The Workers Cup (UK, 2017): Much has been said about the brutal conditions foreign workers must endure while building stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup (high temperatures, excessive hours, disproportionately low wages). Their plight has seldom been documented: Press access to worksites is severely restricted.
Director Adam Sobel takes advantage of a PR move to gain access to the workforce. The embattled contractors have organized a soccer championship to show concern for the wellbeing of their employees: The Workers Cup. The overworked personnel fails to see the tournament as a publicity stunt and happily become involved.
The harsh realities of being a foreign worker in Qatar seep through the supposedly wholesome competition. Unsavory situations like being unable to leave camp at will, or a man getting stabbed by his roommate so he could be sent back home pepper the daily lives of the migrant workforce.
Much to the film’s credit, The Workers Cup treats its subjects as individuals with agency and not as victims, which makes their plight much more relatable. Their story has only started to unfold. 3.5/5 planets.
The Road Forward (Canada, 2016): A blend of musical and documentary too ambitious for its own good, The Road Forward attempts to tackle First Nations’ most significant struggles of the last century (the Native Brotherhood, the Constitution Express, residential schools, missing aboriginal women) via information and music. The outcome is so scattered, it’s hard to become fully immersed in the film.
As if recent history wasn’t enough, The Road Forward dedicates a fair amount of time to the performers’ own battles. Their stories are compelling in their own right, but become lost in a bombardment of minutiae, particularly in the top half. Five years ago, the stylistically similar The Art of Killing succeeded by limiting its scope.
The rise of Canada’s first indigenous newspaper -The Native Voice- gives the film a vague framing, but the outcome cries for structure. The music comes close to provide one (“Indian Man” is so catchy it should transcend the film), but the result is far from cohesive. 2/5 planets.
City of Ghosts (USA, 2016): Documentaries don’t get any timelier and pressing than director Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to Cartel Land. The filmmaker chronicles the struggle of a group of Syrians who, as a response to ISIS taking over their city, started the site called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, which would go on to win the Freedom of the Press Award.
Mermaids (Canada, 2016): A fascinating phenomenon per se, women who find personal fulfillment by becoming “mermaids” are a lot more common than expected. Mermaids focuses on three of them, each one going through a challenging journey: A transgender woman, a grieving sister and a bipolar Latina coming to terms with a history of abuse. Each one has discovered that rubber tails free them from all their burdens, however briefly.
Bee Nation (Canada, 2017): The definition of a crowd-pleaser to kick off this edition of HotDocs, Bee Nation revolves around an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: The First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition. The first ever for aboriginal community.
It’s Documentary 101: Director Lana Slezic pics a handful of kids from different First Nations communities in Saskatchewan and shows their lives and how they prepare for the event. The approach allows some distressing information to seep through, like the fact schools in reserves receive considerable less money per student and, forcing administrators to make some hard decisions regarding their curriculum.
The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, but they have a personality of their own (for William, failure is devastating; Savannah is a model of personal drive). In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve. Heartbreak is unavoidable (the winners of the provincial chapter head to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but makes for great cinema.
Bee Nation is a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs banner), but is worth your attention.
3/5 planets. Bee Nation will premiere on CBC in September.
Disneynature’s seventh feature, Born in China, doesn’t stray from the formula (anthropomorphizing, cuteness galore), but next to previous entries, it inches closer to the darkness of the animal kingdom.
Narrated competently by John Krasinski (he is no Samuel L. Jackson, but who is it?), Born in China has plenty of leads: A family of snow leopards; an overprotective mama panda and her free-spirited cub; a golden snub-nosed monkey with abandonment issues; and a number of personality-free cranes and antelopes.
The heart of the movie lies with the snow leopards, a female and her two cubs. Through the course of the film, the felines go from ruling the mountain to fighting to survive. Historically, Disneynature has avoided showing animal violence. This particular storyline is not the exception, but certain information voids in the narrative are somehow more unsettling.
The cinematography is extraordinary even for Disneynature’s high standards. The snow leopard hunting sequences (involving sharp cliffs and pugnacious would-be pray) are spectacular. The making-of snippets during the credits are particularly enlightening this time around.
While I understand the series targets younger audiences, the narrative arcs are feeling repetitive (this series appeals more to family than The Fast and the Furious) and the editing stitches are showing. It’s undoubtedly a pickle moving forward, but it’s an interesting one. 3/5 planets.
Born in China opens tomorrow Friday, April 21st, everywhere.
A slow-burning documentary by Nettie Wild, Koneline: Our Land Beautiful depicts the simmering tensions in northern British Columbia between a population in a symbiotic relationship with nature and the disruptive force of mining companies.
While the impending conflict is a great motivator, Nettie Wild takes her time to show how mine construction upsets every activity in Tahltan territory. Even something supposedly benign as the power grid reaching further up the northwest is seen as harbinger of doom. “When people comes, wildlife disappears”, assess a hunting impresario accurately.
Most of Koneline’s interviewees are part of the community. In most cases, their livelihoods are at stake. Tahltan’s elders have organized a blockage, but there is dissension in the ranks and the strategy is not sustainable in time. The area is believed a world class gold deposit and mining startups are already punching holes all around.
The director makes two smart decisions in approaching the subject: Finds a sturdy narrative and allows it to unfold organically, even at expense of a traditional ending (to this day, the situation remains in flux). Also, the fact documentaries are visual constructs is never far from Nettie Wild’s mind. Eye-popping sequences like horses crossing a treacherous river populate the film and drive the message home.
It’s never in doubt on whose side the film is on. The government of British Columbia and Imperial Metals don’t do themselves any favors, the former by being noncommittal and the latter by showing an off-putting sense of entitlement (“we paid a significant amount of money” says an executive on camera, annoyed by the blockage). Without a decisive victory for one or the other side, it seems the conflict will go on, nature losing ground one transmission tower at the time. 3.5/5 planets.
Koneline: Our Land Beautiful opens this Friday 6th at the Roxy Theatre. On Wednesday the 12th, Nettie Wild will be doing a Q&A via Skype following the 7 pm screening.
British filmmaker Ben Wheatley is making his mark not only through his nihilistic movies, but by influencing some of his collaborators. Chief of them all is Alice Lowe. The female lead in Wheatley’s most “accessible” film, Sightseers, Lowe does it all -writes, directs, stars- in Prevenge, a pitch black comedy that pushes the envelope further than you could possibly imagine.
Lowe is Ruth, a pregnant woman on her third trimester who goes on a killing spree. The targets are very specific (we slowly learn why), and Ruth is more or less methodical in her approach. She seems to be getting orders from her unborn baby, who despite having been surrounded by amniotic fluid since her conception, is very judgemental.
Prevenge moves at brisk pace, and allows plenty of humor among the carnage, mostly from the contrast between the presumably vulnerable Ruth and her actions. In spite of her doings, the protagonist remains sympathetic, as if her life wasn’t her own. Repeatedly, we get back to Ruth’s doctor who -unaware of her patient’s homicidal tendencies- pushes her to wrestle control back from the unborn baby.
While there is a clear method to the madness, Prevenge resolution is a notch underwhelming. That said, Lowe dots her I’s and crosses her T’s. The overall thoughtfulness indicates there is a future for the multi-hyphenate artist behind the camera. Three prairie dogs.
Prevenge starts streaming in Shudder on March 24th.
For a low-budget genre flick, there are several things We Go On does right. It’s a self-contained film that doesn’t chew more than it can eat, features a true to life dialogue, and -above all- invests on a good cast, namely John Glover in a supporting role and the perennially underrated Annette O’Toole as one of the leads.
The plot: Crippled by phobias and fear of dying, Miles (Clark Freeman) comes to the conclusion the only way he can move on with his life is by having certainty there is something beyond the grave. He literally throws money to the problem by offering 30,000 dollars to the first person able to prove we go on (see what I did there?)
Predictably, Miles receives hundreds of answers, but only four capture his attention: An academic, a medium, an adventurer and a mysterious caller. Alongside his concerned mother (O’Toole), Miles goes on a supernatural tryout that may render undesired results.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Miles and his mom. In spite of the context, the two maintain a healthy rapport, which ups the ante. The top half slow-burning leads to a more traditional -if competent- conclusion. The denouement works with recognizable genre troupes, but still manages to provide a surprise or two.
Because We Go On is aware of its limitations, it doesn’t try for the ‘wow’ factor. It could have taken some risks and deliver some jolts, but overall, it’s a tidy endeavor. Two and a half planets.
In this year’s Best Foreign Language Film’s Oscar race, Toni Erdmann has the critics’ love and The Salesman locks up the controversy factor.
A Man Called Ove is more low-key than its peers, but it’s a better movie that’s worth of your attention.
(Oddly, it also got a second nomination: Best Make Up.)
The Ove in question (Rolf Lassgård, Wallander) is a cantankerous man on the verge of becoming a sexagenarian. Deemed redundant by the factory he has worked at his entire life and without his wife, Ove doesn’t have a good reason to go on.
But just as he’s adjusting the noose around his neck, a noisy Persian-Swedish family moves in next door. If there’s something stronger than Ove’s death wish, it’s the need to tell people off (think of a darker Curb Your Enthusiasm). Soon, the situation becomes a loop and every time Ove is close to meet his maker, we get a flashback that helps us understand the grumpy old man. Let’s just say he has been dealt a number of rotten hands through the years.
Besides lots of black humor, A Man Called Ove is a fun character study that shows the power of community and the benefits of diversity. The film may not be as cutting as the competition, but for sure is timely. Four planets.