Tag Archives: documentary

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.


Morgan Spurlock Gets You To Eat Your Spinach

“I want you to eat your spinach, but I’ll make it taste like cotton candy,” is how Morgan Spurlock describes his brand of educational documentary. From “Super Size Me” to “30 Days,” Spurlock has always been shining a light into dark corners of popular human experience. He shines again with his newest film “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which takes viewers behind the scenes of marketing and advertising and shows how they pervade nearly every facet of North American culture.

Spurlock’s great ambition as a documentary filmmaker was to have the entire budget of this film paid for by sponsors, and turn that process into the film itself. Such is the premise – to make a film about marketing and product placement that is paid for by the brands themselves. As he works advertising agencies, corporations and lawyers, he makes transparent a shadowy business of product placement and cross-promotion in our everyday lives.

The film is a lighthearted, playful essay about the pervasiveness of advertising today, but also brings up some concern about how sneaky and manipulative advertising will become in the future. In one scene, Spurlock is subjected – by an advertising executive – to a brain scan which records his reaction to emotionally-triggering advertisements (narrowly focused clips triggering fear, sexual arousal and craving.) The dopamine levels don’t lie: Spurlock, it is clear, is addicted to Coca Cola.

“In the future,” Spurlock explained to me after the Opening Night Gala at Hot Docs, “they will film commercials with the product as a green screen to which they can superimpose any beverage, cereal – whatever – according to your tastes that you’ve expressed by say, searching the Internet for a similar product. The way that Google provides you with ads tailored to your tastes today, TV commercials and television programs will tailor ads to you in the very near future.”

I told my husband, who colour-corrects TV commercials, this information. He concurred – in fact, he had just worked on a commercial which had been shot half a dozen ways to promote half a dozen different varieties of a product.

“So you believed this brain-scan guy?” I asked. “Oh absolutely,” Spurlock replied.

In a segue during the film, Spurlock takes us to São Paulo, Brazil where public outdoor advertising has been banned. Without billboards and posters weighing down and distracting us, there is a calm – even in the bustle of mid-day traffic – that seems both lonely and releasing at the same time.

And that is the spinach eating part of the film to me: in our world where advertising and marketing business is a multi-billion dollar business to make us buy things we don’t even need, there is a quiet stream nearby where we can take a walk and remember what being human is really like.

“POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” opens in theaters across Canada on Friday.

Hot Docs Opening Night

Food Inc. Made Me Think

Many stupefying assertions are made in “Food Inc.”, one of this year’s feature documentary Academy Award contenders. I’ll roll some out for you:

 –         3 or 4 companies control meat production in the U.S.A. – probably not much different in Canada

–         a typical chicken grower (no longer called farmer) in Kentucky has borrowed $500,000 and makes $18,000 a year

–         there has been a massive reduction of food inspections in the US lately

–         13 mega slaughterhouses for that nation means there can be parts of a thousand different cows in a single hamburger

–         libel laws in the US mean that a mother can’t criticize poor food safety standards for the death of her son without facing a lawsuit

–         Monsanto owns over 90% of the patents of seeds (and thus crops.) It, along with the meat mega-producers and the mega-slaughterhouses mean tight corporate control over food production in the US

–         Federal US subsidies make it cheaper for poor families to eat corn and it’s thousands upon thousands of (mostly unhealthy) by-products than eat a home-made salad (thus rampant obesity and health problems)

These are some of the realities that Americans must face with their crippling food system. It seems to me a crisis akin to many of that nation’s other crises: economic, health (connected), wars. What a devastating toll our neighbours to the south are suffering. Especially those who really don’t have a choice because they are bound by this insane “food hierarchy.”

This documentary is a call to action – and done in a way that is colourful, bold and fighting. It’s what I call a “soap-box” doc – has a strong message, stands on a box and shouts for attention. Like Michael Moore’s docs, it is a strong piece of propaganda, so bear that in mind. But it’s an entertaining way to get a needed conversation started and I hope that it is seen by millions.

We in Canada are best to pay attention, as we may not have it much better up here. It’s time to take a critical look at food production in this country as well.

One thing I’m grateful for: my partner’s uncle’s bison farm in Saskatchewan and the hand-butchered, naturally-raised meat that I am blessed to nourish my body with. Thanks, Uncle Peter!

Visit the Food Inc. website here.

Food Inc. airs in Canada on CBC News Network Sunday April 11 at 10 pm ET/PT & Saturday April 17 at 7 pm ET, and after it has aired, will be available to Canadian residents to watch online for free here for a limited time.

Which Way Home

* This doc is temporarily available to view on CBC’s Passionate Eye website here.*

I missed Which Way Home when it screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last Spring when I was in New York, so I was happy that it turned up at Hot Docs in Toronto a week later. I had a hunch that this film would move me.

I didn’t know anything about it beyond it’s description in the Tribeca FF catalogue, something about migrant children from Central America who, largely indepedently from their parents and families, make the fateful decision to migrate illegally through Mexico and into the United States. Many of them fail along the way – they are abducted, they injure themselves, they run of of funds and call home for help. Some of them die.

The bulk of the film is spent on the trains that cross Mexico where we were exposed to expansive shots of lush and dreamy landscape. We encountered several well-rounded characters like 14-year old Kevin, full of hope for a life and career in Manhattan, and nine-year old friends Olga and Freddy who hope to reunite with parents in the United States.

These children, we hoped as we watched, the filmmaker would be able to reassure us made it to safety… but Director Rebecca Cammisa told her Hot Docs audience that sadly, their fate remains unknown. 

It’s an anguish for documentary filmmakers, who’s job is to witness and record an event with the purpose of communicating that event with an audience, to have to let go of the subject.

But there is a point when filmmakers must draw a line. For the directors of Which Way Home (Cammisa hired additional camera-people) the line was drawn somewhere approaching the Mexico/U.S. border where bandits and smugglers too often act with ruthless violence.

At this point the filmmakers stopped following the children because they decided it was too dangerous for them – for them! They who were traveling with health insurance and passports – not to mention sheer adult physicality.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a criticism. I can only imagine how heart-wrenching it must have been to film these beautiful, hopeful and spirited children as they embark on what they imagine is their journey to a better life, when in reality most never make it safely to the U.S. They are caught at the border and sent to jail-like detention centres before being shipped right back where they came from. Or they suffocate in the trunks of smugglers cars. Or worse.

Yet Which Way Home is a testament to a child’s huge stores of hope and courage while it puts a face on the realities of illegal immigration.

Which Way Home airs on CBC News Network Sunday January 24th at 10 PM ET/PT. Click here for details.

For more:

NPR interview with director Rebecca Cammisa including transcript.

Two Lists

List #1: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Thursday this year’s Documentary Feature Shortlist. I wrote about two films that appear on this list (Burma VJ and Mugabe and the White African) in a recent post.  Glad to see that they made it. Fellow docs blogger (read: guru) AJ Schnack writes to the fifteen picks and also to some notable snubs in this post.

Check back here for my thoughts on two other shortlisters: Which Way Home and The Cove. I’ve got some things to say about each.

List #2: IDFA (the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) is the world’s largest and prestigious documentary gathering and showcase. Several of the docs considered for Oscars this year were debuted at IDFA last year. So as we look backwards to the year that was in documentary filmmaking, the air is electric with the documentaries that await us. If you are interested, you can read more about the festival and the hot entries in this IndieWire article.

Boy does this Dutchy docs gal ever wish she was going to IDFA. I will have to live vicariously through my boss instead. At least I’m only one degree of separation away.


65_RedRoses is one of the most emotionally stirring documentaries I have ever watched and is now free to watch online to Canadian residents. It tells the story of 23-year old Eva Markvoort’s brave and ongoing battle with Cystic Fibrosis – a disease that is ravaging her lungs – as she awaits a double-lung transplant.

Through the Internet, Eva (a.k.a. 65_redroses when online) meets two other young women who also face a drastically reduced lifespan due to CF. They provide each other with the peer support each needs; such a battle cannot be overcome without the support of family and friends.

The film is an unflinching look at what it means to be young and facing death and is also a remarkable tale of courage and a true source of inspiration.

Click here for the official website and to watch a trailer.

Earth Keepers Wins at Planet in Focus Festival

“You can’t blame the mayor, those days are over,” was one of several astute observations in Earth Keepers, this year’s recipient of Best Canadian Long Form film at the 10th annual Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival. The statement was made by John Todd, one of the founders of the New Alchemy Institute, and creator of a greenhouse waste treatment system that filters sewage into potable water.

Todd is one of seven vanguards of the eco-movement that inspire Quebec activist Mikael Rioux who is embarked on a global quest to learn ways to make his community a more sustainable environment for his child. Rioux, once an angry protestor who went as far as pouring water on the head of a Quebec politician while being interviewed for TV, eventually realized that anger and violence were not going to save a threatened river in his town of Trois-Pistoles. The river is slated to be dammed for a mere 3.8 megawatts of electricity – not enough to power even one modern electric locomotive.

Therein lies the problem with the film. I didn’t know what 3.8 megawatts of electricity could power until I did my own research. There is something to be said for the motivational documentary versus the information documentary; they are capable of telling two very different yet equally compelling stories on the same subject matter. The danger is falling somewhere in the middle – in this vast wasteland you risk preaching to the converted as this film does.

I liked the characters in the film – Humanist Economist Peter Koenig said something along the lines of “consciousness equals self-sovereignty,” a phrase that provides me with lovely mental calesthenics. But Mikael is not nearly as engaging. “The reason I chose Mikael as my subject is because he is angry, and in the future there will be a lot of angry young people,” said filmmaker Sylvie Van Brabant as she acceped the award. I understand Brabant’s decision to use Rioux as a device to propel the story forward, but as a character to encite change, he falls flat.

The film itself is solid enough, Mikael-as-plot-device works on a mechanical level, the production value and graphics are clean and jazzy, the music lively and engaging, the characters interesting visionaries, but the film is too long. Cut to 42 minutes for television would provide more of an impact for audiences – but that begs the question, which audience?

For people new to the idea of sustainability, there is not enough practical information to convince. For people already thinking about alternatives, this film is not going to provide the inspiration to make change.  It doesn’t come close to making the heart race the way that Velcrow Ripper’s Fierce Light does. And that’s a problem if you are trying to inspire your audience into action.