As we mark the centenary of In the Land of the Head Hunters, the seminal British Columbia nonfiction film, VIFF delivers this acclaimed series of documentary and essay films that expand the form’s possibilities and invite us to view the world in different lights.
We dedicate this year's selection of documentary cinema to the memory of Peter Wintonick. Peter was instrumental in building a better world for documentary film here in Canada and around the world. We were honoured to have Peter's participation in our Festival many times over the years and to call him a friend.
Films in this Series
One of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year, Marc Silver’s profound and deeply human investigation of the death of Jordan Davis—an innocent black teen who stopped, with friends, at a convenience store and was shot dead by white man Michael Dunn three-and-a-half minutes later—takes uncommon care to reveal the truth with all the nuance that patient, intelligent filmmaking can produce. The effect is unforgettable and, needless to say, tragically timely.
While film preservation isn’t a foreign concept on these shores, devoted efforts here pale in comparison to the outright heroism displayed by the three brave Afghan cinephiles profiled in Pietra Brettkelly’s inspiring documentary. Having risked their lives to hide an 8,000-hour film archive from the Taliban regime, they now seek to restore it and reacquaint their countrymen with past monarchs, invasions and bygone days when Afghan women wore miniskirts. They’re not just striving to save a century’s worth of celluloid but also their nation’s history and culture.
A brilliantly conceived and executed work that is as emotionally affecting as it is intellectually questioning, David Evans’ layered documentary follows two elderly men, both the sons of high-ranking Nazis responsible for thousands of deaths, on a trip to Poland and Ukraine. Once there, ghosts from the past are unearthed, and profound psychological insights about the ties that bind come to light. "A bracingly rigorous examination of inherited guilt and pain, [this] is an extraordinary documentary…"—Screen
A journey both physical and intensely emotional, Sean McAllister’s five-year chronicle tells of the troubled love story between Amer, a Palestinian freedom fighter, and Raghda, a left-wing Syrian activist, who first met as Syrian political prisoners in the mid-90s, married and had four sons. As McAllister documents their struggles, he too is arrested, forcing the family to flee to Lebanon. He follows. The resulting story displays "heartbreaking candour… [and] furnishes a timely look behind the cover stories on Europe’s immigration drama."—Hollywood Reporter
Nicolas Steiner’s intrepid documentary tracks down five Americans who’ve moved off the grid. Taking refuge in tunnels and bunkers, they’re living like they’re in a post-apocalyptic world. Were there personal cataclysms that drove them to this? Steiner reveals key details about his subjects and their motivations—including those of an army vet who now wanders the desert in a spacesuit—with a patience that rivals the technical prowess on display in this visually stunning film. "Intriguing and absorbing… There is a certain poetry to these unusual lives.”—Screen
Science and sentiment power Sander Burger’s documentary about how technology is preparing for the western world’s demographic sea change. With the number of seniors spiking and traditional ideas of family fracturing, who will be there to lend the aged an ear and lift their spirits? One possible solution is Alice, who’s friendly, attentive and patient as she provides companionship and conversation for three elderly, isolated women. It just so happens that she’s also a robot. “As unassumingly delightful as its eponymous, diminutive ‘care-robot.’”—Hollywood Reporter
Jon Huntsman, Jr., US ambassador to China from 2009-2011, his adopted Chinese-American daughter Gracie, and blind Chinese activist and self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng are the very human faces of Vanessa Hope’s penetrating examination of US-China relations. Hope ambitiously ties their stories together as she delineates the issues of security, financial imbalances and human rights that are at the core of the current relationship between the two nations. That she does so with skill and humanity makes this not only a timely film but one that is essential viewing.
The struggle for power between radical Muslim fundamentalists and secular forces in Pakistan is a core issue of our time, one that Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s documentary explores with urgency, intelligence and finesse. At the centre is an interview with smiling fanatical cleric Maulana Aziz, leader of the Red Mosque, which counts 10,000 students in madrassas all over the country. It is he and his fellow Taliban that secular activists and government forces are up against… "This must-see documentary… chills to the bone."—Variety
Do pollinating bees have a market value? Can we put a price on the Amazon Rainforest? These are not hypothetical questions, as Denis Delestrac and Sandrine Feydal’s clear-eyed and rigorously researched investigation shows. Under the guise of protecting nature, banks and multinationals—with the blessing of the UN, Europe and many NGOs—are mounting new financial markets that exploit "environmental protection" as a moneymaking enterprise. This occasionally chilling documentary makes explicit just how the financial world does indeed see nature as the new Eldorado…
Having butted heads with would-be rock ‘n’ roll messiahs (Dig!) and full-blown cult leaders (Join Us), Ondi Timoner now takes on Russell Brand, a pop culture figure who often seems more ego-and-contradictions than flesh-and-blood. As seen in this comprehensive and fascinating profile, he’s played the celebrity game like he wrote the rulebook and yet seems to have emerged as a born revolutionary. “The antics, the vulgarity, the hilarity and the howls for attention aren’t anywhere near as arresting as [the] revelation of Brand’s own deep-seated humanity."—Screen
Winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for writing on cuisine, Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold is a beloved and imminently quotable cultural icon in that city. Laura Gabbert’s entertaining profile gives equal weight to the man and his métier. More than any other, Gold has done the legwork to uncover the different culinary wonder spots throughout the city’s vast, largely immigrant suburbs and environs, and then done his best to contextualize his experiences. In so doing, he has turned the restaurant review into serious—and seriously fun—cultural criticism.
In the wake of Fukushima, debate over whether we were safeguarded against similar nuclear disasters was conspicuous by its absence. Peter Galison and Robb Moss’ documentary is certainly a conversation starter. Pulling back the curtain on weapons manufacturing and nuclear-waste disposal, it reveals a New Mexican desert that isn’t so much a final resting place for radioactive materials as a ticking time bomb. Skilfully incorporating animation, this explosive investigative documentary speculates at how future generations will contend with the fallout from our sins.
Louise Osmond’s uplifting documentary tells an underdog tale for the ages. Determined to crash the “sport of kings,” 23 Welsh working-class friends invest everything in a thoroughbred foal, vaulting it from a squalid paddock in a depressed town to the winner’s circle at Wales’ most prestigious horse races. It’s funny, it’s moving, it has a great soundtrack and visual style. "Unforgettable… A shuddering, but delicately handled, exploration of that most basic human desire: to leave a mark and to forge a legacy."—Telegraph
The immense oil boom that has gone on in North Dakota for the past six years, and how that boom has affected local landowners, state officials and the Indigenous Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation serve as the entry points for Noah Hutton’s artful big-picture investigation of climate, time and our planet’s geologic record. Hutton has cited Michael Madsen’s eerie nuclear-waste documentary Into Eternity (VIFF 10) as a major influence and that is in evidence here in the careful attention paid to uncanny visuals and an urgent, otherworldly score.
Douglas Tirola’s documentary whisks us back to the 70s when a couple of overachieving college smartasses made good. In fact, to hear Judd Apatow tell it, “They became all of modern comedy.” Fueled by weed and indignation, they transformed a counterculture magazine into an empire and launched the careers of John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and dozens of other luminaries. "Punch-drunk and very much alive… generous and briskly entertaining…"—Variety
It’s a scenario familiar to Canadians: oppressed indigenous people fighting to rebuild and assert their rights. On this occasion, the setting is New Zealand’s beguiling Te Urewera forest region. The players? A fiercely independent Tuhoe tribe negotiating a settlement and an apology from the Crown while constructing an architectural gem of a community centre through sustainable methods. This confluence of honoured tradition and progressive environmentalism begets a stirring depiction of Indigenous pride, and both architectural and diplomatic ingenuity. Directed with finesse, sensitivity and clear eyes by Sarah Grohnert.
IT technician Hervé Falciani left his job at a Swiss branch of HSBC in 2008, taking with him a hard-drive containing a database of 130,000 bank accounts held by citizens from 180 countries. Ben Lewis’ comprehensive investigation explores in detail the fallout from Falciani’s actions, particularly the very slow progress being made by tax authorities in various countries to recoup the billions hidden in secret accounts…
Unearthing a treasure trove of archival footage, Virginia Heath’s montage film offers a kaleidoscopic tour of mid-20th century Scotland. As we glimpse evocative vignettes of labour and leisure, protests and parades, strife and revelry, we enter a world seemingly conjured from the realms of fantasy rather than reels of found footage. And playing throughout are King Creosote’s lush chamber pop songs, which lend a captivating sense of lore to every scene and heighten the film’s intimacy. "An immersive, moving and, at times, truly magical window on the past…"—Guardian
In the late 60s, India experienced a Western invasion as outsiders flooded over the border in hopes of finding enlightenment. The Beatles may’ve been the highest profile pilgrims, but Hannah Nydahl, a young Danish woman, was ultimately the most influential. She and her husband were the first westerners to study under His Holiness the 16th Karmapa and then spread his teachings abroad. Part biography, part adventure film, Adam Penny and Marta György-Kessler’s documentary celebrates a true pioneer. "Visually, the film is a pleasure…"—Village Voice
By day, Mark Reay enjoys an enviable life as a New York fashion freelancer, snapping photos, visiting fashion houses and using upscale eateries as makeshift offices. At night, he retreats to a rooftop where he lives under a tarp. This photographer-actor is a well-coifed embodiment of contradictions: classy but destitute; talented but unlucky at life. However, rather than simply trying to pay the rent, he doggedly chases the dream. Thomas Wirthensohn’s documentary “is an adventure… and an often beautiful portrait of [New York’s] promise and cruelty.”—Village Voice
Beginning its journey as an ominous sandstorm in Senegal, then heading west across the Atlantic to toss enormous ships and waves topsy-turvy before finally crashing into the jungles of the Caribbean, Hurricane Lucy is our home for 82 minutes, and it is a truly awesome, scary and incredible place. Lizards, bats, frogs, horses, homeless men, rivers, ocean reefs, the US Gulf coast… all bend before Lucy’s immense power. Andy Byatt (Blue Planet) and Cyril Barbançon teamed up with NASA to create this genuinely thrilling and immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen!
Luc Jacquet (the Oscar-winning March of the Penguins) returns to the Antarctic to trace the fascinating life and groundbreaking work of French glaciologist Claude Lorius, now 83. Lorius discovered that, by drilling into ice and extracting cores from enormous depths, effectively travelling back through time, one could show the link between man-made greenhouse gases and climate change… "Jacquet’s film is… a call to arms to the environmental movement destabilised and buffeted by the denial industry… A powerful testament, and one that ought to have a considerable impact."—Guardian
Intimate, revealing, philosophical, spiced with dollops of whimsy—these are qualities associated with the work of the late, legendary documentarian Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), and his final film (co-directed with Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui and Ben Wu) has them in spades. On a three-day train trip from Chicago to Seattle, the team—through encounters with other passengers—captures a snapshot of American life. "Lovely… A folk odyssey through northern landscapes that proves a fitting farewell to an American ethnographer."—Variety
Nick Waggoner’s gorgeous, gripping documentary captures a decades-long struggle over the future of Jumbo Valley, deep within the raw, rugged Purcell range of B.C.’s Columbia Mountains. Exploring a tug-of-war between a proposed (and long-delayed) $450-million ski resort near Invermere versus community members, conservationists and the Ktunaxa Nation and Shuswap Indian Band who are determined to see Jumbo kept wild, Waggoner’s film documents the fierce ideological battle surrounding how we value land.
The best climbing film ever? This exhilarating, immersive documentary showcases three extraordinary climbers’ efforts to be the first to scale the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, the Himalayas’ most daunting challenge. Directors Jimmy Chin, a top climber, and E. Chai Vasarhelyi, a celebrated documentarian, detail the perils of this 1,500-foot wall of sheer, smooth granite and delve into the psyches of these daredevils. Jon Krakauer is among those who provide context. "A visceral study of willpower and mental strength."—Indiewire
It seems The Wolfpack doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to exceedingly strange New York apartment stories. In October 2003, New York City police stormed the top floor of a Harlem high-rise after being alerted that a Bengal tiger and alligator were being kept as pets. A dozen years on, Phillip Warnell has taken an inspired approach to exploring this remarkable story, trading the sensationalistic for actual sensations. Through meticulous reconstructions, we’re immersed in this odd habitat of restless, trapped animals, and filled with awe.
An abstracted landscape portrait of smugglers on the border of Portugal and Galicia.
Glasnevin Cemetery holds not just the final remains of 1.5-million Dubliners but the infinite stories that are buried along with them. Fortunately, Aoife Kelleher’s documentary has avuncular historian Shane MacThomais to guide us through the sprawling grounds and the colourful pasts of the late luminaries (and unknowns) laid to rest there. MacThomais’ personality suffuses the film, ensuring a tone that’s buoyant rather than funereal as he enlightens us on everything from burial procedures to posthumous celebrity. “Comprehensive and beautifully filmed…"—Irish Times
Siena is one of the world’s most picturesque cities and the Palio is its crowning glory. Held twice a summer, this often ruthless bareback horse race brings pageantry and unparalleled intensity to the tight turns of the medieval town’s Piazza del Campo. Cosima Spender’s breathtaking documentary centres on a young upstart intent on making his mark in this cutthroat competition. “A remarkably concise and clear explanation of a complex, ancient tradition… How can something like this still exist? And how can one film capture it in such elegant detail?”—Vanity Fair
Louie Psihoyos (The Cove) returns with another enviro-doc that doubles as a top-flight thriller. Racing against the clock to stave off a mass extinction, Psihoyos’ undercover activists infiltrate underground marketplaces trafficking in endangered marine life and immerse us in oceans turning toxic from our energy consumption. The stakes couldn’t be higher, resulting in a film that unfolds with uncommon urgency. “A mesmeric entertainment and enlightenment… A chilling call to action to stop ocean poisoning before it results in destruction of the planet.”—Hollywood Reporter
Noam Chomsky and his unassailable arguments about how economic inequality has become an entrenched part of western life are front and centre in Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott’s superbly reasoned documentary, one part analysis and one part call to arms. The interviews with Chomsky were shot over four years and show that none of the 86-year-old’s fight has gone out of him. "This short, sharp, smart essay-film makes excellent use of Chomsky’s insights…"—Hollywood Reporter
What begins in 1977 as “an annual personal summary report” (read: self-recorded video journal) by 19-year-old Sam Klemke evolves into time-lapse display of years slipping away right before our eyes. When Klemke—an early adopter of the self-involvement that’s become prevalent in the Internet era—becomes an overnight YouTube sensation some three decades into his project, director Matthew Bate enters the frame. As he assumes control of Sam’s archive of footage, the question arises: Whose film are we now watching? “An existential message in a bottle.”—Variety
What makes Angus Angus? What makes Kobe Kobe? Who’s got the world’s best beef? What’s the best way to cook it? Can we feel less guilty about consuming so much of it? What’s in the cow’s best interest? Are our interests, the cattle’s and the planet’s sustainability absolutely irreconcilable? We have the questions and Franck Ribière’s Steak (R)evolution has the revealing answers, including how the most humane raising of livestock results in the most delectable steak. "Vegetarians beware—this mouthwatering documentary may just about convert you.”—Hollywood Reporter
In recent years, Su Rynard noticed that birds she used to see—grosbeaks, flycatchers, barn swallows—were nowhere to be found. Indeed, songbirds are rapidly disappearing and their absence is a message to us all. Humans share an ageless bond with birds and their songs: in ancient times, we looked to bird’s flight patterns and listened to their melodies to predict the future. Today, the birds once again have something to tell us. "The Messenger hums with the kind of restless energy that’s all too rare for an eco-doc."—POV Magazine
Patricio Guzmán explores the watery Patagonian Archipelago and its meaning in Chilean history—from its use by Chile’s Indigenous peoples to its function as a grave site for Pinochet’s desaparecidos… "Applying the same mix of lyrical nature and space imagery, voice-over narration, archive photos and footage, and interviews [that he used in Nostalgia for the Light], the director crafts another deeply poetic but also committedly, at times even angrily, humanist meditation on buried traces of the past and how they determine our present and future…"—Screen
Awash in nostalgia, Jenni Olson’s essay film is cinepoetry at its most eloquent and accessible. Assembling immaculately framed images of California’s beguiling landscapes and architecture, Olson lends mesmerising narration that proves both introspective and amusing as she ruminates on colonialism, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, unattainable love and the impermanent beauty of the world we’ve constructed. Lulling and provocative in turns, this is the assured work of a filmmaker exceedingly comfortable in her celluloid skin and yet eager to uncover new veins of expression.
In a nonfiction work of tremendous vision, Michael Madsen pre-enacts how an alien invasion might unfold. Rather than wild speculation, this modern equivalent of Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast draws from erudite sources inside the United Nations’ Office for Outer Space Affairs. Despite its factual foundations, Madsen’s film still inspires wonder thanks to an enthralling interview technique that sees its subjects directly addressing the camera, putting us in the place of the otherworldly visitor and leaving us to question humanity’s role in the universe.
Continuing the visual experimentation with time-lapse photography and landscape that made his Tectonics such a unique and mesmerizing event, Peter Bo Rappmund turns his camera lens on one of the world’s longest crude oil pipelines, the 1,300-kilometre Trans-Alaska Pipeline, stretching from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south. "Astonishing images and rhythms arise, capturing the complex intersections at which industrial and natural sublimes meet, and suggesting a new politics of the petro-image."—Museum of Modern Art
Despite its stellar reporting, short fiction and criticism, there are still many readers who flip directly to The New Yorker’s cartoons. Understanding that impulse completely, Leah Wolchok profiles Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor who determines what’ll get a laugh. In turn, we’re introduced to the eccentrics who aspire to distill their satire into a single pristine panel. "A dream come true… A warm and frequently hilarious portrait of the unique men and women who live for that rare moment when their drawings are printed in their business’ holiest book."—Time Out