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From Blue Roses and Notes to Democracy's Edge, Pavarotti, Fatherlands, JT, Toy Stories and Photographs

I’ll start with some notes on five documentaries.
At last September’s One World Film Festival the audience favorite was a 55-minute documentary Blue Roses ( by Ottawa-based filmmakers Ed Kucerak and Danielle Rolfe. It’s a moving exploration of the palliative care needs of the capital’s vulnerable low-income population living in rooming houses. That premiere had its own challenges as it was on the day after 6 tornados hit the capital region when the filmmakers along with most of the audience had lost power and the venue was running on backup generators. On June 19 there was an encore screening in a packed theatre—Ottawa’s historic Mayfair—followed by a panel discussion.  The documentary has been selected for several other festivals, including one in Regina, and hopefully it might be picked up for television broadcast.
            Meriting mention are several other documentaries. The best of these by far is The Edge of Democracy (Brazil 2019 which premiered at Sundance and is now streaming on Netflix.  Writer-director Petra Costa has produced an outstanding synthesis of archival footage and candid behind-the-scenes moments that illuminate both the modern history of the deeply comprised Brazilian state—notably its embedded corruption linked to oligarchic power—and the serial troubles and turmoil of the past decade which has seen the imprisonment of the Workers Party former president “Lula” and the impeachment of his successor Dilma Rousseff amid economic woes and agitation in the streets.
Costa weaves here own personal story into this narrative in that her grandparents were part of the oligarchy but her parents became radical left activists during the years of the military dictatorship (through 1977 when I spent time in northeast Brazil doing dangerous doctoral research). Many of their comrades were tortured and killed. (Rousseff was among those tortured as a political prisoner.) When Lula left office he was hugely popular and revered as a champion of the have nots.  Then it started to fall apart.
The main corruption scandal Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”), led by a crusading Judge Moro and a posse of prosecutors, was also entangled in political machinations aimed at getting rid of the leftist presidents. Costa inserts a telling quote from American billionaire Warren Buffet: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that is making war, and we’re winning.”  Had Lula been allowed to run in 2018 he would almost certainly have returned to the presidency.  Instead he is in jail while the result of the manipulations and the madness allowed Jair Bolsonaro—a former army captain, admirer of the military dictatorship and outright neofascist—to rise from congressional obscurity to the president’s office.  He’s named Moro his justice minister.  If you think the Excited States of America have descended into poisonous polarization, you should watch this exposé of a democracy on the edge.  It’s among the best political documentaries ever made.  A+
Pavarotti (UK/US 2019
Actor turned director Ron Howard is not best known for his documentaries but this one, on famed Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, is very fine indeed, and begins with a clip from an early concert in the Brazilian Amazon.  Pavarotti was a larger than life character, jovial and a bon vivant in public.  He was not only an opera wonder but toured giving solo recitals and engaged pop music stars in “Pavarotti and friends” concerts.  Excerpts from a famous 1990 performance in 1990 with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras—the “three tenors”—literally brought tears to my eyes. If there is a weakness it’s that this tribute to the great man somewhat glosses over more troubling aspects.  Pavarotti left his wife for a woman younger than his three daughters, though interviews with them reveal no bitterness.  Pavarotti died in 2007 but his foundation—dedicated to advocacy for children ( – and his legend endure.  B+     
Sophie Huber’s Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (Switzerland 2018, looks at the iconic record label, founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, which became a major force in the development of African American popular music from jazz to hip-hop. The founders were forced to sell in 1966 and the label became dormant for a few years but was relaunched under EMI in 1985. B+
            Directed by Gil Levanon and Kat Roher, Back to the Fatherland (Austria 2017, explores their unusual journey from Israel back to Germany and Austria, the homeland of their respective grandparents; the difference being that Levanon is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and Roher the granddaughter of a Nazi officer.  Both met when they were students at New York University. This connection leads to further conversations about multigenerational complications, misgivings and mixed feelings.  B
JT LeRoy (UK/Canada/U.S.
“Truth is rarely pure and never simple” No kidding. This Oscar Wilde witticism (from The Importance of Being Earnest) opens writer-director Justin Kelly’s odd docudrama, adapted from the 2007 memoir by Savannah Knoop, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.  The real-life Savannah (played by Kristen Stewart) is the “gender nonconforming” sibling of aspiring musician Geoff (Jim Sturgess) whose partner Laura Albert (played by Laura Dern) wrote some allegedly autobiographical works about a teenage boy’s experiences of poverty, drugs and abuse under the pseudonym Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy.  Laura took the bisexual Savannah in hand, and with a blond wig, dark glasses and hat, transformed her into the secretive androgynous male “author” who stammers a few words for public appearances. Laura herself becomes “Speedie”, a loudmouthed obnoxious English lady who chaperones and protects “JT”. What starts off as a lark soon gets into cultish deeper waters, especially when a smitten European actress Eva (played by Diane Kruger) decides to make JT: The Movie in America, where Savannah has an actual male African-American lover. There’s no bridge over these troubled waters. Laura Dern is amazing (as she is in the HBO movie The Tale and series Big Little Lies—helmed by Québécois Jean-Marc Vallé).  All three actresses are fantastic. The film was partly shot in Manitoba, except of course a sequence on the Cannes red carpet for Eva’s premiere.  Only in the movies? A-         
Toy Story 4 (U.S. 2019
After the wondrous and moving Toy Story 3 nine years ago some might gripe about Disney-Pixar giving the franchise another go. Not me.  I was delighted with this new animation episode that creates a new and unlikely character. Familiar favorites are back, though in a new light, notably cowboy sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) relegated to an antique shop where a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), accompanied by creepy sidekicks, is looking for a kid to love her.  The little girl Bonnie from “3” is now entering kindergarten and on orientation day she fashions a plaything from a spork, pipecleaners, and gum taken from a waste basket, adding a pair of mismatched googly eyes and calling it “Forky”.  Forky thinks he’s trash but becomes Bonnie’s must-have toy that, like the others, comes alive without the humans ever suspecting. Forky is voiced by Tony Hale in what director Josh Cooley has described as a “comedy salad of confidence, confusion, and empathy”. Adventures and misadventures follow, including getting lost in a midway.  Another new character is “Yes we Canada” Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) on a motorcycle who comes to the rescue. Yes, stick a maple leaf on it.  And stay through the credits at the end of which Bonnie uses kindergarten class to make another “toy” from craft-store castoffs—suggesting this won’t be the last rodeo for Woody, Forky and friends.  A
Photograph (India/Germany/U.S. 2019)
This Mumbai story from writer-director Ritish Batra (The Lunch Box) takes off from a seemingly random event when a street photographer named Rafi, plying his trade at the touristy Gateway of India, convinces an attractive young girl Miloni (her image is used on a poster) to have her photo taken. She runs off but their paths are destined to cross again.  The dark-skinned Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a Muslim from a poor village, is unmarried, which pains the grandmother Dadi who raised him. The fair-skinned Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), studying to be a chartered accountant, is from an upper-class Hindu family.  Rafi, to mollify Dadi, sends her a picture of Miloni, calling her “Noorie” from a movie character, as if she were his bride to be.  Fortunately for him, he meets Miloni again, because Dadi comes to visit and check out “Noorie”.  Pretending her parents are dead, Miloni agrees to play along.  Meanwhile her own unsuspecting family hopes to set her up with a young man going off to study for an MBA in the U.S.   The film plays with the pressures on each set against a background of sharp cultural and socioeconomic disparities.  What emerges isn’t some implausible romantic fable, thank goodness, but a shared appreciation left open and indeterminate.  Each has helped the other, and that’s enough.  B+      


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