Left: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 12th & Delaware, 2010, still from a color film, 87 minutes. Right: Jia Zhang-ke, I Wish I Knew, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 118 minutes.

FURTHER PROOF of the increasing ubiquity of nonfiction movies, last week fifteen films were short-listed for the Documentary Feature category for the eighty-third Academy Awards, culled from a record high 101 qualifying titles. A little more than a hundred films also unspooled at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (Recontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, or RIDM), which ended its thirteenth edition earlier this month. Middling, bad, and masterful, the handful of titles I saw during my three days at RIDM revealed the growing disparity in skill of those working in the genre.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 12th & Delaware, an important but uneven chronicle of the ever-escalating battle over reproductive rights in the US, focuses on the latest insidious strategies of antichoice groups. In Fort Pierce, Florida, an abortion clinic is besieged not just by a dozen or so protesters (most of whom appear eligible for AARP membership) but by the activities in the building across the street: a vaguely named “pregnancy-care center,” which counsels women, many of whom are seeking abortions but have mistakenly entered the wrong building, against the procedure through emotional manipulation and flat-out lies about health risks. If the filmmakers, best known for the docs The Boys of Baraka (2005) and the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp (2006), err on the side of repetition, they have unearthed an exceptionally eloquent speaker on the right to choose. “The only regret I have is sleeping with him that one time without a condom,” responds one patient to the pregnancy-care center chief’s insistence that she’ll have nothing but remorse if she goes through with the abortion. The woman cuts through the antichoice mumbo-jumbo even more clearly just a moment later: “That’s what abortion is—a termination of an unwanted pregnancy. And this pregnancy is unwanted.”

French filmmaker Florent Tillon also tries—and largely fails—to elucidate American woes in Détroit ville sauvage (Detroit Wild City), a poorly structured look at the blighted Motor City. Interviewees—many of whom are curiously positioned as authorities—aren’t identified until the end, with a fleeting title card that lists only names. Tillon’s incongruous collection of interlocutors is matched by his odd instincts for ostensibly mythopoeic images, reaching a nadir in a scene featuring a mime dressed like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp holding a balloon and going to sleep.

But another city symphony, Jia Zhang-ke’s beautifully lensed ode to Shanghai I Wish I Knew, towered above everything else I saw during my seventy-two hours in Montreal. Originally commissioned by the Chinese government to open the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Jia’s latest work features eighteen mostly gray-haired subjects who reminisce about the changes, both seismic and personal, wrought by the victory of the Communist Party of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution. Several of Jia’s interviewees are directors who made Shanghai-set works, sampled generously throughout I Wish I Knew—an idiosyncratic history of a metropolis constantly in flux, told by a filmmaker who never underestimates the importance of both form and content.

Melissa Anderson

The thirteenth edition of RIDM ran November 10–21. For more details, click here.