Hot Docs ‘17 - Day 2: Ghosts kicked me in the gut

Photo courtesy of City of Ghosts.

I often struggle to figure out how to answer the question of what makes a documentary good. Sometimes I blabber on about the normal things that make feature films good (cinematography, lighting, sound, dialogue). I mean really look at how some schmuck made it all happen in the real world, capturing real things. They got to be some kind of hero, no?

Other times the journalist in me kicks in. My comments become focused on the quality of reporting, the editorial aggressiveness, the character-driven observation that would make any long-form legend swoon.

Really however neither definition can get at that special thing that makes documentary documentary. It’s not whole dependent on film techniques nor is it whole dependent on editorial finesse. Great documentary requires its own scale and its own standard. While watching City of Ghosts at the Bloor last night I think I got an answer.

Great documentary punches you square in the gut.

Matthew Heineman’s fourth film does that several times over. There are scenes so gruellingly tragic in their delivery I think you’ll want to kneel over like I did. I mean am I sitting in a theatre eating popcorn while the world goes on like this? Upon finishing the film I was left in a daze and with an understanding I’m ashamed of myself for lacking.

Heineman sets up all that dark with brilliant, rigid character work focused on how human these journalists are. I think we can understand the Syrian tragedy best through a sideways joke about a math teacher trying to edit a news article or a snowball fight between refugees in a foreign land. Certainly this holds true when such things only happen because the horror we’re trying to grasp made them necessary.

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Field Notes

(1) I also got to check out Jonathan Olshefski’s debut film Quest: the Fury and the Sound a striking, decade-long portrait of the Rainey’s, a family in north Philadelphia who run a home music studio which serves as a sanctuary from gun violence.

(2) I was supposed to see Viktor Jakovleski’s Brimstone and Glory but ended up in the wrong line and got scanned in regardless. By the time I realised I’m sure the rush line had eaten my spot so I stayed quiet and enjoyed my trip to Philly

Originally published as a soft launch of The Daydream Cinema Club.