Hot Docs 2011

1 05 2011

Officially, Hot Docs began April 28th. But it feels like still it’s the “party weekend” before Hot Docs really begins – the Hot Docs that for so many in the film industry means endless meetings, sweaty pitches, making connections and hopefully, landing a deal.

I’ve had the chance to meet some wonderful people, from festival programmers to producers and filmmakers (mostly at the amazing social nights that start after 9 every day) but the best thing about Hot Docs is, of course, the films. That’s why we’re all here. To see the incredible results of a filmmaker’s vision. To delight in watching what took sometimes five or ten years of work to realize.

So without further introduction, here’s a slice of a few of the films I’ve had the privilege to see over the last 3 days.

The Bengali Detective is my personal pick for audience favourite of the year.

It’s hard to claim that after having only seen 7 films, knowing there are so many excellent ones out there. Over 200 of them! But this film is a true crowd-pleaser. It follows the engaging, loveable Rajesh Ji, a private investigator who secretly wants to be a Bollywood dancer. It’s a crime show-whodunnit-love story-tragi-comedy that hits all the right notes.

Rajesh’s work is serious, as people call on him to solve crimes they feel the police don’t care about. The film points out a system that still today, for all of India’s progress, oppresses the poor and makes the vulnerable pay. But rather than the typical story about another heartbreaking struggle, the story is so vibrant and full of courage, so tragic and comic, that I gained a totally new compassion and understanding of India.

Rajesh is also a loving father and husband, and it’s touching to see his expressive affection for his son and wife. There’s a tragedy lurking, but I’ll let you watch it  – it’s a heartbreaker. All in all I felt this is like a feature film with all the right elements to pull a sophisticated audience along, and it all just happens to be true.

A second favourite is ‘Fightville’, a film about amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, by veteran filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. Here’s a more complete review in the Globe and Mail than mine could ever be.

I’m not sure why it appealed to me so much – certainly not because of the violence inside the cage where young men in the prime do their best to destroy their opponent. The more realistic the violence, the paler and more uncomfortable I become. It’s not a film for the faint of heart. But I loved this film because it challenged a lot of pre-conceived notions I had about MMA and UFC fighting. It’s a character study with a cage as a set and the sound of blows and grunts as the soundtrack.

It also has a strong theme of the journey to becoming a man. The film follows two young men who have dedicated their lives to being the best fighter in the ring, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback. One from a violent childhood, the other who looked up to his fighter father and wants to be just like him. In the sweat and blood of the Louisiana gym where they train, we watch them both learn more about life and themselves. Both men are articulate and give a voice to why some men turn to violence to express what’s inside.

We see through ‘Fightville’ that it almost doesn’t matter that the discipline is mixed martial arts. These men could be training to be fighter pilots or chefs. But through the journey of committing themselves and pursuing something so totally if they’re going to be the best, they become better men. And that’s a story every athlete and artist can relate to.

More reviews to come, I’ve got to sign off for now.





2-minute trailer for Horses for Orphans short film

1 01 2011

Posted it on YouTube early this morning to ring in the new year:

Hope you enjoy it!

This is the first film by Blue Cyrus Media, the production company started earlier this year by myself and Charlotte Gentis.

We shot on location in Brazil in March 2010 and have just completed a 20-minute version for the charity’s website. Although not a documentary in the strictest sense of the word – this version is meant to promote and explain what the ‘Horses for Orphans’ charity is doing on their website www.lostchildrenoftheearth.com – it will tell a story using documentary techniques. Hopefully it will be poetic and moving as well.

We do plan to go ahead and try to make a documentary about the main character, horsewoman Ingela Larsson Smith. We’ve invested enough to film throughout two trips to Brazil, but I will be looking for finishing funds to edit and produce it sometime later this year.

Happy New Year everyone!

– Tobi Elliott





Storytelling from the fringe

6 12 2010

“Fringe” is a word I used to dislike very much. Maybe because I’m too conservative…? Traditional? Or maybe because I’m the kind of gal who likes to include everybody. Why should we celebrate “fringe” unless we want to practice exclusion as a society? No one should be on the fringes of community!

However, my gripe with “fringe” is possibly the very reason I’m working to become a documentary filmmaker. This is what causes me to go to those the mainstream considers “on the outside” and invite them in, by letting them tell their story to a wider audience who might not otherwise get to hear it.

Telling your story is a powerful way to invite people into your life. Through storytelling, others are invited into your conversation, and you grow into their community. Memoirs, first-person narratives, personal documentary journeys – these could all be just as easily defined as “testimonials” because they testify to where we’ve been, and who we become through the individual circumstances in our lives.

With that in mind – and because it was free, thanks UBC Dialogues! – I attended a panel discussion on “Storytelling from the Fringe” Saturday at the Whistler Film Festival. You want to hear about the juicy scoop on the films don’t you? Well, sorry to disappoint, I didn’t see a single one.

Saturday night’s film A Life Ascending directed by Stephen Grynberg was sold out, and I wasn’t into seeing the German thriller The Silence, although it looks very good. So no movies for me in Whistler, however I did go later that evening to see the striking film Fair Game in a Vancouver theatre – the fascinating account of Valerie Plame being outed as a CIA agent by the Bush administration, and the “discovery” of non-existent WMD that lead to the Iraq war.)

But here’s a good roundup of the fest. I was happy to note that the one film I would have liked to see again after watching it at Hot Docs, Marwencol, won a $2,500 documentary award for “an intimate portrait of an artist who lives between fantasy and reality and whose miniaturized world magnifies our own.”

It’s an incredible film, a fascinating portrait of an artist using toys in to-scale human dramas to deal with the psychological aftermath he lives with after receiving a vicious beating. Here’s an interview with director Jeff Malmberg.

But back to what I did see…

Documentary directors Gwen Haworth (Not Kokura and She’s a Boy I Knew), Nettie Wild (director of A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988), Blockade (1993), A Place Called Chiapas (1998), and Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (2002 ) and experimental video artist Daniel Cockburn talked about their experiences in making films “from the fringe.”

In Nettie and Gwen’s case they spoke about filming subjects who are often marginalized from the mainstream, and in Daniel’s case, about his extremely experimental films which – for most people – kind of defines “fringe”, even though he himself was reluctant to subscribe to the term. I’m going to focus on what Nettie had to say because her approach is closest to the kinds of stories I want to tell. And as a sought-after mentor in documentary film who has worked the longest term of the three as a filmmaker, she has a lot of wisdom to offer.

Nettie said that every day she’s filming or editing, she has to ask herself: “Why on earth am I doing this?” She said she is aware that she comes as an outsider to her documentary subjects. Whether in the Chiapas, the Phillipines, or a relationship between a drug addict and a non-user on Vancouver’s streets, Nettie gains access to a world she doesn’t come from through trust and friendship. But it can only go so far. She knows she can only “walk alongside” these people in order to tell their story – which she describes as “high stakes dramas” – and is only allowed as deep as her subjects will take her.

The answer to her question though, is the people themselves who trust her with their stories. Because they’ve been courageous enough to open up and make themselves vulnerable to a perfect stranger, she has an obligation to fulfill, a film to make. This is also why Nettie says she works for a full year following the release of any of her films to ensure it gets as wide a distribution as possible. This is to honour her unspoken contract with her subjects: they let her into their lives and in return she works hard to bring the story to the public, right next to the blockbuster showing at Cineplex.

In Nettie’s case, it seems the “fringe” element is the classic reason documentarians exist: to bring the stories of life on the lonely edges of what we know into the light of the known and acknowledged. (There’s a new book out about Nettie and her films from Anvil Press, and a retrospective of her work will be showing January 15 – 17 at the Pacific Cinematique.)

While Nettie’s stories tend to use a linear, direct-line narrative, Daniel’s experimental videos are far from linear. It took him about 3.5 minutes to explain his latest film You are here to the audience, and even then he had to say the film never makes it clear where the story is set or how his characters are related. In his case, the unconventional mediums Daniel uses to encase his stories is the “fringe” element. (Click here for a good interview with the director about the film.)

Gwen’s perspective as a filmmaker from the fringes is very different yet again.

Her up-close and personal documentary film She’s a boy I knew is an “ethnographic autobio pic” of her family and ex-wife’s experiences and emotions as the filmmaker underwent gender reassignment from male to female. In this case, the subject matter is the fringe area.

Gwen spoke about her determination to honour the voices of those making themselves vulnerable to the camera – her father, mother, sister, best friend and ex-wife – and spoke about how she strove not to centre the film around her life as a transsexual lesbian.

I thought Gwen’s comments were powerful because the tendency in filmmaking is to focus the action on the “hero” – the classic protagonist-going-through-fire. In this case the principal actor chose to truly tell this story from the fringes, from the perspective of those around her.

So far… I have to say that compared to these folk, my storytelling from the fringes has been limited thus far. But there are a few: about a Young Man who decides to quit life on the streets and his home in a Montreal squat, a Woman whose faith goes counter to ordinary human logic as she bucks the odds and brings healing through horsemanship to the “lost children of the earth”, and a couple of Trappers in northeastern BC who love the bush and animals enough to get risk getting involved in the regulatory system around oil and gas extraction.

More on that story to come…





Trappers, beavers, farmers and gas, oh my.

15 11 2010

Nice beaver carcass (still intact). Still from footage shot by T. Elliott

I had a thrilling and productive time during my trip last week to Northeastern BC as I researched a couple of stories.

One priority was to firm up details about a project we’re doing for the B.C. Trapper’s Association, which ended with the predictable result that instead of talking turkey (and dollars and cents), we ended up filming a few sessions of beaver/otter/fox-pelting instead. (What’s the point of talking with the camera off, anyway?)

The beaver skinning and the otter fleshing-out were graphic, but I was OK with it. Mostly. But the fox being skinned out almost made me revisit my excellent dinner of elk meat I’d eaten earlier that night. Apart from that, I got to film a snare-tying workshop with the Fort St. John Trappers, and on my last day in the north, a mercy killing of muskrats who would have starved to death in a slowly freezing pond in Dawson Creek. Altogether, a bush education to whip the city-smarts right out of me!

The other story is bittersweet for me. I was privileged to attend the arbitration hearing of a local farmer who is refusing to settle with a gas company in the matter of compensation for their use of his land. The matter is about a year old since they already put the pipeline through his property in Fall 2009, thanks to an order for right of entry from the Surface Rights Board.

Objectively, it was a fascinating glimpse into the process that grinds through every layer of community and industry when a culture experiences a massive economic shift from one resource base to another. We’ve already witnessed it poignantly here in B.C. with the decline of the softwood lumber industry, and we’re seeing it again as oil and gas replaces agriculture as the most lucrative product out of BC’s Northeast. Personally however, it was hard to witness firsthand what happens to the people who get caught in the middle of that process. Progress must be allowed, but for those still using the technology of the last resource boom, it’s a hard time of adjustment.

Wheat field near Fort St John, BC

This land is no longer valued as BC’s breadbasket (the fact that it ever was would take most people south of Prince George by surprise.) Month by month, revenues increase from natural gas exploration and drilling in the north, as the earlier generation of resource extraction, agricultural use of the land, gradually loses its value.

The shifting resource hierarchy can be described by a term land assessors use to evaluate it: “highest and best use.” According to BC Assessment’s glossary, Highest and Best Use means: that reasonably probable and legal use of vacant land or an improved property that is physically possible, legally permissible, appropriately supported, financially feasible, and that results in the highest value. (Appraisal of Real Estate 2nd Canadian Edition, 2002)

It basically means that land will be assessed according to its most lucrative utility. Whether that’s a BC Hydro substation replacing a corn field, or a quarter section of marginal quality farmland being leased to a gas drilling company, the shifting priorities of the burgeoning population require that the land use changes along with it. In the south of B.C. in the populous Fraser Valley where I live, you can already see the change in the landscape as farms in the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) are gobbled up and rezoned for residential and commercial use. (Another post on another day about issues with the ALR itself in the north – a citizen’s movement would see it abolished entirely in the regional districts east of the Rockies.)

And now, the same thing is happening in the north of B.C. that has already happened to many parts of Alberta. “Highest and best use” no longer applies to land solely for farming and agriculture, but more and more, it perfectly defines oil and gas activities.

As we all know, the world is looking for a source of energy that’s cheaper and less damaging than oil. “Dirty oil” is impugned for causing wars, sickness, pollution, crippled economies, foreign government takeovers, and basically, just about the total decimation of life on planet Earth as we know it. But with more advanced technology, we’ve tapped another resource that has lain dormant for thousands of years: natural gas. Trapped in shale rock, the gas has been waiting for generations for the right technology to release it so it can be transformed into electricity and consumer products, a relatively clean burning fuel that can heat homes, drive cars and cook food.

Perhaps it’s a simple matter of priorities. Do we want bread, or to heat our houses and use electricity?

Or are there other options that we’re simply not looking at hard enough?





Burning Water and a Fracking Disaster in the Making

19 10 2010

I am getting redundant on the subject of water and fracking, I know, I know. But if you think I’m repetitive, try watching the news just for one day.

Today I got a thorough reminder about why I get so angry with how we exploit our natural resources in B.C.

Tonight on CBC’s the Passionate Eye, I watched an excellent doc “Burning Water” (link to video online here) about the effects of fracking on local water supplies – in this case, in Rosebud Alberta. Produced by Frederic Bohbot and directed by Cameron Esler and Tadzio Richards, the film follows the nightmare of one Alberta family whose tap water can be lit on fire because there’s so much methane in it. They think EnCana contaminated their aquifer by drilling into it for methane. Like so many farmers in Northeastern BC, the Lauridsens came to the wide open spaces to farm, and live in peace and quiet, but what they end up having to live with is beyond anything we can imagine.

Scene from the recent HBO documentary about natural gas drilling: "Gasland" by Josh Fox.

Also, I’m reading/following Andrew Nikiforuk‘s work. It kind of makes it hard to sleep at night. The Calgary journalist is a thorn in oil and gas industry’s collective side as he’s written extensively about the “Dirty Secrets” in the tar sands. His book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” came out in 2008. He’s also currently the Tyee’s writer-in-residence and just wrote an excellent article about the unbelievable rate we’re sucking up water to get natural gas out of the bedrock. Read it here: A Fracking Disaster in the Making.

I’m not even going to get into Quebec’s shale gas fight, except to say Hurrah! They are at least holding public hearings to look into the impacts of drilling for shale gas. BEFORE they start drilling.

Maybe they’re learning from BC’s largely silent, suffering farmers, that it’s better to force the government to look before it leaps to take everyone down the same merrily burning path.





Industry jobs are open for former oil and gas ministry underlings

11 10 2010

The Tyee and The Public Eye report this week a third case of a senior energy, mines and petroleum resources’ ministry official going “directly from being on the province’s payroll to working for a major petroleum interest.”

Michael Lambert was a former executive director of strategic initiatives for the ministry’s oil and gas division. According to his job description, he’d been responsible for developing laws and policies to “facilitate natural gas development opportunities.” Now he’s working for Encana, a major pipeline player in northeastern B.C.

In an interview with Public Eye, Lambert said one of his principle tasks at the ministry “was working on the new Oil and Gas Activities Act’s environmental protection and management regulation. “Industry, of course, would have wanted the lightest environmental reg possible, I suppose,” he commented. “That’s not what they got.”

The former bureaucrat said he was in contact with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers during the consultation process for that regulation. But “everybody had a say and often a conflicting say,” including the natural gas producer he’s now working for: Encana Inc. Although he stressed the firm didn’t have any “undue influence.”

Lambert said cutbacks at the ministry convinced him to compete to be an environment land use planning advisor for Encana, one of several companies moving to develop British Columbia’s Horn River Basin — Canada’s largest shale gas field.” (from The Tyee and Public Eye, by Sean Holman)

Interesting, no? Or maybe it’s not a conflict of interest at all that someone would go directly from working for the government to create a new Act to regulate the oil and gas industry, to being hired by the industry itself to implement those same regulations.

I don’t know. Someone tell me I’m not seeing a plain ol’ case of regulatory capture here.

The Act itself is hardly newsworthy. Reading through it, I get the impression the OGC just wants to make doubly sure they have done due diligence in advising oil and gas companies to:

1. Communicate with “affected parties”

2. reduce to plain English the highly technical terms if their extraction processes

3. Reply to the questions and concerns of affected parties

4. Fill out the appropriate reams of paperwork to prove they have done so that….

they can get their seal of approval from the Commission and a pat on the back for all their consultative pains.

The interesting part of the new Act I found was under the “Guidelines for Consultation and Notification | October 2010.” Here, the Commission advises the Company to inform themselves of “best practices for engagement … in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ Guide for Effective Public Involvement, available at www.capp.ca.”

CAPP is "the voice of Canada's upstream oil, oil sands and natural gas industry."

 

Is the ministry/Commission/government really that involved they would actually suggest the company to check with their own lobby group’s handbook for dealing with landowners?

Who is regulating who?





VIFF – Storyville

23 09 2010

I’ve booked myself in for a day of story pitches at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

14 pitches.

4 hours.

More than 1 palpitating heart, to be sure.

I’m excited to see and hear how seasoned directors and producers present their ideas. What works and what flops. Who will toast themselves with champagne after and who will drown in whiskey. Who will walk out with a deal and who goes home to walk the dog with a sinking, deadened feeling in their gut.

They must be nervous – I mean, who wouldn’t be? You’re standing in front of people who can give you the money you need to make your dream film happen. Or not. One day I’ll be up there. Strangely though, then I think of the possibility of one day standing in front of a panel of commissioning editors and broadcasters, preparing to pitch my heart out, I actually don’t feel like vomiting. I feel… calm.

Because once I have my heart set on something, I know I can convince almost anyone to see my vision. They don’t stand a chance of resisting my charm. You just need to have that devil-may-care attitude that says “I’m going to make this film whether you get on board or not – I’m just giving you a chance to jump in now because you need it. You need my story. I don’t need you.” They’ll eat me up, I have no qualms about that.

So, only two things have stopped me from totally conquering the world of broadcasting to date.

1. I don’t know how to pitch. Rather, I don’t know how they expect you to pitch. Know the rules and then you can break them, right?

2. Need to firm up the story I’m pursuing. The battle over resources in the North – land vs. gas, water vs. oil, unspoiled wilderness vs. skyrocketing shares – is a big one and I don’t yet have the angle I need. I know we’re going to pursue this story. I know it will be huge. I know it’s important to the rest of Canada, even to the world.

What I don’t know is my “in”, that unique perspective that will let this story unfold naturally and seamlessly. Until I have my own angle I won’t have that deadly confidence I’ll need to pitch it and get a contract.

So for now I’ll kick back and watch the others sweat, and probably lose my premature and entirely unwarranted arrogance somewhere along the way.

I think I’ll sneak in some whiskey.

UPDATE: Also going to the FREE Melting Silos meet&greet reception on Wednesday: http://meltingsilos.eventbrite.com/

Digital media producers + film producers/directors = key to success “Join the Melting Silos team for a drink at a “non-virtual-real-3D-interactive” event to meet in-person! Graciously held during the VIFF Trade Forum, it will take place after a digital media discussion. Geared for filmmakers and digital media companies, we’ll do some quick roundtable-type discussions and you will meet a bunch of new people. We’ll also announce the call for the 2010 Melting Silos applications. Melting Silos is a transmedia development project supported by Telefilm, NFB, Praxis, BC Film and Agentic Communications, Inc. http://meltingsilos.com”