Ai Weiwei is among the artists featured in Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, a documentary by Larry Weinstein, which will screen twice during DOXA. (photo from DOXA)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival lineup includes Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, which “explores a diverse range of mediums, from well-recognized symbols of fascist movements, to more subtle forms in political satire and online slander.” Ahead of the festival, veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein spoke with the Jewish Independent. Propaganda screens twice during the festival, on May 9 and 10.
JI: Can you share a bit about your background a few key moments on your path to being a documentary filmmaker?
LW: I’ve been directing for 35 years and have made close to 40 films in that time. But I actually started in high school and especially became interested in documentary (and propaganda) when I made a film about a slaughterhouse soon after I had become a vegetarian. It was the usual stuff – slow-mo shots of slit jugular veins and unborn calves being ripped from their slaughtered mothers all set to the music of Debussy.
After the film screened in my school, a good percentage of the students became vegetarian and I realized that, with this power to persuade, I wanted to make more documentaries. But, my first professional film 10 years later was quite different and a bit more subtle – Making Overtures: The Story of a Community Orchestra was a film which seemed like a home movie but it did very well, including an Oscar nomination. It set me on the road to a long series of music films, especially those about composers like Ravel, Schoenberg, Falla, Rodrigo, Weill, Beethoven and Mozart. It’s hard to refer to key moments. Each of the films is special to me. I’ve been very lucky.
JI: The topics you’ve covered are wide-ranging, from music and the performing arts to global politics to Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas and the documentary on Maya Farrell. How do you choose your subject matter?
LW: Originally, all my films were music based but, more recently, I’ve made three sports-based films. The latest, The Impossible Swim, is on three generations of marathon swimmers and was co-directed with my filmmaker daughter, Ali – something very special for me.
Our Man in Tehran is a documentary about the 1979 hostage crisis that corrects the inaccuracies of Argo; Inside Hana’s Suitcase is [a] Holocaust film. But, to tell you the truth, many of the music films also deal with history, with science, with politics, with culture and they are quite varied in form as well as content. Many of the films have come out my own dreams and interests. Many have been suggested by broadcasters and other sources, but those must also become internalized and feel like they come from me before I can really proceed with them.
JI: Propaganda has existed since humans appeared on earth. The DOXA blurb asks, “How do we know what we know?” But is it possible to not sell a specific perspective, if not a lie. Someone’s truth is another’s lie? What’s your diagnosis of the problem and do you have a suggested remedy? Or is propaganda a problem that can never be solved?
LW: Propaganda has indeed existed from the beginning. It was born along with the birth of art, of language, of spiritual thought. Orwell said that all art is propaganda. That’s debatable but probably accurate.
Propaganda is mind-control. It’s not necessarily sinister but I subtitled the film The Art of Selling Lies because I was in a bad mood, often reading Trump’s tweets first thing in the morning, fed up with his lies. Nothing he says is the truth; seeing that he was directly inspired by rhetoric of Stalin and by the speeches of Hitler. But propaganda is everywhere – it surrounds us and seems to be flung at us exponentially with social media – whether politically, socially, economically, religiously, too. We are fed lies and untruths from the moment we are born. Coke tastes good. You want a Barbie doll. You want a Corvette. This political party will save you; that one will destroy you. Religion is your salvation. There is an omnipotent, omniscient God who loves you but you’re [screwed] if he’s angry. All that stuff. Lies. Propaganda.
The remedy? Think about what you are being force-fed. Be rational about it. Propaganda feeds on emotion, on your fears, on your anxiety, on your superstitions. Resist and don’t accept crap just because somebody says it’s true, when it’s obviously questionable.
Propaganda screens May 9, 8:30 p.m., at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, and May 10, noon, at Vancity Theatre. The May 10 screening is part of Rated Y for Youth and includes a post-film discussion. Tickets to DOXA can only be purchased online: doxafestival.ca. For more information about the festival, which runs until May 12, call 604-646-3200.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is very pleased to honour the decades of service of with a special Lifetime Achievement Award.
Rosenberg is a professor emeritus of computer science at the University of British Columbia and a member of the BCCLA for nearly 30 years. His work focused on the implications of the internet for such important civil liberties areas as privacy and anonymity, free speech, access and ethics.
Rosenberg has focused his work on the developments of national and international privacy policies, particularly with respect to electronic media, in Canada, the United States and Europe, as well as national and international approaches to the regulation of free speech on the internet. As such, his work has been critical to promoting and protecting privacy rights.
The award was presented at BCCLA’s annual general meeting on May 11 at Vancouver Public Library.
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The 2017 DOXA Documentary Film Festival awards were announced on May 13. Among them was Jewish community member Julia Ivanova’s Limit is the Sky, which received the Colin Low Award for Canadian Documentary (presented in partnership with William F. White). Jury members Tammy Bannister, Lisa Christiansen and Josh Cabrita said of the film: “In 20 years, if someone asks you, ‘Tell me about Fort Mac,’ you can tell them to watch a documentary that is both timely and timeless….”
Limit is the Sky follows six young Canadians, including refugees from the Middle East and Africa, who come to Fort McMurray, the capital of the third-largest oil reserve in the world. “Fort Mac” becomes a testing ground for these young dreamers as they struggle with their own perceptions of money, glory and self-worth amid plummeting oil prices, an unpredictable economy – and then a devastating wildfire. Limit is the Sky is produced by Bonnie Thompson and executive produced by David Christensen for North West Studio. It also received the 2016 Multimedia Award from the Petroleum History Society in Calgary.
Presented by the Documentary Media society, a Vancouver-based nonprofit, charitable society, DOXA ran May 4-14. Those who missed seeing Limit is the Sky during the festival can now purchase or rent it from the National Film Board at nfb.ca or from iTunes.
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Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman of Chabad of Richmond will be honoured by Oholei Torah Educational Institute, Chabad’s flagship Brooklyn school, on May 28 for his outstanding achievements in Jewish outreach and communal activity. The school has more than 7,000 alumni around the world.
Celebrating their 60th year of excellence in Jewish education, Oholei Torah called on community members worldwide to nominate 60 alumni who have shown an exemplary dedication to implementing the school’s ideals, specifically in furthering Jewish education and strengthening Jewish life. Baitelman was nominated by his peers for his enthusiastic and unwavering commitment to his Jewish community of Richmond and beyond.
“Oholei Torah Educational Institute prides itself on its training of devoted rabbis and inspired community leaders,” said Rabbi Joseph Rosenfeld, director of Oholei Torah. “Rabbi Baitelman truly lives up to the school’s ideals, and has dedicated his life to furthering Jewish awareness and Jewish education.”
With his profoundly sincere, caring attitude and inclusive approach, Baitelman inspires countless Jews from all levels of Jewish observance, with his welcoming outreach programs and thought-provoking classes. He encourages those around him to continue learning and embracing their Judaism through a wide range of educational programs and services – weekly Torah classes; Smile on Seniors lunches featuring entertainment and speakers; six-week Rohr Jewish Learning Institute classes; Simple Truths women’s learning; Land & Spirit, Israel Experience; National Jewish Retreat; Mom and Tot program; Hebrew school; Light of Shabbat kosher meals delivered to the homebound; CTeens club for Jewish youth; Minyanairs Club; and many other programs.
Information about the dinner at which Baitelman will be honoured can be found at oholeitorah.com. The community of Richmond and all of Chabad wish him yasher koach!
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The Jewish National Fund of Canada, Pacific Region, is pleased to announce that Abba Brodt is the recipient of JNF’s Education Award. We wish Brodt a hearty mazal tov on this well-deserved honour for his dedication and leadership in educating the next generation within the Jewish community. Brodt will receive the award at this year’s Negev Dinner on June 4 at Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver.
Brodt is head of school at Richmond Jewish Day School, a position he has held for five years. Under his watch, RJDS has grown 40%; it is now a school of 105 students from kindergarten to Grade 7.
A trained social worker and former director of community planning for and campaign associate of the Jewish Federation, both in Montreal and Vancouver, Brodt switched into education in 2008. While working in a variety of roles in Jewish day schools, Brodt, or Mar Abba, as his students call him, completed a master’s at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.
Brodt’s goals as a Jewish educator are to help educate and inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders and visionaries. He believes that the best Jewish education blends a love of Yiddishkeit, content and skill development, while promoting and developing the following three attributes in students: critical thinking, creativity and compassion.
In the very talented ensemble of The Road Forward by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John, left, and Jennifer Kreisberg. (photos from National Film Board of Canada)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival features several films with Jewish community connections. They explore a wide range of topics: First Nations activism, Fort McMurray and the oil sands, real-life mermaids, bigotry against larger people, and being a freelance journalist in the Middle East. They will make you question your assumptions, ponder the various ways in which humans find connection, and introduce you to ideas, people and places you probably didn’t know existed.
Opening the festival, which runs May 4-14, is The Road Forward. In the very talented ensemble of this musical documentary by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John and Jennifer Kreisberg. As many of us do, St. John and Kreisberg have multiple cultural heritages that form their identity; in their instances, First Nations and Jewish are among them. In addition to performing, Kreisberg also composed and/or arranged many of the songs; the main composer is Wayne Lavallee.
The Road Forward began as a 10-minute performance piece commissioned for the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and premièred as a full-length theatre show at the 2015 PuSh Festival. The documentary has mostly traditional components – interviews, archival footage, news clips – but these are broken up by a number of songs, which add energy and emotion to the film.
The documentary uses as its starting point the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were established in the 1930s, when First Nations people were not permitted to meet and organize. The groups’ “official organ,” the Native Voice, was the first indigenous-run newspaper in Canada.
“The idea was to honour B.C.’s history, so I started researching and reading online and came across the archives of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country. Their parent organization, the Native Fishing Association, is located in West Vancouver, close to me,” explains Clements in the press material.
The Road Forward touches on many issues along its journey to current-day First Nation activists, who carry on in their ancestors’ paths. Though their goals are varied – some fight for particular legal or policy changes, others for restitution and reconciliation, yet others for their own voice and place in the world – they are all seeking justice, equality, understanding.
The songs highlight the immense struggles. As but two examples, “1965” is about the decades upon decades that First Nations have been denied the basic rights that most other Canadians have long enjoyed, and “My Girl” is a heartbreaking tribute to the aboriginal women who have been murdered along British Columbia’s Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.” The Indian Constitution Express, a movement organized by George Manuel in 1980-81 to protest the lack of aboriginal rights in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution, receives somewhat more attention than other activist achievements, and the song “If You Really Believe,” based on a speech by Manuel, is quite powerful.
The May 4 gala screening of The Road Forward is the official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake), National Film Board of Canada’s Indigenous Cinema on Tour. For the length of 2017, NFB is offering films from its 250-plus collection to all Canadians via [email protected]. The film also runs on May 10 and Clements will participate in a Q&A following both screenings.
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Limit is the Sky follows a handful of 20-somethings who have moved to Fort McMurray to follow their dreams. A few years before the price of oil plummeted in 2015 and the 2016 wildfire decimated the northern Alberta city, the average family income in “Fort Mac,” was $190,000 a year, according to the film. Working on the oil sands was where the real money lay, but others were drawn to the college or to places that serve the oil workers (and others), such as hairdressing salons and restaurants.
Most striking about the population we meet in Limit is the Sky is their diversity: they not only come from other Canadian provinces and the United States but from much further afield. The seven young dreamers featured include Max, from Lebanon; Mucharata, from the Philippines, who had to leave her 2-year-old son behind initially (for fours years); and KingDeng, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had to help support his wife and children (in Edmonton) while at school in Fort McMurray.
“I was looking for young people who’d just recently arrived in Fort Mac, full of hopes, dreams and naïveté,” says filmmaker Julia Ivanova in the press material. “I wanted to walk the viewer through their ups and downs in a place where the men seem tough and the women even tougher. I wasn’t looking for tough characters, though: sensitivity and beauty – both inner and physical beauty – were important to me.”
Ivanova, who has Jewish roots, migrated to Canada from Russia many years ago.
“Being an immigrant myself,” she notes, “I could feel what was at stake for these young people and the challenges they face on a very intimate level.”
The main filming ran from fall 2012 to spring 2015. She felt welcomed by the people in the city, though not by the industry. “That was a brick wall I hit over and over again,” she says. “There was no filming of anyone allowed, anywhere, period.”
By the end of the film, most of the millennials featured had left the city, along with many others. “The town felt almost deserted, compared to how I had seen it in 2012 and 2013,” says Ivanova. “So many people were leaving. There was so much anxiety. I went to all the places I loved – and they’d all changed.”
Ivanova’s film shows the hope, the drive, the challenges, the loneliness of her interviewees. The dynamics are much more complex than one might assume of a city that relied on the oil sands for its prosperity. The environment is of crucial importance, obviously, but people matter, too, and this documentary shines a necessary light on that fact.
Limit is the Sky screens May 5.
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Falling into the who-ever-would-have-thought category, Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids introduces viewers to real-life mermaids, of a sort.
Rachel’s underwater job at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., helps her deal with a family tragedy. Vicki and a group of former Weeki Wachee Resort (in Florida) swimmers recall their mermaid days, including a show for Elvis and a 50th anniversary performance. Being a mermaid helps Cookie, who was abused as a child and has mental health issues, manage life, and she and her soulmate, Eric, who makes her mermaid tails, are married in a mermaid wedding, after being together for some 30 years. Last but not least, Julz, a transgender woman who was bullied as a child and disowned by her father, discovers acceptance and love in a Huntington Beach, Calif., mermaid group.
Weinstein intersperses these stories with brief summaries of long-told mermaid tales, “from the 3,000-year-old Assyrian figure of Atargatis to the Mami Wata water spirits of West Africa.”
It really is a fascinating documentary, showing just how resilient and resourceful the human spirit is.
Mermaids plays twice during DOXA, on May 6 and 13, and Weinstein will be in attendance at both screenings.
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Think of the cartoon villains and the hapless sidekicks. How are they often portrayed? As fat, dumb and/or oversexed? If those weren’t your first thoughts, think again. The documentary Fattitude convincingly shows how widespread bigotry against larger people is – so much so that it can be overlooked, until pointed out. Then, you wonder how you ever missed it.
From the old woman in the candy house that eats Hansel and Gretel, to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut, to the evil squid in The Little Mermaid, these are just a few of the villains. Then there is the heavyset and dumb Hardy, sidekick to thin, smart Laurel; the stereotypical chubby best friend in so many movies; and the archetypal black nanny, forever cast in the caring, subservient role. Miss Piggy is a more complex character, both strong and confident in herself, but also sex-crazy over Kermit. And, in the entire Star Trek franchise – where have the larger people gone?
From the age of 3, the film notes, we are already programmed with negative stereotypes. When all put together, it’s quite depressing. However, Fattitude is a rather upbeat documentary, as its interviewees are spirited, determined and intelligent enough to effect some change, mainly via social media.
Filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman speak to almost 50 people and, to a person, they provide an interesting perspective, connecting the body images depicted in films, television shows, cartoons, magazines and advertisements with their effects on viewers and on our perceptions of ourselves and others. The film discusses the links between race, socioeconomic status and weight, as well as the reasons why Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity was misguided.
Fattitude screens May 9.
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Being a journalist in a war zone seems dangerous and frightening, and it is. But it is also tedious and lonely. At least this is what it seems from watching Santiago Bertolino’s Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bertolino follows Toronto-born, Beirut-based freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld hustles to get story ideas and budgets approved, waits in sparse hotel rooms for fixers to connect him with interviewees, and ventures into Egypt during its post-Arab Spring elections, the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and to Iraq, where they witness the fight against ISIS from the front lines.
Some of the more disturbing images are of the bodies of Palestinians gunned down in a home by undetermined executioners and the corpses of dead ISIS fighters dumped in the back of a truck, as well as tied to its back bumper. In another memorable part, Rosenfeld yells questions to a caged Mohamed Fahmy, when Fahmy and two fellow Al Jazeera journalists were on trial in Cairo. (Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egytian citizenship, spent almost two years in jail of a three-year sentence.)
Rosenfeld has strong views and isn’t afraid to share them, though he struggles to make eye contact with the camera when he makes his pronouncements. Some of the best exchanges in the film are between him and Canadian-Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, who hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Freelancer on the Front Lines screens May 13 at Vancity and will include a post-film discussion.
For tickets and the full DOXA Documentary Film Festival schedule, visit doxafestival.ca.
Making Movie History panelists during DOXA Industry Day at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on May 7, left to right: Michelle van Beusekom, head of the National Film Board of Canada’s English-language production branch, and filmmakers Mort Ransen, Bonnie Sherr Klein and Anne Wheeler. Panel moderator was Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail. (photo by Fortune Hill Photography courtesy of NFB)
When it comes to their own history, Canadians haven’t had a great track record for recording their success stories. So, when Michelle van Beusekom had an opportunity to produce Making Movie History: A Portrait in 61 Parts, an anecdotal history of the National Film Board of Canada, she was thrilled to jump on board. Told through portraits of legendary artists and filmmakers who have worked at the NFB since its establishment in 1939, the free iPad app was released last month at the DOXA Film Festival in Vancouver.
Present at the launch were B.C.-based filmmakers Mort Ransen, Bonnie Sherr Klein and Anne Wheeler, who participated on a May 7 panel with van Beusekom, who is head of the NFB’s English-language production branch. The panel was moderated by Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail.
It took five years to make Making Movie History, which consists of 30 profiles in French and 30 in English, and van Beusekom is hoping movie lovers will watch it.
“It delivers a fascinating look at the origins of cinema in Canada and insight into the stories of early founders of cinema craft in this country,” she told the Independent.
The portraits are of individuals who participated in the NFB from the 1940s through the 1980s, with a special focus on the earlier years, when the NFB was founded as a government-funded but independent organization with a vision to primarily create documentaries in the public interest. “It created this space where talented people could practise their art, develop a filmmaking tradition in this country and use this art form in the public interest,” she explained.
Over the course of working on the app, van Beusekom gained a keen appreciation of the role of women at the NFB from early on.
“As young men went overseas to fight in World War Two, it created opportunities for women in secretarial roles, cinematography, camera, editing and directing, and many were recruited to the NFB,” she said. “When people talk about women’s cinema in Canada, they talk about Studio D, which started in 1974. Until now, the 1940s generation of pioneers of women in Canadian cinema has almost been forgotten. I learned about Gudrun Parker, Evelyn Spice Cherry, Jane Marsh Beveridge and Laura Boulton, which was huge for me. These were names we didn’t know much about and it changed our perception of women’s roles in Canadian cinema.”
The intention of the app is not to be a comprehensive overview, but to provide a portrait that ideally captures the spirit of the individuals profiled and the spirit they brought to the organization. One of those individuals is Klein, who came to Canada with her spouse as a conscientious objector and worked at the NFB. One of her projects was Challenge for Change, where she used film to address social problems such as chronic poverty. Klein was also a foundational figure at Studio D, which operated from 1974 through 1996.
She recalls the NFB as “a Mecca for documentary films, the only place in the world with a government-funded but independent filmmaking agency” in 1975, when she became involved. “We were using films to give people a voice, people who hadn’t spoken for themselves before on screen,” she told the Independent.
Newly graduated from Stanford University at the time, Klein remembers that, back then, the only documentaries around were those made by National Geographic. At Studio D, Klein helped make films by, about and for women, training and nurturing filmmakers, including camera and sound women in this country for the first time.
Things have changed since then for women in the industry, but not that much, she said. “Now, it’s superficially better. There are a lot more women in the film world and graduating from film schools and a lot more diversity among those women. But, are women really getting a chance to tell their own stories, as opposed to just being in the workforce and working on the same old stories?”
Klein noted that nine out of 10 of the last Telefilm Canada (government-funded) films were directed by men. “Women will tell you there’s still a glass ceiling,” she said. “They can only make films up to a certain budget, and they’re not making series, so it’s not great. But the NFB just made a historic commitment for gender equity across the board in all its projects. That commitment sets the bar and challenges other agencies who have lots of money, to do the same.”
According to the Women in View On Screen Report (October 2015), of the 2013-14 fiscal year’s feature-length films by Telefilm Canada, women represented 17% of directors, 22% of writers and 12% of cinematographers credited; in the under $1 million category of film investment, women directors constituted 21%; in the over $1 million category of film investment, women directors constituted four percent. Of the English-language drama TV series between 2012 and 2013, 17 of the 29 series did not have a single woman director on any of their 151 episodes, and not one of the 293 episodes employed a female cinematographer.