SIFF DocFest 2021: 5 Capsule Reviews

From Becoming Costeau comes this memorable refrain: “Our films aren’t documentaries. They are true adventure films.” The nature of filmmaking is shifting. Every generation needs its own outlook. A prism of belief that shapes the core of the filmmaking that comes from it. In present times, where the world and its truths so often seem at odds, there is a great comfort in living someone else’s truths. Experiencing true stories vicariously. Our filmmaking abilities are globally and we can now record anyone, anywhere in the world and put that out instantaneously. There has never been a better time for the documentarian. The documentary fan, also, experiences an embarrassment of riches. From SIFF DocFest, we share five stories that take us all over the globe. We experience the frontlines of political reporting for a small town newspaper, the ecosystem of trees in the German forest, the struggles of animal conservationists in America, the life and times of a great French explorer and filmmaker, and the near-tragedy of a soccer team’s worth of children stuck in the caves of Thailand. This broad range offers us so many true adventure stories.

Storm Lake

Storm Lake. Dirs. Beth Levison & Jerry Risius.

The local newspaper is a regional institution. An institution that, in many American places, has long dried up with the shift in media priorities. That hasn’t often lead to a wealth of online alternatives, but large swaths of figurative news desserts, wherein citizens are left without investigative reporting on their local politics, agricultural news to help local industry, or even the kind of sweet, human interest stories that so often connect a community to the diverse and interesting groups that populate it. The Storm Lake Times is a last breed of an important and ever-fading community artifact. It’s lead by Art Cullen, a newsman who looks like Mark Twain and writes with hard-earned regionally specific dialect, but also has a long and storied family history in the news business. Cullen recently won a Pulitzer for his expert journalism, for “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Storm Lake will prove an enamoring subject for more than the local paper’s some 3,000+ circulation. It’s for everyone who loves the news and the people who write it. If popular media has too often been under attack these last five years, too often, the joy of the independent and smaller press, has also been overlooked in the process. It’s a good documentary, especially while it stays with the team of reporters who make this dream a reality. When it strays in the second half and primarily covers the Iowa Caucus and the relationship of local journalists to out of town politicians who need their reader’s votes, it really diverts into another documentary it does not have the breadth or specificity to properly cover. But, do watch it for Cullen and his team. They are an absolute delight and a personal point of inspiration.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees. Dir. Jörg Adolph.

There’s science in the trees. They are interconnected and require each other for sustenance. German forester Peter Wohlleben wrote a best-selling book about the solidarity of trees. This film follows his continued advocacy for better forestry under the guise of pseudo science. Like the book, the film centers itself around the mixed deciduous-coniferous trees of Wohlleben’s native forests. It is inherently nice to spend time with someone who has put a lot of thought into the matter of conservation, although the author has not adjusted to consistent criticism of his spurious science and evades easy answers about exactly what we might do, pragmatically, to solve the issue of harmful deforestation. Read our full review here.

The Conservation Game

The Conservation Game. Dir. Michael Webber.

A certain kind of documentary where the nobility of the mission does not match the craft of the text itself. It tries hard for Blackfish (2013) revelations, realizing the hot market for that is in the field of Big Cats, which have proven to have Big Money audiences with reality tv like Tiger King. Now, this is obviously better than that. Its heart is more securely in the right place. The mission is good: find out how these Big Cats that are shown on talk shows are placed into poor conditions after. The evidence found is damning; of course it is. It’s almost self evident what will be found, and that this work ought to be done. But huh. That’s all well and good. There’s a lot of important work to be done and most of it does not make an interesting documentary. This certainly does not, as the subjects are constantly put down in their search for information, finally find information, and then expose the reality of the situation. That’s cool, it should be exposed. It’s never interesting to watch or formally constructed with curiosity or proper pacing. The moments of revelation feel massaged and manipulated. There aren’t quite ethical problems, just the small matter of whether or not it works as a doc, and how it usually doesn’t.

Becoming Costeau

Becoming Costeau. Dir. Liz Garbus.

Our films are not documentaries. They are true adventure films.

Wouldn’t it be sweet if that were also the only necessary logline of Becoming Costeau? If the pitch were so simple: that this is true adventure, with its hands freed of the ties of the usual documentary puff piece, and it was really a grand transportation to another world below the sea? Sometimes that is true. In the restored footage of Jaques-Yves Costeau, the unknown becomes more known to us. We get a little closer to the truth under the sea. Then, we’re on land, and it falls into the normal trappings. It’s a basic and chronological assessment of a great career of exploring and of a man who was far more comfortable in the water than being an ordinary human on the land. In that sense, the film also misses some of that humanity. It’s not quite able to anchor itself to a grander moral picture of what any of it means. But, you know, glorious underwater photography beautifully restored is worth the price of admission anyway. And, just sometimes, we’re really inside a true adventure film.

The Rescue

The Rescue. Dirs. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin.

From the co-directors of the markedly overvalued and annoying Free Solo (2018) comes a much better and more humanistic documentary. You probably read the headlines a few years ago. A Thai soccer team is trapped in a cave. Maybe you heard about the gross Elon Musk publicity stunt of it all. But The Rescue is more than content to focus on the genuine heroes. Even knowing the conclusion (of course, you’ve read the news and it’s called The Rescue, it’s a successful mission), there is a gnawing tension of high stakes and actual heroism on display in this very fine National Geographic documentary about real human courage. The dressing of it all could never be as interesting as the formal subject. Sometimes you just want to watch the heroes win and the soccer team get saved. That will always be more engaging than the average superhero film, watching human actors doing the real thing.

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