The DOXA Documentary Film Festival is upon us! Running from May 3 until May 13, the fest is packed with skillful filmmaking and poignant/exciting/funny/eccentric material galore. Our film reviewers have kindly put together a few selections ahead of time, so that you, dear SAD reader, can enter festival season with some choice titles in mind. Stay tuned for more!
Argentine-Canadian filmmaker Laura Bari’s artful Primas promises to be a standout in DOXA’s annual Rated Y for Youth showcase. A powerful example of creative non-fiction storytelling, Bari’s film is a portrait of two young women, Rocío and Aldana, healing from the horrific events that marked them as children. Rocío, on the cusp of her fifteenth birthday when the film begins, was the victim of a horrible crime when she was only 10 years old. On her way to play basketball near her home outside of Buenos Aires, she was hit by a car, and then brutally assaulted and set on fire by her assailant. Left to die by the side of the road, she was eventually rescued and revived at the local hospital, where she underwent several skin grafts and operations that, while saving her, still left her with 60% of her body transformed by the attack. Regardless, Rocío is now graduating from high school and is a mostly joyful, engaged, and bright young woman. Her family and friends provide a fountain of support, and while her life is undoubtedly coloured by the dark, scarring events that she survived, she is possessed of a remarkable resilience.
Aldana, Rocío’s cousin, is the other focus of Bari’s film. The two young women are close, though they live in different provinces of Argentina, and they become closer throughout the film, as they share their common experiences with each other and their aunt. Aldana was also the victim of childhood sexual trauma, subjected to ongoing abuse at the hands of her own father. The weight of psychological and emotional repercussion is heavy, and it is a testament both to the girls’ strength, and also to their trust in their aunt Bari, that they are willing to work through these issues in front of the camera. As director and cinematographer, Bari takes a decidedly poetic and unorthodox approach to telling Rocío and Aldana’s stories, focusing less on constructing a linear narrative and more on reflecting the organic and uneven process of healing from trauma. Her camera captures meditative imagery of natural landscapes—trees, fields, empty, wind-swept beaches—and pairs it with more intentional interludes of the girls dramatizing their experiences. Rocío crawls on her stomach along the beach, a shell of wood and rope covering her back, embodying a literal second skin; in other sections, we hear her reading from her diary in whispers, detailing episodes of insomnia and a desire to break free of her small-town life.
Bari’s background is in theatre, and Primas uses her strengths to wonderful effect. The theatre also eventually serves as a literal site of transformation for the two girls, when they are invited back to Montreal with Bari to engage in expressive body-centred practices designed to help them regain agency and process their narratives. This final section of the film is especially moving after having listened to the girls’ heart-wrenching stories earlier; watching them explore dance and performance on the stage, we see them reclaim the power that was taken from them in such a violent way. The ability to reconnect with their bodies on their own terms represents a powerful opportunity for growth, and Primas celebrates this. What Bari’s film reminds us in its gentle, empathetic way, is that making art out of pain can be a form of healing.
Like Primas, and also in DOXA’s Rated Y for Youth showcase, Minding The Gap is a personal essay film touching on related themes: trauma, identity, youth, and the often painful process of growing up. First-time filmmaker Bing Liu spent several years recording his childhood skater friends in his home city of Rockford, Illinois, a town with a steadily dwindling population and high levels of unemployment. The film begins as a foray into the world of skateboard culture, a world that seems to draw a certain breed of young man in Rockford. Bing’s friends and the central characters of the film, Keire, 17, and Zack, 23, are both excellent skaters, almost obsessively drawn to the thrills and adrenaline of skateboarding; underneath their daily lives, though, they both harbour unresolved emotional discord. When we first meet them, Keire is living with his single widowed mother, brother, nieces and nephews, and Zack and his girlfriend Nina are expecting a child. Zack works as a roofer but is frustrated by his lack of opportunities, and Keire would like to eventually save up enough money to move out and leave Rockford for bigger dreams. The common link between them and Bing is the trio’s love of skateboarding, evidenced by Liu’s dreamy, almost euphoric, tracking shots of his friends sailing across streets and railings and flying up and down half-pipes in the local skate park.
What also unites the three is something deeper and darker; at the core of what draws them to skateboarding is a desire for freedom from the troubled family lives that formed them. As the film progresses, Bing steadily probes more candidly into the backdrop to his friends’ relationships with their fathers, revealing deep wells of pain and anger. For a novice director, Liu does an excellent job of crafting his story, not revealing too much of his intent but instead choosing to allow it to develop in an organic matter, following the timeline of his characters’ maturation. Minding The Gap, while undoubtedly a coming-of-age film, has an earnestness and dedicated quality to it that surpass expectations of the genre. Bing’s involvement in the film, at once as director, friend, observer and also eventually a subject in his own right, is part of what elevates the story to this place of particular poignancy. The sheer hours that he spent filming his friends skating are something in and of themselves; what is really interesting, however, is how Bing navigates his role in his friends’ narratives, as he begins to uncover the wounds that they bear and the ways that this harm is carried over into each of their lives and across generations. More interesting still is when he finally turns the camera on himself and his mother, as they engage in a frank and heart-breaking conversation, confronting the pain at the centre of their own family.
Minding The Gap is ultimately more than the sum of its parts; amid the home-video skate footage (a highlight for adrenaline junkies and film lovers alike) and deceptively small-scale story, Liu’s film holds a wealth of timely insight on so much of what plagues America right now: toxic masculinity, domestic and gendered violence, fractured family life, a stagnant rural economy, and deep-seated issues of class and race. It is also a film possessing a certain optimism at its core, in that it reveals the potential for belonging, kinship, love, and community that can be found in unlikely places. As one of the characters observes: “skateboarding is more of a family than my family;” in another shot, we glimpse the writing across Keire’s skateboard, and it reads “This device cures heartache.” Minding The Gap makes us believe it just as much as Bing and his friends do.
Primas will be screening on Saturday, May 5 at 7:00pm, and on Monday, May 7 at 12:00pm. Tickets can be purchased here. Minding the Gap will be screening on Monday, May 7 at 6:00pm and on Tuesday, May 8 at 12:00pm. Tickets can be purchased here.