New Canadian Documentaries

July 15-30 at the National Gallery of Art

In one of the films in the National Gallery’s third annual New Canadian Documentaries series, a talking head explains that Canadians—affluent Anglophone Canadians in particular—are earnest, sensible types with an interest in other peoples’ cultures. The film is Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the 70’s Generation, but it could have been Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment. Because, with all due respect to Robertson Davies, Patricia Rozema, and the Tragically Hip, the modern art form at which Canadians have excelled is the documentary film. Cinema Verite’s history of the genre travels to New York, Paris, and London, but also spends a lot of time in Canada, where the National Film Board—earnestly, sensibly, and with an interest in other peoples’ cultures—has supported nonpropaganda documentaries since its founding in 1939.

One reason for that curiosity about the wider world is that Canadians themselves are often considered a little boring. The nation’s reputed dullness is a given for some of the interviewees in Just Watch Me (July 15 at 3 p.m.), so it’s striking how passionate most of them are on the subject of Canadian identity. Now in their 30s, these native speakers of English and French (and, in one case, a Native American language) remember answering the call of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (who served for nearly all the ’70s and bits of the ’60s and ’80s) to build a bilingual society. They entered language-immersion and cultural-outreach programs, sometimes traveling from one coast to the other or into the remote north to understand the country’s diverse cultures. Yet by the time of the 1995 referendum in which Quebec barely voted to remain part of the country, most of them no longer believed in Trudeau’s vision.

To a certain extent, this is a simple matter of youthful idealism being replaced by middle-aged pragmatism. Director Catherine Annau has structured the film primarily as a series of first-person reminiscences, with historical footage merely placing the individual stories in time. Thus, for a cross-linguistic couple, the referendum became the trigger for their decision to leave Quebec, and for one Torontonian the vote was conflated with his divorce. These anecdotes may be inadequate to fully explain the Canadian experience of the past 30 years, but they provide a complex piece of social history. Stylistically, the documentary is gimmicky, scored to overly obvious examples of “Canadian content”—the Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Leonard Cohen—but the voices of the ’70s generation are more eloquent than Annau’s cinematic setting.

Peter Wintonick’s Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment (July 23 at 4:30 p.m.) is also a series of interviews, but it seeks to tell a story that’s both broader and more specific. From Henri Cartier-Bresson to The Blair Witch Project, the film charts the evolution of naturalistic documentaries—and their influence on recent fiction filmmaking. The proceedings open with an example of the bad old days: a clip from a short (at least I hope it’s a short) called The Extension Ladder. Such movies were stodgy because “they were lectures,” explains pioneering filmmaker Bob Drew, who got Time Inc. to finance the development of more portable equipment that made it possible to shoot on the move. No wonder such veteran documentarians as 78-year-old Richard Leacock are now enthusiastically exploring the possibilities of digital minicams.

In addition to recollections by many of the best-known documentary filmmakers—Karel Reisz, Jean Rouch, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Roman Kroitor, Michel Brault, and Barbara Kopple among them—the film arrays vivid clips from groundbreaking films on Paul Anka, Igor Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, door-to-door Bible salesmen, and JFK’s desegregation showdown with Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Cinema verite means “cinema truth,” as does the name of its Russian precursor, Dziga Vertov’s kino pravda. These days, though, practitioners of the narratorless style—also “cinema direct” and “free cinema”—don’t claim to be stealing moments of pure truthfulness. Crusty Frederick Wiseman defines the genre best: “It’s an interpretation,” he snaps. “If you don’t like it, it’s a lie.”

That’s certainly true of Ron Mann’s Grass (July 30 at 4:30 p.m.), an archly playful history of the U.S.A.’s anti-marijuana campaign that preaches only to the pot-puffing choir. Mann, who previously made the similarly one-dimensional Comic Book Confidential, is a Canadian, but Grass is entirely about getting stoned and getting busted in the States. The movie scores some good points but is as predictable as its choice of a narrator (Woody Harrelson) and music (“Itchycoo Park,” “One Toke Over the Line,” “Legalize It”). Most of the exposition is devoted to bygone hysterias, with clips from High on the Range and Reefer Madness and a heart-to-heart warning from “Beat Goes On”-era Sonny Bono. Amid the Cab Calloway songs, Robert Mitchum and Gene Krupa arrests, and Fiorello LaGuardia’s anti-prohibition common sense, the most interesting early-20th-century revelation is that hipsters once called the weed “muggles”—which should chill the hearts of all those mainstream journalists flacking for Harry Pot-ter.

Although Mann uses scratch-mix tricks to update his style, there’s nothing new in his twin messages: (1) Anti-marijuana laws are rooted in racism and lousy (or nonexistent) science, and (2) the war on drugs has been a phenomenally expensive failure. So why did pot panic and oppressive minimum sentences make a comeback in the ’80s and ’90s? Grass really checks out on that issue. And it offers no insight that hasn’t already been furnished by ’60s and ’70s pro-pot propaganda. Indeed, the film never really confronts its enemies, preferring to use clips of them flubbing their lines or falling down stairs. Given how many people they’ve managed to incarcerate, Grass should take the forces of anti-pot reaction more seriously—even if that would be a bummer.

The most experimental of the four documentaries available for preview is Never Confuse Movement With Action (July 16 at 4:30 p.m.), Richard Kerr’s impressionistic account of the apparently sordid life of Patrick Hemingway, grandson of the iconic novelist. This fragmentary memoir piles discontinuous text and audio atop offhand images, creating a collage that’s more formally intriguing than narratively interesting. Hemingway just doesn’t seem worth all the bother, although perhaps the 50-minute film makes more sense when seen with the second chapter, Human Tragedy on a Grand Scale (shown on the same program).

In addition to several shorts, two other films were not available for preview: Building Heaven, Remembering Earth (July 22 at 3 p.m.) is a multidimensional investigation of contemporary architecture; Before Day Breaks (July 29 at 3 p.m.) is a poetic evocation of a disappearing rural community in northern Quebec. CP