By John O’Hara
The 2021 Provincetown International Film Festival best documentary winners this year each charted a course to victory in an entirely different manner.
Sally Aitken’s Playing with Sharks and Emily Branham’s Being Bebe both cover the gamut of good nonfiction filmmaking, but that is perhaps the only thing they have in common (on the surface at least.)
If the two winners’ titles didn’t already indicate, uniformity of topic was not a requirement in satisfying the fan’s preferences this year.
This is worth pointing out because the two films could hardly be more different in their outlook and ambition, even if they’re an even match in overall quality as audience preference would suggest.
One tells the story of an African drag performer struggling to uphold their craft after fleeing their homophobic native country; the other of a deep sea driver and her photojournalistic quest to advocate for the ocean’s most misunderstood creature.
While the Warner Media Audience award could have gone to any other X number of feature length docs as well, such an even split serves to encapsulate the town’s arguably two most salient characteristics—namely its celebration of pride in a seaside location.
Perhaps one of the rare things each documentary has in common, other than each one’s audience popularity at PIFF 2021, is that they both focus on a hero who overcomes obstacles to discover one’s true life calling (albeit one in the water the other on land.)
Being Bebe for example follows its main subject Marshall Ngwa for fifteen years, from winning season one of Ru Paul’s drag race to reflecting on his native Cameroon and the hardships contained therein.
It won’t shock audiences to find out that Ngwa wasn’t exactly encouraged in his country of origin to take his alter, gender-fluid ego to the point of reality TV stardom, but it will provide the viewer with a much closer, in-depth look into the psychology behind this film.
Meanwhile, Playing With Shark’s accompanies Valerie Taylor and her passion for diving around which she was able to not only eek-out a living, but also go on journeys the likes of which no female diver had ever made before.
“I would slide into the water into another world” Taylor said early on in describing her thrill for oceanic exploration.
Throughout the 90-minute documentary, one not only gets to vicariously share in the protagonist’s excitement by following on her journey into shark-occupied zones, one also comes to find out why she believes so fervently these creatures are misunderstood in the first place.
If Playing With Sharks is about one woman’s pioneering quest to carve out a unique niche in a largely male-dominated field, one could say Being Bebe shares a common theme of an individual’s quest to surmount the odds in pursuit of an abiding passion.
While Taylor had to fight anyone who got in her way of using herself as bait to tell her story, Being Bebe’s Ngwa also had to thrust himself in the spotlight repeatedly, even when doing so was far from the safest move.
“We’re so privileged here,” Bebe bluntly said to his American audience during the Q&A after the documentary’s debut public screening.
“I’m not even just saying as people of color, or white folks; everybody living in this country is so privileged even though there’s a lot of work to do” he went on in distinguishing stereotypical white privilege from nationalistic privilege, a form of freedom that’s perhaps taken for granted even more than sheer race.
“There’s so many outside of this people who cannot do what I do, who cannot live the life that I’m living, and express themselves in so many different forms, and so it was just such an honor that you would take the risk and go with me,” said Bebe addressing his fearless director Emily Branham.
“It felt like a huge risk,” added Branham, in regards not only to her lead character’s invitation back to Cameroon after the death of a parent, but also her decision to accompany him there.
“I didn’t know how it would work out, but over the years I had built up collaborations and relationships with some people who had family and connections in Cameroon” is what the director claims gave her the confidence to take the trip overseas independently.
Second documentary winner tackles different subject
The other documentary to share in the Warner Media Audience Award documentary spoils this summer honored a maverick-like figure in pursuit of a nonfiction narrative which needed telling against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Great white sharks may not be nearly as native to Provincetown as drag queens are to Commercial Street, but as a recent fatal incident at a nearby Cape Cod beach proves, apex predators are no strangers to its shores.
As anyone fortunate enough to catch a preview PIFF screening of Playing With Sharks knows, the film spends a considerable portion of its ninety-minute duration focusing on the Hollywood movie which managed to convince an entire nation of shark’s man eating potential upon its release.
After sitting through this documentary, one not only has a much better understanding of how Jaws so successfully distorted a generation’s perception of this creature’s likelihood to hunt humans, but also how its heroine played a part in debunking this myth.
Even if one has no interest in learning surprise facts about this Hollywood blockbuster, such as the fact that a real shark broke the cage of the diver they sent down in a sequence completely unscripted, one will still be enthralled to learn just how off the mark claims man vs beast truly are.
Although she started as a clinical spear-fisherman, Taylor cleverly claims “from now on I’m shooting them with my camera” despite the kill kill kill mentality initially instilled in her.
“We realized a shark can learn faster than you teach dog,” said Taylor after getting time underwater.
“I decided to prove that sharks are not out to get us,” could be the one line that best captures Taylor’s aim as a whole.
“Once I get my teeth stuck into an idea, I don’t let go,” said Taylor, seemingly crafting her words to mimic a shark’s behavior.
Whether or not the audience shares in the addictive personality of this narrator, voting results suggest audience members at this year’s 2021 Provincetown International Film Festival could not get enough of Taylor’s perspective regardless.