You'd fly to Prague and a young Czech dude would pick you up at the airport and drive south, averaging 180 km/hr, to Jihlava. It was late October. You'd spend five days binging on documentary cinema, coffee and cigarettes, pilsners chased with Slivovitz, and then board a bus to Leipzig with some thirty wiped out docster colleagues. Rinse and repeat, except red wine, German beer and schnitzel replacing the hearty stews and shots. Then a plane and a train to Sheffield, rinse and repeat with English breakfast and best bitters. Then Copenhagen, herring and hyggelig, and next stop Amsterdam for way too much weed and trays of scalding Kassttruffel, scoffed whilst crushed and close-talking at cocktail hour. After six weeks you'd crawl home to Canada, world-weary, liver spotted, and altered.
I've considered that my current Doc.tober impulse originates in muscle memory. Not long ago, it was possible to attend five of the world's best documentary film festivals, back to back. One could even squeeze in stop-overs to festivals in Bratislava, or Lisboa, or Florence. There was a time when I'd spend six straight weeks watching and talking documentary, face to face. That was a different bubble than the one we're in now. While less fortified by docs and travel, the upside is that I'm much healthier these days, knock wood.
Yesterday, Doc.tober brought me back to Europe, digitally. Dok.toberfest, if you'd like. With its office based in Prague, DA Films is a streaming platform that specializes in creative nonfiction films. It's the product of a unique collaboration, Doc Alliance, among several European festivals, including CPH:DOX, Doclisboa, Docs Against Gravity, DOK Leipzig, FIDMarseille, Ji.hlava IDFF and Visions du Réel. Festivals playing nice with each other, thanks to EU support.
Founded in 2008, DA Films was early to VOD and offers a deep library to get lost in. I've done, and am doing, some business with them, so spending quality time on the platform fosters an illusion of productivity on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. The rev share is a friendly 60/40 in favour of rights holders, who can customize geographical access, worldwide. A monthly subscription is five Euros and there are also one-off transactional options to rent or buy films of interest. DA Films offers curated thematic programmes (Tracing Reality and Fiction), filmmaker spotlights (Chantal Akerman, From the Other Side), festival retrospectives (Sheffield Doc/Fest: Reimagining the Land) and troves of obscure documentary cinema, rare Eastern European and Balkan films, Taiwanese avant-garde from the Sixties, and on and on. As always, choosing a selection takes me longer than viewing it.
I land on the lovely opportunity to watch the entire oeuvre of Elizabeth Lo, whose first feature film, Stray, was bound for a 2020 festival dream ride, with Spring premieres at Tribeca, San Franciso IFF, and Hot Docs, where a jury awarded it the International Competition prize, though Stray was in absentia from that festival's virtual programme. Lo, I discover on DA Films, directed seven shorts between 2013 and 2017, when presumably she dug in on Stray. What an unexpected treat, to see a significant talent honing her craft over several years, all on a cozy Sunday afternoon.
Last Stop In Santa Rosa is a black-and-white tone poem set in a hospice for dying animals. Children quietly narrate their experiences as residents of Treasure Island, a former naval base, now a housing project with radioactive waste beneath the homes. Hotel 22 deftly observes displaced riders on a late-night public bus route in Silicon Valley, including capturing a violently racist outburst. Also set in Silicon Valley, Notes From Buena Vista is loving, lyrical portraiture featuring children and their parents living in a low-income mobile home park. The stylistic outlier in Lo's filmography, The Disclosure President, commissioned by Field of Vision, is an unremarkable profile of UFO lobbyist Stephen Bassett. The two most recent shorts, Bisonhead and Mother's Day (a heartbreaker), are both accomplished works interweaving Lo's sharp, subtle observational style and social justice point-of-view. She's a filmmaker that was clearly ready for the demands of long form artistic and narrative expression, and no overnight success.
Stray, following three street dogs in Istanbul, was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for the U.S. market. It's drawn the requisite and likely lazy, reductive, Kedi comparisons (which Magnolia wouldn't mind, of course). There has been a litter of dogumentaries (sorry) on the festival circuit the past two years. As a Consulting Producer on Pariah Dog, Jesse Alk's excellent debut feature (currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one Kedi comparison), and a consultant on Rosvita Dransfeld's smart and entertaining Dogsville (to be released), I've been following the friendly competition. From the filmmaker's perspective, it's tough to spend years conceiving and making a film on a subject to find, when its finally finished, that festivals are considering, or have presented, several other productions that are either loosely, or unfairly, lumped together.
Pariah Dog, it's my pleasure and duty to inform you, is available on Apple TV and Prime Video in North America, United Kingdom and Australia.