This year’s GlobeDocs film festival, which also happened to be the festival’s biggest year so far with over 35 films, was my first time attending a film festival virtually. While I did miss the event of attending screenings in person, there’s something to be said for being able to concentrate on documentaries while watching them alone at home, especially when writing reviews of a number of films after watching them for several days in a row. This year’s excellent roster of selections was no less powerful for being viewed remotely, and the Q&A sessions between Boston Globe correspondents and filmmakers, both live-streamed and pre-recorded, were wonderful supplements to the films themselves. The documentaries that I saw ranged widely in topics from indigenous rights and the global climate crisis to the first gay rugby league, from school shootings and gun control to the inner workings of a city hall in a major metropolis.
National Geographic’s documentary The Last Ice, directed by Scott Ressler, focuses on a remote but crucial geopolitical area in terms of climate change and globalization: the far northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, an Arctic archipelago that’s still inhabited today by the native Inuit people. Bordering on Greenland across Baffin Bay, Nunavut is a contentious zone for several reasons. As Arctic sea ice continues to recede, its shipping lanes provide quicker and more direct access to North American trade routes, with over 900 industries currently vying for position, mostly from Russia and China, polluting the pristine channels of the North Pole in the wake of massive icebreaking vessels and cargo ships. Not only does the Arctic wildlife suffer as a result, but the native Inuit people, who often make their living by hunting, have also found themselves at the center of a historical struggle for their rights in their homeland, led by Aboriginal Canadian politician John Amagoalik, who’s often referred to as the “Father of Nunavut.”
Two younger subjects ground the documentary firmly in today’s contemporary realities as well and speak to a current audience among the newer generation. Aleqatsiaq Peary, a musician and hunter, is a descendant of Robert Peary, who’s believed to be the first person to reach the North Pole early in the 20th century. Aleq describes his time growing up on the remote terrain of Nunavut, as well as his unfulfilling education in Denmark, from which he returned in order to resume his hunting life, only to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a few years later. Despite his disability, he continues to support the ancestral connection of the Inuit to the land and the ritual of hunting. Maatalii Okalik, who lived for a time in Ottawa and also returned to Nunavut after ending an abusive relationship, movingly and eloquently recounts how dreams of her ancestors guided her through a month-long depression that convinced her to reconnect with her native people in her home territory, where she served as President of Canada’s National Inuit Youth Council. The documentary ends on a note of both uncertainty and hope, in looking toward a future where indigenous people persist in trying to retain political control over their own lands.
First-time documentary director Eammon Ashton-Atkinson’s Steelers celebrates the world’s first gay rugby club, the Kings Cross Steelers, founded in London in 1995, as they pursue a victory at the annual Bingham Cup world tournament of gay rugby in Amsterdam nearly 25 years later in 2018. Under the expert and careful guidance of their female coach, Nic Evans, herself a lesbian rugby player, the team meets its many challenges head-on, giving its team members both a sense of community and a way to bond with other gay men while overcoming individual obstacles. The director was also a member of the Kings Cross Steelers until an injury sidelined him and compelled him to pick up his video camera to make this rousing documentary.
The film concentrates mainly on the journeys of four members of the team: director Ashton-Atkinson, coach Evans (whose final season with the team coincided with the making of the documentary), Simon Jones, who struggled through a lengthy depression after he came out to a straight friend he’d been in love with who’d initially rejected him, and Drew McDowell, a club promoter and drag queen on the side. A fun stretch of the documentary finds Drew organizing and hosting an annual drag event at the huge gay club Heaven in Charing Cross in central London, for which most of the Steelers appear in drag themselves for a competition and to do some fundraising. An especially touching aspect of the documentary moves Nic Evans to tears when she describes the hesitancy of many gay rugby players who are successful and confident in so many other areas of their lives but have a harder time feeling at home as gay men on the rugby pitch, and how she pushes them to overcome that sense of inadequacy in athletic arenas.
Us Kids, directed by Kim A. Snyder, powerfully traces the months following the school shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14th, 2018. It’s impossible to watch this documentary and not feel tremendous admiration for the young people who rallied together to pull their community through the grieving process and then demanded immediate change from our government on a nationwide scale, culminating in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and a cross-country tour to turn the tide in municipalities where gun violence is in desperate need of being brought under control. Familiar faces like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Sam Fuentes are matched by their own uncompromising personalities as they spearhead demonstrations and debates across a wide swath of our deeply divided (and increasingly divisive) United States of America.
These brave students’ forthright honesty about the traumas that they’ve endured and the deep authenticity of their activism easily dispel any notions that they were lured into being political symbols by national media outlets. Their aims and tactics are specific, as are the desired results. The heartbreaking footage of students’ speeches from the March for Our Lives events unleashes a torrent of sorrow and frustration at the tragic failure of adults in our culture to protect young people’s lives in their own schools and communities. We see David Hogg intelligently strategizing how to build the itinerary for their cross-country tour, in order to visit locations where they can persuade citizens to vote out of office any politicians who’ve taken campaign funding from the National Rifle Association. Very much to the credit of these determined kids, their strategy succeeds almost uniformly, proof that politicians should totally fear the blue wave of the younger generation. After the exhaustions of their travels to places all around the country, I’ll remember the peaceful image of David and Emma coasting on an airboat in the Everglades, the one landscape on the map of Florida that’s undisturbed by shootings and gun violence.
Finally, I was excited to see Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary City Hall, an inside view of government services provided in the city of Boston, where I’ve lived for over 27 years now. Clocking in at just over four and a half hours, the film provides a comprehensive picture, to say the least, especially in its heroic portrait of our current mayor, Marty Walsh, who’s successfully led the city on all levels since 2013. The son of working-class Irish-American immigrants, Mayor Walsh is seen championing all the right causes in all the right ways, promoting a truly diverse and cutting-edge city, despite its somewhat provincial remove from more sprawling metropolises such as New York. We also see many other moving parts in close-up detail: hearings on parking tickets, exchanges of same-sex marriage vows, public testimonials from veterans on Veterans Day, planning for Red Sox World Series victory parades, stocking up the city’s food pantries for Thanksgiving, and a multitude of other complexities that comprise what makes a city’s daily urban life happen.
This is the latest installment in Frederick Wiseman’s series of documentaries about various institutions, which has also included films about the New York Public Library, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the University of California at Berkeley. As noted in his live-streamed Q&A about City Hall with Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, Wiseman resists being called simply an observational filmmaker. Despite the 110 hours of footage that he filmed for City Hall, Wiseman argues that what makes his movies more active than merely observational is his rigorous editing process, whereby he structures the ideas about his subject and determines not just what the film is about, but what the film itself even is. He claims that’s not something he’s aware of at all until he arrives at that stage of the filmmaking process. Similar to his tone in his Norton Lectures at Harvard University back in 2018, Wiseman’s responses to questions are often hilariously matter-of-fact. The stately footage of Boston’s cityscape alone in City Hall shows him to be an artist of the highest order, but it’s the immersive, even meditative structure of his documentaries that demonstrates why his films are finely tuned constructions built by a masterful architect as well.