DOXA 2021 Review Special

Four Documentaries, Four Reviews!

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

When you watch Kímmapiiyipitssini it is impossible not to constantly be aware of contrast. The idyllic mountains around the Kainai First Nation, and the grit of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The warm yellow light inside the Healing Lodge, and the harsh white glare of streetlights illuminating darkened alleys, and most of all, the strength and resilience demonstrated by the Kainai people and the systemic oppression they continue to face. In her documentary Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers discusses the impacts of substance abuse, and a current drug-poisoning epidemic within the Kainai Reserve, located on what the Canadian government considers Southern Alberta. Through direct interviews with medical professionals, people in recovery, and various community leaders the film uses personal stories to highlight how the people of Kainai have been working to support some of their most vulnerable individuals.

The documentary centers on how a harm reduction approach to recovery from substance abuse can be combined with the titular concept of Kímmapiiyipitssini — a Blackfoot word which directly translates to “giving kindness to each other.” In the film Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a doctor on the front-line of the reserve’s opioid epidemic, describes the meaning of Kimmapiiypitssini and how it influences the nation’s response to addiction in two powerful monologues — one soon after the documentary begins and one soon before it ends. She describes Kímmapiiyipitssini as, “compassion [and] caring; it means feeling for others that do not have the same health and happiness that you have. (…) [it means] taking care of your fellow man and woman.” Harm reduction, a relatively novel approach to recovery from addiction, goes hand-in-hand with many of the values espoused by Kímmapiiyipitssini. In contrast to traditional abstinence-based treatment, harm reduction is built on compassion and acceptance, allowing patients to treat their addictions in an individualized way — directly acknowledging their ability to grow and change. One of the film’s greatest strengths is in calling attention to how the Kainai First Nation is responding to their current crisis by combining their traditional beliefs with new approaches to harm reduction to create a form of treatment that best serves their community. As Dr. Tailfeathers says This is our harm reduction: Kímmapiiyipitssini.”

Kímmapiiyipitssini’s focus on intimate personal stories is one of its greatest strengths — and it means that the film can tackle broad and difficult topics like addiction, harm reduction, and colonial violence in a meaningful way. One of these stories is told through a series of interviews with George, an indigenous man living in Kainai, and they contain some of the film’s most powerful moments. When the interviews were taken, George was unhoused and suffered from a dependency on alcohol which he was seeking treatment for. Due to a variety of factors, including a lack of funding for treatment centers and lack of public transit, George was faced with months-long wait times and difficulty in reaching any treatment centers. The documentary shows how George remains hopeful and seeks to better himself despite living in a system which seems to be actively making it more difficult for him to get the help he needs. At no point are the systemic issues facing the Blackfoot people, and the colonial violence that strengthens them, clearer than when George describes his childhood and the origin of his dependency; like thousands of Indigenous children, George was forcibly separated from his family and placed in the residential school system. In conversation with Dr. Tailfeathers, he describes how he uses alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma that this violent institution caused. By honouring George’s story the film is able to show the harsh reality that many Indigenous people face, where a state built on settler colonialism that has already caused unimaginable harm continues to make it more difficult for Indigenous communities to provide help to people that need it.

While Kímmapiiyipitssini calls attention to many of the issues the Kainai First Nation is facing, it also stresses the positive work that so many members of the community have been doing and overall carries a powerful message of hope, love, and resilience. The film concludes by covering the opening of Bringing the Spirit Home Detox, a new state-of-the-art treatment center in the Kainai First Nation which uses harm reduction to help patients detox from the substance they use in preparation to enter long-term treatment. This is framed as a turning point in the community’s struggle against substance abuse and it points to a future where all members of the community can access the care they need.  Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers uses her film to give a platform to a variety of groups and individuals actively making their community better, and by amplifying their work she shows the incredible empathy that the people of Kainai have demonstrated in the care they have for people struggling with addiction.  —Fabio Schneider



You Are Not A Soldier

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists,” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, her tome on war photography. “Wars are now also living room sights and sounds.” Thanks to the coverage of the Gulf War by ABC, NBC, CBS, and the then-nascent 24-hour CNN, images of war became widely available, no longer something one had to seek out. Far-off wars entered viewers’ homes in an unprecedented way, albeit with a television screen as a border protecting them from any real danger. Social media dramatically increased this phenomenon, allowing journalists, citizen reporters and activists to share photos and videos of conflict zones in real time.

Maria Carolina Telles’ You Are Not a Soldier’ follows one of these “specialized tourists” — photojournalist André Liohn—almost exclusively through his own footage and photographs from the Libyan Civil War and the Battle of Mosul. Liohn’s footage of these conflict zones is unparalleled, largely due to its quasi-first-person point-of-view (we are essentially seeing what Liohn sees, or at least what he points his camera at, as we move through these zones with him). Much of it is intense, but some is surprisingly funny — one scene features a group of soldiers kicking around a soccer ball while their allies shoot at unspecified targets out of frame, revealing humour and mundanity amongst chaos and violence.

Some extended sequences take place in Rome, where Liohn’s two young children live. Both loathe his work and fail to understand what draws him to continually leave them to risk his life. In a particularly memorable exchange, his son tells him he has a “shitty job.” Liohn takes this quite personally and speaks about it at length while shooting video during a night walk. He seems unable to understand why his children—despite their youth—would express disdain for his work.

One of the film’s more interesting formal choices is Telles’ own narration, which appears only a handful of times. She reflects on the recent death of her own father, who regretted not serving in World War II. Telles asks, “Why weren’t you thankful [you never had to fight]?,” providing the profile of Liohn a unique context, and indirectly reflects his children’s concern. At times, these children almost act as audience surrogates, as Liohn’s dedication to his work does seem obsessive, quixotic, and even suicidal.

I remain unclear as to whether the film’s subject is Liohn, his work, or war photography more broadly. At times, Telles moves away from his footage and experiences to document photojournalists who have been killed while on assignment, such as Marie Colvin and James Foley. To some extent, these choices seem more intended to further convince viewers of the dangers Liohn faces, rather than to explore how both sides of conflict exploit journalists for their own purposes. Embedded journalists live and travel with soldiers, and the murder of these journalists are always provocative and horrific.

In one sequence in Mosul, Liohn and the soldiers he is embedded with must traverse a destroyed building full of human corpses, unable to step around them all. This is perhaps the film’s most difficult scene. It also is the one that most explicitly captures the tragedy that is war. That said, I am uneasy with how Telles employs this sequence. For Liohn to film this sight is one thing — his job is to document the horrors of war, after all. However, including this footage in a film that does seem to privilege Liohn’s biography over broader commentary on war journalism, to better inform Liohn’s character is a gross appropriation of an unfathomable tragedy. While the footage itself is uniquely sobering and dispels any myths about nobility and war, the film seems disinterested in engaging with the ethical implications of shooting and viewing such horrors.

Characterizing Liohn as uniquely courageous, talented, and again, quixotic, strikes me as a fair portrayal, yet this focus on him alone means that You Are Not a Soldier ignores the fact that almost anyone has the ability to document and report on violence and injustice today, especially given how little consideration we seem to have given documenting violence in an era where cellphone footage of George Floyd’s murder (re)ignited unprecedented protests against racist police violence around the world. As I write this, my social media timelines are flooded with images and videos of atrocities and colonial violence committed by the Israeli military against Palestinians. Though this violence has been ongoing, social media has allowed journalists, activists, and everyday Palestinians to document and disseminate the horrors they are witnessing and experiencing in real time, defying the American, British, and Israeli narratives that have dominated discourses and excused or suppressed the violence. There are countless examples from the last decade of victims and bystanders of racist, gender-based, and colonial violence using video footage as a means of defense — documentation of violence itself, yes, but also the threat of documentation that can effortlessly be shared with innumerable viewers. With that dissemination comes not only a greater chance of consequences and justice, but also broader political change. Sontag notes that these images make “‘real’ (or ‘more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” Through these images, distant wars are made close, uncomfortable truths revealed, and forgotten or suppressed crimes and tragedies remembered. You Are Not a Soldier trades a broader consideration of the crucial and extremely urgent ethical and political dimensions of capturing, distributing, and viewing images of violence for a safer and fairly straightforward profile in courage. Its most difficult (and richest) questions remain peripheral, not that it owes viewers any clear answers given the complexity of the topic. Unfortunately, however, the film leaves us how it found us, unsure how to best navigate a world that constantly exposes us to representations of violence while further subjecting us to them. —Alec Christensen

Koto: The Last Service

Koto: The Last Service, is a documentary about the closure of Koto, the Japanese sushi restaurant in Campbell River. It was owned by the Maeda family, founded nearly 40 years ago by owner Kazue Maeda and her late husband Takeo (Tony) Maeda. Directed by Joella Cabalu and Kazue’s son Kenji Maeda, the film premiered at this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival and focused on the people in the restaurant, and depicted the community surrounding Koto. The film expressed that the restaurant was not merely a place to eat or serve at, but a representation of the Maeda family’s hard work and memories, and it became a place of belonging for many people in Campbell River. The movie ends with Kenji’s words: “This business existed for communities, and it wasn’t just about coming in and selling stuff. That’s never been the case. With my dad and mom, those values are around sharing. And, we wanted to continue that, until the very end.”

After the first few minutes of Koto: The Last Service, my face was already destroyed by my tears and runny nose. Yet, the film had a warm cinematography. Its orang-ish lighting, with a very subtle vignette, envelops the whole movie and captures a Japanese traditional interior. The soothing soundscapes consist of people’s laughter, tiny sounds of dishes clashing, and its gentle music perfectly matches with the wabi-sabi space. Everything about this movie is too tender for a documentary about a permanent closure. Not only because of the cinematic effect, but because of the people in the restaurant Koto; the customers who invite staff to their baby showers, who have their childhood heights recorded on the wall of the restaurant, the workers who talk to each other in casual Japanese like one big family, who take every order with a smile. Every bit of the restaurant Koto somehow reminded me of home in Japan — more than any other Japanese restaurants in Canada has — but­, for me, I cannot ignore ­the cruel fact this story is about the end of Koto.

It began with Tony’s desire to bring Japanese sushi to people of Campbell River. At the time, there was a small Japanese community with little prevalence of Japanese food — but a culture of eating raw fish. His patient efforts successfully turned the restaurant into a popular spot for Campbell River locals. One of the customers remarks in her interview, “A LOT of good memories here. A LOT of times sitting at the sushi bar, talking to Tony. A LOT of good memories watching the boys grow up.” The use of images in this specific interview built up so much emotion in this film. From a general view of the store, the camera finds the customer’s genuine laughter at the sushi bar, and smoothly transitions into old clips of Tony making sushi, and lastly, it lets us peek into the camaraderie between the customer and Kazue, capturing intimate scenes of interactions. One interview ends with a customer clearly stating to the camera that “[It’s] very sad to see it ending, and I will miss it.” All the interviews with the customers are as sentimental to viewers — just as it must have been for the regulars to film. Another memorable interview is from one of the servers. Reflecting back on her memories during the interview, she tears up and says, “I am so lucky to be the one to see people’s happy faces all the time.” Her words are very convincing, especially after a scene where she receives a cake from some regulars.

“We started Koto — but finish [it] with us. I don’t want somebody to take over this name. We started, we finish.” Kazue gazes strongly at the camera. A closure of such a loved place is always bittersweet, almost too much for some to accept. But the closure for the Maeda family is their dignity in their philosophy. “Things will be different now… so much different. But it’s good. Change. Change is good,” a regular tells Kazue, who responds, “I have to think like that.” The end of Koto is a reminder for us that everything has to come and go as the time goes on — even people and the communities made of them. At least it is a reminder for me, who sucks at letting good things go. The final chapter of Koto overlaps with my own memories of my grandparents, and the tight community of neighbors around them. The neighbors I remember that had left, that my grandmother had to pause her own handcraft shop due to illness, the moving on of that community of customers and family. Even now, not being able to go back home for so long due to the pandemic — I could not help but feel like they have just moved on, and left me alone in sorrow. Koto: The Last Service taught me, in the gentlest way, that I need strength to accept change, and make the best of my new life for my sake, and for the sake of others in my life who have chosen to move on. That it doesn’t always end with cold hearts, that it hurts them too.

One of the best qualities of the movie is that it evokes this sense of loss of places to belong to, whether you are Japanese or not, because change is inevitable for everyone. It is proven by the fact that the Campbell River locals, who barely had knowledge of Japanese culture, miss Koto and the Maeda family all the same. Moreover, it must be relatable for everyone, as Covid-19 has obviously changed the shape of society and their lifestyles, and we all have had to face the change in some ways. —Erika Enjo


The Gig is Up

The Gig is Up is the second film I’ve seen by Shannon Walsh, and like the first one, this is a perfectly competent documentary. The gig economy is very topical — the production value is high and the stories are compelling. I quite like the cinematography and colour palette, and I love the parodic use of social media notifications to present new information to the viewers. Although these visual cues may not immediately be tied to the gig economy, they probe at a larger problem within the public consciousness — the internet has changed the way we live, love and work way beyond what anyone could have predicted.

The tagline is “a very human tech doc” and the film delivers with it’s interesting and engaging main characters. Through the camera, we are given access to the inner lives of the people who work behind the scenes to offer us services such as Uber or Doordash. The film makes a case for these workers, who are overlooked in our pursuit of technological convenience, and presents them as human beings who cry and curse and work just as hard as anyone else. TGIS introduces us to “The Mechanical Turk”, as a fitting allegory for life under platform capitalism. It is both an illusion wherein a human plays chess under the guise of being an automaton and also, ironically, the namesake of the crowdsourcing platform owned by Amazon (MTurk). MTurk, the platform, allows businesses to hire remote workers to complete surveys and other tasks which computers can’t do. In one scene, a white Floridian Amazon MTurk employee games the system by claiming to be an African American Republican — a demographic which companies don’t have a lot of data on — when answering surveys, and through this we realize just how failable the system can be. Time and time again the fantasy of a well oiled and sophisticated machine is broken. Even acknowledging the camera — breaking the fourth wall — serves to reinforce this point. When one of the cast says, “Mom you’re ruining it, they’re filming me right now” after his mother wanders into the scene, we are reminded once again that there are people both in front of, and behind that camera. That even this documentary relies on the active participation of humans. The documentary goes on to address inadequate work-life boundaries, and the alienation of labour — a natural result in a world where humans are ever connected through the internet, yet at the same time, more alone than ever.

Even though TGIU touches upon such a wide breadth of issues, I wish there was a stronger focus on the social and human aspect. I would have loved a deeper look into the emotional and mental stresses of working in these jobs. Because the cast was so large, and the duration of the documentary relatively short by comparison, the legitimation of the film with interviews from professionals, like researchers and professors, detracted from the gig economy workers themselves. Another concern is that most of the promotional materials (that I’ve seen) are of the Chinese delivery workers, yet not a single Chinese delivery worker is interviewed, if I remember correctly. There is a scene in which groups of delivery workers stand single-file, and practice how to say, “enjoy your meal,” among other phrases, in Mandarin. A sharp contrast to the individual interviews the other cast members receive. Essentially, these workers are not afforded the same amount of voice and humanity. I don’t think it’s intentional malice on the part of the filmmaking team, maybe they couldn’t get anyone to talk to them, but all the same, it takes away from the film’s mission to create “a very human tech doc”.

In the year 2021,TGIU certainly has a place. It’s important. It’s a thought-provoking film and even though it’s not particularly revolutionary, (it positions itself as a “Platform Capitalism 101” syllabus) and fails to commit to centering gig workers — it does still remind us of the responsibility we have towards each other. —Isaac You