Arts and Letters
Cinema can convey the power of the other arts—architecture, dance, painting and music, especially music—in astonishing ways. Big-screen sound and image facilitate a special kind of intimacy and quality of encounter that is unique. This extremely popular subsection of Nonfiction Features highlights great performances and in-depth visits with some of our greatest artistic talents.
Come see. Come hear.
Films in this Series
Even if the name means nothing to you, the Roland TR-808 drum machine has played a role in your life. The machine’s dirty bass was the signature sound of the early days of hip-hop and the basis for modern EDM. But don’t take our word for it—Alexander Dunn’s diverse film features testimony from Damon Albarn, Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, Diplo, Fatboy Slim, Chris Frantz of Talking Heads, Goldie, Rick Rubin, Bernard Sumner, Phil Collins, Pharrell Williams and others. "A must-see."—Rolling Stone. Dedicated to our dear, departed friend, Peter Culley.
Some ascents to stardom are meteoric. Others are a gruelling marathon. Ballerina Misty Copeland learned early on that not everything comes easily for a teen prodigy. Especially when you’re African-American and racial homogeny is part of ballet’s exclusivity. Nelson George’s inside look at the art and industry of ballet invites us to marvel at Copeland’s courage and grace but question what goes on behind closed curtains. Most importantly, it gives us a real-life heroine to root for with all our hearts. “Inspirational doesn’t begin to describe it.”—Rolling Stone
Carlos Saura’s latest sumptuous documentary plunges us into the heart of traditional Argentine dance and music, via a succession of choreographed tableaux retracing a history rich in métissage. With a unique approach to its mise en scène, documentary images from different regions of Argentina gracefully mix with awe-inspiring traditional songs, performed by the country’s greatest singers, including a tribute to the much revered Mercedes Sosa. Both poetic and fascinating, Saura’s film conjures the entire history of the country and sets it to the tune of guitars and accordion.
Having seduced audiences with his revered “flamenco trilogy,” Carlos Saura now returns to the allure of the tango. Ravishing images from Argentina’s diverse regions combine with a series of immaculately choreographed dance pieces to create a swirling, intoxicating milieu. In turn, staggering performances of traditional Argentine folk songs from revered vocalists such as Soledad Pastorutti and El Chaqueño Palavecino immerse us in the country’s rich history. Lyrical and moving, Argentina is also a glorious reminder that every film should be a passion project.
Bach’s beautiful St. Matthew’s Passion and how it has profoundly affected the lives of, among others, opera director Peter Sellars, conductor Pieter Jan Leusink, writer Anna Enquist and soprano Olga Zinovieva, are the twin subjects of Ramón Gieling’s stunningly shot and exquisitely choreographed inquiry into "a language beyond understanding." In an abandoned Amsterdam church, a homeless choir joins Leusink’s orchestra and soloists in a performance sure to raise goosebumps for music-lovers of all persuasions.
The art and unbridled personality of acclaimed British artist David Hockney are brought to vivid life in Randall Wright’s treatise on the man’s memorable and influential career and personal history. Intimate and insightful, the portrait delves deeply to reveal a charismatic rebel, still searching for new ways of seeing, whose passion for art remains intense, and whose wry sense of humour still shines through. "A wealth of intimate home-movie footage and an affinity with his subject invigorate Wright’s unashamedly affectionate portrait of a British icon."—Observer
Rarely have classical music feuds been as acrimonious as the clash between creative heavyweights captured in Carmen Cobos’ riveting documentary. Despite his distaste for symphony orchestras, celebrated avant-garde composer Louis Andriessen is coerced into collaborating with Mariss Jansons and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Andriessen’s piece is characteristically challenging but also extremely personal, ensuring that the imposition of Jansons’ traditional sensibilities is seen as an affront. Will the world premiere leave their reputations in tatters?
Following his Patience (After Sebald), visual essayist Grant Gee turns his lens toward another great writer, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, and to Istanbul and the museum—both actual and fictional—that Pamuk created there. Simon Schama describes this Museum of Innocence as "the single most powerfully beautiful, humane and affecting work of contemporary art anywhere in the world." It has inspired this beguiling film which turns cinema back to its roots in dreams, visions, the search for meaning and communal memorialization.
Renowned Canadian film and video installation artist Mark Lewis takes us on a tour of art and architecture that transports us from Toronto to São Paolo to Paris’ Musée du Louvre. Likened to the great city symphony films of the silent era, Lewis’ new work is at once mesmerizingly beautiful, technically awe-inspiring and intellectually challenging. As the Louvre (which commissioned a series from him that has been on exhibition this past year) put it, Lewis’ work "suggests that film came before cinematographic technology, invented in the eye of the viewer."
In Latin America’s largest landfill, a garbage picker uncovers the raw materials for makeshift musical instruments. As cellos and violins are fashioned from stray detritus, a group of local children are likewise transformed into the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. Reminiscent of VIFF ’10 standout Waste Land, Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley’s documentary is an inspiring tale of resilience and transcendence. “A secret treasure… A story of the dull throb of existence gleefully recalibrated by the thundering heartbeat of music.”—Austin Chronicle
Remember the montage of stolen movie kisses the projectionist cuts together in Cinema Paradiso? Kim Longinotto’s glorious valentine to love does something quite similar: it’s an assemblage of flirtation, courtship, weddings and a bit of hanky-panky. Some scenes are familiar but mostly these are forgotten films, or they’re home movies, snippets of old newsreels, orphan sequences lost and found. Artfully entwined and set to Richard Hawley’s luxuriant ballads, they become the most romantic movie you’ll see this year.
Built 2,000 years ago, the majestic Verona amphitheatre—the biggest opera venue in the world—is, indeed, a "magic arena." Andrea Prandstraller and Niccolò Bruna chronicle the Spanish avant-garde theatre troupe La Fura Dels Baus’ rehearsals and opening night presentation of Verdi’s Aida, staged 100 years after its original performance there, and capture revelatory glimpses of many of the 2,000 workers responsible for this epic undertaking. "A compelling fly-on-the-wall, behind-the-scenes portrait that should prove catnip to opera lovers."—Hollywood Reporter
“We’ve come this evening to bring you some joy, happiness, inspiration, and some pos-i-tive vi-brations,” Mavis Staples tells concertgoers at the opening of this irresistible portrait of the irrepressible gospel/soul legend—a vow the movie delivers on. The Staples Singers married gospel and delta blues in the 50s, sang Freedom songs for the civil rights movement in the 60s, and topped the charts with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” in the 70s. Interviewees include Bob Dylan and Jeff Tweedy but it’s Mavis’s huge voice that does the real talking.
With reunions now de rigueur, it’s heartening to see beloved troupes mustered for the right reasons. Performing together for the first time in 34 years, Monty Python’s Flying Circus don’t miss an absurdist beat, rediscovering their old idiosyncratic rhythms and legitimately driving each other to hysterics. Their enthusiasm and affection proves infectious, lending Roger Graef and James Rogan’s insightful documentary the sense that we’re amongst old friends. "A lovely reminder of what makes the Pythons so special, both individually and as a team."—Nerdist
Before the Islamic Revolution banned solo performances by women, Iran boasted popular female vocalists like Delkash and Googoosh. No longer willing to see women’s voices silenced, musician Sara Najafi aspires to stage a concert in Tehran. Her brother Ayat helms this revealing documentary that details the bureaucratic obstacles and theological arguments that stand between her and such a seemingly simple goal. And while the women’s glorious songs lend the film uplift, it’s Sara’s courageous determination in battling institutional discrimination that truly inspires.
Like his father before him, Sheikh Rehman has spent a lifetime designing and painting Bollywood film posters for Mumbai’s ancient Alfred Talkies cinema. His huge banners teem with the energy and action one expects from the films themselves. But times are changing—the Alfred Talkies’ audience is dwindling and plastic posters are becoming the norm… Florian Heinzen-Ziob and Georg Heinzen’s alternately vibrant and elegiac film holds focus on the colourful Rehman, a real artist who energetically plies his trade even as the only life he has known disappears around him.
An intimate and gloriously musical chronicle of the life of the late, legendary Andalusian flamenco guitarist, Francisco Sánchez Varela’s captivating documentary features contemporary interviews and ample archival footage of the master in full flight, alongside other flamenco legends José Greco, Sabicas, Niño Ricardo and Bambino Camarón. No doubt due to the fact that he’s de Lucía’s son, Varela also shows us the relaxed and candid side of the great musician and his unparalleled virtuosity, a talent that was cut short when de Lucía died unexpectedly last year.
Not familiar with Frank Morgan? He was Charlie Parker’s protégé and played with Billie Holiday. His father always said that Frank was “the best sax player in the world. But…” That “but” concealed a multitude of sins: bank robbery, larceny, forgery and burglary. Instead of a career, he had a habit. This music documentary includes a high-power tribute concert, fascinating insights into jazz and race in the 50s, musical lore, and interviews with Gary Giddins, Michael Connelly, Ron Carter, Clora Bryant and Delfeayo Marsalis.
While pilgrims flock to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges, other visitors seek out the world’s finest silk. Having become part of the fabric of this ancient Hindu city over the course of a millennium, a Muslim weaving community now faces epochal change wrought by globalization. Charting a day in their lives, Pat Murphy’s documentary is an intimate look at an endangered tradition. “While rich with luscious shots of fabrics, dye and crumbling architecture, [the film] remains rigorous in its focus on the aesthetics and economics of this ancient industry.”—Irish Times
When Andorra—that tiny-yet-wealthy principality high in the Pyrenees—decided it needed a fabulous new art gallery to rival Bilbao’s, invitations went out to the world’s top architects. Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Dominique Perrault were among the heavy-hitters who not only took on the design competition but consented to be part of this warts-and-all film. “A documentary that exposes how ’starchitects’ really work… Compulsive viewing."—Guardian
A beautifully realized paean to art and democracy, set in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut and Alexandria, François Verster’s ambitious, multilayered documentary combines the tale of Shahrazad (and the 1001 stories she tells) with many other stories of the modern Arab world. From the National Youth Orchestra in Istanbul, to a troupe of actors/storytellers in Cairo, to a lone tapestry artist (amongst many others), Verster’s profoundly secular-humanist work skips back and forth through time and space to weave its own striking tapestry about the modernizing force of art.
“The Exquisite Corpus is based on various erotic films and advertising rushes. I play on the “cadavre exquis” technique used by the Surrealists, drawing disparate body parts constellating magical creatures. Myriad fragments are melted into a single sensuous, humorous, gruesome, and ecstatic dream.”
Cal Arts film essayist Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) has crafted a film lover’s dream, inspired partly by the cinema theory of the brilliant French philosopher Gilles Deleuze but based mostly on his own lifelong erudite engagement with the history and seductive power of the movies. Whether zeroing in on lyrical abstraction, ruminating on Nazis, communists and spies, or comparing Maria Montez and Debra Paget’s Orientalist snake dances, this is a gift for anyone who believes in cinema as art, as a form of thought and as a source of great pleasure.