In 2017, you could say that DOXA is staring back at itself. For a documentary-film festival that has hardly ever been shy about agit-prop, disruption, or general rabble-rousing, giving this year’s spotlight series to “Troublemakers” merely feels like an idea whose time has finally come, and then only because it hasn’t already. Here, we find 10 films of “deep dissent and defiance”, as the DOXA program puts it, “about people righting wrongs and reimagining the future”.
For a filmmaker like Vancouver’s David Goldberg, the wager is that troublemaking can be infectious. His debut film, “The Caretakers”, joins the protesters who put themselves between Kinder Morgan and the territory being eyeballed for a trans-mountain pipeline on Burnaby Mountain in 2014. Goldberg captures the sometimes brutal clash with police that followed a successful injunction by the Texan company in November of that year.
Such images are depressingly familiar. But “The Caretakers” puts its major focus on the relationship between indigenous land and water protectors and their settler allies, while taking a brief but critical time-out to speak with former B.C. Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen. His blunt estimation of the protest, remarkably, is that it’s completely necessary. Canada’s regulatory bodies have abandoned the public interest in favour of facilitating multinational oil companies, he says, deeming the actions of the National Energy Board “a farce”.
“He was literally fizzing,” says Goldberg, in a call to the Straight. “He was agitated about the stance that Kinder Morgan and the NEB had taken, and was very proactive toward the direct action taken by the protesters. And that was awesome.” It’s also stirring evidence that anyone can have their mind changed, even in areas as intractably polarized as energy policy and environmental protection, and even if they’re a former board member at Suncor.
DOXA includes movies in its Spotlight on Troublemakers series that aren’t so overtly political—you’ll find music, art, and some of the more arcane realms of social theory among its subjects, plus at least one major Hollywood star setting a few conceptual fires—but each one is a challenge to prevailing modes of thought. And behind all that is the insistence that a movie can actually make a difference.
“I think storytelling is what’s at the root of it, and storytelling has been part of humanity since forever,” says Goldberg. “When you say that history is written by the winners, documentary gets to be a critical voice of the story as it’s happening. And with education systems broadening into nothing but multiple-choice questions, critical thought or storytelling in any form is needed, in documentary or narrative film.”
But can it actually lead to any kind of advance? Goldberg thinks so, and he can back up his belief with some pretty compelling anecdotal evidence. “Well, my dad voted for Harper,” he says, with a laugh. “But I showed him this film and he really liked it, so—what kind of dialogue has that started in his mind?”
Yeah, fair enough, but on the other hand kids are always trouble.
You wanna rumble? Here are four Straight-approved picks from DOXA’s Spotlight on Troublemakers series.
Ada For Mayor (Spain) Elected in an upset in 2015, Ada Colau went from housing-rights activist to mayor of Barcelona in three incredible years. During her campaign, captured here in its entirety, she is ridiculed by media, attacked for her “Venezuelan” politics, and—rather hilariously, really—excluded from all the off-camera chumminess between the pompous mainstream charlatans she’s running against.
Her party, a new leftist coalition called Guanyem, even thwarts a clumsy sabotage attempt traced back to the interior ministry. That’s how sad and impotent the establishment starts to look in the face of Colau’s simple integrity. Meanwhile, in an amazing series of private video diaries, she wrestles with her profound distaste for every single aspect of the whole toxic charade. We couldn’t relate more. An essential film. Cinematheque, May 9 (7 p.m.)
Donna Haraway: Story telling for Earthly Survival (Belgium) A blast from that distinctly Californian academic milieu sitting somewhere between the human potential movement and Silicon Valley futurism, here we have the influential author of “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” holding forth (some might say rambling circuitously) on topics including science fiction and her life inside a sexually fluid extended family of friends and lovers.
Much of it is captivatingly dotty, including director Fabrizio Terranova’s inelegant if disquieting video effects, like the enormous jellyfish that placidly floats in and out of Haraway’s study. Some of it is exquisite brain food. It all comes together (probably) in the wonderful sci-fi short story Haraway recites at the film’s end. The Annex, May 5 (7 p.m.)
Manifesto (Germany) Closing DOXA with a high-concept bang, German artist Julian Rosefeldt unleashes Cate Blanchett to recite from a collage of (mostly) 20th-century art manifestos while taking on 13 different ironically pitched personas.
The effect can be hilarious, as in the whey-faced widow who bellows “From now on we want to shit in different colours!” at a funeral procession (from a Tristan Tzara Dadaist tract), or the rather brilliantly executed segment in which an anchor and a reporter (both Blanchett) debate minimalism in the frigid tones of the television news industry.
As a conservative southern mom, an imperious Russian choreographer, or a wild-eyed homeless Glaswegian, Blanchett is clearly having a blast. Who wouldn’t, given how ecstatically alive and provocative so many of these words still sound? SFU-GCA, May 13 (8 p.m.); Vancity Theatre, May 14 (6:30 p.m.)
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (Canada) Charley Patton and Jimi Hendrix are among the godhead musicians whose veins coursed with aboriginal blood, although the real spirit animal here is Link Wray, whose incredibly influential 1958 instrumental gives this celebratory and deeply satisfying doc its name. “Here comes this sound that makes you levitate out of bed about four feet,” is how Taj Mahal remembers first hearing Wray’s menacing (and much banned) hit.
Mahal’s own outfit would feature Comanche-Kiowa guitar genius Jesse Ed Davis, also lovingly profiled here alongside jazz pioneer Mildred Bailey and a remarkable succession of artists leading all the way to Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo. In the end, with help from the likes of Wayne Kramer and Iggy Pop, Rumble makes it abundantly clear that the time has come to rewrite the book on American music, or as the ever-pithy Robbie Robertson puts it, “Yeah, you wouldn’t let me talk about it before, well now I’m gonna talk real loud.” Vancity Theatre, May 5 (9 p.m.)
The DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs at various venues from next Thursday (May 4) to May 14. More information is at the DOXA Film Festival website.