The complexities of portraying Black lives onscreen

By Courtney Small

Michelle Obama in Becoming | Netflix

The COVID-19 pandemic has been called “the great equalizer,” but that could not be further from the truth. Coming in like a wrecking ball that unexpectedly broke off its chain, the pandemic has smashed through seemingly unbreakable societal walls. Not only did it expose the fragile nature of global economic models but it also shone a piercing light on just how deep the roots of racial injustice are planted in every facet of society.

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have caused many industries and individuals to take an uncomfortable look at…


Nomadland leads new wave of hybrid dramas

If hybrid documentaries were all the rage in the 2010s, now is the time for hybrid dramas. An emerging trend sees filmmakers cast people as themselves in stories dramatizing their experiences. These films follow a decade in which documentaries increasingly gravitated towards fictional elements while Hollywood doubled down on non-fiction properties. New evolutions in hybrid film employ the power of self-representation to move audiences with the drama of our increasingly fragmented world.

The popularity of hybrid docs, loosely defined as non-fiction works that incorporate elements of dramatization and performance, is reframing the definition of documentary itself. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act…


Everything is on the table with this year’s awards race

Robert in Boys State | AppleTV+

As the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) approaches, now is the time when pundits usually prepare their Oscar predictions. The September festival traditionally shapes the race and sets the frontrunners. Just look at previous TIFF People’s Choice Award winners like Green Book, 12 Years a Slave, Three Billboards, La La Land, and Jojo Rabbit, which all won Oscars and became Best Picture nominees. (Some even won that prize.) …


Some thoughts on the meaning of festivals pre- and post-plague

This March, before the full force of COVID-19 hit, the documentary community flocked to Missouri’s True/False Film Festival (T/F) to be immersed in other realities. We feigned fist bumps before going in for inevitable and enthusiastic embraces, 15,000 documentary lovers, thrilled to be converging yet again at the “funnest festival.” We had no real sense that this would be the last event we would attend together for the foreseeable future.

As the last documentary festival to operate with relative normalcy, in the before times of the pandemic, T/F 2020 glows with an afterimage of what festivals represented to us all…


A still from The Reason I Jump by Jerry Rothwell, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jerry Rothwell

Naoki Higashida’s ground-breaking book The Reason I Jump receives a documentary treatment that is equally revelatory. The Reason I Jump debuts in the World Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and, like Higashida’s landmark book, it provides a valuable window into the experiences of non-speaking autistic people. The film is directed with sensitivity and ingenuity by Jerry Rothwell (How to Change the World, Sour Grapes) and it uses Higashida’s book (translated into English by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell) as the jumping off point for a global study of the diversity of experiences for non-speaking autistic people. Rothwell…


Showing daily life in a region mostly represented through images of war

Kedi

When I first arrived in Toronto from my home in Amman, Jordan, I was struck by how few people here had any understanding of what life was really like in the Middle East. I was in the MFA in Documentary Media program at Ryerson University, where I created a short documentary about my grandparents and their unusual love story, Teta, Opi & Me. At one point, my rough cut was screened for feedback and there was one remark by a professor, of Canadian origin, that at first angered…


All photos courtesy of Metrograph

Marcus Lindeen’s latest documentary revisits a 1970s radical social experiment by way of a creative and revelatory re-enactment involving the surviving research participants. For 101 days in the summer of 1973, ten volunteer subjects and one principal researcher — Mexican-Spanish anthropologist Santiago Genovés — drifted by wind and current across the Atlantic in a 12 × 7 metre raft aptly named the Acali (an ancient Mexican word for ‘the house in the water’). Though Genovés officially presented the expedition as a “Peace Project”, this cloying epithet was misleading. Genovés’s longstanding research interests had revolved around the origins of aggression and…


Arabian leopards in Oman, as seen in Netflix’s Our Planet

As viewership of nature documentary series continues to soar, it’s clear that these types of shows are resonating with audiences and have the ability to change conversations around their subject matter. Take Our Planet, the new series from the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU). The ambitions of this new series are clear: to “inspire and delight hundreds of millions of people across the world so they can understand our planet and the environmental threat it faces.” That’s what Alastair Fothergill, former head of the NHU and Our Planet co-producer, has said about this high-profile undertaking. Keith Scholey, who is the…

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