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This year marked a banner year for the 21st annual Montreal International Documentary Film Festival (RIDM), Quebec’s only all-documentary film festival. Not only did it register a 6% increase in ticket sales, but it also saw a 54% increase in sold out screenings over its run from November 8-18, 2018. The sprawling festival, which screened films across Montreal at seven different theaters, boasted 157 films from 47 different countries, 51% were directed by women.
Given this impressive roster and this reviewer’s three days to spend at the festival (November 9-11), it was important to strike a balance between variety and festival-specific programming when selecting films to see and review. The following seven reviews capture that approach from the festival’s opening night documentary (What Walaa Wants) to films from its retrospective on Brazilian filmmaker Maria Augusta Ramos (Justice, Behave, and Hill of Pleasures) to Arabic, French, and English language documentaries like Each and Every Moment, Lost Warrior, and Yours in Sisterhood.
What Walaa Wants; Christy Garland; Canada, 2018; 89 minutes
The narrative crux for What Walaa Wants is much like its subject—bristling with teenage attitude and exuberance, but lacking in a mature focus. On paper, the documentary seems like it will be the chronicle of a young Palestinian woman’s struggle to join the Palestinian Authority in the face of sexism, given the security force’s predominantly male makeup. However what’s actually presented to the viewer is more of a reflection on the youthful passion and idealism that stems from wanting to a pursue a career from an early age, and the frustration of finding out it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. This unexpected path wouldn’t be an issue though, if director Christy Garland followed it to a compelling conclusion. Instead, Garland takes a number of detours along the way, delving into Walaa’s complicated relationship with her mother, her participation in violent interrogations after joining the Palestinian Authority, and her stint in prison after attacking an Israeli soldier to defend her brother. These all seem like worthwhile routes to take the documentary, but Garland quickly abandons each direction in favor of a road that feels like it lacks a cohesive destination, leaving the viewer with a sense of incompleteness by the time a close up of Walaa’s smiling face concludes the documentary.
Justice (Justica); Maria Ramos; Brazil, 2004; 100 minutes
One of the subjects in the Maria Ramos documentary Justice is wheeled to his court date.
Justice, the first documentary in a trilogy by filmmaker Maria Ramos, is a compelling dive into Rio de Janeiro’s justice system that hammers home its inequities without using any nails. Ramos effectively communicates her point by following three different people in the system: a defendant, a judge, and a defense attorney. With a shocking degree of permission from her subjects she observes them in their natural environments inside and outside the courtroom, documenting their interactions with friends and family, while also emphasizing the procedural elements that stack the cards against those accused of crimes—chiefly strict sentencing, police corruption, and witness intimidation by crime lords. Ramos presents everything matter-of-factly, allowing the viewer to make inferences and to see the problems inherent in the system that keep many citizens trapped in a revolving door of prison and poverty, but the aspect of her storytelling that makes the film truly captivating is her cinematography—from the compelling way she positions subjects within the frame and to the way she fills it entirely with striking imagery. Her gorgeous cinematography makes the film an arresting big screen experience that stands out from many documentaries, which are geared more toward home viewing because of their limited release in theaters.
Behave (Juízo); Maria Ramos; Brazil, 2007; 90 minutes
Minors wait for their instructions at a juvenile detention facility in the Maria Ramos documentary Behave.
Behave, part two in the documentary trilogy made by Maria Ramos, bears many similarities to its predecessor Justice, however it presents a fascinating legal challenge for Ramos to overcome. Behave focuses once again on Rio de Janeiro’s justice system, but this time it shows the perspective of minors (i.e. adolescents under the age of 18) accused of stealing, drug trafficking, and murder. What’s intriguing about this topic is that due to Brazilian regulations, Ramos isn’t allowed to show the true identities of these minors, so she substitutes them with innocent ones from similar social circumstances. All adult subjects in the documentary including judges, lawyers, and family members are the real people filmed during court hearings and visits to the Padre Severino Institute, the correctional facility where law-breaking minors end up. Similar to Justice, Ramos exposes the inequities that keep these youths trapped in Rio de Janeiro’s justice system, often into adulthood, by observing their sobering reality without voiceover or commentary to influence the viewer’s interpretation of the events she depicts. Once again, Ramos uses lush cinematography to create a memorable big screen experience that stirs sympathy for these young people, whose lives are permanently stunted by their trouble with the law. If Behave has any weakness however, it’s that aside from the issue of filming minors, it feels like it follows all the same uncomfortable beats and reiterates the same flaws in the system exposed by Justice. While it makes Behave’s narrative a little less engaging, it doesn’t make the issues any less upsetting or in need of change; it actually makes them more alarming because they impact minors just as seriously as they affect adults.
Hill of Pleasures (Morro dos Prazeres); Maria Ramos; Brazil, 2013; 90 minutes
A kid playing cops and robbers in Hill of Pleasures.
While Justice and Behave spend most of their time inside courtrooms and prisons, Hill of Pleasures—part three in the documentary trilogy by Maria Ramos—jumps into the field, chronicling life in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (neighborhoods) affected by the drug trade. There Ramos follows the deployment of PPU (Police Pacification Unit), a special community policing unit designed to take back the streets from drug lords and to restore order to its citizens. Once again, Ramos splits her attention between several subjects including a local teen, police officers, and a letter carrier, analyzing the challenges facing the authorities when they try to rein in a community that isn’t used to oversight. In telling this story, Ramos effectively trades the close quarters tension of courtrooms and prison cells from her previous films for the tight spaces of alleys and streets, leveraging equally stunning cinematography that showcases the urban beauty of Rio de Janeiro at day and at night. In keeping with the other entries in the series she observes her subjects impartially, allowing the audience to judge whether this experiment in community policing is the right course of action or not. Just like Ramos, this reviewer won’t a statement one way or the other, but it should be noted that the viewer’s journey to figure out the answer is as compelling as the ones in Justice and Behave.
Each and Every Moment (De chaque instant); Nicolas Philibert; France, 2018; 105 minutes
Nursing students practice CPR techniques in Each and Every Moment.
Although Nicolas Philibert’s nursing documentary Each and Every Moment starts out brisk and riveting it rapidly loses momentum in its third act due to a lack of shrewd editing. Initially Philibert’s glimpse into the lives of nursing school students at Institute of Training in Nursing is fascinating as you watch them learn important medical procedures that they will use on a regular basis like proper handwashing techniques, administering medication, and diagnosing patients in critical condition. He builds on this by showing these students at their internships applying these techniques to treating real patients, who are grateful for their care. But the documentary loses steam is in its third section, which concentrates on the students debriefing from their internships with faculty advisors. The settings for these meetings are fairly similar as are the camera setups. Plus, the content of their discussions tends to be some variation on it being difficult emotionally and physically, but an important learning experience that helped them decide where they want to focus their careers. Due to these repetitive aspects, the interviews become fairly monotonous and because this is your first time getting to know any of the students personally, watching each one talk about their internship in the context of their life experience turns into a tedious exercise. In communicating the message that nurses are heroes who must master many complicated techniques and impressively think on their feet while caring for us, Philibert succeeds. However if he had shaved 10 to 15 minutes off his third act, he would have communicated that message much more pointedly.
Mohammed and Fathi in one of the rare moments they get to spend together in Lost Warrior.
Lost Warrior’s narrative is a heartbreaking thesis about the irreversible impact of naive decisions in the context of international immigration laws. Nasib Farah and Søren Steen Jespersen’s documentary brings these points into sharp relief through a moving personal example. The directing pair tells the story of Mohammed, a Somali man who fled Somalia as a child, and grew up in the UK without his parents. In his teenage years he slacked off like any other kid, but a drug possession charge caused him to be deported back to Somalia, where he didn’t have a community, so he was easily recruited into Al-Shabaab. After realizing quickly that Al-Shabaab was a terrorist organization, Mohammed left it, however during this period he met also Fathi who he married and had a child with. Fathi returned to her native UK to be with her family and raise the child, which put Mohammed in a jam: he can’t return to England because he has associations with a terrorist organization, but he also can’t stay in Somalia because Al-Shabab wants to kill him. All he wants to do is to be with his wife and son, and Lost Warrior follows his attempts to do so, as well as his painful realization that due to immigration laws, he might never be with them if they live anywhere in Europe. Lost Warrior is an engrossing and an emotional journey that stirs frustration about the fact that there aren’t better processes for challenging immigration laws or appealing for leniency in special circumstances. Nasib Farah and Søren Steen Jespersen create that feeling by showing the difficulties Mohammed has trying to follow immigration procedures legally and the insurmountable obstacles he faces. They make the tale emotionally charged by driving home the painful difficulties of Mohammed and Fahti’s separation, and exposing their very different standards of living in the individual lives they lead. Seeing the irreconcilable distance between these two people who share a child is painful, particularly as the documentary reveals at the end Mohammed’s situation remains without resolution.
Yours in Sisterhood; Irene Lusztig; USA, 2018; 101 minutes
A subject interviewed in Yours in Sisterhood remarks on the letter she has just read.
Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood offers a brilliant premise—it takes letters from 1970-1980 to the feminist magazine Ms. and has modern women from the towns the letters came from reading them on location—the catch is that with the exception of one letter, the rest were never published. The frustrating part is that the letters address a variety of subjects like gender, class, race, sex, religion, and workplace harassment (to name a few), all issues that are still just as relevant to women today. The film benefits from featuring women in similar social circumstances to the ones who wrote the letters, allowing them opportunities to comment on the writers’ intent. There are fascinating scenes where the reader disagrees with the writer, which leads to poignant conversation. In a few instances, the documentary even tracks down the original authors to have them comment on the correspondence, which is more engaging because it provides viewers a unique glimpse into how these individuals felt at the time and how their lives have evolved since then. The only shortcomings of the film are that it’s format grows a tad repetitive based on how visually similar the segments are in and that the film fakes its audience out with a few spots it could have ended before closing on a somewhat anticlimactic note. The largest question the documentary poses is s real doozy: if these letters had been published and women had a chance to discuss their issues in more depth at the time, would we be still be dealing with them? Or would normalizing their discussion have fueled social progress? Pondering the answer is enough to haunt viewers long after the film’s conclusion.
Kerry McElroy writes the series conclusion of Bette, Marilyn, and #MeToo: What Studio-Era Actresses Can Teach Us About Economics and Rebellion, Post-Weinstein.
This series has chronicled a century of Hollywood history, focusing on female actresses who’ve navigated oppressive labor and sexual norms. Spanning eleven decades, the series revealed unexpected openings and also missed opportunities. Time and time again, women seemed poised to move ahead in American film, only to be curtailed by an industry that remained stubbornly misogynistic and objectifying.
We’ve looked at Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth and her central concept of the Iron Maiden— the way powerful beauty standards work as roadblocks to female resistance (Wolf 17). Nowhere was this strategy more effective than in the Dream Factory, which weaponized glamour in new ways.
This series took as its starting position the fact that something unique (and uniquely seductive, dangerous, and toxic) has been going in Hollywood, Los Angeles since the 1910s. Hence it has been unapologetic about its Americanist lens. Moreover, the series has relied on American economists to analyze one of the most iconic industries of the century. Peter Drucker, as example, helps to get at the heart of Hollywood’s capitalist misogyny. In his 1980s history, The Concept of the Corporation, Drucker notes that the corporate culture of the studio system was as racist and white male oriented as any of the other American corporate industries. But the film industry was of course particularly misogynist compared to “ordinary” American businesses, because it traded in the buying and selling of women’s bodies and sex. In the high studio era, the ownership of women by the studios amounted to a state of indentured servitude, making this business something new and dangerous altogether (Drucker 28).
Another major thread of the series has been how the recorded histories and the historical winners of Hollywood silenced women’s voices. The impulse to minimize what has gone on in Hollywood for a century between women and men is written into its male-dominated history. This “abuse by film history” included the ways in which truly traumatizing abuses have perpetually been written off as fun and sexy scandal or gossip, or buried in glamour and nostalgia.
Amber Tamblyn is a contemporary voice worth calling attention to as we conclude the series. This actress-turned-activist is offers the kind of institutional critique “from the inside” that we’ve traced throughout Hollywood history. Tamblyn is one of the most eloquent voices in #MeToo movement, and her creative work helped anticipate the sea change of 2017. Tamblyn’s perspective is unique: a Los Angeles native from a studio-era Hollywood family, Tamblyn worked as a teen star before turning a critical eye on the system. In 2013’s Dark Sparkler, a multimedia book of poetry, art, and essay, Tamblyn ruminates on the tragic lives of Hollywood actresses and historical and contemporary exploitations, professional, sexual, and financial. Tamblyn writes of her own experience as child of Hollywood too and the accompanying financial realities:
“I took a break from writing about the dead…to walk around my childhood neighborhood. Everything’s for rent. Or for sale, for ten times the amount it’s worth…My childhood neighborhood is a shrine to my success, and I’m a car with a bomb inside, ready to pull up in front of it and stop pretending” (Tamblyn qtd Branch).
At the forefront of #MeToo, Tamblyn has been adamant about giving voice to a century of women who, in certainly ways, lost their own. She shares with this series the conviction that to understand this moment—and its long overdue feminist reckoning—we need to analyze the institutional history of American film, focusing particularly on the experiences and voices of women.
Finally, a goal of this series has been to highlight not only exploitation and abuse of women in Hollywood but instances of courage and candor—women resisting the system. Examples include women who brought contract disputes or individual legal cases. Moreover, in class action suits and “whisper networks,” we can saw forms of solidarity that took shape and helped women survive predatory climates. Still, these historical examples of resistance give us warning. There are no guarantees that any gains made last year in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements will remain. Hollywood doubles down, as this series has shown, in response to threats to its power structure. The industry wants nothing more than scandals, like those surrounding Harvey Weinstein, to be neatly swept under the carpet without analysis of the structural economics and sexism that has allowed such behavior to flourish for one hundred years.
To help explore some of this, the series turned to French philosopher Luce Irigraray, and her vocabulary for understanding women’s bodies in the marketplace: use-value, exchange-value, and exploitation. As we’ve seen, Irigraray’s work bears upon the function of actresses in the film economy. Irigaray keenly delineates how “the use, consumption, and circulation of their sexualized bodies underwrite the organization and the reproduction of the social order, in which they have never taken part as ‘subjects’” (Irigaray 84). Many of Irigaray’s questions anticipate and also challenge our current moment: “What would happen if ‘the goods got together’ and revealed the unanticipated agency of an alternative sexual economy?” (Irigaray qtd in Butler 41).
Bill Cosby’s conviction, the exposure of Weinstein, the growth of online survivor networks, and the strength of the Time’s Up manifesto are evidence that the “goods” are finally “getting together”—to demand pay equity and an end to sexual assault. What Irigraray was calling for in 1987 almost seems a reality. The question is whether we are truly witnessing the end of female exploitation and male profiteering in the industry.
With the events of the last year, it feels in some ways as if the American film industry is finally catching up to gains made by women in most other workplaces decades ago. A challenge moving forward, one acknowledged in the Time’s Up manifesto, is to remain intersectional. The strength of the movement rests in its ability to forge solidarity between A-list stars and lesser known actresses, between white women and women of color. The sea change #MeToo and Time’s Up seeks is one that must affect everyone in the industry: directors, producers, actors, makeup artists, assistants, on-set laborers.
We need to remain vigilant, keep political pressure, and never neglect historicization. This has been the purpose behind this series. The industry establishment will look to gloss over the movement’s pointed critiques with platitudes. They will try hard to make cases like Weinstein’s seem unique—a matter of personal failing, not untenable and systemic injustice. The goal now is to be strengthened by the events, the voices, the courage, the solidarity of the past year at to “use it,” as Michael Moore has said, “to create a world without Harveys.” Or, as Lupita Nyong’o so powerfully put it in her October 2017 op-ed, courageously released in the first month of #MeToo:
“I hope we are in a pivotal moment where a sisterhood—and brotherhood of allies — is being formed in our industry….Though we may have endured powerlessness at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, by speaking up, speaking out and speaking together, we regain [our] power. And we hopefully ensure that this kind of rampant predatory behavior as an accepted feature of our industry dies here and now. Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing….I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence” (Nyong’o New York Times).
Branch, Kate. “Amber Tamblyn Goes Dark: The Actress Opens Up About Her Poetry, Hollywood, and Lindsay Lohan.” Glamour. n.pag. April 10, 2015.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Drucker, Peter F. Concept of the Corporation. New York; Signet, 1983.
Galo, Sarah. “Amber Tamblyn’s Dark Sparkler: An Unsettling Meditation on Early Fame.” The Guardian. 8 April, 2015. n. pag.
Irigaray, Luce. The Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.
Nyong’o, Lupita. “Lupita Nyong’o: Speaking Out About Harvey Weinstein.” New York Times. October 29, 2017.
Olsen, Mark. “Michael Moore Proposes A Plan For ‘A World Without Harveys’.” Los Angeles Times. October 13, 2017.
Tamblyn, Amber. Dark Sparkler. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York: W. Morrow, 1991.