Now in its thirteenth year, the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, or RIDM (which you pronounce "riddim," like the Patois for "rhythm," which never gets old), serves as Montreal's answer to Toronto's annual Hot Docs fest. Like Hot Docs, RIDM began as an initiative by independent documentarians to showcase their work and that of their peers, offering public screenings and a marketplace for documentaries that may otherwise not attract robust theatrical and home video distribution deals. But unlike Hot Docs, which may have lost its local focus on its way to becoming North America's largest doc festival, RIDM is particularly interested in the work of Quebecois filmmakers.
The problem, however, is that a festival scheduled for mid-November rarely serves as a launching pad for films. A lot of the selections at this year's RIDM have already earned accolades at Cannes, TIFF or, yes, Hot Docs, and arrive fully-formed in Montreal propelled by a good deal of hype and critical goodwill. Still, this tendency to program the best of the best is proof of RIDM's other mandate: to bring the finest documentary programming to a filmgoing public that hasn't had the chance to catch these flicks at other festivals.
With that in mind, we've culled together reviews of the most interesting films unspooling at RIDM 2010.
Cool It (Directed by Ondi Timoner, USA): It seems like the bulk of documentaries that see major releases these days are piggybacking on the environmentalist evangelization of Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth. The latest from Ondi Timoner—known for twice taking home Sundance's Grand Jury Prize, for DiG! in 2004 and last year's excellent We Live in Public—Cool It takes up a similar cause, building a case for environmental reform around contrarian Danish writer and academic Bjorn Lomborg. Though Lomborg doesn't dispute global warming, he takes understandable umbrage with the problem being painted in broad and excessively apocalyptic strokes.
Lomborg has drawn criticism (his 2004 book The Skeptical Environmentalist was accused of "scientific dishonesty") for thinking of global climate change in terms of long-term adaptable solutions that don't necessarily hinge on a massive switch to renewable energy sources. Cool It looks at some of his solutions, from the more reasonable (Dutch-style damming systems in cities located below sea level) to the cockamamie (huge galleys blasting seawater into the atmosphere to increase the density of clouds and reflect heat from the sun), but in giving little to no shrift to Lomborg's most vehement critics, Timoner proves just as narrow and propagandistic as the catechizing end-of-the-world enviro docs it positions itself against.
Detroit ville sauvage (Florent Tillon, France): Easily the most exceptional new film I saw at the RIDM this year was, Detroit ville sauvage is an incredibly potent rendering of urban decay. And will likely be felt even more so by anyone who grew up wearing out his VHS copy of RoboCop, relishing in its near-apocalyptic depiction of the Motor City. Tillon's outstanding film looks at present-day Detroit, a city that we often hear described as a ghost town, wasteland, urban nightmare, etc. By Tillon's reckoning, the rumours are true. And then some. The downtown core appears entirely deserted; packs of wild pitbulls rove the streets; urban explorers chart courses through derelict buildings, tripping over broken glass and boxes of burned books; GM's Renaissance Center scrapes against the sky, a gloomy glass-and-concrete Babel struck down by the industry's capricious gods. (It's also eerily reminiscent of RoboCop's proposed privatized Delta City.)
But perhaps most exceptional are the seeds of hope germinating in this concrete jungle. Community organizations tear down beat-up buildings while urban farmers chart a course for a local agricultural industry, and dog catchers struggle to round up strays while hundreds gather in a local park to purge themselves in the prophecies of the local bluesman. Though Detroit ville sauvage ultimately proves Detroit to be a lesson in humility for ever-expanding American industry, its buoyant characters appear more colourful when played against all the bleak. In its present state, Motown may be downright hellish, but as a union boss notes near the film's beginning, in response to the collapse of the city's industry, grass grows in the parking lots.
Sex Magic (Eric Liebman & Jonathan Schell, USA): Choosing a subject for a film about sexual shamanism must make any documentarian feel like a kid in a candy store. Though Liebman and Schell's doc focuses primarily on the spiritual sexploits of middle-age "healer" Baba Dez, their film is peopled with dozens of worthy subjects, whose candidness in exposing their eccentricities (and dangly bits) make them all exceptionally interesting characters. Beyond imbedding the viewer squarely in the dippy world of sexual therapy (located somewhere in the Arizona desert), Sex Magic follows Dez as he attempts to use carnal rituals to bring back his beloved, Maya.
Using his throbbing dick as a totemic wand, Dez focuses his orgasmic energy into cosmically nudging the one that got away back into his dashiki-clad arms. Dez is an entertaining guy, though the filmmakers fall short in sufficiently exploring the possibility that he might just be a sex addict exploiting his clients, and it's his apparent sincerity that buoys a film that may otherwise be lost in a sea of New Age babbling (what with all the talk of chakras, tantra, sacred sexuality and whatnot). It also fails to explore the occultist and Wiccan origins of sex magic as a tradition, but it's a small quibble in a film that works so honestly to focus on one man's personal path towards sexual nirvana.
The People Versus George Lucas (Alexandre Phillippe, USA): Since debuting at South by Southwest and making its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs earlier this year, The People Versus George Lucas has proved a hit with audiences. It's hard to feign surprise at this. If there's thing nerds love more than Star Wars, it's hating Star Wars, and especially hating George Lucas, whose instrumental part in creating and fleshing out the beloved sci-fi franchise is bested only by his role in bunging it up.
Lucas explores the falling out between legions of Star Wars nerds and their one-time idol, placing particular importance on how Lucas has worked with near-maniacal zeal to exert his singular influence of the franchise, and how fans have risen up to reclaim Star Wars as their own. It's this issue of authorship and control—after all, who really owns a film after it enters the larger tides of pop culture?—that emerges as the most interesting idea at play in Phillippe's film. But by and large, the question is lost in din of enraged nerds barking about what a meanie George Lucas is, making the film at times exhausting for anyone who didn't sign an online petition against Jar-Jar Binks.
Armadillo (Directed by Janus Metz, Denmark): One of the most talked-about docs making the rounds on the fest circuit this year, Metz's embedded Afghan War doc is essential viewing at RIDM 2010. Following a group of baby-faced young soldiers deployed to Helmund province in Afghanistan to seek out Taliban fighters, Armadillo unfolds with all the style and conviction of a narrative feature. That the filmmaker doesn't blink in the face of all the ghastly violence, even when the soldiers themselves shrink away, further proves his commitment to guiding his film with a firm hand.
It's easy to regard Armadillo, gore and all, as confrontational. Or worse, dismiss it as exploitative. But Metz's tendency to engage the viewer in a decidedly combative manner, besides suiting his subject matter, makes very real the sort of violence we've become too inured to so many years (and films) into Operation Enduring Freedom. It can be a tough watch, but Armadillo proves that the most distressing and memorable stories are often the all-too real ones.
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