From real to reel: RIDM director Mara Gourd-Mercado

Mara Gourd-Mercado, the new director of the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal. (Kristine Berey photo)

To those perusing newspaper headlines it may seem that life is sometimes stranger than fiction. But speaking with Mara Gourd-Mercado, the new director of the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), held from November 12-22, brings up the question of whether completely pure fiction even exists. “Every story has a base in reality, it doesn’t come from scratch. Even Star Wars, yes, it’s set in space or on other planets, but the basic human interactions are your every day relationships transposed to another century.”

For Gourd-Mercado, a documentary film goes beyond simply documenting reality. She says the medium allows filmmakers a huge range of artistic freedom. “A National Geographic documentary can be very factual, but there are thousands of ways of telling that story through the vision of the artist, each interpreting reality.”

The opening film, Les Vaillants, by Quebec director Pascal Sanchez, illuminates the daily challenges of the valiant workers and volunteers in a St. Michel public housing development. The closing film, Petra Costa and Lea Glob’s Olmo and the Seagull, about two actors and their changing relationship while awaiting their first child, handles reality quite differently. “The film bears witness because you are seeing this woman living emotions, talking about her boyfriend on camera but everything is also acted. They choose the part of their reality they are revealing.”

The word “Rencontres” is at the heart of the festival, says Gourd-Mercado, which strives to create post-screening dialogue between directors and audiences. “Documentary films ask for it, “she says. “So much is about the world and what is happening today that you have to have discussion, people need to talk about it after [the film].”

Syrian Sara Fattahi’s first feature, Coma, is such a film, focusing on three women in a Damascus apartment, highlighting women’s experience in a war-torn Middle-East.

One invited director who should have been present is Belgian Chantal Akerman, who recently committed suicide. Her 1975 debut film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, has been called “one of the most original and audacious films in the history of cinema.”

Two films will honour her: No Home Movie, her last work filming her mother, a Holocaust survivor, at the end of her life. As well, I Don’t Belong Anywhere, Marianne Lambert’s feature about Akerman’s life and work will pay homage to this great director who influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. “Her work is not about entertainment, it is about making you think and reconsider what you thought was true. Documentary has that capacity,” Gourd-Mercado said.

It follows that much of documentary film is political. In Pouding chômeurs, Quebec’s Bruno Chouinard looks at poverty in our backyard and the changes to the employment insurance system the federal government created in 2013. Ostensibly aimed at people who “abuse” the system, the net result targets the most vulnerable.

Docs can raise awareness and educate, as in Do Not Track, activist web-filmmaker Brett Gaylor’s wake-up call concerning privacy and the market in personal information collected without the knowledge or consent of the general public.

“Documentary has a bad rep, people tend to think they are depressing or boring.” Gourd-Mercado says. “But I feel that’s because people don’t go see enough documentaries. So many are so much fun, and entertaining.”

She cites André-Line Beauparlant’s Pinocchio, a film about the director’s brother, a pathological liar and what may be her personal favourite, My Love Don’t Cross That River, by South Korean Moyoung Jin. “It’s a fantastic film about a couple, the husband is 98 and the wife 89 and their every day life — how they love each other, how they play, throwing snowballs, also about health issues, dying. It is so tender, so human, an amazing film that gives you faith in humanity.”

The RIDM takes place from Nov. 12-22. For films, venues and schedule visit

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