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Tuesday 16 Jul 2024

Surviving DocFest
David Simmonds

I survived the annual three-day late winter ritual, that is, the Belleville Downtown DocFest, now celebrating its eighth year, but only just. DocFest is an endurance event. In addition to several plenary showings at the Empire theatre, there are six simultaneous showings at venues around the downtown, in seven different time slots, for more than fifty films, in all.

• It is impossible to see all the films.

You must choose. You must target films carefully and flit between venues strategically. That it all runs so smoothly is a tribute to the organizers as well as the ubiquitous and good spirited, green-tee-shirted volunteers. Three films had a particular impression on me.

The first was Play with Fire, by local filmmaker Sean Scally. It deals with the munitions plant explosion and fire in Trenton, Ontario, in 1918, near the end of the Great War; that’s WWI. Scally uses animation and contemporaneous photography to tell a riveting story of an accident that was bound to happen. He explores the possibility the destruction of the British-owned and insured plant was a little bit too conveniently timed, coming as it did when the plant was an about-to-be superfluous asset.

My second favourite film dealt is Gumurrul. It deals with Australian indigenous musician Geoffrey Gumurrul, who died shortly after its completion. The eponymous film documents the tug on Gumurrul, between maintaining his ties with his family and traditions or taking advantage of his rising popularity in world culture; a balance made all the more difficult by his blindness and preference for silence rather than conversation. The film gives glimpses of the appeal of his voice, but is mostly the story of his friendship with his producer, translator and co-performer Michael Hohnen.

• Climb every mountain; tool free.

The third film on my list of favourites, Free Solo, won the 2019 Academy Award for best documentary feature. It’s the story of the solo ascent, of American climber Alex Honnol, scaling the sheer wall of the El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park, using only handholds and footholds. Previously, this feat thought impossible.

Indeed, the wonder is how anyone could contemplate assuming such challenge, let alone pulling it off. The film includes a scene in which Honnold undergoes a brain scan, which shows the prospect of risk does not stimulate his amygdala or the fear centre in his brain as much as it does most people; thus, there may be a biological basis for the proclivity to go to extremes.

In one sobering scene, climbers casually compare notes on the high incidence of deaths among members of the free-soloing community. This raises some disturbing questions. Is it right to lionise a person that voluntarily tempts fate; when fate has been cruel to so many others that would cherish the opportunity to live just a little longer, not necessarily on the edge? Is his rejection of the comfortable life for a short life of extreme experience something we can tolerate? Should public resources, if necessary, go to rescuing extreme climbers from the risks they voluntarily assume?

It is also remarkable there is a film at all. A crew had to position itself on and near the rock face to capture shots of his ascent, putting itself in the way of much harm. This raises the question whether capturing a death-defying stunt for popular consumption is something we should applaud.

Why do we watch such films, if not for the possibility that a death might actually happen? Why do organizations, such as the National Geographical Society, fund these risky adventures, if not for the knowledge that we like to see other people risk their lives for our entertainment? These are questions worth pondering.

Free Solo also chronicles the relationship of Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, as he prepares for the climb. Both are aware of the fact their intimacy may compromise his focus on the climb. We see her struggle to accept a role that puts her in a secondary position in his life, knowing that it impossible to wean him from the risk-taking that defines his character; knowing that the next risk he confronts will likely be an even bigger one. As far as I can tell, they are still an item.

• I survived.

Yes, I survived DocFest. I doubt anyone is going to make a movie about my struggle. I was just navigating auditorium seats, not free soloing El Capitan.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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