The Top 7 International Documentaries You Haven’t Seen But Absolutely Need To

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There is a moment at every festival, where the media pass is handed over and the magic happens. Where the week’s potential triggers an electric anticipation that make my nerves dance. With Doc Point Film Festival however, an international documentary affair, I didn’t know what to expect this time around. One week and 165 films to choose from on the festival line-up equaled 165 different ways my next six days could play out and the pressure of possibilities overwhelmed me.

But the moment the Doc Point lanyard hung from my neck, as always, the festival magic took over. I was instantaneously sucked into the blur of cinematic tragedies, personal victories and stimulating revelations from one movie to the next. And with my purse stuffed full of Pringles and gummy bears, I ran between theatres over the uneven cobblestone of Helsinki to my centre seat in the dark cinemas, allowing the films to take me. I visited the salt pans of India, the prisons of Belgium and the landfills of Russia, leaving each film more exhausted, emotional and inspired than the last.

It was the change – the fear of not knowing what to expect – that made Doc Point so magical in the end. Fed up with the snubs of Selma, the propaganda of American Sniper and the overpowering stories of white characters collecting all the nods from the Academy, I was refreshed by international truth. There were new voices, new protagonists and new lessons to be learned beyond the mainstream garbage fed through Cineplex surround sound and posted on highway billboards.

So after the screen had faded to black, the house lights turned on and I returned from my global adventure to the blue cushioned seat I had taken off from, I compiled a list of the top international documentaries from Doc Point Film Festival. Safe travels.

7. 9999

9999

Rating: 78%

Thoughts upon leaving: Get it the fuck together, Belgium.

In Belgium, the mentally ill are not held accountable for their actions or tried in the court of law. Yet, they’re still somehow imprisoned in one of the many penitentiaries throughout the European country, with no treatment and no release date, as discharge papers read 31/12/9999.

Director Ellen Vermeulen is a fly on the wall of Merksplas, a prison near the Dutch border, detaining criminal psychiatric inmates. We meet Joris, Salem and Wilfried, who are all caged in their cold and drab prison cells indefinitely and spend their days pacing, smoking, sleeping and eating. There’s not much else to do but stare out the window at the freedom that will never be there’s. Vermeulen does an effective job of incarcerating us too through pace and time. We feel minutes crawl at an anxiety-inducing speed as we join Joris, Salem and Wilfried behind bars.

Throughout the powerful documentary, the Merksplas inmates speak openly of their deep disdain for the walls that surround them. “This is the septic tank of Belgium. I am up to my lips in shit,” one prisoner says. “It feels like I’m being eaten alive,” says another. But help and hope linger outside their cell, where they cannot reach, for the institution offers no therapy, activities or change to improve their state of mental health. The European Commission of Human Rights has condemned and convicted Belgium for its mistreatment of the mentally ill, but they pay their fines and move on, while the prisoners still remain until 9999.

Watch trailer here

6. CitizenFour

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Rating: 80%

Thoughts upon leaving: *Logs-off forever*

Edward Snowden is a remarkable man. He knows what he’s about to do will affect him and everyone around him and that life will never be the same. He doesn’t try to hide that he’s scared of that fact. But it doesn’t stop him either. CitizenFour is the Oscar-nominated documentary by Laura Poitras, who was approached by the NSA intelligence analyst and whistleblower under his online moniker. She takes on the dangerous duty of filming Snowden’s journey, who proceeds to inform her about the government’s massive surveillance programs. Nothing on the internet is safe. Nothing in our phones are private. There is no such thing as privacy.

Snowden agrees to meet, prompting the documentary director and journalist Glenn Greenwald to fly to Hong Kong where he’s hiding. In a small hotel room in China, the secrets are revealed as we sit on the hotel bed beside him. Geenwald breaks the news live and we see the news reports broadcasted first hand. Our blood pressure raises with Snowden’s as we realize the implications of what we’ve all just been a part of. From the fibre-optic tapping operation, Tempora, described as “probably the most invasive intercept system in the world” and other classified surveillance programs to searching email content, and mapping the location of cell phones, the leaks shock the world.

But what makes Snowden so remarkable, isn’t the fact that he’s come forward with the information. It is his intentions for doing so. He doesn’t want the attention, or the story to focus on him. His interest is founded in truth. As Snowden finds asylum in Russia and remains there currently, the rest of the world must watch the documentary. We owe him.

Watch trailer here

5. Walking Under Water

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Rating: 90%

Thoughts upon leaving: Tourists ruin everything

Walking Under Water is an enchanting sensory film by Polish director Eliza Kubarska, documenting Alexan and his nephew, who belong to the threatened Badjao tribe off the coast of Borneo. They are nomads attached to no government, no country and own no documents. They belong to the sea.

The breathtaking scenery stimulates immediately, as Alexan and 10-year-old Sari man their small boat over the rocky waves, before the deep-sea fisherman dives alongside the colourful reef. Alexan teaches Sari everything he knows, from the tales of sea gods to his nomadic beliefs rooted in remarkable respect for the underwater culture. They ask permission to the water for everything they do – to dive, to land, to fish. “The bounty we get from the ocean, we return to you,” Alexan says.

As the young boy learns from his inspiring uncle, he must choose between joining the ways of the sea, or earning money at a resort on land, where the tourist industry booms. But the contrast between his choices is the demoralizing dilemma and sad reality in itself.

Watch trailer here

4. The Newsroom – Off The Record

The Newsroom

Rating: 90%

Thoughts upon leaving: RIP print journalism

Inside the newsroom of Denmark’s most despised newspaper, director Mikala Krogh trails Ekstra Bladet in the publication’s attempts to save their controversial tabloid from the declining print landscape. Rather than succumbing to cuts and layoffs like most papers suffering in the digital age, Ekstra Bladet finds temporary solace in publishing staged information, misguided headlines and controversial features to sell their pages instead. Social responsibility is traded in for circulation and it pays off short term – until it all catches up with them.

Krogh’s direct cinema approach and all access advantage follows Ekstra’s reporters in their natural habitat of disorder and strategy as they piece together news stories, focusing particularly on the suspenseful hostage situation of two Danish Shipcraft workers, who were taking by Somali pirates in 2011. But despite pleas from the hostages’ families to refrain from covering the negotiations, for fear of further harm, Ekstra pushes and prints on. They’re soon criticized by readers who stop buying, partners who stop their ads and other papers who challenge their journalistic integrity as they’re left watching sales plummet. After 838 days, the hostages are returned to Denmark, where one files a formal complaint against the paper, prompting a war between Eksta and the foreign minister, who believes their extended media coverage prolonged the capture.

The Newsroom is an entertainingly insightful and gripping tale of the grim future of print journalism, its effect on quality ethical content and – through Eksta Bladet’s example – how not to tread the changing editorial landscape.

Watch trailer here

3. See No Evil

See No Evil

Rating: 95%

Thoughts upon leaving: Animals are so much better than people

Jos De Putter’s cinematic essay is distinctively heartbreaking and thought-provoking in all its visual simplicity. There are no interviews or narration to ease the story from one chapter to the next; the tales are instead told through the perspective of its protagonists, three elderly apes, whose eyes say it all. See No Evil gives viewers a glimpse into the golden years of apes, when the intelligent and resilient creatures were prodigiously used by humans for experiments, entertainment and owned as prized possessions. But 20 years later, those that survived the era remain tangled in its aftermath, while drawing eerie parallels between the mammals that dominated and the ones who suffered.

Cheeta, the last star of Tarzan is an aging TV icon, celebrating his 80th birthday surrounded by opportunists quick to sell his paintings for $10,000 apiece. Kanzi is the world’s smartest animal, who astonishingly comprehends the English language in all its complicated syntactical structure. And then there’s Knuckles, an experiment of the space age, physically dilapidated and psychologically damaged. The apes are worn, yet wise. And through their eyes, we can see our mistakes.

Humans have a responsibility to their non-human counterparts, yet like most of our responsibilities, we tend to take what we can and ignore the consequences of that. See No Evil is the poetic guilt we’ve earned.

Watch trailer here

2. My Name Is Salt

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Rating: 98%

Thoughts upon leaving: Don’t spill the salt

You’ll never be able to consciously waste a grain of salt again after witnessing Farida Pacha’s feature debut, which documents salt-harvesters in the Gujarati desert, who spend eight months tirelessly cultivating the world’s whitest salt crystals before the yearly monsoons turn their salt pans to sea. Transforming one family’s back-breaking labor into a visually stunning cinematic experience, My Name Is Salt introduces Sanabhai and his hard-working kin, who begin the new year by rebuilding their Indian desert farm after the waters had washed it all away. Immediately starting by silently digging up their equipment from the deep ground where their tools had been buried to escape the tide, Sanabhai and his family spend months flooding their man-made salt pans with sea water, pulling the minerals from the earth, which they tirelessly tread, roll and rake until large salt crystals cover the barren land.

But Pacha’s documentary is not to be summarized. Its beauty lies in the cinematography of Gujarati’s golden ground and blue sky as the salt workers give themselves, physically and mentally, to their task of providing the earth’s resources. There’s a joy in their labour and an excitement in their simplicity. And it’s something to be grateful for.

Watch trailer here

1. Something Better To Come 

Something Better To Come

Rating: 100%

Thoughts upon leaving: No thoughts. Mind blown.

“At first, we lived a normal life,” 10-year-old Yula grimly starts. The young girl is walking in chunky black heels over the seemingly endless hills of garbage and debris known as Svalka – Europe’s largest landfill located on the outskirts of Moscow – introducing us to her apocalyptic desolation. Svalka is her home.

Something Better To Come is as remarkable as it is tragic. The Danish documentary, by Oscar-nominated director Hanna Polak, films the forgotten families who’ve fled in the forsaken Russian dump, in their daily struggle of survival. The eye-opening doc is filmed over 14 years and follows young Yula, who grows up among the garbage, deprived of even the basic of needs like water, food, healthcare and education. She and her friends spend their nights scavenging for meals and clothes in the bags and boxes of trash dumped by the diesel-fueled trucks and their nights sustained only by vodka and cigarettes, as they attempt to keep from freezing death.

Over fourteen years, director Hanna Polak builds solid relationships of trust with the community of nomads, who she silently films like a fly on the wall of their mud-ridden shacks. And through Polak’s unfiltered lens, we join them. It’s as if the screen has been removed for the viewers to huddle among the dump-dwellers; rolling up cigarettes in pages of old books, burning clothes for warmth and washing filth-stained skin with snow and foraged soap.

“Yula, tell me a story,” one boy asks. She sits silently, drawing back on her rolled cigarette.

“Nothing has happened in my life,” she finally replies.

“So, tell me about your dreams.”

As Yula grows from a girl to a young woman, the rest of us are left with a message: we all must believe that, despite any circumstance, there is something better to come.

Watch trailer here (Previously titled Yula’s Dream)

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