“Exploring Nature” at Montreal’s International Documentary Festival

RIDM’s 23rd edition showcases some of the best nature documentaries from the past year

The Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) kicked off its 23rd edition on Nov. 12, allowing filmgoers the opportunity to screen a wide variety of documentaries from the comfort of their own homes. The 2020 festival showcases some of the best documentaries from the past year and boasts a wide selection from all over the globe.

This year’s festival is divided into eight thematic categories, each available for a period of seven days. Among the first sections available for screening is “Exploring Nature,” an assortment of films about the environment and our complicated relationship with it. Here are just a few of the nature docs that caught my eye!

Watch The Concordian’s interview with Bruno Dequen, RIDM artistic director below.

Cenote (dir. Kaori Oda, Mexico/Japan, 2019)

Despite its presence at RIDM, Cenote is far from a conventional documentary. Director Kaori Oda is even reluctant to label her latest feature a film, instead referring to it as an “experimental documentary.” With its swirling, often disorienting camera work and its hypnotic auditory cues, “experimental” is certainly an apt descriptor, as Cenote is more akin to a sensory experience than anything else.

As its title suggests, the film examines cenotes; deep, natural sinkholes formed by collapsed limestone. Armed with an 8mm camera and an iPhone X, the Japanese filmmaker travels to Yucatan, Mexico to document the land’s many cavernous pits and explore their ties to the ancient Maya civilization. Opening text explains that Mayans saw cenotes as spaces of great spirituality, areas that connected present life with the afterlife. Ritualistic offerings in the form of human sacrifice were habitually presented to the Rain God Chaac, who Mayans believed lived at the bottom of the cenotes. Given this information, the cenotes develop an air of intrigue and Oda’s dreamlike and indistinct imagery paints them as something otherworldly and mythical.


Stray (dir. Elizabeth Lo, United States, 2020)

Stray opens to a quote by Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope which tells us that “Human beings…would do well to study the dog.” If unconvinced by this statement, one would only need to sit through the next 72 minutes to realize that there is indeed a lot to learn.

Stray documents the lives of several dogs living in the streets of Istanbul and Turkey, primarily focusing on a hazel-eyed canine named Zeytin. Zeytin wanders through the city in search of food and shelter, encountering numerous other strays and passersby along the way. Eventually, she is “adopted” by a group of teenage vagrants, all refugees living in similarly poor conditions.

What’s particularly striking about Lo’s film is how instantaneously we become invested in the plight of the animals. Stray appeals to our empathy at a very instinctual level; it doesn’t require any frills or embellishments to evoke an emotional response from its viewers.

As Zeytin roams the streets, she sees crowds gathered in protest, a couple arguing on a restaurant terrace, homeless men keeping warm by a barrel fire. She stares attentively. How much does she really understand? While the animal world lacks many of the intricacies of the human world, the film shows us that there is in fact a significant overlap found in our shared compassion, curiosity and desire for companionship.


Jiíbie (dir. Laura Huertas Millán, Colombia/France, 2019)

Jiíbie is a medium-length documentary that examines the cultivation and production of coca powder in the Amazonian community of Muina-Murui. Immediately, the film makes its purpose clear; “This is not a movie about cocaine,” a title card reads. For its many centuries of spiritual and ritualistic use by the native people of America, the coca plant cannot shake its reputation as the raw material from which the narcotic is extracted.

Jiíbie aims to dispel the many misconceptions associated with the plant by showing us the reverence it holds within these communities. In intimate detail, we watch as the Indigenous people of the Amazon crush, burn and mash the coca leaf into powder for spiritual purposes, all while listening to local stories and myths centered around the plant.

While it might not rid the leaf of its negative connotations, Jiíbie is still a powerful educational tool and a fascinating insight into the world of coca powder production.


Icemeltland Park (dir. Liliana Colombo, United Kingdom/Italy, 2020)

In a far-off future, nature is exploited to the point of no return. Unrestrained industrialization has led to the creation of an amusement park where attendees can watch the environment decay in real time. Sounds scary, right? This is the inventive premise behind Icemeltland Park, and sadly, Liliana Colombo’s dystopian vision is far too realistic for comfort. Colombo’s darkly satirical take on climate change takes us on a guided tour across the world to watch glaciers melt as part of a hypothetical theme park attraction.

The film is composed almost entirely of iPhone footage pulled from YouTube and runs with its clever framing device all the way to the very end. Included are “commercial breaks” and popup text that orders viewers to “please keep recording” despite the potential danger and implications of the horrific events unfolding. It’s a film that speaks to our indifference and general apathy towards climate change and how greed and spectacle triumph over the environment. Icemeltland Park ends with a foreboding warning that more natural catastrophes will come at the hands of climate change. An ominous message, but a necessary one, nonetheless.

The Montreal International Documentary Festival runs from now until Dec. 2. For more details including tickets and programming, please visit their website.

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