Progressive Cinema

This year there were over 50 feature-length documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival, almost doubled from last year. In the last column we discussed those from the U.S., but some of the finest came from other parts of the world.

The host country offered a retrospective of Canadian documentarist, Allan King, whose award-winning Warrendale set the trend in 1967 for realistic treatment of serious social issues, recording troubled youth living in a treatment center, with the rough language intact. King went on to produce an 18-part series, Children in Conflict. Through the years King has tackled controversial social issues, among them challenging the fabric of the family in A Married Couple; a radical attempt at dealing with Canadian unemployment in Who’s In Charge?; and documenting how Estonians dealt with Russians left in their country after the breakup of the Soviet Union in The Dragon’s Egg. For additional info see

Another prominent Canadian filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin, has made over 20 documentaries about the First Nations people in Canada. She won Top Prize at the 1993 Festival for Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, documenting the centuries-long struggle of Canada’s Native people. Her newest film deals with the recent confrontation over fishing rights in New Brunswick. Is the Crown at War With Us? reminds us how the rights of indigenous people are being trampled all over the world by global economic expansion.

Nettie Wild, another Canadian activist-filmmaker, made her mark in 1998 with A Place Called Chiapas, an award-winning insightful examination of Mexico’s Zapatista movement, including rare footage of Commandante Marcos and other revolutionaries. Her latest film, FIX: the Story of An Addicted City, shot in Vancouver’s drug community, where addicts shoot up in public and die from overdose daily, focuses on two activists, a heroin user and a church woman determined to convince the local government to set up a safe injection center. The film displays the power of organization and the determination of social activists. It is uncannily optimistic and should be required viewing for U.S. city governments facing drug problems.

Alexei and the Spring, directed by Japanese filmmaker Motohashi Seiichi, is a serene and humanist documentary about a small Byelorussian village near Chernobyl. After the nuclear disaster, the town was evacuated, save for a few older townsfolk who resisted moving. Alexei, a younger man who chose to stay with his parents, ends up caring for most of the 55 villagers, daily carting water in wooden buckets by horse from the village’s only uncontaminated spot, the local spring. The simple lives they make for themselves, shaped by decades of history in the former Soviet Union, reminds the viewer of a different time, with the Chernobyl disaster seeming to symbolize the breakup of a society that once cared for its people.

From Iran, noted for its humanist cinema, director Abbas Kiarostami has the amazing ability to maintain a coherent script with minimal plot structure, challenge reality by re-creating real events with non-professionals who sometimes act as themselves, and still develop films of depth and beauty. In his latest film, 10, shot with a digital camcorder mounted on the dashboard of an SUV, he travels through Africa documenting the AIDS crisis. In the process he examines the role of women in African society, creates a compelling film, provides hope for Third World filmmakers on limited budgets, and reminds us that we all live on this planet together and share responsibility to each other.

As a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, I am cautious when a film made outside Cuba deals with the subject of Cuban refugees. But Cuban Rafters, made in Spain, provides a humanistic and compassionate treatment of those who chose to leave the island. Never critical of the Cuban government (or the U.S. for that matter), the film focuses solely on the human issue of people driven to challenge the ocean and risk death for what they hope is a better life elsewhere.

Filmed over eight years, it begins at Cuba’s lowest time, when the Soviet supply of oil ceases, and electricity, transportation, food, jobs and hope are at an all-time low. Those unwilling to persevere create floating structures they hope will carry them to a better life. The tragedy is that most of them don’t make it. Some end up exhausted back on shore, others in Guantanamo barracks, others on the ocean bottom.

This is an amazing study of disillusionment. The winners and losers, all treated with dignity in the film, displayed to me the urgent need to end the Cuban embargo. Tragedies of split families and lost hopes and lives all could have been avoided. People on both sides of the issue will be enriched by the film.

Some films mentioned in this series of articles are available for rental or purchase on video or DVD. Others will be shown on TV or eventually in theaters. But most likely your only chance to see most of these films is to attend a film festival. Check out on the Internet to find one near you.

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