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DOXA 2013 reviews

DOXA film fest reviews

Image from The Ghosts in Our Machine by Jo-Anne McCarthur.

DOXA film festival reviews – Google and the World Brain, Occupy the Movie, Great Hip Hop Hoax, Fire in the Blood

– by Julia Brown

The Ghosts in Our MachineLiz Marshall’s The Ghosts in Our Machine takes the viewer on a tour into the world of Toronto-based animal rights activist and photographer Jo-Anne McArthur.

Marshall gives us a multi-faceted view of the animals that McArthur photographs – we see them both through the lens of the documentary film camera as well as through the lens of McArthur’s still photography.

This layered viewpoint adds immense power to the images in the film. Most people already know, even though most do not want to really think about it, that millions of animals are abused and mistreated by our modern profit-driven Western “machine” for meat, milk, skin, fur, and research/testing purposes. Both Marshall and McArthur are trying to make these invisible animals – the “ghosts” – visible in a way that is new, and will hopefully provoke us to rethink our relationship to the non-human animals that inhabit this planet with us.

This new view involves seeing each animal as a unique individual. Both Marshall and McArthur focus on the animals’ eyes (for the eyes are the window to the soul) and the result is profoundly moving; when you see the sadness and confusion in a factory farm cow’s eyes, or fear and despair in the eyes of a fox who has been left in a small cage with no water, it is impossible to deny their status as sentient beings. Indeed, after looking into those eyes throughout the film, it seems very appropriate that the animals are given credit by name at the end.

To add to the emotional impact and increase the viewer’s sense of empathy, Marshall gives us a chance to experience the tender relationship McArthur has with many of the animals she photographs. McArthur does not view her role as one of saviour, but rather to bear witness and document what is happening. She has obviously seen many horrible things, and she has the PTSD to prove it. She is quiet and unassuming, but the film makes clear that she is haunted by the ghosts of the animals she has taken pictures of over the years, and that gives her a kind of grim determination. In many ways, the film is as much about McArthur as it is about the animals; she functions as the audience’s conscience – the part of our minds that will not and cannot look away.

The Ghosts in Our Machine is a difficult film to watch, not only because of the subject matter, but because it changes how the viewer sees, and thus thinks about, the animals that we as a society use up and then throw away. It is not as much a call to action as it is a call to change how we think about animals in general. The first step towards that end is that we acknowledge or “see” them, period – and this film does an excellent job of getting that message across. It’s a definite must-see film in this year’s DOXA line-up. (The Ghosts in Our Machine screens Thursday May 9 at 6 p.m. and May 10 at 12:30 p.m. at Vancity Theatre. Click here for tickets.)

Google and the World Brain – It’s not exactly a surprise that Google’s insanely ambitious “Google Books” project (which had the goal of scanning every book ever in order to form a massive online digital library) would be a tad controversial. In fact, Google’s representatives in the US refused to comment on Google Books for the film, due to ongoing litigation.

In discussing into the controversy behind Google Books, Ben Lewis’ Google and the World Brain also explores key topics of 21st century conversation. Online privacy, copyright in the Internet age, the role of libraries in shaping culture and furthering human knowledge, and artificial intelligence are all discussed. A wide variety of commentators, from France’s National Library head Jean-Noel Jeanneney (who reacts like any good snobby Frenchman by essentially declaring war on the young Google execs for daring to even ask him for access to his library) to commentators who see the triumph of the screen over paper books as both preferable and inevitable, weigh in.

In many ways, though, the film itself suffers from a bit of over-ambition. When you stop to contemplate that it is indeed possible for Google – or some other entity or group – to digitize the world’s cumulative knowledge, the ramifications of doing so are breathtaking. It is the kind of utopian vision that can’t help but shade into dystopia on some level, simply because no one can really say what would happen if we did develop that kind of online “world brain.” How would it be regulated – if it is a good idea to regulate it, that is. Who would own and/or control it? And perhaps most importantly, who would be making money off of it and exactly how would that money be made? These are not questions with simple answers, and while Lewis does a good job of touching on these things in his film, it is impossible to delve that deeply into any one area of inquiry in a standard 90-minute documentary.

Despite the fact that Google and the World Brain can only really serve as a conversation-starter, the films shows us that it is still an important conversation to have, as evinced by the highly reactive response to Google’s project from all corners of the world. The film is definitely worth screening if you want a sneak peek into how human knowledge might evolve in this digital age. (Google and the World Brain screens Wednesday May 8 at 7 p.m. at the Vancouver Playhouse. Click here for tickets.)

Fire In the Blood – Dylan Mohan Gray’s Fire in the Blood is by turns shocking, compelling and downright rage-inducing. The film examines how major Western pharmaceutical companies effectively blocked access to affordable AIDS drugs in Africa in the late ’90s and early ‘2000s, resulting in the preventable deaths of literally millions of people. It is also a tribute to the people who fought valiantly to find a way to get the life-saving medicine to Africans and others in the developing world.

Fire in the Blood does not pull any punches when it comes to its criticisms of Big Pharma, but the film is still balanced and thoroughly researched. It is very difficult to watch people dying in hospital beds while doctors explain that there is nothing they can do to help, solely because the drugs that could save their patients are out of reach due to exorbitant pricing and drug patent laws. Indeed, when you start to absorb the facts presented in the film, your anger at the drug companies really starts to build.

Gray takes great care to address some common objections to offering affordable medicines to the Third World; after all, one could argue that pharmaceutical companies are simply businesses that exist to make a profit. But even the most conservative, right-wing, pro-big-business viewer would be forced to concede that what the drug companies did in Africa was not only highly questionable from a fair business practices POV, but actually bordering on genocide. Indeed, there is a segment in the film showing that even George W. Bush took a stand in favour of the people of Africa during his 2003 State of the Union address.

The film also features well-reasoned and passionate commentary from those who fought (ultimately successfully) for Africa’s access to the cheaper, generic forms of the much more expensive patented/brand name antiretroviral AIDS drugs. These include William F. Haddad, who is an advocate for generic drug trade, Zackie Achmat, an AIDS activist who refused to take any medicine himself until everyone in the developing world had access to cheaper drugs, and Yusuf Hamied, an Indian scientist who managed to find a way to bring the cost of the AIDS cocktail down below the symbolic dollar-a-day threshold. They were the front-line fighters against the biggest big business in the world, and their commitment to the cause is obvious. At one point, the seemingly very stoic Haddad is so overcome with emotion that he asks for filming stop for a moment while he regains his composure.

The message of Fire in the Blood is conveyed with quiet conviction, in a way that is highly emotional yet also rational and objective. It is not an understatement to suggest that this movie should be required viewing because, as the film clearly shows, what Big Pharma did during the AIDS crisis in Africa is just the tip of the iceberg; that it is not only the citizens of developing nations who are being seriously affected by their profit-above-people approach to business, but humanity in general. (Fire in the Blood screens Sunday May 4 at 2:30 p.m. at the Rio Theatre and Thursday May 9 at 6:30 Cinematheque. Click here for tickets.)

DOXA 2013 reviews

Scene from Fire in the Blood, at DOXA 2013.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax – This is one of those documentaries that you could be forgiven for thinking was pure fiction disguised as documentary. In fact, despite evidence to contrary, I am still a bit unsure as to whether or not the film itself is a hoax, versus just documenting a hoax.

After suffering the indignity of being called “the rapping Proclaimers” by some A&R execs, Scottish BFFs Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain decide that their talent might be better appreciated if they pretended they were from America (California, to be exact). Reinvented as Silibil n’ Brains, they manage to sign to a major label and start living the high life in London on the label’s dime while they make their debut album.

What follows is a classic morality tale with a modern urban twist. At one point, Gavin aka “Brains” descends into what could be described as madness, due to the weight of bearing such a big secret. The old line about tangled webs and deception come to mind repeatedly while viewing the film. Not only do they have to worry about their Scottish accents accidentally slipping out while out on the town drinking, they can’t “be real” in any way – even with each other, eventually.

Director Jeanie Finlay tells the story of Silibil n’ Brains with a mix of narrated, animated pieces, interviews and footage the boys shot themselves during their grand adventure. It adds up to a fast-paced, entertaining movie, but again, it is hard to shake the feeling that we as the audience are still not getting the full story. Especially during one of the interview portions, you wonder, for example, if their claim that the whole thing started as a joke is really true. Because at other points in the film, they also claim that they always intended it to prove a point about the image-driven aspects of the recording industry. So which is it: purposeful deceit with a higher purpose, or a joke that went too far?

In other words, Gavin and Billy’s motivations are murky, and that uncertainty is not really cleared up by the end of the film. And while it not necessarily a bad thing to leave a film audience wondering – things are rarely tied up neatly in a bow with documentary filmmaking – it is hard to know what to think and feel about these two characters. Are they just lying jerks who took everyone for a ride? Or guys who really just wanted to show the world their talent and make music and did what they needed to do to make it in an industry that values image over talent?

Overall, The Great Hip Hop Hoax tells a tale stranger than fiction about the fictions we choose buy into as a culture in the name of entertainment. It is definitely worth a viewing, even though you may be left with more questions than answers. (The Great Hip Hop Hoax screens Sunday May 4 at 8:45 p.m. and May 9 at 12:45 p.m., at Vancity Theatre. Click here for tickets.)

DOXA 2013 reviews

The Great Hip Hop Hoax. Goetz Werner photo.

Occupy The Movie – DOXA 2013’s opener examines the Occupy movement that took on Wall Street in 2011. Part economics lesson, part love letter to the Occupy movement and social justice movements in general, Vancouver director Corey Ogilvie’s doc gives a good overview of why people took to the streets to protest the greed and corruption of Corporate America.

Unfortunately for Ogilvie, both the economic system that gave rise to the Occupy movement and the movement itself are highly complex subjects. I say “unfortunately” because in trying to cover all of his bases, Ogilvie tends to skim over quite fruitful areas of inquiry that could use a more in-depth look.

Occupy The Movie is not a bad film, but it could be so much more if it had only tried to be a little bit less. For instance, a couple of the de facto leaders of the movement who are interviewed are compelling characters that you can’t help wanting to know better. Why did they feel the need to get so involved in the movement, sacrificing day jobs and time with their families? What led them to take up the social justice banner with such passion? Because Occupy the Movie tries to cover so much ground in 90 minutes, many questions are left unresolved. In the end, key subjects become talking heads along with the economics experts explaining how the U.S. banking system works. Or try to – the doc only gives us the tip of the infographic when it comes to the workings of the Federal Reserve.

The Vancouver-made film aims to make a weighty statement about the nature of the Occupy movement and the genuinely important issues in our society that led to such a movement, but it just misses the mark. Still, if you are curious to hear about the experiences of the Occupy insiders, then this film is your chance. (Occupy the Movie screens Tuesday May 7 at 12:30 p.m. at Vancity Theatre and May 11 at 9:15 at Cinematheque. Click here for tickets.)

DOXA 2013 reviews

Occupy the Movie opens the 12th annual DOXA film festival tonight (May 3).

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