VIFF documentaries - Anthropocene, Dolphin Man, and Putin's Witnesses

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Fri, 09/28/2018 - 01:42
Dolphin Man movie

The Vancouver International Film Festival got underway tonight with the Opening Gala, The Hummingbird Project.

There are 216 feature films and 120 shorts screening between now and 12th October.  

Here’s my short reviews of three of the 61 documentaries showing at the festival: 

Dolphin Man: the Story of Jacque Mayol (2nd and 3rd October). Dolphins are warm-blooded and hold their breath under the water, just like humans. This is the starting point for this documentary about freediver Jacque Mayol who in 1976 became the first person to dive to 100 metres holding his breath.

A fascinating deep dive into the life of this enigmatic and flawed character, the documentary reveals that it was Mayol’s almost mystical relationship with the ocean rather than competitiveness that allowed him to do what was previously considered inhuman. 

Mayol’s connection with dolphins began when he saw them for the first time as a seven-year-old, and they remained a passion throughout his life. Mayol said dolphins guided and taught him how to hold his breath longer and dive deeper.

There are many arresting underwater shots capturing the serenity of the subaquatic world, as well as illustrating the mortal danger of deep breath-hold diving. In contrast to the monochromatic beauty of the lone diver plunging down a line into the murky depths, footage shows vividly coloured underwater ecosystems, and even a brief foray into a Seventies subaquatic erotic film that Mayol produced.

Interviews with close friends and his daughter reflect a free spirit who paradoxically made a lasting impression yet whose footloose lifestyle prevented intimacy and led to a tragic sense of personal isolation.

A nice touch is that the film is narrated in first person from Mayol’s writings by Jean-Marc Barr, the actor who played Mayol in Luc Besson’s box office hit The Deep Blue.

Putin's Witnesses (28th & 30th September) captures the Russian leader as he takes the reins from an ageing Boris Yeltsin, first as Acting President at the turn of the millennium, and then a few months later as President of Russia. Shot with the rough handheld camerawork typical of fly-on-the-wall pieces, one is struck by the access that director Vitaly Mansky is afforded by Putin. What’s more Putin seems to care how the filmmaker captures him, accepting his direction and answering at times pointed questions with apparent candour. 

At one point, after he has comfortably won the election and is in his first year of Presidency, Putin invites the filmmaker back to his office for a clarification on why he decided to reinstate the Soviet national anthem. You can see in these early exchanges - and as Mansky’s lugubrious voice-over points out - how Putin justifies ruling with a tightening grip and overruling opposition. 

Mansky was at the time head of the documentary department for Russia’s state TV network and this is his re-edit of footage, put together in his current self-exile in Latvia. As he looks back on the night of the results of the 2000 Presidential election campaign he points out that various members of the high-level campaign team have moved into opposition, two died violently, and just one remains close to Putin - Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. 

At times the film seems to meander, before snapping back with sharp reinterpretations of the original footage. On a freezing Moscow night, the director asks Putin to revisit a site of one of the apartment bombings of September 1999. Looking back, Mansky suggests the terrorist events that marked a turning point in Putin’s popularity could have been a false flag operation.

“Does the end justify the means?” Mansky asks, as they stand at the scene in the dark. Putin pauses, gives a direct, inscrutable glower into the camera, before shaking off his initial confusion and talking about needing a forceful response to the atrocity. The rest is history.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (28 and 30 Sept and opens 5th in Vancouver) is the third in a trilogy of documentaries that includes Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. It catalogues the disturbing ways in which humankind’s voracious consumption is transforming planet Earth, much more so than the planet's natural systems. It's got to the point that scientists are saying we need a new name for this epoch - we’ve left the Holocene epoch (which started 11,700 years ago when the last ice age receded) and entered the Anthropocene. 

A grim opening scene in Nairobi sets the tone as officials and assembled media prepare for the torching of piles of tusks illegally culled from 10,000 elephants.

Using chapter headings such as “Extraction” and “Technofossils” the film then does a global tour of various industrial landscapes, capturing with vivid and sometimes mesmerising imagery the transformative impact of human activity on the surrounding environment. Whether it’s a vast open pit coal mine that’s gobbling up sleepy German villages, a poisoned city of metal smelting factories in Siberia, sprawling Texan oil refineries, or the luna landscape of a phosphor tailings pond in Florida ploughed by a lone tractor, the overall effect is disconcerting and eerie.

The filmmakers seem loath to judge - the workers interviewed come across as hapless innocents sucked into this downward-spiralling dystopia while Alicia Vikander’s coolly informative voice-over is much more data-driven than emotionally charged in its presentation of the pressing existential threat.

More reviews to come....