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El Futuro Perfecto focuses on a young Chinese immigrant named Xiaobin Zhang, whom filmmaker Nele Wohlatz met in a Spanish language class in Buenos Aires.Murillo Cine

'Our trademark is what we call creative documentary," says Mara Gourd-Mercado, executive director of the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM). To get an idea of what she means, consider El Futuro Perfecto (The Future Perfect), a film from Mara's native Argentina, which is among 128 entries selected for this year's festival.

The film focuses on a young Chinese immigrant named Xiaobin Zhang, whom filmmaker Nele Wohlatz met in a Spanish language class in Buenos Aires. Wohlatz, who had immigrated as an adult from Germany, befriended Zhang and talked with her about a film based on her efforts to fit into Argentinian society and resist her family's traditional expectations. The two worked out a scenario and scenes, and Wohlatz and Pio Longo wrote dialogue in the style of the flat practice exchanges in Zhang's language textbook. Wohlatz also shot several alternate endings for the story, based on Zhang's suggestions. In method and feeling, there's a lot about El Futuro Perfecto that resembles a feature film. We're not shown footage of real-life situations, but scripted simulations, some of which feel comically stiff and unrealistic. The film is a comedy about the two-dimensional zone one enters when first learning a new language and culture. But it's also about the complex emotions that such dislocations can provoke and all of it is tethered more or less closely to Zhang's experience.

Or consider Pierre-Yves Vendeweerd's poetic Les tourmentes, one of seven films by this Belgian cineaste in an RIDM retrospective. Vandeweerd's subject seems to be existential malaise in a bleak northern environment, exhibited via brooding shots of people immobilized in their houses, clinging to large rocks or shearing sheep. A female voice-over murmurs a text that is both descriptive and prophetic. There's no story and no main characters, unless the story is the human condition as borne by a nameless community.

"People have to feel they're expanding their horizons," Gourd-Mercado says of the spirit that guides RIDM. "Otherwise they can just watch Netflix."

RIDM was founded in 1998 by a group of documentary filmmakers, whose early gatherings had a definite entre-nous quality. The event is still well-attended by those in the business, but Gourd-Mercado, who worked for years as a film publicist before taking over the festival in 2014, is continuing a recent effort to raise the festival's profile in the community. In the past five years, RIDM's audience has doubled to around 63,000, she says, including those who watch its offerings outdoors, or in jail.

That's right – RIDM screens documentaries in six Quebec prisons, one of which, in Joliette, musters an all-female jury each year to determine the winner of one of the festival's 11 competitions. Gourd-Mercado is hoping that a member of the jury will get a day-pass to attend the prize ceremony, as last happened in 2012.

New this year is a competition for short- and medium-length Canadian documentaries, to complement two related contests at the international level. RIDM believes in competitions, says Gourd-Mercado, because they send lustre and a little cash toward a well-made film, in a crowded and sometimes overlooked part of the business.

"Here in Quebec, there's a big star system in feature film," she says. "In documentary film, it's not the same." The festival and its parallel industry events are more about personal contact with those in the scene, she says, whether from Quebec or abroad. A talent lab brings younger filmmakers into workshop situations with more experienced hands and a pitching day features some 2,000 speed-dating style encounters between decision-makers and those with an idea for a film.

The festival features more than 40 Canadian films this year and a rich batch of titles from la francophonie and other language communities, including a special category of animated docs. About two-thirds of the offerings have not been seen in Montreal before; 13 are world premieres, and 18 are North American premieres. Virtually every film is screened in English and French.

RIDM expanded to 156 films in 2014, but found that the larger offering diluted people's sense of the festival's coherence. Venues are in shorter supply, too: Excentris, the downtown film centre used for many screenings last year, went bankrupt soon after and is still shuttered.

"That was a really hard hit for us," Gourd-Mercado says. RIDM 2015 films were the last things seen at Excentris' 270-seat theatre – which was packed. The festival's current venues are concentrated around the Cinéma du Parc and Concordia University.

This year's festival also features a virtual-reality segment, and an outdoors installation called Gifoscope, which combines the short looping videos familiar from social media with the praxinoscope, a large 19th century animation carousel. It is yet another creative way of engaging with documentary film.

The Montreal International Documentary Festival runs through Nov. 20.

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