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RIDM : 5 great documentaries to check out during the fest's first weekend

This year, the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal celebrates its 15th anniversary with a special section entitled 15 Years, 15 All-Time Favourites, with esteemed guest programmers such as Gael Garcia Bernal, Frederick Wiseman, Philip Glass and Lou Reed invited to share docs that have changed their lives. But beyond the star-studded guest list, film lovers would benefit from really sinking their teeth into the meat of this year’s excellent line-up – the most consistently strong of any RIDM edition I’ve covered. Here are 5 standout films screening during the fest’s first weekend:


1. Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir
Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, Orri Jonsson, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir (Iceland/ Denmark)
I’m tempted to describe Grandma Lo-Fi (real name: Sigríður Níelsdóttir) as Iceland’s answer to Normand L’Amour, but that comparison doesn't quite do her justice. You see, both are late bloomers to music production, have extremely prolific imaginations AND catalogues, and are unafraid to incorporate gibberish, sick pigeons and really absurd shtick into their recordings. But that’s where the comparison ends.

Sigríður, who got interested in latin disco, 8-bit and working her kitchen keyboards at the tender age of 70, recorded 59 albums and more than 600 (!!) songs in just a few years time. Using buttons in a jar to make music (only a granny can dream this stuff up), this Icelandic cult figure also shares her tricks of the trade for making waterfall and fire cackling sounds (“Everyone is free to use these tricks free of charge,” she reminds the filmmakers.) So sweet. The style of this 100% adorable doc portrait matches the inventiveness and idiosyncrasy of its leading lady, which in this instance, is no small feat. Using a combination of Super-8, 16 mm, illustrated collages and musical interludes, the filmmakers’ strong attachment to their cherished and mega-talented granny lo-fi is fully rendered in this Gondry-worthy tribute. This makes growing old seem fun.

Saturday, November 10 @ 4:30 PM Excentris


2. Alléluia
Jean-Simon Chartier (Canada)

The doc opens with a startling statistic: 40 years ago, there were some 60,000 religious folk in Quebec. Today, they amount to no more than 14,000, with hundreds opting out – i.e., dying – each year. Those dwindling numbers make it all the more surprising (shocking, even) that four twentysomething dudes living in Quebec – arguably the least religious place in North America – would actively seek out of a life of poverty, chastity and obedience as part of an isolated community of Dominican monks. But they do.

Shot over many years, filmmaker Chartier checks in every so often with his holy-foursome-in-training as they learn the ropes of their chosen monk lifestyle. He doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions, whether it’s their former misconceptions about believers (they all seemed convinced that no smart person could be religious), parting with their former identities as hardcore gamers or serial daters, the prejudices they’ve faced from loved ones and the temptation of women – “come summer, it’s more of a struggle,” sums up one of the guys. We bet.

But beyond all Hail Marys, the extended silences and the deep thinking, Alléluia will give you newfound respect for the bold few who willingly opt out of our hyperconnected world, hoping to bring about some kind of spiritual change. These aren’t lazy airheads who are out of career options – au contraire. After much soul searching, these thoughtful guys have chosen a path that stands in stark contrast to the society they were raised in. One of them even describes it as an act of rebellion. I couldn’t agree more.

Saturday, November 10 @ 4:30 PM Grande Bibliothèque
Wednesday, November 14 @ 3:15 PM Excentris


3. Occupy Love
Velcrow Ripper (Canada)

Seeing footage from the G-20 protests-gone-violent in T.O., the ruins of Hiroshima and the man-made environmental disaster also known as the Alberta tar sands, you begin to see what filmmaker Velcrow Ripper is suggesting: that the entire planet may be on the verge of Ground Zero. Traveling to a dozen countries to capture the rise of a global protest movement (Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, the Spanish Indignants, etc.), B.C. filmmaker Velcrow Ripper dares to ask a question that may sound silly, but is actually quite profound: How could the crisis we’re facing become a love story? In a literal sense, as in activists falling in love at an Occupy event, but also figuratively, as in bringing about a fundamental global shift in human consciousness.

Well known for his visual poetry marrying the spiritual with the political, Ripper’s moving celebration of “the 100%” features interviewees that run the gamut: Poets for Global Justice, youth environmentalists, Inuit elders, evolutionary biologists, feminist activists and The Church of Stop Shopping, to name but a few. None would probably disagree with Naomi Klein that “overthrowing a dictator is not the same as overthrowing neo-liberalism”, but they aren't ready to give up fighting for the cause, either. A dire warning to the global community that's nevertheless imbued with hope.

Saturday, November 10 @ 6:30 PM Grande Bibliothèque
Sunday, November 11 @ 6 PM Excentris


4. Charles Bradley: Soul of America
Poull Brien (U.S.A.)

We all love a great underdog story. Fact. But this is one of the most heartfelt and inspiring ones I’ve ever seen captured on screen, bar none. If you're into contemporary R&B, chances are you know the story. At 62 years old, when most are busy plotting away their retirement days, a talented neo-soul singer from Broolkyn’s projects, who moonlights as a James Brown impersonator named Black Velvet, refuses to give up on his dream to break into the biz. His timeless old-school funk, world-hardened lyrics and electrifying performances eventually catch the attention of Daptone Records (home of the mighty Sharon Jones).

Soul of America chronicles the remarkable journey of a humble man who refused to bow down or wallow in tragedy, as he relentlessly chased down his dream. This intimate doc delves into the tumultuous events that shaped the singer’s life: being abandoned by his mother as a child, bouts of homelessness and poverty and his brother’s gruesome murder, among them. But filmmaker Poull Brien never fetishizes the tragedy in an effort to win over cloying sympathy; he doesn’t need to. Bradley's painful past is rather explored as a means to better understand a man who still chooses to live with that same mother, who takes up literacy classes in his 60s, and whose determination leads to a sold-out national tour for his critically acclaimed debut record, No Time For Dreaming. This is the kind of soul food that 10 out of 10 nutritionists would recommend. Prepare to hug fellow filmgoers on your way out.

Saturday November 10 @ 9 PM Grande Bibliothèque
Monday, November 12 @ 7:30 PM Cinémathèque québécoise


5. Jeppe on a Friday
Shannon Walsh and Arya Lalloo (Canada/South Africa)

On August 26, 2010, Shannon Walsh corralled a team of 16 filmmakers (Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, Caroline Martel and Tracey Deer among them) for a whirlwind cinéma vérité project, À Saint-Henri, le 26 août, a fascinating snapshot of a working-class neighbourhood-in-flux explored through a delightful hodgepodge of residents. Walsh repeats the experience in Jeppestown, a suburb of Johannesburg, with South African co-director Arya Lalloo in Jeppe on a Friday, and the result is no less captivating.

Over the course of an action-packed day spent crisscrossing city streets and storylines, Walsh, Lalloo and their team of local filmmakers build a powerful portrait of contemporary urban life in an African city that’s sharply divided along have/have-not lines. There’s the high rolling property developer on the hunt for his next deal, the immigrant couple from Mali who fear xenophobia in the area, the garrulous garbage collector with dreams of becoming a gardener and the popular local singer who oozes charisma while barking orders all around. Their hustle and bustle speak to a divided city and to the complex inner-workings of South African society. Some characters wax nostalgic about what Jeppe used to be, while others are too busy mapping out what it might soon look like. But it’s the candid conversations the filmmakers capture that speak to larger stories of struggle, perseverance and triumph.

Sunday, November 11 @ 7:30 PM Grande Bibliothèque


Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM)
November 7—18 | ridm.qc.ca