For many filmmakers, family — be it the one you’re born into, the one you choose or the one you never knew you had — is fertile ground in which to sow powerful stories. Here are five fest docs that do just that.
Beautiful Scars (6/8)
It’s fitting that director Shane Belcourt’s film about musician Tom Wilson has kind of a music-video vibe to it. Based on Wilson’s memoir of the same name, Beautiful Scars is a slick, cool, arty doc that delivers an up-close-and-personal look at the life and career of the acclaimed rocker, and explores his journey of self-discovery as an adult after long-hidden family secrets come to light. Punctuated by Wilson reading excerpts from his book, and divided into thematic chapters, the film paints a rich portrait of the one-time hard-living talent, who, for a long while, embraced the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle to a destructive degree. Home movies, videos, and interviews with family members, colleagues and former bandmates help bring the somewhat enigmatic Wilson into sharper focus, from his early years in Hamilton, Ont., to his time criss-crossing the globe while fronting Junkhouse. But it’s his complicated family history that’s the real story, and Belcourt peels back the layers very slowly — gradually revealing what some viewers may clock from the start — and subtly changing the tone of the film from turmoil and discontent to healing and forgiveness.
Don’t Come Searching (5/8)
If this contemplative mid-length verité doc feels a bit familiar, it might be because director Andrew Moir unspooled a short — Babe, I Hate to Go — at Hot Docs 2017, which tells much of the same story. That film introduced audiences to Delroy, a Jamaican father who would spend half the year as a migrant worker on a farm in Canada, and who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Don’t Come Searching is an expanded version of that short and an extension of Delroy’s story, tracking not only his diagnosis but his return to Jamaica and his gradual decline. His lottery-focused girlfriend, Sophia, and his kids are by his side; friends and neighbors stop in to offer support; and the reality of Delroy’s impending fate sinks in for all. His death is telegraphed from the outset, though, and the somber events feel so incredibly personal and intimate that, for me, the camera started to feel a bit intrusive. The bond between Delroy and Sophia anchors the proceedings, and there are some elements that work really well — daughter Brianna is the heart of the film, and Delroy’s shopping trip to buy a wedding band as he time with Sophia dwindles is a poignant highlight — but, for me, this quiet family portrait just didn’t resonate as strongly as I thought it would.
No Simple Way Home (6/8)
The process of figuring out your place in the world can be daunting enough for young women, but even more so if your late father was a revered revolutionary and your mother was just appointed Vice-president of the newly unified country from which you’ve been exiled since childhood. That’s the backdrop for director Akuol de Mabior’s reflective and introspective autobiographical film. The daughter of former Sudanese Vice-president John Garang de Mabior, who died in 2005, and Rebecca Garang de Mabior, freshly minted VP of South Sudan, the director trains her lens on her family. The film traces their history amid civil wars, conflicts and a coup attempt, and explores what it’s like for her mother to carry the weight of the past along with the expectations for, and responsibilities of, the present in a country where the family patriarch (whose face is on the currency) still looms so large. Spoiler alert: it’s not an easy task, as peace in South Sudan is tenuous, its economy is unstable and the worst floods in its history wreak havoc. Through it all and with meditative approach, de Mabior documents her mother’s quiet resilience and determination, her sister’s humanitarian efforts, and her own ruminations on what the future might hold for them all.
Sam Now (8/8)
It’s not often that you come across a documentary that took 20 years to make. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of only one — Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, which I saw at TIFF waaaaay back in 2004 (!) — and, weirdly, that film bears eerily similarities to this astonishing piece of documentary filmmaking from director Reed Harkness. Both span decades; both deal with a young man’s complicated relationship with his mother; both are deeply personal docs assembled from home movies, photos and old recordings; and 2003 factors significantly in both projects — it’s the year Tarnation was finished, and the year Harkness’s documentary began shooting in earnest. But while the former deals with the repercussions of mental illness, Sam Now revolves around Harkness’s titular half-brother, and his relationship with his estranged mother. The brilliantly edited and beautifully scored (by Roger Neill) doc demonstrates that Harkness was born a filmmaker, as it’s made up entirely of footage and interviews he shot himself from the brothers’ childhood to present day. Reed and Sam go from kids goofing around with a camera and making action movies in the backyard to young men embarking on a quest to unravel the mystery of why and how Sam’s mother, Jois, disappeared without a trace when he was a teen. What happened? Where did she go? And how does it impact the family as the years pass? What unfolds is a meticulous excavation of a family that’s riveting from the jump, delivering the full spectrum of emotions in a fantastically artistic, honest and satisfying package that’s hands-down one of our faves of the fest.
Split at the Root (6/8)
Motherhood and family are universal, regardless of race, nationality, income or which side of the U.S. border you call home. The strength of those inherent human connections forms the foundation for director Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s moving examination of the U.S.’s Zero Tolerance family-separation immigration policy, and the work of a group of dedicated American women helping free and reunite ICE-detained mothers with the children from whom they were separated. In 2018, spurred into action by the reports she was seeing on the news, New Yorker Julie Schwietert Collazo mobilized her friends (who told two friends, who told two friends, and so on…) to form Immigrant Families Together (IFT), a grassroots movement that not only raises bond-money funds for the detainees, but provides end-to-end support for the newly released moms and newly reunified families. On the other side of the struggle are the mothers themselves, who fled their Latin American countries in the hopes of finding asylum in the States, only to face imprisonment, complicated bureaucracy and perpetually stalled proceedings. Insightful and inspiring, Knowlton’s film follows all the women for several years, tracking their progress (or lack thereof) and showcasing the cross-cultural sisterhood bringing families — related and chosen — together.