchill’s Island.”  It’s a propaganda film for sure, but if you can get past that, you’ll see  some pretty exciting footage from aerial fights, to submarines, and torpedo boats.

For this year’s Oscars Short Doc category , I’ve linked clips for the nominees:

The Conscience of Nhem En

The Final Inch

Smile Pinki

The Witness – from the Balcony of Room 306

My prediction is that The Witness will win on the coattails of President Obama’s victory.  The others are commendable, “important” documentaries that so often fail to garner an excited audience.

Encounters at the Edge of the World

From the opening scenes of “Encounters at the End of the World,” it is clear that Werner Herzog is taking us to a place that is nearly as lonely and strange as the Moon. That excitement builds upon landing and we are introduced to the ugly scattered town of McMurdo, the American Antarctic research station, and the continent’s largest community at just over a thousand or so transient residents.

The town is full of big yellow trucks and Quonset huts and the odd people who populate it, professional dreamers and those who have simply fallen off the edge of the map.

This is an unusual place where during the austral summer the sun never sets. It is a place of disorientation: of the imperceptible passing of time, of snow and ice into any horizon, and of an indefinable community of scientists and philosophers who to a large extent abandon their nationalities to become anonymous citizens of this frozen land. It is no wonder then, that it is a natural fit for Herzog who specializes in documenting the lives of unusual poets lived in off-the-beat places.

I saw the film twice, and on my second viewing, I looked forward to the sorts of mini-documentaries Herzog has cobbled together. Of all the films of his that I have seen, this one feels most journalistic in nature. Herzog is determined to capture the highlights of the current activity in the Antarctic, from the eerie electronic underwater sounds of seals brilliantly captured by his soundman, to the volcanologists perched at the edge of the constantly “bombing” volcano, Mount Erebus. And from Shackleton’s hut, its artifacts literally frozen in time, to an underwater cathedral with its frozen ceiling and jellyfish angels.

Werner Herzog always seeks enlightenment in any endeavour he embarks on and that is why I love watching his films. When scientists return from a dive and study their primordial soup under a microscope, they exclaim that three new species of unicellular creatures have been discovered. Herzog asks: “Is this a great moment?”

But his genius, what makes him such a loveable filmmaker, is his willingness to share the wisdom he has been offered with those he meets. When he talks to Libor Zicha, a man whose escape from behind the Iron Curtain is so fraught with nightmarish memories becomes choked up and is unable to speak, Herzog steps in and says “The best description of hunger I have ever heard is the description of bread.” Zicha manages a smile and a nod and the conversation ensues in a new direction.

This is a gorgeous film, full of strange images, sounds and people. My suggestion would be to rent the DVD version of the film that comes with the extras. If you are a Herzog fan you will find rewarding and enlightening the interview with Jonathan Demme.

Man on Wire

Here’s another Hot Docs 2008 Festival selection that has made it to the Academy Awards best documentary category shortlist.  I am reviewing all five on this blog before the Oscar envelope is torn open. See my post “The Betrayal” for my first review.  Now for “Man on Wire.”

Since I work with documentary professionals, I had heard that “Man on Wire” is both a competent and inspirational doc. No one disliked it, but also, no one had anything particularly passionate to say about it either. Do we just watch too many docs?

My interest in the filmed perked when I found a Tribeca Film Festival interview with filmmaker James Marsh on YouTube. He said something in particular that pulled me into this magical tale about French tightrope walker Philippe Petit who dared to walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre back in 1974.

Imagine a British filmmaker arriving to the fabled land of New York to hear this story from years ago, tweaking his imagination. It had become “part of the mythology” of the city, he said. “It’s become one of those stories we’re all dimly aware of.” Having spent some time in New York, I can only imagine that even the tallest and most spectacular of tales gets lost in the vast archives of fantastic tales that this city has experienced over the centuries. That you recall a single story sets the imagination in flight.

Marsh has been touted for constructing the film as a heist movie, but it is the act itself that was, by its very nature, a caper. Petit also had some sense that the story would lend itself to film – many of the scenes are of him and his team preparing for months in advance and practicing similar walks in Paris and Australia. The clips are lovely windows into artistic collaboration and the power of the conviction of youth.

Equally as interesting is the archival footage of the construction of the twin towers. I watch the construction of the Ritz Carlton from out of my window at the CBC every day and there is no comparison in scale.

I’m glad Marsh became lulled by this legend to the point that he contacted tightrope walker and thief Petit to make the film. Had he not, our collective consciousness of those towers would be marred by the terrible act of violence that would destroy them twenty-seven years later. Instead, we are gifted with a wingless man balancing his fragile life on a wire. It is in watching those steps, so gently placed, that we can imagine the breath-taking closeness of death and then the glorious singing of the opening up of the spirit, that make the film.

Whale Tales

The sprinkling of tears I shed watching “Saving Luna” were those that unabashedly remark that life is amazing. Luna is a young orphaned Orca whale who adopts the humans of Nootka Sound, B.C.  Watching this little fellow play, it becomes immediately apparent how he so effectively nudged his nose into the hearts of just about everyone in that town. As friendships are forged between human and wild animal, the real story reveals itself:  how humans approach and interact with the natural world. In that rare meeting place between wild nature and human civilization, do we allow a bond or do we ignore the animal who asks for human friendship? In who’s best interest are we looking out for and why? Luna’s presence causes disruption to the lives of the humans of Nootka Sound, and a deep division develops between them as to how to deal with this child-like killer whale.

Luna’s visit is a gift, and it is a tenuous and precious thing – it is life itself. The film is a biography of a remarkable personality and we are lucky that filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit made the commitment to document Luna’s life – no small feat considering they initally planned on following the story for 3 weeks and ended up staying in Nootka Sound for three years.

It is truly the sweet kind of inspirational doc that can heat the blood, and so I laughed when I read on the film’s website in the FAQ section:
“If SAVING LUNA is a documentary, why isn’t it boring?”
Answer being:
I know that the story of Luna is sometimes unbelievable, but it all actually happened. Yes, it’s a documentary. But documentaries aren’t boring any more…The new documentaries coming out these days are the great secret of modern film: they’re actually as fun, entertaining, heart-warming, dramatic and memorable as any other kind of movie. And they’re real.”

HEAR HEAR! Documentaries aren’t boring anymore!

I am pleased to see that “Saving Luna” is enjoying a theatrical release across Canada.  You can also watch the doc on CBC’s The Lens on March 31st and April 5th.

And if you are willing to venture further into some extremely blood-roiling factual whale tales, I suggest the Animal Discover series “Whale Wars.” It follows the epic saga of the Sea Shepherds vs. Japanese whaling ships in Antarctica.  Here, human division surrounding whale conservation is pushed to violence. It’s head-shaking, jaw-dropping, expletive-uttering stuff.  Especially for me, both a sailor and a partner to someone who lunches with First Mate Peter Brown and may possibly photograph next year’s mission. Yaar, matees!

National Film Board Crux

I just read an alarming article in The Walrus about the tenuous state of the NFB.  Truth be that I myself am hardpressed to name recent NFB titles (‘cept “Up the Yangtze” which was just nominated for a Genie Award.) I know from working at the CBC in documentaries that CBC’s digital documentary channel airs select NFB projects, but the ratings for documentary are dismally low. Why? Low subscription mainly due to little awareness. We are all hoping that their sponsorship of Hot Docs festival this season will increase viewership and bring NFB productions to the foreground.

The NFB recently re-vamped their website – there is loads of great stuff to watch. Flipping Out is a another sample of the cool NFB programming that CBC’s documentary channel shares  its viewers.

Update: The Walrus just published an Online Exclusive countering the previously published article above and it contains a wonderful intro to NFB for anyone who is interested in learning more about what the NFB does!