Although it had already screened at various festivals (Locarno, New York, etc.) since premiering in Cannes last May, Mekong Hotel still felt like a flag in the sand at this year’s Montreal International Documentary Festival (aka Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal aka RIDM). At 57 minutes neither a feature nor a short, no more or less a work of documentary than an in-progress art object, with sequences that are both (or simultaneously) performed and candidly captured, and self-referential craft tag-teaming the text vs. subtext game with politics and history, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s whatsit helped define a slate in which synopses, subject, and nationality were poor predictors of what the majority of films brought to bear.
This speaks to the adventurousness of RIDM, a still very Quebecois showcase that has nevertheless widened and faceted since Executive Director Roxanne Sayegh’s arrival in 2010. But it also speaks to the current moment in documentary filmmaking, to days of shifting definitions, hybrid forms, and diversified financing, to a liberating split between the Sundance/HBO/Oscar-ready docs and everything/everyone/whatever else. Familiar forms were in effect at RIDM this year—via both stateside imports like Charles Bradley: Soul of America and Canadian films like Wavemakers—but unpredictable and organic shapes were more the rule, thanks to a strong slate of shorts, medium-length films, and features. To put it perhaps too simply, one hustled up and down Rue Saint Laurent, and back and forth across De Maisonneuve to RIDM’s well-outfitted venues not to hear stories—at least not in the familiar, three-act issue-doc sense—but to ricochet between experiences.
My favorite was the one offered by Ex Press, an Apichatpong-esque act of cinema that is at once formally inspired and punkily enraged. Like an intertextual ghost, Filipino filmmaker Jet Leyco’s debut feature drifts among memories of a murder and the evidences of a corrupt and impoverished culture, conflating specificities and generalities, protest and poetry. Motivated by an incident in which a member of the Philippine rail police shot an unarmed soldier, as well as by systemic brutality and violent unrest along the train’s path through rural terrain, Leyco actively obfuscates the very details that he obsesses over, choosing sensory immersion over narrative articulation. There are TV news re-enactments, verité-like black-and-white sequences of men at work on the rails, Tarkovsky-like digressions into gorgeously opaque symbolism, fraudulent interviews, and a soundtrack densely layered with non-diegetic noises: beeps, horns, hisses, clanging rocks, infinitely repeated PA announcements, and the chugging, chugging, chugging of unseen coaches slicing through the landscape. Leyco’s imagination and emotions wildly (and thrillingly) overflow.
Let the Daylight Into the Swamp
There’s an excess of bluster to the first section of Let the Daylight Into the Swamp, another wide net cast into the past. But its Guy Maddin–like retro-pastiche affect abruptly shifts to more sober and unsettling techniques as Canadian director Jeffrey St. Jules’s further fractures his family portrait. Playing as part of RIDM’s strong selection of medium-length films (works that other festivals often can’t place), the dense 37-minute Let the Daylight speculates about the lives and motivations of long-dead grandparents that abandoned his father as a child, toggling between re-enactments, concocted confessionals, and real-life interrogations of people who also gave up their children. It works as a whole, even when individual scenes don’t, because of the sincerity of St. Jules’s mission: to understand and process what seems unfathomable; to humanize actions that horrify us. St. Jules’s film was paired with another family portrait, the home-movie horror-comedy short Family Nightmare. In this 11-minute knockout, Dustin Guy Defa organizes cruddy-looking video clips of his relatives behaving badly into a montage that starts as mocking and morphs into rage. Defa dubs his own voice over that of his brethren, which both owns and condemns the boozy house-party behavior. In an outsider’s hands—and potentially in the audience’s as well—it’s an artifact of exploitation, but for Defa it’s nothing less than an exorcism.
A less personal but no less angry amalgam of crude footage, Pieces and Love All to Hell is entirely comprised of YouTube clips of conspiracy-theorizing wackos. There’s something sneering about a Canadian filmmaker focusing entirely American expressions of apocalyptic insanity—Lord knows there are enough right-wing nuts and semi-automatic-rifle-huggers north of the border to warrant an expanded scope. But director Dominic Gagnon’s boldest, and most persuasive assertion, is that this brand of psychotic exhibitionism—passenger side rants about police states, white supremacy, end-of-days survival prep and genetically modified food—isn’t the exclusive domain of men, as all of the film’s recurring yahoos represent a frightfully unhinged matriarchy.
While Gagnon stuck to the Internet for his frightful (and unfailingly entertaining) cartoon of America, three other Canadian filmmakers physically journeyed much further afield to tell stories from abroad. Caroline Martel goes deep into musical arcana for Wavemakers, an engaging exploration of the ondes Martenot, a keyboard-based instrument that was the vanguard of electronic music in the 1920s. From archival footage of Parisian inventor Maurice Martenot to nerd-out interviews with musicians like Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Wavemakers is a worthy companion to 1994’s Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, that other film about that other Jazz Age electronic noisemaker. In Jeppe on a Friday, filmmakers Arya Lalloo and Shannon Walsh descend upon South African to paint a literal day-in-the-life portrait of Johannesburg’s working-class suburb, Jeppe. Each of the film’s subjects proves to be worthy company (save for a preening white real-estate developer clearly chosen to stand in simplistic, ready-made Marxist contrast to the non-white laborers), particularly an exceptionally well-mannered, disturbingly skeletal recycling scavenger who’s an ex-con. But the film is weakened somewhat by its noble conceptual demands: after a while, all the cross-cutting in the world can’t distract from the fact that not enough happened on August 26, 2010 to make Jeppe truly come alive.
The Fruit Hunters
One of the highest-profile premieres of the festival came courtesy of local boy Yung Chang, whose 2007 film Up the Yangtze was one of the strongest documentary debuts in recent memory. In form, tone, content, and visual presentation, The Fruit Hunters couldn’t be more of a departure from that film. Inspired by Adam Gollner’s nonfiction book of the same name, and guided by Chang’s own smooth, Johnny Depp-on-a-lucid-day voice-over, The Fruit Hunters jackrabbits around the globe to shadow people obsessed with finding, growing, and tasting rare and obscure fruit. Though it goes too far towards making its ideas and ambitions (which are not inconsiderable) digestible for general audiences, it does provide one of the most entertaining documentary cameos of the year in the genial spectacle of Bill Pullman, quirky California horticulturalist. Whether he’s slicing a machete through high Hawaiian vegetation or rallying his hippie Hollywood neighbors to start a community garden, Pullman shows how natural screen charisma can prevail over even indecent levels of mango fondling.
Where the Condors Fly
Exemplifying the festival’s rambling spirit, no film logged more miles or absorbed as many bruises as Where the Condors Fly, a first-person artistic revival wrapped around a making-of documentary wrapped around an ambivalent portrait of a genius. After years of inactivity, Chilean filmmaker Carlos Klein decided to jump-start his mojo by shadowing Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky while he shot his ludicrously ambitious and hubristic globe-trotting masterpiece, Vivan Las Antipodas! (still somehow without U.S. distribution). Something like a shaggier, shakier, poison-pen sibling to Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, Klein’s film captures Kossakovsky’s staggering vision—he turns rain-forest rocks into beached Australian whales and seamlessly melds Shanghai and rural Argentina in the same shot—as well as his megalomania: he routinely condescends to his ostensible friend Klein and bullies his composer, for starters. But Where the Condors Fly is most valuable when panning beyond his mentor’s meticulously prepared frames. The beauties he captures are less majestic, but just as moving for being candidly glimpsed—they’re suggestions rather than statements of transcendence, a forceful case for the coexistence and co-importance of minor and major movie creations.