2023 DOXA Documentary Film Festival

WHEN & WHERE May 4 - 14, 2023 | VIFF Centre, The Cinematheque & SFU Goldcorp Centre + online

Reviewer John Jane

2023 DOXA Documentary Film Festival Awards

Nigel Moore Award for Youth Programming: King Coal directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Special Mention: We Will Not Fade Away directed by Alisa Kovalenko

Short Documentary Award: Tiny directed by Ritchie Hemphill and Ryan Haché
Special Mention: Zug Island directed by Nicolas Lachapelle

Colin Low Award for Best Canadian Director: Má Sài Gòn directed by Khoa Lê
Special Mention: 2012/Through the Heart directed by Rodrigue Jean and Arnaud Valade

DOXA Feature Documentary Award: Notes on Displacement directed by Khaled Jarrar
Special Mention: The Golden Thread directed by Nishtha Jain

Elevate Award: Tiny directed by Ritchie Hemphill and Ryan Haché
Special Mention: Notes on Displacement directed by Khaled Jarrar

Big Fight in Little Chinatown

Canada/USA, 2022, Director Karen Cho, 88 minutes

In English and Cantonese with English subtitles

Chinese-Canadian director Karen Cho’s informative documentary Big Fight in Little Chinatown opens this year’s DOXA, Vancouver's documentary festival. Cho, who was born in Montreal, focuses her lens on four cities with essentially similar problems: Vancouver, Toronto, New York City and her home base Montreal. The film will surely be of interest to Vancouverites and people of Chinese heritage in general across large centres in North America.

As the film’s title may suggest, Chinatowns everywhere are in trouble! Under threat of gentrification, urban renewal and even a misguided prejudice against Chinese communities, denizens are finding that they have to fight back just to preserve a vulnerable status quo. Of course, it’s too simple to say that it’s the fault of municipalities. The once vibrant Vancouver Chinatown was the second largest in North America, (perhaps it still is) but over the years has suffered from its denizens success who have moved to larger homes in the suburbs.

Cho’s documentary shows protests that illustrate the passion and determination in those multi-generational citizens in their attempt to persuade not only local councils, but allies from other ethnic groups to support their cause. In Montreal we see protesters with placards that read: Le Quartier Chinoise n’est pas un Musée and Chinatown is not a Museum in Vancouver.


USA, 2021, Director Rebecca Huntt, 79 minutes

Rebecca Huntt, who makes the cover of this year’s DOXA Program Guide, is a proud born and bred New Yorker. When her nickname is the title of her first feature documentary, it doesn’t leave much doubt that it’s an autobiographical work. Except that Huntt goes deeper than what is typical for a cinematic memoire. The thirty-two year old Afro-Latina film-maker takes no prisoners in a brutally honest portrait of not only herself, but her entire family.
She takes a directorial risk in interviewing her father, who hails from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, her mother, who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela and her older sister Raquel. Huntt also has an older brother, who perhaps for obvious reasons never appears on camera. While her father Juan and sister seem comfortable speaking on camera, her mother Veronica, who is a non-black Latino, is a very reluctant interviewee. Also featured, is a conversation with biracial Humanities professor Annie Seaton. Ms. Seaton offers opinions on how Huntt fits in with fellow students at Bard College (New York).
Despite Huntt’s multicultural heritage, this very personal film is essentially a New York City story. A first generation American in search of self-identity is not only her story – it’s everyone’s story. At the end of the film, Huntt, who also provides the narration, offers what seems a genuine apology – “I’m not sure if my family will speak to me again; I promise it will be the last time that I snitch.”

La Singla

Spain/Germany, 2022, Director Paloma Zapata, 95 minutes

In Spanish and German with English subtitles

Originally titled En busca de La Singla (In search of La Singla), Paloma Zapata’s fascinating hybrid documentary features the renowned flamenco dancer Antoñita Singla, who came to be known as simply La Singla. Much of the film includes archival black and white film footage of when Singla started dancing as a child in the Barcelona Romani neighbourhood of Somorrostro. She learned to dance without being able to hear the music that she danced to. She was born almost totally deaf and used flamenco as a form of therapy.
The film also shows compelling archival film after Antoñita moved to Germany as 17-year-old, and immediately made an impact on the international music scene captivating audiences with her passionate performances. By the mid-sixties, she was considered the best flamenco dancer in the world in Germany. However, at the height of her fame, she mysteriously disappeared. Decades later, she is still virtually unknown in her own country.
It’s this paradox that motivated Zapata to go in search of Antoñita Singla. In Zapata’s story, a young journalist named Elena attempts to unearth the tragic La Singla legend and is surprised to find she was pretty much eliminated from flamenco history. Through research, she comes across The Banegas Archives that provided photograph albums and vinyl recordings of Antonia Singla performances. Through interviews with relatives, musicians and former dancers her journey leads her to Santa Coloma in Catalonia where Antoñita's daughter and grandchildren now live.

We Will Not Fade Away

Ukraine/Poland/France, 2023, Director Alisa Kovalenko, 100 minutes

In Ukrainian with English subtitles

Ukrainian award-winning documentary filmmaker Alisa Kovalenko takes a cynical, yet a simultaneously hopeful look at life in the conflict-ridden Donbas region of Ukraine in her new documentary We Will Not Fade Away. Kovalenko’s film was shot three years before the Russian invasion in February 2022. But even in 2019 there were the ominous signs that the commonplace shelling and gunfire was a harbinger of worse times ahead.
Andriy, Illia, Lera, Liza and Ruslan are five teenagers who become the films protagonists, bravely struggling to live as regular a life as possible in Donbas, where bomb shelters, coal mines and minefields planted by Russian proxy forces are considered normal. Because of the so-called “War in Donbas” that preceded the full scale Russian invasion by almost eight years, teenagers have become known as a lost generation.
The film takes an optimistic turn when it covers the group as part of a Ukrainian contingent in the Annapurna Base Camp Trek in Nepal. The lush rhododendron forest and mountain landscape offers these young people deserved respite from their real world burden.


Columbia/Romania/France/Germany, 2023, Director Theo Montoya, 75 minutes

In Spanish with English subtitles

The curious title is an acronym taken from angel of Hell. It’s also the Instagram moniker of Camilo Najar, the director’s anti-hero in his film within a film – a film that was never completed. Colombian director Theo Montoya has to rethink his film-making strategy when his intended protagonist suddenly dies of a heroin overdose. What Montoya ends up with is a gallimaufry of a dystopian allegory of Medellin’s societal underbelly, and a series of conversations between a group of economically marginalized young men and an unseen interviewer - all interspersed with newsreel footage of recent violent events that actually includes the shooting down of Pablo Escobar on his birthday. All Montoya’s interviewees have two things in common with each other: they’re all part of the Medellin’s gay community and are disenchanted with country to which they belong. Sharlott Zadoma, a transsexual was the second cast member to die before the final completion of the film.

Montoya’s quasi-documentary is certainly dark. It is difficult to see which audience this film would appeal to – perhaps the morbidly curious.

Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon)

Canada, 2023, Director Khoa Lê , 100 minutes

In Vietnamese with English subtitles

Paris of the Orient and Uncle Ho Chi Minh are nicknames afforded to Ho Chi Minh City, but apparently many of its ten million residents still affectionately call it Mother Saigon. Montreal-based, American born filmmaker Khoa Lê’s documentary is not much more than a cinematic love letter to his family’s former home.
Since the 1990s, the city has undergone modernization and expansion that has contributed to Vietnam's post-war economic recovery. However, Khoa Lê’s film reveals many contradictions that affect the lives of of many its denizens. He chooses the city’s LGBTQ+ community to give emphasis to the dichotomy of this now thriving city. Caught between capitalism and socialism, traditional and modern, the people featured as mostly couples covet the same things in life that all of us want: acceptance and inclusion.
Where this film shines is in Mathieu Laverdiere’s striking cinematography. Unfortunately, it falls down through Khoa Lê’ and Isabelle Darveau’s indulgent editing. The film’s run time of a hundred minutes is about fifteen minutes too long. The conversations between the subjects are allowed to continue for too long without any added purpose.

Manufacturing the Threat

Canada, 2023, Director Amy Miller, 85 minutes

In English and French with English subtitles

Manufacturing the Threat is Amy Miller’s engaging exposé into the RCMP’s handling of the so-called Project Souvenir and other such clandestine operations that involve targeting individuals and gathering evidence through suspect methods. Miller’s documentary primarily uses the example of radicalized Moslem converts John Nuttall and Amanda Korody and their involvement in a failed attempt to blow up the British Columbia legislature building in Victoria BC on Canada Day, 2013. The media was quick to call it a ‘pressure cooker’ bombing attempt because of the similarity with the Tsarnaev brothers’ scheme at the Boston Marathon earlier the same year. It is now known that John Nuttall and Amanda Korody were not only encouraged, but coerced and perhaps even guided through the plot by undercover law enforcement agents.

Nuttall and Korody, who throughout the film were referred to by their Moslem names, Omar and Ana, were hardly perfect people. Some may have said that they were at least partly to blame for their misadventures with RCMP. Due to their transient lifestyle, the pair presented themselves as easy targets for a sting operation that was intended to justify the RCMP’s demands for greater powers and resources in order to combat domestic terrorism.

The film provides interviews with defense lawyers for Nuttall and Korody, as well as recurring conversations with the perceived suspects themselves, yet no one from the RCMP or CSIS agreed to be interviewed. The couple was ultimately convicted and spent three years before being released when it was acknowledged by the court they had been the victims of police entrapment. They are still together in 2023 and have recently launched a lawsuit against the investigators and federal prosecutors.


Canada, 2023, Directors Robert Mentov & Karl Kai, 20 minutes

In Ukrainian with English subtitles

There are a number of films making it into the DOXA Film Festival this year that centre on the ongoing invasion of Russia into Ukraine. Troika (Russian word meaning threesome) is a short film that is part of an assemblage of seven films that deal with ‘memories with home’ – wherever home may be. Vika Koniskhina is living in Canada, safely away from the war in her homeland, but it doesn’t stop her phoning her mother everyday urging her to leave Ukraine. Vika, Niko Kargorodtcev and Ilkin Ujanski play themselves as three young people who find kinship and solace in a group of people in the same predicament as themselves and are coming to terms with living in a country that they have no personal affinity with. Robert Mentov supervises the photography that appears to be shot with the use of a hand-held camcorder camera as it follows the friends in a social setting or alone.
Ms. Koniskhina also has a hand in designing the film’s clothing.


Philippines, 2022, Director Karl Malakunas, 94 minutes

In Tagalog and English with English subtitles

Karl Malakunas’ eco-documentary Delikado certainly doesn’t pull any punches as it looks for both heroes and villains in Palawan’s, an archipelagic province in the Philippines, war on illegal logging and fishing. El Nido Mayor Nieves Rosento and local lawyer Bobby Chan and his squad of para-enforcers who go about confiscating chainsaws are very much the heroes. While unlawful gangs of unregistered loggers enabled by corrupt politicians like Palawan governor Jose Alvarez are the villians. Even former president Rodigo Duterte is seen on local television wrongfully calling out Mayor Rosento, and putting her on his “Narcs List.” The film gives much of its runtime to Mayor Rosento’s re-election campaign, where she is running against an alleged corrupt opponent backed by the governor. Malakunas’ central theme in Delikado however, is PNNI’s (Palawan NGO Network Incorporated) brave, but seemingly losing battle to sustain the delicate environment of their province.

© 2023 John Jane