It’s hard to remember, what with the success of films such as Spellbound and An Inconvenient Truth, that there was once a time when documentaries were pigeonholed as boring, humourless, and pedantic, appealing only to a niche audience of die-hard intellectuals.
From her vantage point as executive director of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, which runs from Tuesday to next Sunday (May 27 to June 1), Kristine Anderson has been in a good position to witness the shift in attitudes toward the genre.
“There’s been a huge change both in the films themselves and in the audience’s response to films,” she observes in a phone conversation with the Straight, reflecting on the eight years that have passed since the festival’s inception. “Fiction and documentary aren’t as separate now, as far as what people are looking for in films. I think a really huge, broad audience is interested in documentary film now. I think people have been exposed to it, whether it’s a combination of crappy reality TV and stuff on the Internet, combined with Michael Moore showing films in theatres.”
The increased exposure to docs, coupled with advances in technology that have made it easier, and cheaper, for anyone to record their experiences, means more people than ever are picking up cameras and giving movie-making a whirl, adds Anderson.
“I mean, people make documentaries with their cellphones,” she notes. “They make documentaries with still photographs and their cameras. They make documentaries with little video cameras.”
And sometimes, as in the case of Vancouverites Gwendal Castellan and his partner Tania Lo, they strap cameras to their bicycles and start pedalling halfway across the globe. Neither Castellan nor Lo had any experience with film work when they decided to document Castellan’s 18-month journey—accompanied for 12 months by Lo—from the southernmost tip of Argentina to the Canadian Arctic. Nevertheless, the resulting film, Long Road North, premiering at the Pacific Cinémathí¨que on Wednesday (May 28) at 9 p.m., has already generated so much buzz that a second screening has been added for next Saturday (May 31) at 10 a.m. at Vancity Theatre.
“We just knew that we would do our best, shoot everything that we thought was interesting or that could tell a story, and come back and deal with it,” says Lo, who appears on screen and acted as the film’s producer. (Castellan and Ian Hinkle, who joined the project following the trip, are its codirectors.) No sound man or key grips here: all the shooting was done by Lo and Castellan, or sometimes by friends who joined them for short legs of the journey.
“A lot of the time we would just set up the camera ahead, ride up to it, and then come back for it,” laughs Lo. “If we had time for an outtakes series, it would be a lot of us running towards the camera.”
The camera itself came along by way of a lucky accident—or an unlucky one, depending on your perspective. “We didn’t have any money, so we were wondering, ”˜What are we going to do with a crappy little camera?’ ” recalls Lo. “What happened was Gwendal had a car accident, and when ICBC finally settled, it was enough money to get a good-grade camera.”
If Gwendal’s brush with death had a happy outcome, the same cannot be said for the subjects of Wipe Out, an eye-opening work by local director and producer Lionel Goddard. The film, which premieres Thursday (May 29) at 7 p.m. at Vancity Theatre, examines the hidden epidemic of brain injuries—the leading cause of death and disability for males aged 18 to 35—by tracing the footsteps of three brain-injured extreme-sports enthusiasts in different stages of recovery.
“On a personal level, this was the most difficult film I have ever made,” Goddard confesses. “I became very close to all these young men, and I grieved for them and their families.”¦I would come home from a film shoot and every night I would go in and look at my two boys and realize that this could be them through no fault of parenting. I mean, young men are only doing what is socially sanctioned for them to do. And I think we need to change those attitudes.”
Also hoping to spark a change in attitudes is Warrior Boyz, the debut documentary by local director Baljit Sangra. It delves into root causes of gang violence within the community of Canadians of Punjabi descent.
In the film we meet Jagdeep, an ex-con and former gang member; Vicky, a fearful 18-year-old trying to get on the straight and narrow after a violent past; and shy, 15-year-old Tanvir, whose desperate need for acceptance and belonging makes him easy pickings. Its screening at Vancity Theatre next Saturday (May 31) at 5 p.m. will be followed by a community forum featuring some of the film’s participants, who will be joined by Langara sociology instructor Indira Prahst and former B.C. premier and current federal public-safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh.
“I’m trying to humanize it [the issue of gang violence],” explains Sangra, “to put a face to a kid and what they’re going through.”
Welcome to the new era of documentary filmmaking: intriguing, engaging, and thought-provoking. Boring? Not a chance.