Film Reviews: Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival 2014 by donna g.

I couldn’t help but compare two feature films I happened to screen back to back while working on my Hot Docs 2014 coverage: The Malagasy Way and Pine Ridge. Both can be found under the Indigenous Cultures & Issues link on the Hot Docs site.
​In viewing The Malagasy Way I was struck by the beauty of Madagascar, and the unusual “invitation” by a Malagasy to view his country in a different light. Pine Ridge reveals dispirited youth on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation. In both films, dire poverty is a daily condition of the people, but directors Lova Nantenaina and Anna Eborn have chosen two distinct manners in which to document the lives of their subjects.

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In The Malagasy Way, Nantenaina is not denying the fact that most of Madagascar’s population lives below the poverty line; but rather than dwell on dollars and cents, he has chosen to show that “Sweetness can be found out of bitterness. Like the flavour of the fig: the bitter first, the sweet after.”  The Malagasy have many such proverbs that pepper their speech and exemplify their interdependency. Economic poverty is a way of life but it hasn’t stifled the resourcefulness and creativity of the people, nor has it broken the traditional importance of sharing and caring. Thus, we see wheel barrows being made from scratch with handmade tools, instruments made with improvised materials and women crafting oil lamps out of tin cans, working together in sisterhood, building upon a method of craftsmanship originally developed by the father of one of the women in the work circle. The women are able to feed and clothe their children from income generated from the sale of the lamps, but admit that there is no money left for saving.

Carrying on the spirit and strength of the culture are musicians, singers and speakers who champion Malagasy fortitude and fraternity. This is especially emphasized by Nantenaina using much of the film to highlight the preparations for a “hira gasy”, a traditional day-long event of music, dance and oration that celebrates community.


Madagascar has a French colonial past, is desperately poor economically, but rich in its land and culture. By contrast, the Oglala Lakota are still suffering the devastating effects of the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), racist treaties that resulted in them living on the “land that the white men gave them” (after keeping the best plots for themselves), land that, in many areas, is not favourable to agriculture. The Oglala rose up in 1973’s Wounded Knee Incident to protest their living conditions, and the reservation received major media attention, but Pine Ridge has always been one of the poorest areas of the United States with low rates of life expectancy, infant mortality, and record-breaking rates of depression and teen suicide. My heart aches for the teen subjects of Eborn’s documentary, in particular the two boys hanging around a gas station trying to get funds to leave the reservation, and the beautiful young mother, whose children deserve a culturally brighter and physically healthy future. While the Oglala receive government money, much of it is spent in businesses around and outside the reservation. Because they don’t own businesses, there are no jobs on the reservation and no chance for inhabitants to be self-supporting. Statistics place Pine Ridge just above Haiti in terms of its lack of economic development. It’s no wonder that one teenager in the film starkly reveals, “I ain’t got no dreams.”

The bleached, harsh sunlight captured in Pine Ridge in summer mirrors the realities of the Oglala teens, while the burst of tropical colours that flavour The Malagasy Way magnificently represent the creativity and practicality of the Malagasy culture. Both directors succeed in bringing their cinematic visions, and respect for their subjects to light in their respective documentaries.

Hot Docs
Canadian International Documentary Festival

April 24 – May 4, 2014

*Photos courtesy of Hot Docs.


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