Journey to the North Pole with an intrepid group of women explorers from varied backgrounds, who learn a whole lot from each other and have a lot to teach us. Come slurp Japan’s best-balanced batch of ramen. Travel to Korea and get the inside scoop on a country and the ups and downs of its national hockey program. Move to contemporary war-torn Ukraine and feel the impact of current events from a devastating on-the-ground perspective, in a work of brave documentary journalism. Documentaries can do a lot of things but one of the best things they can do is offer us a porthole into other cultural dimensions and provide tangible first-hand accounts of human experiences. At this year’s SIFF DOCFEST, we’ve selected four interesting documentaries that show the globe-trotting utility of the format.
Keep me out of it. Next time you go for a walk uphill. You climb a mountain. You go on a safari or any kind of trek. I no longer want to go along. I do not want to see your incredible feats of human endurance. I’d rather hang out. Watch a movie. Not climb a mountain or trek over some treacherous ice. Next time you travel with your mega-inspiring sisterhood from the Arab and Western world and all go conquer the North Pole, leave me at home. I never want to see anyone Free Soloing again. Do not take me swimming with an octopus you have a questionable relationship with. Done. I’m so done. Just do normal people things. I don’t mind that you’ve overcome so much and accomplished so much together. Congrats. It must be nice. Pretty nice that Holly Morris, a director from Seattle, finds so much in these women (but why not all the women on the trip, weird choice)… They really get a lot out of each other and show something the extreme reality documentary crowd ought to find really moving. Not me. Just watching them explore these melting ice caps makes me want to take a nap.
Come Back Anytime
Sweet, light, and just flavorful enough, just like Masamoto Ueda‘s ramen, Come Back Anytime is a delectable treat. Easy going down, the documentary is an endearing portrait of a family and their noodle shop which devotees swear is the only place to go for the right soy-balanced ramen. But of Masamoto Ueda, there is also an air of mystery that is exciting in the food, the idea that this food only lasts and describes his entire sense of being and will stop being served when he is done making it. Such a temporary moment of light and sweetness is well worth documenting. Even if it creates no dramatic lift, sometimes you want to watch pleasant food docs and be hungry.
The tone of your documentary voiceover is so vitally important. It needs to capture the essence of what you want to say. Rarely have I heard one so wildly inappropriate as in Hockey Dreams. The directors think this is an unserious thin layer of relief between the grimly serious hockey coaching sessions and the state of world politics. Likewise, the film wishes to engage in deep topics, then breezes through them unceremoniously. It takes little effort with any of its several topics, besides having a pretty good idea about cataloging the experience of the Korean national team and what it means to their identity and sense of self. The documentary meanders through any number of important systemic ideas that it could hang it’s skates on, and moves right along to the next thing, sometimes trivializing a useful topic with its silly voiceovers, and then never returning to it. A miss even for hockey doc fans and I’m a big proponent of those. Hockey Dreams is a grating watch and has nothing to say for itself in return.
Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
I think it’s a terrible no-win situation to review such documentaries. Obviously the documentarians have taken great risks to create this film. And then to sit back and say, “yes, but your film is a news report, and you didn’t find any structure for your film in a war that is pure madness,” just feels so disingenuous. I want to write how it’s too soon but won’t be the one to suggest the filmmakers continue to embed themselves in an ongoing war. Importantly, it does remain ongoing, complicated, and ever-shifting. This collection of images and interviews doesn’t really convey more than you’ve seen on the news. It’s pretty terrifying! You would never want to trivialize the work by saying they couldn’t find a good movie in war. What you can really say is that there’s no meaning yet to any success or failure in documenting the subject. Meaning will come and presumably so will dozens of other documents of this time. I think this early attempt, while brave to make, will fall on the inessential end of old news reports once some more specific, less broadly scattered, and more organized accounts are collected on film.