Documentaries triumph in 26th year of Film Festival
By Emily Deming
With Packed houses and engaged audiences, the documentaries outshone the fictional feature films this year. Here were two highlights:
Radical Grace (Dir: Rebecca Parrish)
I first heard about the Vatican’s censure of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious in a 2012 interview on Fresh Air where Terry Gross interviewed Pat Farrell (former president of the leadership conference). Farrell was articulate in a calm, deep way. Her clear vision and unwavering sense of what is right and good were paired with an open and questioning mind and no discernible ego (beyond self-love and confidence) to get in the way of her desire to elevate communication between herself and her detractors (The Church). I have rarely been so impressed with a speaker.
Radical Grace takes place a couple of years after that interview and documents nuns in America fighting that vatican censure of them and their work and simultaneously, and very relatedly, fighting for social justice. I went to the film with the memory of Pat Farrell’s competence in mind and was moved to tears over and again as the filmmakers captured that same resolve and intelligence and concern for the world that I now cannot help but think is pervasive among the Women Religious.
It was a classic documentary. It was simple and well executed with interviews interspersed with footage of current events and “walk-alongs” as the cameras followed the nuns on their daily business of changing the world. A flashy style would not have done; the work and the communities these women work for is the whole point. of everything. Basic goodness and love were fought for with complete conviction and tenacity. The hurt implied in the church possibly denying the central tenant of the nun’s lives was deeply felt by capturing small expressions and gestures. The camera stayed on their faces in between words to expose the deep emotions of women used to not making a show of themselves. The documentary took its cue from its subject and showed the work over long stretches without embellishment. The nuns and their triumphs are clear and moving. People devoting their lives to the betterment of the world by remaining solidly in that world, and simultaneously having to advocate for their very correctness in doing so, is riveting, uplifting and worthy of screen time.
The Amina Profile (Dir: Sophie Deraspe):
This film is a documentary about the unfolding of a mystery. It is a thriller at times and it is terrifically sexy. It is sexy without feeling exploitative of the intimacy of its subject. A Canadian woman begins an online affair with Amina, a woman in Syria. As the Arab Spring heats up, Amina begins a blog of her life that is both political and personal: A Gay Girl in Damascus. When Amina disappears after months of online activism, her girlfriend, Sandra Bagaria, back in Montreal, begins frantically to search for her. That search unearths much more truth than she was expecting.
This film is not simple and honors the many questions that arise during the search for Amina: questions about our loyalties and our sympathies and how we parse them to people far away; questions of journalistic responsibility; questions of when to believe and when to be skeptical. And throughout it remains texturally lush and sensual. The footage is diverse and more evocative than reconstructive. It is complicit in allowing us a romanticized vision of events abroad, and yet rigorous in exposing those visions as untested. The bloggers and activists from around the world are compelling characters and hold our interest outside of their online mediums.
The editing on this film is a triumph. With art and facts and made and found sequences fit to a pace that keeps the audience’s interest and allows the pervasive miasma of uncertainty to move our curiosity forward through each scene without devolving into confusion or a befuddled narrative. This is a story full of unreliable narrators and everything can be manipulated in an online world. The boundaries between manipulation, deceit, artistic license and exploration are both exposed and used effectively. And though I will not give away the ending, the film maker, Deraspe, does her work getting us there in a way that is both verified and satisfying journalistically and emotionally. This film is not a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It is a mystery, cloaked in personal and political tragedies that was painstakingly and rivetingly untangled.