VIFF 2020 Review: Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach is about a young Indigenous woman, played by Grace Dove (left), who possesses a supernatural gift that’s as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

DISCLAIMER: I know you’re all getting my first VIFF review just after it ended on October 7th. Thing is I’ve been bogged down with work and taking online courses which left me with little energy to do reviews. Now imagine me adding film-watching to the mix. Yes, that would take all my energy away! Now that VIFF is over, I can finally post reviews over time. Most of the films I believe would still be accessible via streaming services.

Lots of people who are into VIFF have a lot of reasons to want to see Monkey Beach. I wanted to see it because it’s a novel I studied in an online University course fifteen years ago. Those that see it will be happy with what they saw.

The film begins in East Vancouver. Lisamarie Hill thought she could get somewhere after leaving her town in the reserve, but she’s ended up rock bottom. Her friend tells her she needs to return to get her life back together…and then disappears.

Lisa returns back home. It’s like a prodigal daughter welcome. The parents are happy to see her back, her brother Jimmy is happy to see her back, relatives are happy to see her back, old friends are mostly happy to see her back. Her grandmother ‘MaMa-oo’ is happy to see her back. However she’s uncomfortable with returning. She knows of problems going around the reserve plus it doesn’t offer too much of a promising future. Even her younger brother Jimmy, who showed huge potential to be an Olympic swimmer, missed the Olympic trials because a work accident broke his collarbone.

One night while she is sleeping, she notices the trickster come to send her a message. She is haunted by the trickster. She knows because she inherited a gift where she can sense future events to others, including dreadful events. It’s a gift she first learned of as a child. She learned of it during a family vacation during her childhood at Monkey Beach. She remembers the vacation well. It was her family, Ma-ma-oo, and Uncle Mick. It was a vacation full of many warm memories of family togetherness, but also of a memory that haunts her. She remembers that of a mythical creature in the woods. Something mysterious and she can’t remember what he looks like, but she knows he’s haunting.

Returning to the reserve reminds her of a lot of uncomfortable things. First, Uncle Mick is long gone. He had a big influence on her life where she was taught to be proud of her Indigenous heritage. It’s a pride Mick taught out of anger as he was taught in a residential school and suffered the abuse at the hands of the priests and the system. Mick taught Lisa and Jimmy how to be defiantly proud to be Indigenous, but Lisa shouting “**** the oppressors,” at school didn’t go well with her parents. Also missing is Ma-ma-oo. Ma-ma-oo was key in teaching Lisamarie many Haisla skills and traditions.

It’s not just of those deceased. It’s also in the reserve. She’s noticed how many of her friends had lives that fell apart. She noticed the hostility of Josh, one of the older young adults, towards others. On top of it, Jimmy is dating Karaoke: Josh’s ex-girlfriend, and Karaoke is pregnant. Jimmy has been playing it cool, but she senses something’s not right.

Over time, the visions become a lot more frightening. Lisa has every reason to be concerned. She had frightening images of the deaths of Mick and Ma-Ma-oo before they died. She has visions of something terrible about to happen to Jimmy. Her parents however don’t want to hear about her visions. Soon she learns of bad things waiting to happen. It becomes evident as Josh disrupts a rap performance at a party with his angry rant. Plus Karaoke reveals the shocking secret that the baby is not Jimmy’s but Josh’s, out of a rape. On top of that, the images of the trickster become more and more frequent.

Lis then decides to take the boat out to the ocean. Her parents are nervous, but she is insistent as she senses something bad will happen to Jimmy out on a fishing boat. She has every reason too because Josh is on the boat too. She’s able to sense that Josh is about to fight Jimmy and is out of control. She makes her rush trying to find Jimmy, but has to return to Monkey Beach to face the demon who’s been haunting her. She comes prepared with a mask made by Uncle Mick and a drum. She is ready to meet the being head-on and face whatever comes to her. Part of her battle includes making a trip to the underworld. The film ends in surprising, but positive, fashion.

This is a unique story. It’s a story of a young woman dealing with the harsh realities of the world she’s living in as well as dealing with a supernatural gift that risks being a curse. It’s a story of a young Indigenous woman struggling to exist when the two most influential people in her life have passed. Ultimately it becomes a story of triumph when she learns that she ultimately learns she is a person of strength and she has the support of her deceased ancestors behind her.

Indigenous culture is very present in the story. Culture is most present during scenes of Lisamarie being taught the ways of her peoples from Ma-Ma-oo. It’s like a rite of passage to pass on the traditional ways to the granddaughter. Culture is also present in the appearance of the mythical ‘trickster.’ However the harsh realities of Indigenous communities and Indigenous peoples are also very present. We see it in Uncle Mick when he talks of his time at residential schools. One can often assume it’s this racist abuse that fuels his defiance and Indigenous pride. We see it in the reserve as there appears to be so little future available for the young and they’re left confused which direction to pursue. We see that in the angry attitudes, especially in Josh. It’s a story that does not stray away from realities. In fact the realities shown at the reserve in the film are common realities sees in many reserves.

The film will have people interested in the storyline coming to see it. The film will also have some people in the audience who have already read the novel. For those that don’t know, the novel Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson was released in 2000. It won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize of 2001 and was shortlisted for a Governor General’s award in fiction. Way back, I took an online University course in Canadian literature and Monkey Beach was one of the novels we studied. I liked the story because it was set as Lisa was a teenager in the 1980’s. I’m not Indigenous but some memories of that period of my time reminded me of some moments of my own teenagehood. There were even times while reading I had the feeling Ma-ma-oo was my own grandmother.

For someone that’s read the novel, I came in with my own expectations of what I was most expecting to see included in the story. I know it’s a challenge to adapt a 300-page novel to film. I know it’\s a matter of including some things, but also leaving other things out. I was figuring since most of the novel is about Lisa in her teen years, I was anticipating most of the film story would also be about Lisa’s teen years. Instead they went for a bigger focus on her time as a young adult returning to the reserve. The film did focus on her years as a young girl and as a teenager, but less than I hoped. Also the novel did more focus on Jimmy and his swimming pursuits, but was only seen briefly in the film. The film was also too brief on the focusing of Ma-ma-oo’s death.

I think in retrospect I’ve still been doing a lot of questioning whether they put in the right parts for the story or if they left out a lot of parts I feel were crucial. I think a lot of people who have read the novel would also be left questioning if the film adapted the novel well, if not properly.

I admire the work done by director Loretta Todd. She did a very good job in directing and co-writing with Johnny Darrell and Andrew Duncan the story for the film. The film’s imperfections are noticeable, but it doesn’t take away from the better parts of the film. There are more positive qualities of the film than flaws. Grace Dove did an excellent job as Lisamarie. Grace has had professional experience before as the host of a television show and acting in The Revenant. She does very well as the young protagonist struggling to make sense and to find herself. Adam Beach was also excellent as Uncle Mick. He delivers a role excellent of a man divided between pride and hurt. Tina Lameman was also good as Ma-ma-oo, but I feel her role could have been more developed and had more presence in the film. On the negative, I felt the role of child Lisa was underplayed by the young actress. That could have been directed better.

In short, Monkey Beach is an imperfect depiction of the novel. It leaves wondering if certain scenes can be done better. Nevertheless it does have a lot of positive qualities and makes for a film, and a story, worth seeing.

Dove Campaign For Real Beauty Hits Youtube With Viral Results

The Dove Campaign For Real Beauty is an attempt to make women feel confident about their looks.
The Dove Campaign For Real Beauty is an attempt to make women feel confident about their looks.

Have you seen the campaign for Dove where they campaign ‘for real beauty?’ I’m sure we all have. They’ve been doing that for years. Many people like it while some find it annoying. However they’ve most recently taken their campaign to Youtube and the rapport has been surprising.

Dove’s worldwide Campaign For Real Beauty started back in 2004. It was created by Brazil’s branch of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather and bought by Unilever in 2004 when it learned in a survey that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. Sure, women have always struggled with the self-consciousness of their beauty for years and even decades but this was a highly critical time. Do you remember who the top celebrities were at the time? Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera. These were young female women who rose to the top of the fame game with little attention to whatever talent they had and more attention to their looks. Breast implants operations were at an all-time high. Girls getting their hair bleached like Pamela Anderson were still very popular. There were huge concerns about eating disorders in young women. Pop and hip hop videos featured scantily clad women and it paid off in taking them to the top of the charts. Not a nice picture at all.

Some of you may argue that it has always been that way. Sure there have been problems from generation to generation. Mind you it was a lot different from the time I was growing up. Back when I was a teenager–from the mid-80’s to the early 90’s–we had a mixed bag of female stars to look up to. MTV was just starting to become a vice in popular culture. There was Pat Benatar who rocked out female empowerment but wouldn’t use ‘sex as a weapon.’ There was the always controversial Madonna who raised eyebrows with whatever controversial thing she did but always had a message behind it and urged female empowerment. There was Tina Turner, a rock legend who was strong enough to leave an abusive husband. We had full-bodied models like Cheryl Tiegs, Christy Brinkley and Elle MacPherson. However it was not completely perfect. I even remember one moment back in the 80’s talking to one of my classmates just after she bought a pack of diet pills. Also in the 80’s was Karen Carpenter, a singer who died of anorexia at a time when hardly anybody knew what it was. Just like Morgan Fairchild said “Rock Hudson gave AIDS a face,” Karen Carpenter gave anorexia a face.

By the 90’s things really started to get to a concern from parents. Soon came Kate Moss and her waif look followed by ‘heroin chic’ models. The term supermodel became present and a phenomenon at the beginning of the decade as models were able to command salaries over $1 million a year. Young girls went from wanting to be models to wanting to be supermodels. Imagine making millions just for looking good. Rap videos consisted of scantily clad women dancing and acting unapologetically immodest. Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson rose to the top of the fame game with her bleached-blonde hair and breast implants and would soon be emulated by girls everywhere.

It’s not to say the whole 90’s was completely vicious to girls. In fact the 90’s should have been a more positive time for women and young girls. There was actress/comedian Roseanne who wouldn’t let her overweight looks or attempts at male dominance stand in her way. And she’s send that message in her sitcom. There was Nike promoting Jackie Joyner-Kersee as she was seen as an achiever with little attention paid to her looks. There were more and more women assuming higher political office or higher business positions. There were movies with more forceful depictions of women like Thelma And Louise and G.I. Jane. There were even attempts from the media to promote intimate singers like Jewel and Sarah McLaughlin as well as the Lilith Fair. But right while that was all taking off, the teen revolution in pop happened with the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera hitting the top of the charts. You could’ve simply dropped Lilith Fair in favor of ‘Tart Fest.’ By the end of the 90’s the more positive female role models like comediennes, athletes and business executives were being shunned by promoters in favor of tart-like girls that were cute or thin or both. Hey, they were easier to guarantee sales and ratings.

You could understand with the celebrity admiration and star emulation that has been wildfire especially in the last 15 years there would be some concerns. It became apparent that the obsession of beauty was not just about fitting in but having the looks that won. If a certain look or certain body is going to put a female celebrity to the top of the ‘fame game,’ you could be sure girls wanted to copy that. You can’t blame pop star Pink for singing in her song Stupid Girls: “What happened to the dream of a girl president? She’s dancin’ in the video next to 50 Cent.” Problem was the beauty industry wanted to take full advantage of it. They wanted women to think that their product would make them more attractive or they’d be inferior without it. I even remember hearing a radio ad for a plastic surgery office and the voiceover said: “How you look on the outside affects how you feel on the inside.” What does that tell you?

Dove wanted to change all that with their Campaign For Real Beauty. It was created by Brazil’s Ogilvie & Mather and its mission was: “to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.” I still remember seeing ads on a bus in 2004 of women with regular bodies looking confident and the tagline ‘campaign for real beauty.’ Those pictures were taken by reputed photographer Annie Liebovitz. I also remember a television ad of a city square full of what appears to be blondes. Soon one woman takes her blonde wig off and the others follow. One thing I didn’t know at the time of the first ads was that the campaign also involved studies too about the opinions of the bodies. There were even some ads that invited people to vote on a female image if she was ‘fat or fab’ or ‘wrinkled or wonderful’ with results displayed on the billboard itself.

Like every campaign, this Campaign had to market attention. The Campaign won media coverage from talk shows, women’s magazines, as well as mainstream news broadcasts and publications. Unilever were able to purchase a $2.5 million 30-second spot during the Super Bowl XL of 2006 as part of the Little Girls branch of their campaign. With the purchase of a Campaign For Real Beauty website, the campaign was expanded into videos that started with Daughters, an interview-style piece where mothers and daughters related to the beauty industry and how it affected their perceptions of beauty. Further videos followed including Evolution, Onslaught and Amy. Evolution won two Cannes Lions awards for advertising film making. Unlike most campaigns, research was being conducted on this by Dove.

It’s not to say the campaign has had their doubters. There have been those who’ve accused Dove as being hypocritical since it belongs to the Unilever company: the same company responsible for Axe body spray products that feature overtly sexual women in their ads, Fair and Lovely skin-lightening products and Slim Fast diet bars. There would be defenders saying that Dove represents Dove, not Unilever as a whole. There were also females who posted their dissatisfaction of the ads because they believed Dove was telling them of the insecurities they felt. Also you have the odd person on the street who likes being cynical and say “They’re just doing it to sell more products.” Even if it was true, you should remember that the campaign came at a time when marketers were shelling out ads to make people insecure about themselves to get their product sold. If that argument was true, I could rightfully argue it’s great to see Dove use a positive message to sell their products instead.

However the biggest attention came as they released two videos of Dove Real Beauty Sketches on Youtube back in April of this year. The videos consisted of regular women being drawn portraits by a forensic artist. While drawing the women, he’d ask them to describe certain aspects of their looks. Before being drawn, the women were asked to get friendly with another person. Those people, both women and men, would be asked by the artist to describe their looks and features. Days later the women would return to the studio and see two drawings of herself. The first drawing would be of herself of how she described herself. The second drawing would be herself of how the other person saw her. The differences were very noticeable. It also changed the way they thought of themselves. The ads definitely caught a lot of attention as they’ve received more than 50,000,000 hits on Youtube.

The question is will it change how women, especially young women, look at themselves? We should take into account not all has been better ever since the Campaign For Real Beauty started. Girls still idolize celebrities, even no-talents like Kim Kardashian. Fashion magazines continue to sell. Girls still desire to be models. On top of it there are many complaints in recent years of female figures being photoshopped. That was especially made evident in a Youtube video entitled Fotoshop by Adobe where Adobe is pronounced “Ad Obey.” Even Dove did ads where it showed young girls in sports with a caption saying: “Six out of ten young girls would give up a sport if it made them seem unattractive.”  The results of the Sketches video going viral are encouraging but its effect is still yet to be seen. Also it would be interesting if Dove releases another Real Beauty Sketches video in the future.

Dove Campaign For Real Beauty surely does take their Campaign to a new level with their Sketches video. This is only the latest in the Campaign’s efforts. Whether it will pay off in terms of a woman’s self-image is questionable in the future. I’m sure Dove will be paying close attention to the results.


WIKIPEDIA: Dove Campaign For Real Beauty. 2013. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <>