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Rainy Documentary Weekend – Critters, Culture, and Controversy

June 8, 2010

This past weekend was a very rainy one in Ottawa. The nice weather went on strike on Saturday in the early afternoon, and nary a sunbeam was to be seen until Monday morning. Sunday pickup Ultimate Frisbee having been canceled, I spent the afternoon watching documentaries with friends. I decided to give you a quick rundown of the films we watched and what I thought of them, just in case you are interested.

I selected the films more or less a whim, and reflected the diversity of interests and opinions therein. All were thought- and discussion-provoking films that featured different perspectives on the trappings of cultural subgroups.

The Story of the Weeping Camel (Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel)

This film really gave me the warm fuzzies (and I don’t just mean that the camels are warm and fuzzy). Equal parts nature documentary and ethnographic study, Weeping Camel is the tale of a nomadic family in Mongolia and their efforts to reunite a rare white camel calf with the mother that rejected it. The beauty — and more importantly, the effectiveness — of the musical rituals that serve to reignite the mother’s maternal instincts are brilliantly portrayed. The relationship that exists between the family and their livestock is multifaceted and complex, and the film also features an interesting dialogue on the disconnect with Western civilization. One of the sons exemplifies a tension between tradition and modernity, in his longing to own a television and discussions with his father on the subject, who at one point refers to the television as devilry. Some of the desert shots are really beautiful in their emphasis of the family’s isolation; however the attempt at portraying some of the adults as unused to modern technology is compromised by the fact that they are being followed around by a camera crew.

Definitely worth a watch, if only for the beautiful music.

Speaking of fuzzy…

Good Hair

I will start off by saying that this one was my favourite of the three we watched. I’ve always been somewhat ambiguous in my opinion of Chris Rock, but golly does he knock it out of the park on this one. An in-depth and critical look at the 9 billion dollar black hair industry, the film examines the latent sexism and racism, economic implications and health risks inherent in the pursuit of “good hair”. Rock conducts some really insightful interviews with celebrities, hairstylists and ordinary people from around the world. The parts I found most interesting involved the connection between the religious practice of tonsuring (ritual removal of the hair) in India and the popularity of weaves in North America. I had to wonder if the Hindu temples in India would encourage tonsuring as much as they do if they weren’t making so much money off people’s sacrifices. Also, footage of the Bronnar Brothers hair show just blew my mind. I suppose some of the hairstylists in attendance might think anime conventions are equally bizarre, but… hair battles?

Speaking of multi-billion dollar industries…

9 to 5: Days in Porn

Ah, sweet controversy. While this film takes a fairly neutral position (neither explicitly in favour of nor against pornography), it is not for the sensitive viewer, as some of the footage is pretty extreme. Avoiding both glamorizing and demonizing with equal care, director Jens Hoffmann focuses on sensitive portrayals of individuals rather than the adult entertainment industry itself. These people range from agents to performers to spouses, with stories that can be hilarious and inspiring or horrifying and sad. Over the course of about a year of principal filming, Hoffmann portrays their lives with an admirable frankness that at times borders on the mundane… the film is relatively devoid of erotic elements, if you can believe that. I really enjoyed the interviews with Adult Industry Medical Healthcare (AIM) founder and former erotic actor Dr. Sharon Mitchell, as well as the interviews with budding star and feminist Sasha Grey. The film ends with many story lines unresolved, as these are people’s lives we’re looking at; but the film is nonetheless well structured and well put together. Days in Porn is sometimes laugh-out-loud humorous, sometimes profoundly depressing, but consistently fascinating… and any biases that seem to appear are, I believe, reflections of the viewer’s own. It’s definitely worth a watch if you are interested, and definitely merits avoiding if not.

What do you think should be on the roster for the next rainy documentary weekend?

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