10 Must-See Documentaries Playing at VIFF 2017

Fiona Morrow shares her 10 top international documentaries playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. 

24 FRAMES, Screens Sep 29 and Oct 4

(Dir: Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France) The final film from the late master of cinema consists of 24 segments, each four-and-a-half minutes long, and each consisting of a single fixed frame through which the scenes (many of them set in nature) unfold. Experimental, rigorous and challenging, doubtless—more art installation than film, perhaps—but if Godard’s famous quote, “Cinema is truth 24 frames per second” can stand firm in this digital age, then maybe Kiarostami is the filmmaker to show us how.

THE VENERABLE W, Screens Sep 29 and Oct 6

(Barbet Schroeder, France, Switzerland)As news of the horrors of ethnic cleansing being carried out in Myanmar continue, veteran director Barbet’s Schroeder presents a timely profile of Ashin Wirathu, the Islamaphobic Trump-loving Buddhist monk at the heart of the campaign to rid the former Burma of its muslim Rohingya minority. The film is the final part of what the director has called his Axis of Evil trilogy and includes his 1974 profile of Idi Amin, and the 2007 documentary Terror’s Advocate about Jacques Verges, the French lawyer who defended war criminals and Holocaust deniers.

SHADOWMAN, Screens Sep 30, Oct 2 and 12

(Dir: Oren Jacoby, USA)Vancouver-born artist Richard Hambleton made his name in 1980s New York as a contemporary of Basquiat and Haring, considered every bit as important in the street art scene, famous for his “Shadowman” silhouettes that peppered the city’s walls. So what went wrong? Well, for one, he didn’t die, despite a drug addiction that would eat away millions of dollars, and a cancer that has done the same to his face. He also refused to play the art market game. But despite an apparently insatiable appetite for narcotics, frequent poverty and regular periods of homelessness, he always worked, making art anywhere he could hold a brush. Fascinating, not least because director Oren Jacoby resists the temptation to sugarcoat or romanticize. 

DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?, Screens Sep 30 and Oct 2

(Dir: Travis Wilkerson, USA)Travis Wilkerson is the great-grandson of an Alabama man who, in 1946, shot and killed another man, but served no time for his crime. The shooter was white, the victim black. Against the backdrop of current race relations in the US, Wilkerson’s attempt to unpack the skeletons in his family closet sounds prescient, at the very least. An inventive filmmaker (this project started as a one man stage show) Wilkerson is also deeply invested in history and politics, building multiple layers and themes to create a powerful indictment of white privilege and its continuing legacy. 

FACES PLACES, Screens Oct 1 and 6

(Dir: Agnés Varda, JR, France)At 89 years of age, the legendary Agnés Varda piled into a van with French art star JR—having met him shortly before at a disco—and headed off on a cinematic road trip around France. The van is rigged up as a photo booth that generates oversized poster prints and the co-directors first shoot their subjects, then paste them onto walls, then talk to them. The intention is to create an understanding of rural France through art. It sounds delightful.

HUMAN FLOW, Screens Oct 1 and 9

(Dir: Ai Weiwei, Germany/USA) Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei takes on the global refugee crisis and emerges with what some have hailed the definitive documentary on the issue. With a worldwide crew that numbers in the thousands, Ai travels to some 23 countries in an attempt to capture a problem so massive in scale, it can seem hopelessly incomprehensible (or, at least, that’s what we tell ourselves). Ai eschews the standard documentary practice of focusing on individual stories in order to illuminate common ground and illicit empathy. Instead, he zooms all the way out, forcing the viewer to face the scale of the crisis, and the lack of humanity we seem to be able to live with as a group. Essential. 

ALPHAGO, Screens Oct 2 and 3 (classified for under-19s)

(Dir: Greg Kohs, USA)On paper, this is a film about a computer built to beat a man at a board game. On screen, this translates to a thoroughly entertaining documentary powered by suspense and underpinned by great characters grappling with the age-old philosophical conundrum of man v machine. Go is the world’s oldest board game, both simple and infinitely complex, and perfect, a couple of English computer scientists figure, for researching Artificial Intelligence. Greg Kohs film follows their progress as their team prepares to take on world champion Lee Se-dol in Korea, with millions following their every move (60 million in China alone).


(Dir: Raphael Millet, France) Plunged into mid-life crisis by the advent of the talkies, the silent cinema great took a leave from Hollywood in 1932, following up his promotional tour of Europe for City Life with a retreat to Bali. He didn’t leave his camera behind, however, shooting hours of footage as he immersed himself in the Balinese culture and became hooked on the intricate traditional legong dance. Director Raphael Millet was given access to Chaplin’s footage, edited and contextualized here to offer both an insight into the colonial period and the filmmaker’s mind.

THE WORK, Screens Oct 8 and 10 

(Dir: Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous, USA) Best Documentary winner at this year’s SXSW festival, verité The Work enters the gates of high security Fulsom State Prison to spend time with men convicted of the most heinous of crimes. This time is precious: four days devoted twice annually to a group therapy program in the presence of outside voluteers designed to guide these prisoners to delve deep inside themselves and reflect on their pasts, their actions, and their thoughts and feelings. This work—aimed at reducing recidivism—is transformative. Co-director McLeary is a participant-turned observer, having been a civilian volunteer in the therapy since 2003.

ACORN AND THE FIRESTORM, Screens Oct 8 and 11

(Dir: Reuben Atlas, Sam Pollard, USA) It’s almost a decade since ACORN, a progressive, community-based activism organization with an international network, was brought down by an audacious right-wing campaign. Videos were circulated that appeared to show ACORN workers — whose focus was on voter registration, housing affordability, access to healthcare and other social issues—encouraging illegal activity, including the operation of brothels. It took no time at all for ACORN to lose all its funding and close, but years for independent investigations to find the allegations false, the employees innocent, and the videos falsified and misleading. In 2008, ACORN worked tirelessly in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The fake videos were made by conservative activist James O’Keefe, and hosted on a website owned by Andrew Breitbart.

Check out Fiona Morrow top international films playing at VIFF here, or check out the full festival lineup at viff.org