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Check out some reviews of great documentaries.

What catches my attention the most about documentaries is that they are films taken from real life.  The actors are real people and their dialogue in the film is not scripted.  

Click to read an article about the film maker.
Alanis Obamsawin's doc examines Canada's child welfare system.

Richard Cardinal: Cry From The Diary of A Métis Child, Alanis Obomsawin


Throughout this piece Obamsawin gives Richard the voice he never had when he was living. 


His diary entries which are  read aloud and dramatic re enactments bring him alive again.  The audience can see Richard’s life through his own words.  His words are insightful.  They give the audience a very detailed look at his experiences and how they affected him.He is his own narrator.


In one of his boarding homes he described his room as being very dirty.  There was water on the floor and his bed was very small.  Richard thought this was too bad to be true.


“I kept telling myself this was all a bad dream,” Richard said.


The recreations of Richard running through the grass or along the road show that he was running away from something.  He was running away from his life but he has no direction.  Richard was a prisoner of circumstance.   In the end his only escape was death.


What intrigued me about Richard was how he looked at life.  From a very young age he had given up on life but he did not blame anyone.


“If I die it is not because of you,” said Richard.  “I quit everything.”


However, Obomsawin also shows us witnesses to Richard’s life.  Interviews with his brother, Charlie,  and numerous foster parents give us perceptions of how others saw Richard.  They knew he was a troubled boy.  But they did not know how to help him.  


I feel sorry for Richard Cardinal.  He was a product of his environment.   He was moved around so much that he did not know what it meant to be a part of  a home.  Without this sense of belonging he had no direction. 



          “I do not think I would be happy with it,” Richard said.  “Yet sad and


depressed without it.”     

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Click to read an essay about  this doc.
Barbara Kopple and her crew spent years with the families in the film.

Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple


The miners of Brookside Mine had no choice but to strike.


The miners and their families live under an oppressed  feudal system. Their meagre housing supplied by Duke Mining Company is without sewer or  running water. They work under extremely dangerous conditions for petty wages without any health benefits.  These miners are descendants of miners who have suffered the same abuse.  This is their way of life.   I pitied them.


Images of their town are like images from a third world country. They are powerful. Car wrecks, abandoned homes, and children playing in the garbage strewn streets are powerful images.  We would think this poverty only exists in places of little or no employment.  But this is not the case.


Folk music adds extra dimensions to this piece. The lyrics to songs illustrate their oppression  by the mining companies and the dangers of working underground.  This is a way of life for the miners. The singers’ hollering and  raspy voices accentuate their despair and gloom.


Having locals sing these songs bring more meaning to the lyrics.  These are the same  people who lived these stories


Close-ups work effectively to give the film an intimate quality.   Faces fill up the entire screen and we get to know the characters on a more personal level.   Facial expressions tell their story. 


After watching this film I cannot help but support the miners in their cause. 


          This is the purpose of advocacy film making.  It persuades the viewer to support a cause.

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Click for more info about the film.
Donald Brittain narrated most of his scripts.

Memorandum, Donald Brittain



What impressed me most about this film is Brittain’s way of changing our perception of those involved in the holocaust.  He presents the Jews and Germans in ways contrary to our perceptions of them in World War II. 


Most images of the holocaust show Jews being tortured and killed by German soldiers.  The Germans were taking away the Jews’ own humanity.


But Brittain portrays the of Germans of 1965 like people with morals.


“We are a cursed generation, not just us but some of you too.”  One German says.


Twenty-six years since the holocaust Germans and Jews are living in peace.  Jews  have been given back their humanity.  They are given a proper funerals and treated like everyone else.  At the time the mayor of Hamburg was a Jew. 


The holocaust survivors. in this film are not willing to forgive and forget.  One clip shows a Jew making a speech of who the Jews blame and why they will never forgive those (including the allied powers) for letting the holocaust happen.


Another  interesting characters was “The Hunter.” He was a holocaust survivor who tracks down Nazi war criminals for persecution. By 1965 he had already found about 800 Nazis. 


In the abandoned death camp of Bieckernow a loose lamp shade is shown banging off its post.  It was a busy death camp. In just 2 ˝ years over two million Jews were executed. The clanging of the shade seems to resonate throughout the camp.  A wagon with two people pass by the camp.  We assume they are Jews. Twenty-six years ago they would have been odered to fix the broken  shade,  but nowadays no one cares.  The camp  is unimportant. The Nazis are gone and the Jews are free.


Both Germans and Jews alike are deal with the holocaust in different ways but both peoples are ready to get on with their lives.

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Click to go to Alan Berliner's Web site.
Alan Berliner and his father Oscar explore their family's history.

Nobody’s Business, Alan Berliner


What struck me about this documentary is how Alan interrogated his father.  This was not a tame interview. Oscar is very blunt and gruff to his son. Like the images that flashed on the screen, it was like a boxing match.  In one corner Alan is throwing answers while in the other corner Oscar is dodging them.  


During the “rounds” I get a sense of the relationship between Alan and his father. It is a sensitive one.  They are as different as black and white.   Alan is curious.  He asks questions.  On the other hand, Oscar is passive.  He accepts his role in life.  Throughout the documentary I get a sense that they do not understand one another.  They are both stubborn. 


My initial impression of Oscar Berliner is of a grumpy old man who does not appreciate life.


“I’m just an ordinary guy who’s led an ordinary life,” said Berliner.  “My life is nothing.”  He does not care about his roots or his family history. 


But as the documentary progresses I was surprised to see that Oscar is not what he appears.  By the end he is less frigid.  Oscar talks about how much he loves his grand child, Jade.  Jade gives Oscar a reason for living. 


“I love her,” he says.


Alan’s use of still images is eye-catching. When he flashes certain images it gives the viewer a sense that he is searching for something.  For example the images of the map of Poland start off in a random order but finally end up on what he is looking for, his great grand parent’s home town. 


This film portrays the relationship between father and son through an interview. 

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Click to read an article about the film.
Barry Stevens found the brother he never knew.

Offspring, Barry Stevens


My brother and I are our mother and father’s flesh and blood.  We are products of our parents.  They exist through us.   We are as much a part of their lives as they are of ours.   Barry Stevens and his sister cannot say this.


I cannot imagine the shock Barry felt when his mother told him the truth. His father was not his biological father.  Barry was the product of donor insemination (DI .)  Sperm from an unknown donor was artificially inseminated into his mother.  Part of his lineage was a mystery.  From this point on his life changed.


Barry’s biggest challenge in this piece was grabbing the audience’s attention. In class he said that a personal documentary must have a larger purpose than just the person.  The piece must open itself up to the whole audience on various levels.


I am a good example of a someone who would has little in common with Barry.  I am the biological child of both my parents. My father is still living.  I only know a few people who are adopted and I had never knew DI babies existed fifty years ago.  However, Barry caught my attention and the attention of others through alternate avenues of storytelling.


Barry caught the audience’s attention on three levels.  First, he presented himself as the underdog.  The odds were clearly  stacked against him. His insemination procedure took place about fifty years ago.  At the time it was illegal and was kept very secret.  All of those involved were either dead or their whereabouts are unknown.  He had few leads to follow and they might not be accurate.  This is what caught my attention.  I always go for the underdog.


Second, the film unfolded like a mystery film.  Barry was like a detective. He followed clues that led him to other DI babies and to those who knew anything about Dr. Wiesner. 


           Evidence gathered throughout the film implied that Wiesner is Barry’s biological father.  They  even looked alike.  But as in all mysteries the evidence was misleading.  Wiesner was not Barry’s father.  There was even a surprise ending.


Third, Barry built an intimate relationship with the audience.  Barry achieved this by talking to the camera.  He was very engaging on camera and he built a quick repour with the me.  By talking to the camera he not only spoke to the audience as a whole but also to each individual viewer.  Everyone would see him in a different light.  This is what gave his character personality.


The truth about his conception both opened questions and explained mysteries for Barry.  He thought his method of conception explained  his father’s distant personality.  Barry said his father always seemed to walk on the outside.  For a while he even thought his father wanted to walk out on the family.


However, Barry’s biological father was a mystery.  All that the doctors told his mother was that the donor was professional and healthy.  They told even Barry’s mother to keep the procedure a secret. 


Doctors didn’t tell his mother that the donor was Jewish or that the donor used his sperm in other women. Barry found out this information from David,  his half brother.


David found out he was artificially inseminated after his parents divorced.  He always wanted a brother. 


David and Barry crossed paths after a mutual acquaintance thought they wrote the same.  They had a meeting in England and  Barry got a sample of David’s DNA.  Barry brought the sample back to Toronto for testing. 

            The most powerful scene was the doctor telling Barry the test results showed him and David were related.  Barry was flabbergasted.   His eyes shot out of their sockets while his mouth dropped.  He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know where to turn. He was clearly not expecting this answer.  While watching this scene I wondered if this was his same reaction when his mother told him he was a baby of science.


It was interesting to watch Barry and David’s relationship grow. At their first meeting they certainly didn’t look like brothers or act like them.  Even Barry said that he didn’t like David at first. But after they discovered their common bond they grew closer to one another.


They looked more comfortable around each other when they were talking.  They even had things in common like both being actors at one point.  The search for their father only strengthened their bond. Together they attended talk shows and meetings in order to inform others about their search for other DI babies. Like brothers, they depended on one another for guidance and reassurance. This was stark contrast to their first meeting.  As their relationship grew they seem to act and look more alike.


Barry’s quest to find his father quickly turned into family reunion.  Through David he adopted a whole new family of cousins, nieces and nephews.   This was a part of the legacy left behind by the unknown donor. 


During their search the music fit the film perfectly.  The staccato-type playing on the piano built tension each time Barry came to talk with someone who was involved in the artificial insemination.  The music portrayed Stevens nervousness and excitement each time he knocked on a door or entered a room.  It built suspense for what was to come.


            The DI babies whom they interviewed during their search added another dimension to the film.  It showed that Barry and David’s  story didn’t represent the same story as other DI babies.   Some were ashamed of their past and did not want to know the identity of their biological father. These DI babies had different ways of dealing with their past.


The first DI baby was Wendy Barton.  Mary Barton’s daughter.  Mary Barton was Wiesner’s colleague and lover.  Wendy did not want to know anything about the DNA tests and she refused to give Barry a DNA sample. In class Barry said she did not want to know she was not Wiesner’s daughter.  Unlike David and Barry she was complacent to live in mystery.


Next was Sally. She was another baby of science.  She wanted to remain anonymous.  She hid her face.  Clearly her past as a DI baby was painful. She seemed ashamed and alone.   Although she gave Stevens a DNA sample Sally did not think she would find a relative.  She was wrong.


Jonathan was Wiesner’s son.  Although he gave  Barry a DNA sample it did not match. However, it did match the sample given by Sally.  Sally found out that Wiesner was her father and that Jonathan was her brother.  Another family had been reunited.


Barry’s research not only extended his family but it also extended others.


Ribonovich, 93 was Wiesner’s only colleague Barry found who was still alive.  He represented the odds that were truly stacked against Barry.  Ribonovich didn’t know much of anything.  He was not a donor and he didn’t have any solid leads.  His only advice to Barry was to give up his search.


Ribonovich’s character was amusing.   He gave pronounced gestures with his hands and face.  Barry noticed this and used it effectively in tape editing.  Editing a series of Ribonovich’s “I don’t know” gestures with his head shaking and hands flailing was both amusing and funny.  Barry used these gestures to taunt the reality of the situationn; finding his father would be close to impossible.  He had a strong desire to keep searching.


The ending of the film presented both sides of Barry’s story.  A separate series of DNA tests showed that he had a daughter. For the first time the audience saw Barry as both a father discovering he had a child and a child who was still searching for his father. Barry was the man he was trying to find.  He was a biological father.  His search had come from circle.


The ending was perfect.