One way to explore the truth of a subject is to allow the subject to film itself. Or in the case of Éric Baudelaire’s “Un Film Dramatique,” to allow the subjects to make a film about whatever they want and film their process doing so.
Commissioned by the brand-new Dora Maar middle school (named after the photographer, painter, and companion to Picasso) in the racially and ethnically troubled St. Denis district of Paris, Baudelaire enlisted 21 engaged and engaging students of diverse races and backgrounds to undertake the project. Giving them basic technical instructions, he set them off on their own and filmed their efforts over the course of four years. They begin by brainstorming ideas and wrestling with basic questions (What is a film? Is this a documentary or a fantasy? Is it about race and national origins and what do those words mean?) and then head out with cameras to record the mundane, poignant, and goofy.
Some of it is made up and surprisingly sophisticated, including an imaginary badminton game like that in “Blow-Up” (1966), a melodramatic dance to a tragic contralto aria, and a stalker/slasher movie featuring a girl lurching ever nearer wearing a hood backwards. Other moments are touchingly personal, such as the girl who shoots multiple takes of her farewell to the class (she keeps breaking up laughing or crying) or an immigrant visiting his home back in a wintry, hardscrabble Romanian village (“Nice Christmas decoration,” he quips. “A sock on a door.”)
Though not as edgy and eloquent as George Gittoes’s “Snow Monkey” (2017), which conducts a similar experiment in Jalalabad under the shadow of the Taliban and ISIS, or as substantive as Jean Rouch’s “The Human Pyramid” (1961), where the participants are white French colonial high school students and their Black classmates in the Ivory Coast, Baudelaire and his crew have achieved an absorbing documentary about growing up and making movies.
Rock proves its mettle
“Can music change the world?” the filmmaker Garin Hovannisian asks Serj Tankian, frontman for the Armenian-American band System of a Down, at the beginning of his adulatory documentary “Truth to Power.” Tankian doesn’t reply, but the cut to an outdoor concert the band held for thousands of fans in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, suggests that the answer is yes. A rousing appeal to change of the country’s oligarchic government, the concert inspired one attendee, Member of Parliament Nikol Pashinyan, to lead a massive nonviolent movement in 2018 to force the corrupt Prime Minister Serj Sargsyan to resign. Pashinyan then took over and began instituting a series of reforms.
Hovannisian doesn’t just show the change the music brings about, but also delves into the music itself and the two-decade history of the band. It is a surging, eclectic, arena-packing ensemble that has won four Grammys and sold 40 million records with a style drawing from such disparate influences as Slayer, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Middle Eastern musicians such as the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
The band’s popularity has added punch to its political message, which includes an appeal for US recognition of Turkish culpability for the 1915 Armenian genocide. Their decades-long campaign culminated when Congress finally approved the measure in 2019. Returning to Hovannisian’s opening question, Tankian says, “Music changes the way you feel about things. . . . That’s the true artist’s role in society. But it requires people [to realize] they have the power.”
Then he adds, “Down with the system!”
Don’t stand between a man and his walrus. That’s one takeaway from Nathalie Bibeau’s “The Walrus and the Whistleblower.”
As a freewheeling youth, Phil Demers a job as a trainer at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and bonded with Smooshi, a baby walrus. Demers cared for Smooshi and other animals at the attraction for a decade but said he grew increasingly upset as conditions deteriorated. Management remained indifferent to his concerns, so in 2012 Demers quit in protest.
But he couldn’t forget about Smooshi or the other creatures in captivity at Marineland. Mostly, though, Demers wanted to be reunited with the walrus and to take custody of her, though he does not explain how he would manage to care for a now full-grown half-ton aquatic animal in his tiny apartment (I suppose if Sally Hawkins could manage with the huge humanoid amphibian in the 2017 Guillermo del Toro film “The Shape of Water,” anything is possible).
And so Demers began his campaign to free Smooshi. He called himself “the walrus whisperer” and started a website. He joined animal rights protesters at the gates of Marineland. The media got engaged, Joe Rogan had him on his show four times, and politicians took note. Demers made it personal by taking direct aim at the founder and owner of Marineland, the elderly John Holer, who took his cue on how to manage his establishment from the way circuses were run six decades earlier in his native Slovenia. Exasperated by Demers’s onslaught, Holer retaliated by accusing him of a plot to kidnap Smooshi and suing him for $1.5 million.
Not that Demers was without flaws. His crusade became an obsession. Even he recognized that he might be taking things too far. “I would like to think it’s good versus evil,” he says about his conflict with Holer, “but I know it’s [expletive] versus [expletive].”
Only one of these expletives came out of this dispute alive, and as to the fate of Smooshi, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.