Calgary International Film Festival's documentary lineup proves truth stranger than fiction

ERIC VOLMERS, CALGARY HERALD
More from Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald

Published on: August 23, 2017 | Last Updated: August 23, 2017 2:31 PM MDT

Rats, fireworks, ballerinas in drag, refugees and bodybuilders are among the subjects of the Calgary International Film Festival’s lineup of documentary films, showcasing a wide variety of tones of sub-genres that add weight to the old adage that truth is often stranger than fiction.

The festival announced 18 new films, including music documentaries for its Music on Screen series, on Wednesday.

They include 69 Minutes of 86 Days, which follows the tale of a three-year-old Syrian refugee making a trek across Europe; Ratfilm, which studies the complex relationship between rodents and the people of Baltimore, and Living Proof, Calgary filmmaker Matt Embry’s story about living with multiple sclerosis and questions about the effectiveness of commonly prescribed medications.

“You will get to see a wide range of what’s possible in documentary filmmaking,” says Alex Rogalski, who programmed the non-musical documentaries for the Calgary International Film Festival. “From really personal observational stories, to investigative reporting to just really great pictures, where they are cinematic and seeing them on the big screen is the best way.”

The latter description applies to Brimstone and Glory, Viktor Jakovleski’s visual feast of a film about the fireworks manufacturing city of Tultepec, Mexico. Experimental filmmaker Denis Cote, meanwhile, brings his typical visual flare to his study of six bodybuilders as they train for their next competition in Skin So Soft.

In Unrest, director Jennifer Brea follows her own journey of being afflicted at the age of 28 with chronic fatigue syndrome that has left her bedridden. Human Flow is Ai Weiwei’s ambitious look at the global refugee crisis, which took him to 23 countries. Adam Sobel’s The Worker’s Cup follows the competition between 24 teams made up of migrant workers who build FIFA stadiums. Pacmen investigates the presidential campaign of Ben Carson, the religious-right neurosurgeon.

“Documentaries shifted in tone with the advent of the internet and digital technology,” Rogalski says. “If people want information, they just Google it. Documentaries used to be the place where if you wanted to learn about the life cycle of a butterfly, you could watch a documentary in school. Documentarians learned that people weren’t looking for documentaries for information anymore. If they want facts and figures it was at their fingertips. There’s deeper human stories to give meaning to figures and stats and headlines. Documentaries still excel at that in ways that no other platform has figured out.”

Which means it’s also good at shining a light into often unexplored subcultures or offering in-depth character studies. Rebels on Pointe looks at Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male drag Ballet company that has performed in Calgary; Our People Will Be Healed, directed by Alanis Obomsawin, concentrates on the people of the Norway House Cree community’s attempt to reclaim their culture; The Last Animals chronicles the efforts of passionate scientists and activists battling poachers; Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk follows the 30-year history of the punk movement in California. Melanie Wood’s Punchline will make its world première at the festival, following the story of Canadian poet Shane Koyczan’s attempts to reconcile with his father; Stefan Avalos’ Strad Style is about a staggeringly unqualified rural Ohioan who vows to create a classical violin within a few months; When God Sleeps is about exiled Iranian musician Shahin Najafi; Delila Vallot’s Mighty Ground is about a musician working through personal demons in Los Angeles and Calgary filmmaker Todd Kipp’s Some Other Guys tells the story of the band The Big Three, who were a band that got its start in Liverpool in the 1960s around the same time as the Beatles.

“People want to feel connected,” Rogalski says. “There’s escapism through blockbuster films and there’s little tweets and headlines. But to get in-depth and to get to know somebody you wouldn’t meet otherwise, the best way to to do it is through documentary. It really does allow you to walk in another person’s shoes for a few miles and feel a little bit more empathy.”

The Calgary International Film Festival runs from Sept. 20 to Oct. 1 at various venues. For a full lineup of documentaries visit calgaryfilm.com.