Category Archives: documentaries

Saving Face

A film about women disfigured by acid attacks is not usually something I want to unwind to at the end of a long, stressful day. But when I spotted this year’s Oscar award-winning short documentary on HBO Canada’s on demand list, I decided to give it a peek, thinking, if it gets to be too much I will turn it off, no guilty feelings.

Though “Saving Face” angered me and disturbed me with its vicious acts – most often perpetrated by the husbands of these women for the most absurdly imagined transgressions – the film engaged me to the end for two main reasons:

– it didn’t dwell on the misery – in fact, the women were bravely coming together to make lasting legal reform, and

– the doctor character at the centre of the film, Dr Mohammed Jawad, had such spark, humour and compassion that I really enjoyed his presence on screen

The tone of the film was therefore less activist and more sharing. Unlike many “cause” films, this one embraced me and encouraged my compassion instead of forcing me to pick sides and get angry. I promptly suggested a plastic surgeon friend of mine to consider contributing his talents to this cause.


Under Fire: Journalists in Combat

It sure seems like a romantic and exciting endeavour, but covering war has got to be more than tough I’ve always thought. Living with a photojournalist, I can feel the psychological effects of death and destruction radiating from this human who has witnessed violence and experienced the aftermath of war. But nothing my husband Joseph Wenkoff  has seen, compares to the atrocities recorded by the journalists in this compelling documentary that was short-listed for an Academy Award this year.

“Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” is Toronto-based Martyn Burke’s film on war reporting that features some of the Western world’s best-known reporters, videographers and photographers. It recounts, briefly, the history of war reporting (how it’s become an increasingly lethal profession – two more journalists were killed in Syria last week) and also delves into the psychological trauma that results from witnessing the worst human violence.

How do they cope? One way has been to abuse alcohol as John Steele, author of “War Junkie” recounts. “And that’s why you drink – because if you drink enough, you can’t remember your dreams.” Whether these journalists accept that they suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or not, they are each on their own journey of either self-distruction or healing from the truama of being “prophets.” CBC’s Susan Ormiston and BBC’s Christina Lamb credit their families from keeping them whole. Conversely, Toronto Star photographer Paul Watson, who captured the iconic picture of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, admits that though he has a loving wife and son, would still have taken his own life during his darkest moments had he only had access to a gun.

Admissions like his, and that of Chris Hedges who likens the adrenalinalized addiction of war-reporting to a ravaging drug dependence, are the heart and soul of this documentary which pretty much takes all of the machismo out of the profession of covering war.

Luckily, Toronto psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein offers 24-hour emergency service to journalists like photographer Finbarr O’Reilly who has suffered from disassociative feelings upon returning back to the war-free world.

The insights these men and women learn about humanity are nothing that you and I will know. And although I am grateful that they tell the story of suffering, that’s probably for the best. I’ll leave the Kurtz’ to their hearts of darkness. And as for my husband, thankfully his life is fulfilled with a new baby on the way and the adrenaline pull of conflict is under wraps. For now.

“Under Fire: Journalists Under Fire” is airing tonight on CBC’s digital documentary channel. Click here for more.

Concrete Circus

Parkour Star - Courtesy of CBC "The Passionate Eye"

Wow, wow, wow. The urban atheletes of “Concrete Circus” blow my mind even more than Olympians. This documentary follows 4 urban extreme sports viral-video stars as they emabark on making 4 new videos for their on-line audience (which, by the way, surpasses over 40 million viewers between the 4 of them.)

I tell ya, these boys heat me up. If you can’t watch the full documentary (available for free to Canadian audiences courtesy of CBC’s The Passionate Eye) then at least watch the four short films these guys ended up making (just scroll down a wee ways for the 4 links.)

They will make you gasp, smile and wonder at the beauty, artisty and grace of humanity.

Story Corps

One of the benefits of working at the CBC are the training sessions that we are invited to participate in from time to time.  Today’s CBC’s English Services Training session called “The Best of the World” brought together the most innovative programming from this year’s INPUT (INternational PUblic Tv) conference. I was able to attend the day’s “lunch and learn” session which featured a talk and Q&A from animation director Mike Rauch.

Mike and his brother Tim have animated a small number of short radio documentaries using the audio recordings from some of the 70,000 collected for  Story Corps – a brilliant NPR initiative to collect American oral history by inviting participants to share their personal family stories.

The Rauch brothers selected a handful of some of the more poignant stories to animate, which became a whole new opportunity to share these stories across platforms. On average about 2 minutes each, the shorts are surprisingly moving, funny and above all, resonant.

Rauch mentioned that in the selection process, he was not only looking for good stories, but more importantly, characters who could translate vividly from voice to image.

This Valentines Day, consider sharing the Story Corps animated documentary Danny & Annie with your significant other (and others for that matter.)

TVO’s Doc Studio Website Packs It In

I am very impressed with TVO’s new Doc Studio website. Which is ironic because I used to complain vociferously about their uninformative previous site. This new hub blends information: air-dates, links to featured docs, docs in production – which is really a neat inside peek, a featured filmmaker profile – along with full documentaries that you can watch online.

My first viewing pick was the much touted 2-part series “Raw Opium.” The documentary blended intelligently the life of poppy crop farmers in Afghanistan with the life of heroin addicts of the streets of Vancouver. It inspired me to start writing my own story about the marijuana industry and sub-culture in Canada.

If you visit their site, don’t forget to check out the doc studio filmmaking contest. The winning filmmaker gets:

  • A mentoring session (of up to eight hours total) with Genie award-winning filmmaker Alan Zweig;
  • A television broadcast of your short documentary on TVO, and TVO’s YouTube Channel;
  • A Hot Docs 2012 industry pass (approximate retail value of $500.00).

Filmmakers – also check out the site’s blog for industry information.

Blood in the Mobile

Danish filmmaker, Frank Piasecki Poulsen, has a Nokia cell phone and has heard that there may be conflict minerals in his phone. When Nokia refuses to acknowledge his request for a transparent supply chain, he goes to the Congo to visit the mines. The documentary is gripping at times because even though the Congo has the highest concentration of UN troops, the UN refuses to chaperone the filmmaker as he visits one of the largest mines in Bisie. The mine is currently controlled by a militia, the 85th Brigade which has gone rogue from the DRC military. Between 15,000 and 25,000 people live at the mine, valued at approximately $70 billion US. The shafts are improvised and highly dangerous. The filmmaker takes us down into the shaft accompanied by a minor. The 85th Brigade tax the workers so heavily that they become indentured servants – essentially slaves. There is no medial care, clean water, nor proper housing. 
Poulsen then delved into the history of Nokia, which remarkably has a colonial history in the Congo – the corporation started as a rubber boot company and bought rubber from King Leopold’s rubber slave colonies. Today Nokia is one of the biggest corporations in the world. They claim they are leaders in social responsibility. The filmmaker visits scientists in Germany who claim they can “fingerprint” the source of minerals directly to specific mines, thus no cellphone company can claim that they can’t know the source of the minerals. Poulsen then returns to Nokia to confront the company, however he makes no headway with them in his attempt to achieve a transparent supply chain.
This is today’s “blood diamond” story. I found it a brave film. What I don’t know is how much corporations like Nokia have been doing lately to assure that their products are conflict-mineral free. I doubt they have come along very far since the film was made in 2010. For more on the film or how to contribute to the cause, please visit the official website here.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I challenge you to present me with a finer 3D film than Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which took me on a transcendent guided journey into human history, one that I could never have imagined. Nor would I have ever been able to experience the 30,000 year-old paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France, because acess to the cave is nearly impossible unless you are a very lucky scientist. Or filmmaker.

You could say that this film is yet another volume in the anthology of humanity that is Herzog’s work over the past fifty years, but to set it apart, it is a breath-taking  poetic experience.  In fact, I never took to the 3D idea; now I can see how in the right hands, it makes for an entirely different film experience.

And to watch the film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the film premiered last year. I was so lulled by the score (by Ernst Reijseger), the environment of the theatre melding together with the images of the enveloping cave, my imagination filled with what our ancestors must have been like, that I nearly fell into a trance.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is still screening this week at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Quick go see it if you can before TIFF 2011 gets started.