Controversy in Montreal after Wiseman’s ‘Crazy Horse’ opens RIDM

Crazy Horse - F. Wiseman Paris

The Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal opened last Wednesday night. This is an event which allows you to see great documentaries from around the world, films which you rarely see on TV. This year’s program is great.

But the choice of opening film has created a huge controversy in the documentary community here. Veteran U.S. documentarian Frederick Wiseman has made a career of observing the life of institutions, from the mental asylum to the boxing club. In his new film Crazy Horse, Wiseman documents the preparation and execution of a show at the eponymous nude dance palace in Paris. There are some revealing and interesting moments from the behind-the-scenes creative process. The choreographer, the set designer and the costume designer are captivating an complex characters, and we get to know them.

But this more-than-two-hour film is mostly made up of interminable scenes of erotic dancing, beautifully lit and filmed, but repetitive and soon boring. (The photos show here – graciously supplied by the festival – emphasize the aesthetic, but actually a lot of the film is made up of very tight shots.) One could argue that the film shows up the sexism of the milieu, where the ‘physical assets’ of the dancers count more than anything else. But rather than taking a critical look at this state of affairs, Weisman becomes complicit with it by exploiting these same ‘assets’ endlessly.

Antoine Poupel - Crazy_Horse AntoinePoupel - Crazy Horse

And where the film really falls down is that you never get to know the dancers. After two hours, you know next to nothing about their backgrounds, their aspirations, their opinions, their feelings. Disappointing!

You have to assume some people liked the film. But others left the screening while in process. Others were bored. And some were outraged. A letter of protest was signed by some twenty producers and directors, myself included. The RIDM leadership has agreed to a meeting to discuss the issues after the festival is over.

In the debate which has raged since opening night, red herrings have proliferated. Some people have denounced the Wiseman film as pornography, which it obviously isn’t. On the other side, some people claimed the critics want to censor the film – just a way of avoiding the real issues, as no one has suggested the film should be banned. Others again have defended this choice of opening film saying it was perfect because it generated a debate. Unfortunately this is not the way it was presented – the choice was explained as an attempt to reach out to new audiences – and there was no room for discussion after the screening.

The question I ask myself at this point is whether this controversy will be a useful one which leads to a better understanding of some of the issues, or whether it will just be divisive.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.

A McLaren film for the 21st Century: Philippe Baylaucq’s 3D film ORA

The other day I went to see two exceptional films in 3D at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal. Millions of words have been written already about Wim Wenders’ film about the amazing choreographer Pina Bush, and I don’t have anything to add.

But that film was preceded by another extraordinary dance film, Philippe Baylaucq’s ORA. Shot with infrared cameras which capture only the heat of the bodies, with no light source whatsoever, it creates totally original images of translucent bodies dancing to a score by composer Robert Marcel Lepage. Philippe had chosen this project for his two-year residence in the National Film Board of Canada’s French program. I asked him what motivated this choice.

“The project started with the idea of marking the first century of abstract painting. I re-read Kandinsky and wanted to explore that period of painting and set design (Diaghilev, etc) when the human figure was still present in environments that were becoming increasingly abstract.

Initially I was interested in exploring the relationships between the human figure, dance, colour and space. I wished to work again with my friend and colleague dancer-choreographer José Navas and met up with him before applying to the NBF for one of their two year residencies. I was lucky, I got in and began to read up on my subjects. Soon I became aware of what was being done at the NFB StereoLab where I was blown away by what I saw, by what I was shown by Munro Ferguson. It became clear to me then that my two years spent at the Board would have to lead to a film that could be done there and nowhere else. Hence the 3D.

I had a full year of tests before opting for a world technological first: 3D thermal cinematography.

One does not really tell stories in the linear sense with dance. One does however have to be aware that most film spectators expect a storyline of some kind. I started with the title of one of Paul Gauguin’s most famous paintings: Where do we come from, who are we and where are we going? For optimal formal freedom, I wanted my dancers to evolve in a non-naturalistic setting, giving me the chance to be more audacious with gravity, depth, light, texture, movement.

From then on, I was interested in working in the “Norman McLaren” fashion which is to say that the filmmaker is led to his story-line through the interaction with the tools, materials and technologies that he is exploring. Our work with thermal imagery led us to discover very interesting phenomena that spoke of larger themes such as Darwinian evolutionary theory and classical myths such as Prometheus and Narcissus. Slowly, through the fundamental research with the technologies, a story immerged and eventually a film… It was fascinating.

2. A lot of the comments have been about the striking technical achievement, but the structure of the piece, with the music and choreography, must have been a considerable challenge. How did you work with composer, choreographer, dancers?

Working with me on this kind of subject is a trapeze act without a net. From the start, everyone becomes aware of the exploratory aspect of what we are doing. People are generally stimulated by uncharted ground, it gets them out of their routine and forces everyone to be ingenious, to extend further out and test their talents. Again I was blessed with many many inspired collaborators. I worked with people that also work in the documentary field and this is very important because it signifies that they know what it means to be open to chance and aware of what is there, in the world and not strictly on the pages of a script.

The film was loosely written, but my main collaborator José Navas, his magnificent dancers, my DOP Sebastien Gros, my musician Robert Marcel Lepage, my sound designer Benoît Dame, my editor Alain Baril, and many others, everyone was open to the idea that this piece was going to evolve until the very end of the very last stages of post production.

This requires a lot of patience and a very open minded producer. René Chénier did a remarkable job accompanying me through this open ended process. Despite the cutting edge, high-tech aspect of our novel technology, we tried to keep our feet on the ground and not get swept away by the myriad possibilities that both the camera and postproduction computer input might provide us. We tried to never lose sight of the organic, human aspects of our on screen subjects: the dancers. They are all that we see as they at once both the subjects and the light sources that define the subjects: they carry the light, they are the light.

The film is probably one of the very first films to have ever been shot without a single light source: no fire, no sun, no electricity; only heat, the heat of the body, biological light, the light of living things, the light of life itself.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.


Kazimi on 3D: part 1

Hazardous - production stills 4

Ali Kazimi is an award-winning filmmaker. Since 2008, he has been researching stereoscopic 3D digital cinema at York University, where he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film.

Q. Why is there this sudden groundswell of interest in 3D?

The current stereoscopic 3D is propelled by the exponential rise in digital technology in film production, coupled with the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s Avatar. Really, much of the growth in S3D is due to Cameron’s championing and use of digital S3D. Cameron himself did not come to S3D overnight, he spent the decade before Avatar experimenting with making underwater docs with different degrees of success. In fact, his underwater experience reveals itself not only in the very comfortable 3D experience he was able to deliver, but also in the flora of the imagined world which looks and behaves very much like underwater plants do.

However, it is his S3D experimentation that is critical to acknowledge and it is instructive in many ways – or to put it differently, S3D has a steep learning curve. The biggest challenge I feel is getting a grasp on the fundamentals of perception, how we see depth. Stereo vision, or ‘stereopsis’ as it is known scientifically, is the process by which the brain takes in the 2D images from the left and right eye and fuses them together into a single 3D image. However, stereopsis is only one way in which in the human brain perceives depth. We also use a number of other visual cues, called monocular cues, such as perspective or the familiar size of objects to determine spatial relationships.

Technically, S3D camera systems mimic the way we see. We use two cameras each offset by a certain distance, called the inter-axial (IA) distance, to generate two identical from images from slightly different perspectives, similar to those between our two eyes. The images have to be in perfect sync with identical focus, depth of field, colour and contrast, this is easier said than done. The mechanism for shooting stereoscopic 3D, known simply as rigs, therefore consists of two cameras either side-by-side or at right angles to one another with a partially silvered mirror at 45 degrees in the middle.

In terms of both composition and pacing there is much that is still unknown, filmmakers have to learn how to see the world around us with the z-axis in mind.

A couple of months ago just I saw a screening of shorts, commercials and music videos screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The program, called ‘Selected Package’, had a wide range, from those with high production values to lo-tech DIY retro-inspired music videos. The latter were screened with the Red/Blue, anaglyph format. I have rarely come out of a screening with such acute eyestrain and headache. Once again, these music videos painfully drove home the difference between bad 2D and bad 3D, in that poorly produced S3D can be uncomfortable and even painful. Filmmakers have to recognize that their S3D work can have an immediate physiological impact on the audience. In fact this is the very reason why filmmakers have to step way back and truly re-examine how we see.

On the other hand, Wim Wender’s film Pina is a real masterwork and a true landmark in S3D filmmaking. In my view, the first feature film made solely for S3D, one that explores its immense possibilities with such inspired grace and virtuosity.

Wenders’ keynote address at our Toronto International Stereoscopic 3D conference was one of the most amazing artist talks, and a truly inspirational speech on how he came to 3D and how filmmakers should engage with 3D (read the transcript here). Pina is exciting because it was designed solely as a 3D film, whereas I have long maintained the almost all other 3D content is designed to work in 2D as well. Consequently there can only be limited exploration of a new cinematic language. More on Pina a bit later.

What is it that you have to learn? Theory or hands-on?

On the technical side, digital projection has made it possible to deliver a pretty seamless 3D experience, it is another matter that many cinemas don’t have proper projectors resulting in relatively dimmer image. Of course this is the last but crucial stage in the entire digital workflow.

In some ways the ‘Avatar effect’, as I often refer to it, has been a mixed blessing. The studios and the television manufacturers all jumped on the bandwagon. S3D sets are now increasingly on the market and prices are coming down fast, the problem is the dearth of content. To create content one needs more than tech, training and accessibility is critical. As I have said earlier, S3D has a steep learning curve and there are no short cuts, it will take time to develop a critical mass of filmmakers and technicians.

The most critical position is that of the stereographer – a stereo expert who should ideally be at least consulted during pre-production, who is on the set during production working with the camera rig and who then again at least consults through post-production and during the final colour and stereo-grading. Stereographers are hard to find, in this new field many people claim to be one after doing a workshop or two, one has to be really careful. Errors made in production such as the depth of a shot are impossible to “fix in post”.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

Wapikonimobile funding cancelled

A Wapikoni mobile production unit. Photo from

For the last eight years, an exceptional and pioneering media experience has given new means of expression and a sense of hope to aboriginal youth on reserves in Quebec.

The Wapikonimobile is a mobile video production unit – or rather three of them – travelling from community to community, providing video training and supervising the making of short films. For youngsters confronted with substance abuse, an epidemic of suicides and an almost complete lack of job prospects, this was an extraordinary opportunity, and they took advantage of it. Some 2000 of them learned production skills, and made some 450 films expressing their own realities. Some of those films had real cinematic qualities and were shown in festivals here and abroad.

But now, the federal Department of Human Resources has cancelled its half-million dollar grant, about half of the Wapikonimobile’s total budget– at a time when the production units should already have been on the road. Young people in numerous communities who have been looking forward to this experience for a whole year now find themselves without anything to do for the summer and without the means for expressing themselves. For what reason? Because, according to the minister, other projects offer better prospects for creating jobs and teaching skills.

Quebec’s excellent daily Le Devoir, which broke the Wapikonimobile story yesterday, has another story today (July 19th) revealing that the arts and the community and aboriginal sectors are hard hit by other little publicized Human Resources cutbacks as well. This is surely a sign of where things are going under the majority conservative government.

Could there be more urgent needs than those of aboriginal youth? Hardly. The founder and director of Wapikonimobile, filmmaker Manon Barbeau, is campaigning to have the department change its decision. I wish her the best of luck in this extremely worthwhile endeavour.

Manon Barbeau with well-known Attikamekw rapper Samian, whose career started with a Wapikonimobile training program. Photo: Luc Lavigne,

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.

The Experimental Eskimos broadcast premiere

The Experimental Eskimos 1

Barry Greenwald‘s terrific documentary The Experimental Eskimos reveals an extraordinary attempt at social engineering. The film follows three Inuit, Peter Ittinuar, Zebedee Nungak and Eric Tagoona, who, as 12-year-old boys, were shipped South in the early 1960s from their homes in the Canadian Arctic to attend white public schools in Ottawa. The consequences for their identity and culture were brushed aside.

In their twenties, they became a thorn in the government’s side and were instrumental in the establishment of aboriginal rights that led to the creation of the territory of Nunavut. The film is the untold story of how an experiment in assimilation not only changed the future of their people but the actual geo-political configuration of Canada.

My friend Barry’s previous documentaries include Taxi!, Who Gets In?, Between Two Worlds, The Negotiator, and High Risk Offender. Barry, Ali Kazimi and I share a website, and Barry’s complete bio can be found here.

The film will have its World Broadcast Premiere on Wednesday October 13 at 9 pm ET/MT on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network‘s (APTN) Reel Insights strand across Canada.

Now, if I praised this film you might find that suspect, as Barry is a close friend of mine. So let me quote filmmaker Martin Duckworth – he copied me on a message to Barry after seeing the film:

What a brilliant and beautiful film, Barry. Such a great story, and so cleverly told. Relating personal tragedy and political triumph. Allowing the story to unfold at its own pace, with each chapter appearing as a surprise and a revelation. The film is a work of ingenuity and dedication. Chiseled to perfection. You have reached a pinnacle. It leaves one wondering, “What is there left for this guy to do?” My god, I must look at it again.

Eskimos received the “Allan King Award for Excellence in Documentary” at the recent Directors Guild of Canada Awards (Editor Nick Hector, Sound Editor Michael Bonini, Director Barry). The film has also received honours at the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival (Best Feature Documentary) and the Yorkton Film Festival (NFB Kathleen Shannon Award).

Have a look at the trailer here.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with this blog.

A precious resource: Lois Siegel’s website

Model by Frederick Wiseman

A month ago I talked about several lists of ‘best documentaries’ on this blog, and seem to have started quite a discussion. Good, because these lists – all of course subjective – need to be discussed. And as always when you do something you learn someting, One of the many resources brought to my attention over the last few weeks is Lois Siegel’s terrific web site, which includes a list of documentaries. Lois has no particular pretensions with her list, but it’s one good source for people looking for good docs. I spoke to Lois about it:

How did you come to start your list ?

The Documentary Film List is part of my website Film Fanatics. The site has all kinds of information on it: acting, animation, documentary films, feature films, filmmakers, funding, history, screenwriting, schools…anything that I think might be of interest to someone and it serves as a good reference for me. and my video students at the University of Ottawa also have access to it and young filmmakers I mentor.

What are your criteria for including a film?

When I see films that I like, I often add them to the list. I haven’t had time to add every film I like to the list. I add a bit at a time. I have a list of almost 200 films that I used to show in my classes at John Abbott College, and now at the University of Ottawa. I still have to add films that appear on my Documentary Filmmakers site. This is a work in progress. I need more hours in a day. I’m working as a freelance photographer, a musician and I teach, so my time is limited.

Sometimes the films I like reflect my personal interests… e.g. “Model” by Frederick Wiseman. I really like this film… I’m a photographer, so this film interests me, and I’m a filmmaker, and there’s a section on filming a commercial in Wiseman’s production. I also like his film “The Store” because I grew up in department stores. My father owned them. Other people wouldn’t see this film the same way I see it because of my background.

We bring to films who we are, how we see the world, and what we understand about it. No two people have the same background. I like films about chess players because I played chess as a child. If you didn’t, then these films might bore you.

I have over 1000 pages on my main website now. I have many interests. and I work on the pages a bit every day.

lois07by tomfixedsmall
Lois Siegel

Do you try to find all films that correspond to your criteria, or you just go with films you happen to see ?

I include films I see, but I’m always looking for interesting films. I view films all the time. And I went to the Montreal World Film Festival for years. As a filmmaker, I wanted to see as many films as possible. When I worked at The National Film Board, I used to take 16mm films home to screen all the time, then it was VHS tapes. Now I borrow films from the Ottawa Public Library and the University of Ottawa library (VHS, DVD).

Teaching allows me to see films I might not otherwise have access to. I can request films for purchase or for viewing. I also see films at the Bytowne Cinema – press screenings, because I write reviews for my website and for The Glebe Report (Ottawa).

Your site attracts a lot of traffic, do you know who visits?

My complex of web pages attracts 55,000 hits a day (not just the documentary page).

People from all over the world visit my site. Last October there were 1.5 million hits.

More on the IDA’s list

Barry Greenwald

I had a lot of reactions to my interview with Diane-Estelle Vicari from the IDA about the list of 25 best documentaries. Here’s one from documentary filmmaker Barry Greenwald (one of my partners on the socialdoc web site):

“I would like to think that a Canadian-created equivalent of the IDA’s ‘Best Documentaries’ would be more reflective of the scope, history, and eclectic quality of international documentary cinema…Perhaps it is time for groups and institutions such as Hot Docs, the Rencontres, DOC, filmmakers in Quebec, POV Magazine, Montage, or an umbrella collective thereof, to develop a truly international ‘Best of List’. Canadian inspired with a global view. Opening such a forum to something along the lines of ‘100 Remarkable International Documentaries’ would be a starter.”

Barry sent out a summary of my interview to the Documentary Organization of Canada discussion group and passed on some of the comments. Sheila Petzold promised to bring the idea of a more inclusive list to the DOC executive. Walter Forsyth commented: “A great subject to fill an edition of POV.” I’ll pass this on to POV editor Mark Glassman.

Well, a little more research turned up some existing lists. This is from veteran programmer André Paquet, Every time this kind of list is established, there is inevitably a bias. Either because the people who are consulted are more or less representative, or because the circumstances are particular. I find that one of the best list is one published by DOX magazine for their 50th issue in 2003. They consulted people from all over the world. And when I organized the 50th anniversary celebrations for the NFB in 1989 I selected 53 films which represented ONE history of the documentary. Among the people I consulted at the time were Santiago Alvarez, Emile de Antonio, Peter Von Bagh, Michel Brault, Haile Gerima, Jill Godmillow, Bernard Gosselin, Joris Ivens, Johan Van der Keuken, Allan King, Bonnie Sherr-Klein, Jean-Claude Labrecque, Arthur Lamothe, Richard Leacock, Colin Low, Mira Nair, Julia Reichert, Helga Reidemeister, Jean Rouch, Henri Storck, Klaus Wildenhan.

Our friends and colleagues in the U.S. have a tendency to limit their vision to their own cinema – this is true both for fiction and documentary,”

And here’s the good news, in a couple of days I will be able to post the two lists mentioned by André.