Top of the Docs #40 – IFFR Review: Archipelago

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be surveying the best documentaries January’s festival season has to offer, this week we head to IFFR!

Quebec is perhaps one of the most culturally lucrative places on Earth. If we adjust for population, the fact that such an area can create such fantastic artists – from Denis Villeneuve to the late Christopher Plummer – is nothing short of incredible. Archipelageo may be a documentary about Quebec nominally, but it does not restrict itself to the limitations of its actual landscape. Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s documentary takes a poetic approach to what makes up “place” and the result is perhaps one of the most interesting psycho-geographic documentaries in recent years.

Using twelve separate animators, the film’s through-thread is created by a narrated script, exploring various speculative landscapes that could constitute Quebec. The way in which it layers the different styles of animation – from 1940s newsreel to some that even resemble Walter Ruttman’s Opus series – is truly impressive. It also adds to the film’s motif of fluidity, can there be more than one version of a place? What would that look like, and what would it mean?

It is unfortunate that this film had to be seen on a small screen, as a cinema environment would definitely add to its expansive nature (despite its slick 72 minute runtime). It felt nice to get lost in these fictionalised landscapes, Quebec felt close despite the fact that the versions we are presented with are far from real. This is one of the film’s many triumphs, managing to create a sense of grounded realness to these fantastical landscapes.

One place for criticism within the film is its only fleeting acknowledgment of the First Nations, to whom Quebec belongs. Although the film does include a poem touching on this, it would have served it well to explore the colonial history of its subject, as well as perhaps allowing the Indigenous people of Quebec to speculate about their land. The lack of airtime that they receive is disappointing, especially for a film so keen to explore the hidden and perhaps unknown histories of a place in which colonial violence is so intrinsically tied.

Archipelago is a fascinating film that allows its audience to explore its subject with a freedom and liquidity not often found within geographical documentaries. Its varying animated styles make it easy on the eye, as well as adding further depth to its speculative nature. At the moment it can feel hard to connect with place, with many of us isolated or restricted as to where we can go, Archipelago lets us escape to places that are magical and infinite.

Archipelago trailer.

Header image courtesy of IFFR