VIFF 2018 Documentaries - The Serengeti Rules, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, and Shirkers

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Thu, 10/18/2018 - 13:09
A young Sandi Tan in Shirkers

Of the clutch of films - all documentaries - that I saw at The Vancouver International Film Festival there was an impressive range in content and style. I just wish I’d been able to watch more - it wrapped on Friday.

Further to my earlier VIFF documentary reviews, here’s my second set of reviews:

The Serengeti Rules is a nature documentary that provides a much-needed shot of optimism around species and wild habitat preservation. There are constant reminders almost every day that the health of our planet is in a parlous and deteriorating biological state. For all our ingenuity and creativity, humanity is causing mass extinctions with scientists saying less than 20% of animal life is left. Yet, we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

Not so fast, counters The Serengeti Rules, with a good news story about how ecosystems and wildlife have managed to bounce back from the brink. 

The documentary unfolds almost like a murder mystery, where the corpse is the denuded ecosystem, devoid of life. It shows how the scientific sleuthing of five ecologists in different parts of the world (I’m sure there were others, but these are the focus here), led to a much better understanding of the importance of a keystone species in maintaining a given ecosystem’s health and vitality. 

Whether it's starfish in tide pools, sea otters in the Pacific Northwest, or the wildebeest in the Serengeti, their experiments conducted since the Sixties proved a buoyant population of an ecosystem's keystone species actually helped renew the habitat and allowed other animal and plant species to thrive.

Director Nicolas Brown’s documentary, which is based on Sean Carroll’s book, is well crafted and features some wonderful footage and reliable data to back up this encouraging reminder of natural resilience. A rewarding watch in more ways than one.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (L'Empire de la Perfection) is a fitting film festival documentary, being as much about cinema form as it is about the sport of tennis. The unconventional portrait of the volatile tennis star captures him at the top of his career in 1984 as he competes against Ivan Lendl in the final of the French Open. 

Director Julien Faraut resurrects from the archive cans of Gil de Kermadec’s 16mm film of McEnroe on and off the clay court. Faraut then digs into and ruminates on the skill, creativity, and temperament of the athlete as McEnroe strives to maintain a solo tennis win rate that is unsurpassed to this day.

The film takes a welcome detour around conventional sports profiles, using the metaphor of directing a film to describe the process of winning a tennis match. The voice-over narrative reveals a clear intimacy with the footage as if it were just shot yesterday and patches scenes together in such a thoughtful way that one is drawn gradually deeper into McEnroe’s ambit.

More essay than straight chronicle of events, the director is able to switch comfortably between cinematic styles, for example using stickman animations and slomo loops to illustrate McEnroe’s impressive technique, and keeping the focus predominantly on McEnroe himself, occasionally bringing his opponent into the frame.

Perhaps most interesting, particularly from a sports motivational aspect, is when the film dives into McEnroe’s psychology to better understand the link between his infamous whining and unrelenting winning.

There are some memorable crew accounts of recording the event. Details such as how McEnroe exploded at the sound man, who appears perpetually camped at the edge of the court with his fluffy mic, because he was getting under the player’s skin. Or how the cameraman tried desperately to quieten the whirr of the camera in the dugout as McEnroe prowled above him. Quite formal and deconstructive in its approach to the sport, it nevertheless leaves one with a clear appreciation for the unique ability and achievement of the player himself.

Shirkers is another documentary that in its keenly self-conscious way seems right at home in a film festival. It’s an accomplished and idiosyncratic mystery, that begins when novelist Sandi Tan has a collection of film cans returned to her - 25 years after they disappeared. 

Tan leads us back into the promising-but-doomed, underground, avant garde road movie project of her youth, introducing her film school cast and crew as they appear on film in 1992 Singapore and as they are now, all mature and reflective. At the centre of the mystery is her American film mentor George Cardona who she looked up to and trusted with the 70 cans of 16mm film, but who disappeared with the footage at the end of the shoot. 

While there is a pervasive sense of loss for what might have been - both personally for the budding filmmakers and culturally for the then non-existent Singaporean cinema - the film bubbles over with self-effacing humour. It makes good use of all the found footage and material it can lay its hands on with memorable montages from Tan’s underground scrapbooks and publications as a youthful cinema fan in uptight Singapore.